Wednesday, December 30, 2015
What a difference eight years made in The Rolling Stones. Watching this back-to-back with 1982's Leeds concert (see last review), then it was still basically a rock show, the core band with a a couple of sidemen. By 1990, the technical improvements were huge, and the extra musicians outnumbered the official Stones ten to five. The set was gigantic, and it was a spectacle more than a music event. They had truly become a rock and roll circus.
What all this sound reinforcement meant was that the Stones were part of a performance rather than the whole show. Each night was going to be the same by and large, the only real differences night to night being Mick's energy and moves, and Keith and Ronnie's playing quality. Rough edges such as Keith's shaky vocals didn't matter, because the melody was handled by three professional singers behind him, so his grizzled harmonies were colourful rather than essential. Huge arrangements featuring five horns and two keyboards pushed the set along and all those tens of thousands under the Tokyo Dome were going to walk out thinking they'd seen the biggest and the best.
The group would learn to do these shows better on future tours. On 1989-90's jaunt, they were still trying to sell the current album, Steel Wheels, trusting in their old songwriting magic. So there are some pretty dull moments as we are made to sit through Sad Sad Sad (does anybody remember that song?) and Almost Hear You Sigh. Rock and a Hard Place and Mixed Emotions are better, because they are bigger, brass and backing vocalists again, and a very un-Stones-like glossiness.
Much was made during the tour of the inclusion of some long-ignored older songs in the set list. Ruby Tuesday and Paint It Black are lots of fun to hear again, and so refreshing amidst the set of the usual suspects (Satisfaction, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Midnight Rambler). 2000 Light Years From Home was a complete disaster though, with boring instrumental keyboard passages, an odd arrangement, and a long ending that is only tacked on to allow Jagger to spend the time climbing to the top of the massive set for his dramatic re-appearance at the start of Sympathy For The Devil.
I saw a Toronto show in 1989 on this tour, at the CNE, me and about 60,000 of my closest peeps. I'm reminded of the highs and lows of that show by watching this; great classics and fun moments, followed by clunkers and the feeling we were being hyped. The Stones have learned not to bother trying to sell new music anymore, and to tone down the contributions of the extra musicians since Steel Wheels. But there are always great points in any Stones show, and heck, Keith sings Happy on this, so it's all worth it for that.
Monday, December 28, 2015
This live album comes from a time when the Stones had to earn the title of Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World every night, rather than having it bestowed via a grandfather clause. They had vanquished all the old foes; Zeppelin died with Bonzo, The Who were giving up on a final tour that year, no spark after moon had died, and McCartney put an end to Wings after the Japanese bust and Lennon's murder. Now they were taking on upstarts such as The Clash and The Police, edgy new music they had countered with their own Some Girls and the instant classic singles Start Me Up.
Try as they might though, the band did have a hard time keeping up the street cred. It was becoming more and more about money, as the American leg of the tour, was said to be the most profitable in history, mega-millions flying about for all concerned. Plus, it was famously sponsored by Jovan Musk, the Stones being the first big name to allow corporate sponsorship into the game, for even more profit. While the critics sniped, the band laughed all the way to the bank, but as for their status as the greatest, well, uneasy lies the head who wears a crown. After the European leg of the tour in 1982, they wouldn't hit the road again until 1989, after pretty much ending things in '85.
This is the last show from that '82 tour, the last for seven years, as performed outdoors at Roundhay Park in Leeds, U.K. It's the latest in the continuing From The Vault series, which has presented some spectacular live sets over the last couple of years, from the Marquee Club in 1971 in front of a handful, to the Tokyo Dome in 1990, and tens of thousands. The shows high-quality video to newly-remixed audio from the master, Bob Clearmountain, available in CD/DVD or Blu-ray combos. The Roundhay show is full of close-ups of the band, shot for the mammoth screens (a relative new idea then) used to help the 80,000 people see something of the show. The downside is watching Bill Wyman just stand there, expressionless, over and over. The good part is lots of shots of Mick and Keith doing their thing in your living room.
Another set in the From The Vault series is from the Hampton, Virginia show of 1981, the last show on the U.S. leg. The difference is night and day, this the winner hands-down. That one was shot for pay-per-view, the first music one ever, and there's none of the immediacy you get from the Leeds close-ups. The band seems much more relaxed, and on top of their game as well. There are several highlights along the way, including the best Angie I've heard live, and the band really enjoyed the Motown covers Just My Imagination and Going To A Go-Go. Keith's really enjoying his little licks and fills, and everybody gets into playing Tumbling Dice; Keith's pulling guitar-hero poses, saxman Bobby Keys is winking, Ian Stewart's grooving, and wow, Charlie just smiled. Meanwhile, Bill Wyman...well, nothing happening there.
Seriously, an hour-and-a-half into the show, they are cooking so well, they make lame new numbers She's So Cold and Hang Fire fun. Charlie grins through the whole thing. But why is the camera back on Wyman, who now looks like he's attending the village council tax assessment meeting?
In 1982, The Rolling Stones were not touring a great album (Tattoo You), were no longer the baddest bunch on the block, were a long way from the being the most innovative, and weren't really close to the blues anymore. But on that night, once again, they earned the title of World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Recorded this past June, this was The Who's big present back to London, a huge outdoor show in the iconic park, crammed on this occasion with 65,000 people. Although it was billed as a 50th birthday show, it was really 51, and like everything else on this show, it felt a bit off. That was Roger and Pete up there, but the rest of the band was a dull bunch, including three keyboard players when one would do. Only Zak Starkey offered any kind of personality and flair.
It seems the group has been talked into the kind of show The Stones and McCartney have been doing the last few years, a tribute to themselves, with a greatest hits set and projection screens showing pictures of past moments and tributes to fallen bandmates. But the whole time you can watch the DVD and see how awkward the principals are doing such a show. When John Entwistle's mug appears on the big screen behind him during an instrumental break, Daltry gamely raises his arm in salute, then does it again a few seconds later, not sure what else to do. In the commentary in between some of the songs, Townshend repeats his usual complaints about not wanting to be playing live, ambivalence about the group, training to be gracious to the fans but seeming more above this kind of hero worship.
McCartney is fine with this kind of show, a narcissist. Jagger has that as well, and Richards wants to grow old ungracefully. Townshend and Daltry probably want to do all this for the fans, and The Who legacy, but they just can't be phony. It never was an act for them, and when it does become that, the edge is gone.
There are great moments; when the Quadrophenia songs come up, I'm One and Love Reign On Me, you do get taken away for a bit, a taste of the epic in those songs. That goes double for good ol' Tommy, five songs from it and sounding as good as the day it was made. Townshend and Daltry still do a credible job, even if the keys have been dropped to accommodate aging voices, and there aren't many leaps and windmills. It's wall-to-wall hits, except for the dire Eminence Front, the youngest cut here, from 1982, but the rest is of course wonderful material. The Who remain, of all the giants, the ones least able to reconcile their present with the past.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
To this day, Tusk is a confusing and largely misunderstood album in Fleetwood Mac's long career. It was many things: experimental, bratty, forward-thinking, game-changing, panned at the time, and potential career suicide. In hindsight, it's just as many things: part brilliant, party folly, career-killer in some ways, career-saver in others. But 36 years on, it's better than its reputation at the time certainly, and well-worthy of this bulky re-examination.
Available in several formats, including a stand-alone 180-gram vinyl edition for purists, the big super-deluxe edition covers it all. The original double album is on the first CD, at nearly 80 minutes. Disc two is singles, out-takes and sessions, featuring several remixes and edits for radio, then a bunch of early versions of the songs, in various attempts over the long year making the album
Disc three is novel, a complete alternate version of the album, featuring the songs in sometimes quite different forms, from largely acoustic to different instrumentation, to a take of Christine McVie's Brown Eyes, featuring band founder Peter Green doing a guitar solo. Discs four and five feature a reconstructed live album, with songs from various sources along the lengthy Tusk tour, but feeling very much like a single show. The final disc is for the audio junkies, in 5.1 surround and 24/96 stereo.
It is Lindsay Buckingham's album, and is has his reaction to the ridiculous success of Rumours, That album had made them the biggest band in the world in the days of the greatest glory and excess. They were also the most dysfunctional group of people in the world. If Rumours had been a soap opera, Tusk was a farce. Nicks had an affair with Fleetwood, destroying his marriage. Then Fleetwood took up with Nicks' best friend, Sara (as in the hit single). Christine McVie, having split with the bass player before Rumours, now ended her relationship with the group's lighting designer. Then she started seeing Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, probably the most unstable, self-destructive person on the planet. Only Buckingham seemed to have it somewhat together, except he wanted to experiment with recording techniques, make wildly different songs from his usual hit singles, go all over the map stylistically, and in general say screw you to fame, record companies, and anyone's expectations.
The record-buying public certainly noticed that Tusk wasn't Rumours pt. 2. It sold a few million, but nowhere close to the previous mark. Those who bought it barely played it. The first single, much anticipated, was the title cut, a most odd percussion experiment. There were more typical singles to come, from McVie's Think About Me, and Nicks' Sara and Sisters of the Moon, but without an upbeat Buckingham tune like Go Your Own Way, the more moody songs from Nicks couldn't carry the disc.
If you do go through it now, song-by-song, appreciating Buckingham's, techniques and lofty goals, and stop waiting for the hits, it's a very strong collection. It has a horrible running order, so it never gels as an album, and is too long, but there's something there for sure. I know lots of music fans who don't listen to Rumours because it's so overplayed. They should try out Tusk, because it is a lot better than its been given credit for all along.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Crisis! As Jethro Tull fans know, the classic '70's albums are being reissued chronologically, in wonderful box sets complete with plenty of bonus cuts, excellent booklets and multiple remixes. The centrepiece of each one is a brand-new mix of the original album by the renowned Steven Wilson, the leading light in progressive rock audio circles. However, the only way you can remix an album is to have the original master tapes, with all the tracks separate. And for this Tull album, several of the masters had disappeared.
After fruitless searches, a surprising solution was found. A few weeks after the album's release, the band negotiated a performance on a British TV show, in a unique format. The show they did featured band performances, a bit of acting out the storyline, plus linking frames of cartoon illustrations, as found on the original album's sleeve. And because of the famous Musician's Union rules, the band could not simply mime to the original album tapes. It had to be live (risky) or a new recording of the songs, so the group re-recording the whole album.
Guess what? It's better. The band, especially Ian Anderson, won't admit such a thing, but listening back, these are tougher, tour-worn versions, more about the stage and less about the studio crafting. There are moments on the original album were the songs are too soft, especially at the start of the oft-quoted title cut, but on the re-done version, it starts with needed strength.
Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die is not one of the best-loved Tull albums, but it didn't get a fair shake. The press and some fans had grown tired of the band at the time of A Passion Play in 1973, and follow-ups War Child and Minstrel In The Gallery had failed to grab the excitement of the Aqualung and Thick As A Brick days. So there was decreasing audience and interest in Tull's usual concept albums and prog sounds.
It was another concept release, but as Tull stories go, not so hard to follow. As for the music, it was a lively and varied set, with plenty of rock moments, even some blues for the first time in several years for the group, featuring Anderson on harmonica. There were also light acoustic parts, and as good a batch of melodies as Anderson had placed on a record since Brick.
The concept story wasn't too lofty or odd either. There was an old rocker from the '50's, who refuses to change with the trends, feels washed up but then he survives a motorcycle crash, rock 'n' roll comes back in style, and he gets re-discovered. Hardly Quadrophenia but not too hard on the head. The songs, some related to the concept and others not, were a cut above.
Then there were a batch of other cuts dropped along the way, included as well. Originally the idea was to present this concept as a stage play, and there were several for that, plus a couple more dropped for time restrictions on the album proper. Some showed up later (One Brown Mouse on Heavy Horses in 1978), others that should have, and some that really should have made the album (A Small Cigar).
Again, lots of great bonuses, a very good album you probably have never heard, and a great book to keep you company all afternoon. Plus, I've seen this selling for less than $40 online, so definitely something worth considering for your Boxing Week purchases.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
This is kinda perfect. The next generation of the extended Wainwright, McGarrigle, and Roche families have been mingling, mixing and matching their whole lives, in various combinations, for events such as Christmas specials. Now for the first time, Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche have teamed up for a full album. For those who need a program to follow the family connections, they share a dad, Loudon, Martha being Kate McGarrigle's daughter, while Lucy's mom is Suzzy Roche.
The concept here is a series of dark lullabies, inspired by a mixtape given to Martha when her first son was born. Dark, you betcha. While the music may soothe the youngsters, if they knew what the words were, they'd have nightmares the rest of their lives. Take the traditional All The Pretty Little Horses, with its rarely-sung second verse, with a poor little lamb in the meadow, bees and butterflies plucking out its eyes. Then there's long-time family friend Richard Thompson's End of the Rainbow, telling an infant about the realities of life waiting for them outside the nursery: "Your father is a bully and he thinks that you're a pest/and your sister is no better than a whore."
It seems the sisters come by this naturally. Various family members have taken to the dark lullaby genre with glee. After all, it is a folk staple going back a few centuries, and the Wainright/McGarrigle/Roche clans are hip to all that. There are a couple of Loudon's songs, including Lullaby, where he sings to the horrible kid (Martha? Rufus? Lucy?) causing him so much grief, who needs to sleep so they can get up and do it all over again the next day. That's followed by Lullaby For A Doll, one of Kate's, a bittersweet song for a young Martha, her mother remembering her own childhood.
There are some others in the set to lighten the mood, including El Condor Pasa, best-known in its adaptation by Paul Simon, and the traditional tune Long Lankin, a vocal number the duo sings with their cousins, Lily and Sylvan Lanken, another family in-joke. The Wainwright Sisters delight in these family connections, and the way it's all wrapped around folk tradition. Good humour, good music, and the ties that bind.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Del-Fi Records was a Los Angeles label best known for signing Richie Valens and releasing La Bamba, plus being the home of early rockers The Bobby Fuller Four, Chan Romero of Hippy Hippy Shake fame (covered by The Beatles live), and even a young Frank Zappa. It was a small, but very cool label.
Toronto group The Del-Fi's are a small, but very cool new band. Small, in that they are an indie group, immersed in music, not hype and trends. Very cool, in that they have a great raw-roots feel, certainly something that the musicians around the old Del-Fi Records would have appreciated. Very cool as well, because they are 20-to-30-year-olds, probably never heard of Del-Fi Records or Chan Romero before, but sure love and can play the real roots stuff. They are old souls.
The group is an off-shoot project of songwriter Jerry Leger, one of the best young talents of the last half-decade, with a half-dozen of his own consistently strong albums. These are always rich, impressively-written sets, but sometimes you gotta just get the gang together and blast, you know? Leger had saved up a bunch of songs that had that old feel, with outlaws and femme fatales and Saturday nights and rockabilly and noisy bars. With a some fellow compatriots such as Sam Cash and Aaron Comeau, the Cameron House crew, they rolled into Comeau's trailer studio (The Trailer, natch) and in ten hours had eleven cuts down.
I wouldn't call it ragged,or sloppy,or raw, even if the band was after that feel, because it's not really true. Rough and ready perhaps, but this bunch is just too good for mistakes or late cues or parts that don't quite work. Mandolins, pedal steel, parlour piano, harmonica, it all fits right in as natural as can be. And while the songs were orphans, they aren't throw-aways from Leger's notebook. Who's Been Haunting You, with its Tex-Mex organ and slashing garage guitar is a wise take-down of a boy with a problem. Tabletop Jukebox might be a sentimental look back at seemingly better days, but it's hardly a novelty number, it's a statement of purpose: "Bring me back across the tracks, that's where I belong."
Catch the album launch why doncha? The Del-Fi's will release Crowd Pleaser with a show at Junction City Music Hall on Saturday, December 19.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
It's time for the Christmas roundup, with the best (and the rest) of the new or slightly-used releases for this year's holiday purchasing. As usual, new collections have been put together, old favourites given new life, and old standby's are being re-gifted with the same old stuff just given new wrapping.
One of the keys to making a popular Christmas album is having a voice people want to hear singing their favourite holiday numbers. There's a reason Ozzy Osborne hasn't released a Yuletide collection, not that I know of anyway. Jann Arden has one of those voices that fans appreciate, full of warmth and friendliness. That's what she brings to A Jann Arden Christmas, a run through 13 of the usual suspects, from carols to John & Yoko's Happy X-mas (War is Over). While it doesn't break the mold, it sure sounds great, thanks to Arden's voice and Bob Rock's big production. This one leaps out of the speakers with rock band backing, plus strings, horns and lots of voices. The only real surprise is that it took her this long to join the holiday parade.
One of the biggest-selling Christmas albums of the last few years is back, with a little extra in the package in case you loved it so much you need more. Rod Stewart keeps trying to write and record new music (his latest is just out, Another Country), but what his fans keep buying is old retreads, songbook selections and best-ofs. First released in 2012, Merry Christmas, Baby was a huge success, going gold and platinum all over, including Canada, and has sold millions. Why? Don't have a clue. It's a rather lifeless set, built around Stewart's familiar pipes, in crooner mode. Cee Lo Green and Mary J. Blige bring a little life as duet partners, but there should be a label warning on this one, as somebody thought it would be classy to drag the late Ella Fitzgerald's memory through the muck with one of those after-life duets with Rod. Shame. Also, why do I have to be the one to point out that When You Wish Upon a Star is not a Christmas song? The upgrades here are a bonus DVD of five cuts, in case seeing Rod sing these makes them better.
Brian Setzer has been doing Christmas right for over a decade, with four different studio albums, live albums and TV specials, and has become a favourite talk show guest this time of year because of it. With his rockabilly and jump blues styles adapted to the Christmas swing, he's really put a lot of life and effort into the genre. This year, another new one, called Rockin' Rudolph, credited to the Brian Setzer Orchestra. As usual, his guitar is the star, ripping off some great solos along the way. He certainly can do the faves such as Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, and finds a more obscure tune by the same writer, Johnny Marks, called Rockabilly Rudolph, great stuff. I like the way he puts some boogie into normally-staid numbers such as Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But I'm not sold on the need of turning The Flintstones theme song, one of his party pieces, into something called Yabba-Dabba Yuletide. It's the only bum note on the set though.
There's long-running series called Now, which comes from England where it first appeared as Now That's What I Call Music, a hits series that often went to #1 and always sold tons. Now it is used for catalogue collections from the Universal empire, and this year's Christmas-themed set is Now 25 Top Hits Best of Christmas. Spread over two CD's, it includes some old time faves (Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante), the Motown family (Jackson 5, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye), more modern stuff (Sheryl Crow, Lady Antebellum) and some Can-Con (Anne Murray, Arden, The Rankin Sisters, Nikki Yanofsky). These things always have a couple of ringers to warm your heart, such as Bing's White Christmas and Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas, and some surprises, like a very good Pretty Paper by Glen Campbell. Overall, it won't bug you, but its more likely a background disc for Christmas morning.
Those compilations can be pretty darn good sometimes too. The Number 1 Jazz Christmas Album is a very good listen, Christmas or not. Starting with Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy, where we get the full-length, somewhat unfamiliar version. It's classy all the way through, with many great female singers especially, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Kay Starr and more. There are also some grand instrumental versions, by Bill Evans, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and even Dexter Gordon. This is a real winner.
Monday, December 14, 2015
This live set is of bootleg quality, but should please fans anyway. It's taken from the early days of the second era of the band, when originals Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens were augmented by The Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. What had started as a quick reunion had blossomed into a fully-functioning band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010.
The set list rarely changed for those shows, heavy on the first couple of albums, the big favourites of the Big Star cult, including In The Street, September Gurls and The Ballad of El Goodo. Chilton was fully engaged in the show, serving as a good-humoured frontman, after largely ignoring the band for years. The audience treats the songs with reverence, each one of the well-memorized album cuts greeted with a cheer, like its currently climbing the charts. Small but mighty was the Big Star fan club by this point.
This is the full set, coming in at about an hour-and-a-quarter, featuring some well-chosen covers such as The Kinks' 'Til The End Of The Day, Baby Strange by T. Rex, and Todd Rundgren's Slut. The source was an FM broadcast in Chicago, and as such there's a couple of noticeable dips in volume, some audience chatter mid-song, and an overall lack of clarity. But as for the show, it's probably the best I've heard this band from the legitimate sources available, so it is valuable.
Victoria, B.C.'s Astrocolor mess with the classics, turning them inside out and clearly modern, but at the same time still recognizable. Retaining the bare essentials of each song, carols and kids' favourites then get deconstructed into electro, jazz and lounge. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! lopes along with a reggae bass, a couple of lines of familiar melody on guitar, some sax soloing, and then the Let It Snow vocal is dropped in, suitably manipulated by electronics.
For the first few bars, you often have no idea what song you're about to hear, with a much different rhythm cooked up, and some programming, keys or guitar offered up in a few scattered lines. But then that well-known melody line comes in, just one usually, but its enough that you immediately know the song, and what's happening with it.
One song starts off with a sultry vocal, "You be my king," and then slips into a deep groove, before the bass slides into what we recognize as We Three Kings. And Little Drummer Boy finally gets the big drums it's always deserved. There are lots of moments of beauty, some musically-sophisticated re-arrangements, and in total, a unique way to experience the holiday canon.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
It's already been a good year for new Christmas albums, with The dB's and Friends, and The Weber Brothers putting out excellent sets. But the biggest excitement comes from the wonderful Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, who put all their soul talent into this celebration. There's no blue at all it, as old favourites and new gems get the big horns, big vocals, and big rhythm section, uptempo from start to end.
The large band is augmented by guest vocalist Saun & Starr, the latest stars of the Daptone stable, although long-time partners of Jones, and also known the Dapettes, so that great tradition of lead with strong back-up (think Aretha and her singers) is here. Those harmonies are put to great use on the hilarious Big Bulbs, finally available widely after being released via Google a couple of years back. And the pa-rum-pa-pa-pums they contribute are the best ever.
So is the drum breakbeats on what they call Funky Little Drummer Boy, which certainly earns its name. The glorious funkified versions of the classics are one of the best elements of the album, with Silver Bells, White Christmas and even Silent Night magically now dance tunes. Always one to share the spotlight, the disc ends on jazzy instrumental treatment of God Rest Ye Merry Gents, with the horns taking us home. Don't think of this as a stocking-stuffer, this should be top of your wish list.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
Montreal's Officer is making a lot out of his travels. Last time out, the album I'm Free came from spending six months checking out jazz and blues haunts in New York. This time, his inspiration came from a sojourn to L.A., where things got a little more varied. Officer explores R'n'B, pop, Tex-Mex, country, as well as the blues and jazz, a chance to work with all his influences.
Mostly covers, and great choices all, Officer chose to work with in a trio setting, the drums and bass playing subtle roles to his laid-back vocals, but monster guitar work. Got You On My Mind is a perfect choice, a '50's song that's been a hit both as blues and country. Shot of Rhythm and Blues is catchy as hell, his former employer Susie Arioli providing the backing vocal, a monumental groove that could fill any dance floor with fans of any style. The biggest and best surprise is The Crystals hit Then (S)He Kissed Me, shorn of its Phil Spector production, now a playful, loping tune, with Officer spitting out fast licks between lines, sounding part-way between Les Paul and Django.
Add in covers of Big Joe Turner, Leroy Carr, Fats Domino, a recent Dylan blues, When The Deal Goes Down, and a guest appearance by Tex-Mex keyboard king Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornadoes) on Officer's own Takin' Off, and you have a roots explosion. But make no mistake, while the band, the arrangements, Officer's singing, the smart covers and fun are all a delight, this guy's tasty, retro guitar is astonishing.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Starting with some easy, melodic reggae numbers, I thought I had this guy pegged from the start, kind of soulful, with a good groove. But by cut three, Red Moon, he was messing with the usual, expanding and defying my expectations. There's something else going on from this Vancouver artist, lots in fact, in the music and the lyrics.
Although reggae is the dominate sound for much of the album, Coe and Co. incorporate a wildly-imaginative variety of styles, weaving them in and around the verses. Que Nos Espera is almost impossible to pin down, with big rock moments, dramatic Latin lines, strings in the reggae verse, and two languages. Love's Eternal starts with ukulele, a favourite of Coe's, Hawaiian music a big influence, really emphasizing his cool soul side. Rubber Bands is orchestra and pop, sounding very British and Beatles-influenced. Nine cuts in, and you'll probably have forgotten this started as a reggae album. Closer After All is a beautiful piece that has echoes of both Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley.
Coe covers lots of bases lyrically as well, from romantic to spiritual to political. Several of the songs reflect what a lot of people feel about the environment and industry of late. Carnival Ride takes on the topic of pipelines directly, Coe observing how protesters in his area come from both aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. And the title is a Hawaiian phrase that pretty much sums up the belief system, meaning respect the land and live in harmony. Coe certainly shows how to do that musically over the whole of this album.
Monday, December 7, 2015
For the past two summers Gallant has been presenting a musical theatre piece in Charlottetown that expands on his usual role of songwriter, performer and story-teller. Called Searching For Abegweit, it's been a great hit, with sold-out performances every night. Gallant tells stories, legends and lore about his beloved home province, in and around his many songs that feature the Island.
The show itself (which I had the pleasure of seeing) works on several levels, including a dynamic visual one, with projections of his sister's paintings of Island life and history behind him, as well as some multi-media work with film, etc. Gallant is a comfortable actor in this situation, still retaining his usual on-stage presence, just incorporating a bit of script and a set list of stories and songs into the show. But at the heart of it all are his songs, some of his best-loved, and some brand-new ones as well.
For this double album, not a lot of the talk is retained; after all, you'd need the whole visual experience to make it all work, and this is more the soundtrack. But you can easily get the story, which is the tale of this rather wonderful place, going back to its First People, ahead to some of the very first settlers in North America, long traditions of fishing and farming, and life in a rural setting that still holds true today.
It wasn't a stretch to incorporate several of Gallant's tunes to the play, including the beloved Peter's Dream (fishing, hard times), Which Way Does The River Run (heading out and seeing the rest of the world), and Tales of the Phantom Ship (classic Island ghost story), Tales and Back To Rustico dated back to his very first album, Breakwater from 1988. But he also brought new material to the show, including Country Store, inspired by the Gallant family business back in Rustico growing up, and Searching For Abegweit, the theme song of the production. All 22 songs from the stage show are here, featuring his dynamic young band of relatives and Islanders. Searching For Abegweit is threatening to become the next Anne of Green Gables.
Now here's a Christmas gift that keeps on giving and giving. This album started life in the 1980's, when the dB's were still a going concern, and over the years it has been reissued, but each time with more new tracks added. Brilliant! Even better is the fact these guys have always had A-list buddies to call on.
The dB's themselves are one of the great power pop groups, like ever, and not only does the band have a few cuts here, leader Chris Stamey adds more of his own. Then there's old partner Peter Holsapple, who also knows lots of folks. From his stint as a touring member of R.E.M., he was able to call on Mike Mills for a live recording of Big Star's lovely Jesus Christ, done with Jody Stephens from that group. Keeping with the Big Star theme, Alex Chilton got involved in the past, and his version of The Christmas Song is featured.
On the awesome side is Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams' old band, with an original cut, Houses on the Hill, and Marshall Crenshaw does a good one, (It's Going to be a) Lonely Christmas. New for this year is Yo La Tengo with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, doing an old Gary U.S. Bonds song Eight Day Weekend, Brett Harris contributing a lovely take on Harry Nillson's Remember (Christmas) and Robyn Hitchcock with a wacky spoken word piece called The Day Before Boxing Day. This set is now up to 22 cuts and over an hour long. Let's hope next time they make it a double set.
Sunday, December 6, 2015
The V.U. Matrix tapes, from a two-night stand in San Francisco in 1969, have been floating around for years on various packages, but this is the first time all available songs have been released, and all in one package. Recorded with a pro set-up installed at the side of the stage by the ownership, it was turned on to grab all four shows the group did those two nights, with some repetition but lots of variety as well.
This is the post-Cale lineup, nothing to sneeze at though, and probably better in focus and reliability. Replacement Doug Yule provided steady bass and organ when needed, plus good backing vocals for Lou Reed, now obviously in charge and the star. The group no longer felt like an art project either. This was a serious show, and could be appreciated by a more mature rock audience of that time. Not that there was much of an audience; anywhere from a dozen to a hundred, at various times in the sets. But those who were there liked it, and were appreciated back by the band.
The V.U.'s sets were still edgy, of course. Reed was still singing about heroin and S&M and NYC street life. And they could wind themselves up into a manic jam, such as the 36-minute version of Sister Ray on set three, the only time it was attempted during the run. But the tunefulness and love of pop songs that Reed also had were on display as well. The basic set featured three-minute hopeful hits We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together", Some Kinda Love and There She Goes Again,
Reed was also trying out some of his new stuff that ended up on Loaded, the immortal tracks Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane, the latter quite different, and closer to the speed Cowboy Junkies did it at. Yes, you could pare down this four-disc set to a two-disc one and get rid of lots of repetition (four versions of Heroin, anyone?), but each set has its own distinct charm. Set one has the only Pale Blue Eyes for instance, and closes on Maureen Tucker's always cute After Hours. And while the other three all feature 12 songs, set three only has six, thanks to the epic Sister Ray and the only appearance of Ocean. Might as well have it all.
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Somehow The Jam never really rose above the pack in North America, while contemporaries such as The Clash and Elvis Costello were selling healthy quantities, even getting radio hits. Yet at home, they were the top band in England for a couple of years. Perhaps if they had stayed together a little longer than 1982, the public here would have caught up to them.
The group sits in a hard-to-describe middle ground between punk, New Wave, Mod and soul, with lots of hits and a good deal of misses along the way as well. But you could always count on their energy, and The Jam were known for tremendous live shows. This box has an interesting concept; it features a live set from the six different years they were recording, 1977 - 1982.
All guts and swagger when they first came to the public's attention, the group actually had four years of build-up as social club and pub regulars, doing the cover versions. When punk opened up doors for them, they just turned up the intensity and speed. The first live set here, at punk headquarters the 100 Club in London, sees them padding out the setlist with soul favourites Back In My Arms Again, Heat Wave and In The Midnight Hour, their growing interest in Mod with The Who's So Sad About Us, and Larry Williams via The Beatles cut, Slow Down. Running out of tunes for the enthusiastic crowd, they had to do a final encore of early hit In The City a second time.
A year later, a tighter band with more originals can be heard, and this is one for the big fans, with some rarer cuts indeed getting an airing, including Aunties and Uncles, and as a bonus, a very polished soundcheck version of News of the World. Disc three from 1979 saw them now a major deal, and armed with big hits that pushing the crowds into a frenzy, including the social commentary of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. As the title suggests, maybe they were just too English with such topics, mentioning take-away curry and Wormwood Scrubs.
Disc Four saw them introducing their best album, Sound Affects, which featured some more melancholy and calmer songs including Monday, mixed in with the usual explosive cuts Start! and But I'm Different Now. For overall strength, this is the best of the shows here, The Jam at their peak. 1981's show goes from hit to hit, now that they had so many, introducing new funky songs such as Town Called Malice and The Gift.
Disc Six is one of their last-ever shows, from a closing run at the Wembley Arena in front of a huge crowd. For the final tour, the group had brought in horns, backing singers and a keyboard player, none of which really add to the songs. They were best as a power trio, bringing the energy to the songs themselves, and like the whole way the group finished, this has a feeling of disappointment to it. They were no longer a people's group, they were Paul Weller's, and he chose to pull the plug despite being outvoted a million to one.
That's water under the bridge now, and The Jam have never lost their status in Great Britain, hence this live box. It's another of these classy small packages, a four-by-six box with the six discs, some post cards, and a very strong hard-bound book with an essay that explains the times and recordings. Maybe it will convince a few more North Americans to hop on board.
Friday, December 4, 2015
The set opens with When Christmas Falls On Peterborough, in tribute to home, done in a rural country style, with charms of a Santa Claus parade, a cold, frosty night and an acoustic feel that would make Lightfoot smile. Next up is the first of many radical departures, Talkin' 'Bout Christmas (Ode to Leon), which, as advertised, presents a big, organ-fired soul groove in the mode of Leon Russell: "Talkin' bout Rudolph, talkin' 'bout Vixen, talkin' 'bout Cupid, Donder and Blitzen."
And on it goes. Prove Your Love This Christmas is as smooth and sexy as Smokey Robinson, definitely for that time after the kids are settled down for a long winter's nap. Snowflakes is something completely different, just piano and emotion, tinkling and gorgeous notes imitating falling snow, the singer looking for someone special visiting at Christmas: "When I open up the door, maybe next year there'll be more/than only snowflakes."
Then there's the wackiness of We Make Toys, a crazy, catchy, snap-along song with elves singing, kind of like those Chipmunk records only a lot more cool. They even do a message song, in the tradition of John and Yoko and others, with What I Want For Christmas, "..is for Christians to behave like Christ, if even for one day like Christ," sounding like Roger McGuinn singing Turn, Turn, Turn. I never thought the Baddest Band in the Land would do a Christmas album, but it turns out they have a big sentimental side. That, and an encyclopedic knowledge of all the various holiday styles makes this another killer in their impeccable catalogue.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
An ambitious and versatile group out of Ottawa, The Bushpilots have a healthy respect for swaggering guitar rock, one part roots, and the rest from Sticky Fingers. That just screams vinyl to me, and this comes in a classic sleeve that looks like it's been sitting in my stacks since university. That's 1978, for those counting (and the rest of you smirking).
Although just six songs long, each side runs about 17 minutes, so I hesitate to call it an EP. All the tracks are rich band workouts, with lots of solid groove workouts filling up the cuts. You Don't Believe Me kicks things off with an electric edge, but they can do the heartache ballad too. Pollyanna lives on its rich piano, but gets driven along by hard-hitting drums and sad vocal from Rob Bennett. The song builds by adding new parts, including a great, ragged backing vocal section, excellent classic horn parts, and finally a coup de grâce guitar solo from Glen Russell.
Don't call it retro, call it rock, it's how it's supposed to be made, and how it still sounds best. Check them out if you are in the Ottawa area on Saturday, Dec. 12. The band will be officially launching the vinyl version (yes, you can get a CD or download too) at The Record Centre. Gee, just what record stores used to be like.
Leave it up to our pals on P.E.I. to have a great time at Christmas, and for a good cause. This set was put together to benefit Special Olympics PEI, and features an all-star Island line-up. Lennie Gallant? Yup, he's here, doing The Little Drummer Boy, those mellow pipes giving us the pa-rum-pa-pa-pums. You're probably sold already.
It's a collection of ten classics, with added Island charm. Gordie MacKeeman & his Rhythm Boys have some fun with God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, with guest singer (and current Dixie Chicks fave) Meaghan Blanchard taking the guest vocals. Tim Chiasson turns in a beauteous We Three Kings, harmonies supplied by Amy and Rachel Beck. Ashley Condon gives a spirited, folky feel to Go Tell It On The Mountain, and Dennis Ellsworth gets a little misty over Blue Christmas.
Jon Matthews produced and engineered the set, and gives it a warm and rootsy vibe throughout, from the jazz combo feel of Brian J. Dunn and Ian Toms on Winter Wonderland to the sanctuary glow of the Becks' O Holy Night. Paper Lions cap things off in a surprising new arrangement of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, with close harmonies the whole way through, a great pop version. This is certainly one of the best charity Christmas sets I've heard.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Okay, here we go with the Christmas albums. Unlike the music industry, which starts sending them out in October, I won't listen until December, because it's Just. Not. Right.
We can start off the festive month with an semi-old favourite. Dwight's disc came out in 1997, in that strange time between peaks in vinyl interest, and therefore has never had the benefit of being on 33-1/3. Now here it is on holiday-ready green vinyl, sounding just great.
This is a cut above your usual Christmas offering, thanks to Dwight's ability to move between styles and arrangements, his willingness to be playful, and a couple of fine cuts he penned for the set. It starts with the title track, a sad, jazzy number, kind of like a Chet Baker ballad. Then it revs up, switching styles from song to song.
Silver Bells gets a find Tex-Mex arrangement, with great horns. I'll Be Home For Christmas is turned into a '60's soul number, with organ and backing singers. In Santa Claus Is Back In Town, Dwight teases us with a "Ho ho ho, honey", before the fiddle kicks in.
There's a swingin' take on The Christmas Song, with big band accompaniment, followed by an old-timey version of Away In A Manger. Then there's a spacey-lounge reworking of Here Comes Santa Claus, before the party closes with his own Santa Can't Stay that's part-Dwight, part-Phil Spector's Christmas Album.
Well whaddya know? I'm actually getting in the spirit of things.
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Then there's the time when Brian Wilson invented the unplugged concept, 24 years before MTV's show went on the air. Working hard in the studio on the highly-ambitious Pet Sounds album, Wilson was pressured by Capitol Records for a new album for the Christmas 1965 season. Not wanting to rush his Pet project, instead Wilson started throwing around different ideas for something fast. Since the band had issued a live album the year before, that was out. Instead, he came up with the unique plan to record a party album.
Wilson would assemble The Beach Boys in the studio, but give them all simple instruments, like you would at a house party: acoustic guitars, harmonica, bongos. Then they played some of their favourite songs, old hits they grew up with, current stuff from The Beatles, even Dylan, plus some general clowning around on their own hits.
Then, Wilson added a backing track of "party" sounds. He got his gang together, and they recorded sounds of laughing, chatting, eating chips, general teenage hanging out. This was dubbed into the music tracks, and the Party! album was done, quick and easy. When the loose version of The Regents' old hit Barbara Ann became a huge hit single, the album did very well indeed, and Wilson's idea had paid off.
The trouble was, it wasn't that great of an album. The chatting in behind was annoying, the goofing around childish. But since the actual party never happened, something could be done about that. Here, producers have gone back to the original tapes, and dumped the phony party. Now what you get it the original album as recorded, stripped down, by The Beach Boys and a couple of pals. You bet it's better.
Mostly, you hear what great natural singers they were. Barely rehearsed, still stumbling over the words and chords, the boys gamely go through the chosen songs, quickly coming to solid arrangements that would certainly work in a real live concert. They mimic The Beatles on I Should Have Known Better and Tell Me Why, but turn those songs into California beach classics. The much-maligned Mike Love is heard doing a perfect harmony with Brian on The Everly Brothers' Devoted To You. And Dennis Wilson's You've Got To Hide Your Love Away shows the deeper, mellow voice he would eventually showcase in the early '70's.
So that's a slam-bang success, but what comes next over the rest of the two-CD set, about two hours' worth, is all the sessions and out-takes for the disc. This is very much hit-and-miss stuff, with stops and starts and lots more dumb-ass humour. There were five sessions in total for the album, and lots of repetition of songs. But there are also a few gems that didn't make the final album, and those are the best moments. A couple of takes of Satisfaction are pretty interesting, and if they had remembered more of the words, could easily have made the album. And I'm not sure why they didn't try another take of Blowin' In The Wind, it's a better choice than The Times They Are a-Changin' , which did make the record.
Wilson never did get the unplugged concept perfected. It was a stop-gap, he did it and moved on. The band actually sounds great stripped down when they do a few of their own songs, and that could have easily been a better album than Party!. The instrumentation was not quite right, with the bongos getting pretty annoying after awhile, just as they did in your rec room parties. But this new set makes Party! a better album, and offers a handful of bonus moments as well, if you're willing to sit through some silliness.
Monday, November 30, 2015
Cilla Black passed away back in August, barely causing a ripple in the Twitterverse, no great outpouring of grief and nostalgia on Facebook. In the great British Invasion, somehow Cilla only managed a single Top 40 hit, the dramatic You're My World. But in England, she was a huge star of song and TV, with back-to-back number one hits, 17 Top 40 numbers, a long-running variety show, and was the second-most successful client of Brian Epstein, next to you-know-who.
Black wan't riding on her friend's coattails either. She was well-known in Liverpool, pre-1963, getting up onstage and doing sets with most of the local top acts. Famously, she was a coat-check girl at The Cavern, but her pal Lennon was already calling "Cyril" on-stage to sing a number with the band before then. Epstein envisioned her as more sophisticated than the pop bands, and she did have hits with Randy Newman and Bacharach/David cuts, Alfie being written specifically for her, not Dionne Warwick. Newman's I've Been Wrong Before is tragic and beautiful, with a highly-original chord progression in the melody.
Then there are those pals; like others in the Epstein management circle, she got the support of producer George Martin, and the songs of Lennon-McCartney. Love of the Loved was the first, an old Cavern number they'd discarded. It's For You was okay, good enough to make the British Top 10 in the glory year of 1964. There's a great little message from Lennon included on this set, where he says grand things about Black for the benefit of fans and disc jockeys. Best of all was a McCartney number written for a TV show she was in, 1968's Step Inside Love, quite a different style for the Beatle, and another hit overseas.
Black had a grand voice, and was a charmer, much-loved over her career, known always as "Our Cilla". Given that Freddie & the Dreamers managed four Top 40 hits in the U.S., and Peter and Gordon had ten, it's quite a shock that Cilla Black wasn't more accepted.
Canada's favourite band, at Canada's favourite venue, or close enough on both counts. Blue Rodeo now has a ridiculous number of beloved songs to try to fit into one night, let alone the small problem of their most recent album, In Our Nature, being a hit, and having to be represented amidst all those classics.
The 14 cuts here are split well between the hits, new stuff and a couple of deep catalogue surprises. It starts off with a track from the band's beloved Five Days In July album, Head Over Heels, before going back to one of the very early days for Rose Coloured Glasses. Bad Timing has always been a live highlight, but perhaps a little over-represented, having appeared on both the Just Like A Vacation and Blue Road live albums. They pull out a cool one next, with Disappear, from the Tremolo album.
Then there are four cuts from In Our Nature, showing just how strong that set was, surely a pleasure for the veteran band, to be able to have such a positive reception for new work. There's one more from the album, Paradise, later on, as well as another deep cut, Girl of Mine from 1989. The rest of the songs are must-hear numbers at every show, Diamond Mine, After The Rain, 5 Days In May and Lost Together.
I waited on this review to get the vinyl, with the assumption Massey would give the recording some added warmth, and that's certainly the case. It's a double album with heavyweight vinyl, and lots of clarity to the vocals and instruments. This is also one of the most versatile of the Blue Rodeo lineups, now sitting at seven pieces. Colin Cripps' addition on lead guitar has allowed for Jim Cuddy to move to piano or mandolin when he wants, and the old favourites have a more epic feel, especially Lost Together and Diamond Mine. This turned out to be a welcome document of the band at an important career high.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Before The Beatles, Liverpool was considered a musical backwater by the British music world. But such was the overwhelming success of the band, most of the rest of the city's scene was soon following the Fabs up the chart, many of them thanks to the same team. Billy J. Kramer was a colleague of the band, having played lots of gigs with them pre-fame. He also caught the attention of Brian Epstein, who became his manager, and opened the doors to the kingdom.
The burgeoning songwriting team of Lennon & McCartney were so popular, any of their songs could have been hits. Catchy numbers were being left as album tracks, so some of them were handed around to other acts on the team. Kramer got to record several, with the tracks produced by George Martin. The more Lennon & McCartney wrote, the more extra songs were unused as well, so there were a couple of their compositions only heard as Kramer numbers.
Kramer was able to take Bad To Me into the Top Ten, not a bad Lennon cut, but you can hear why he wasn't worried about handing it over. I Call Your Name was better, and the group did eventually cut that one, after Billy's version. In all, seven of the 14 cuts here are Beatle-written numbers.
But Kramer did prove himself outside the comfort zone of Epstein's empire. His best number and most enduring song is a Mort Shuman number he picked up on, Little Children. It doesn't sound at all like The Beatles, and has a maturity most pop hits of the day didn't, at least in the melody and arrangement. Kramer ran out of steam in 1965, and future plans were curtailed when Epstein died, but he had a solid run in the British Invasion.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
Sporting a lively new remaster, the very familiar tunes are repackaged here with the aforementioned booklet essay, plus a second disc of pretty impressive previously-unreleased material. These are ten demos from that period, none of which have appeared before or became something else. All but one were written with her producer and co-conspirator Glen Ballard, and date from the very first song they wrote together to some weary works that came out after she got off the road from the exhausting tour for Jagged Little Pill.
Like the rest of her songs at that time, these are personal and cathartic numbers, where she examines how she's feeling, what she wants, what is of great concern. With Ballard involved, these demos are certainly not acoustic guitars and voice. These are pretty close to finished products, even including strings on one song. In effect, it's Jagged Little Pill 1.5.
Best tracks include The Bottom Line, that first song they wrote, in the first hour of meeting. At this point, Ballard was still contributing some lyrics, although by Jagged Little Pill. she had taken over all the words, while they shared the music composition. Superstar Wonderful Weirdos is a look at the freak show she had joined, able to stand outside and observe people's perceptions of her. No Avalon is another one with Ballard contributing lyrics, wondering if there's a heaven. King of Intimidation is another whack at jerks in the entertainment game, written after Jagged Little Pill, a good continuation of the theme. Death of Cinderella is a final goodbye to the pop princess we Canadians knew back in her dance days.
Here's the thing though; does anyone still listen to Jagged Little Pill? It was so ubiquitous, and so of its time, that it's not something you go back to, nor is it something new generations pick up on. Twenty years has gone by, and there doesn't seem to be a need for its heroic qualities anymore. Morissette broke down the barriers, and lots of women followed with lots of attitude. But it might be another few years before her songs find a fresh audience. The two-disc set is nicely priced at around $15, while a 4-CD box includes a live concert from the original album tour, and a reissue of the 2005 acoustic re-recording of the original album.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Riffing on everything from Sweet Georgia Brown to Chopin is pretty daunting, but Andrews can handle just about anything, plus he makes it swing, and folds it into his unique Newfoundland Gypsy-jazz-guitar oeuvre. Here, fall-back favourites from Django sit happily beside traditional Newfoundland numbers, a clutch of originals, and Stravinsky's Firebird Lullaby.
In a career based on innovation, the new move for this album was making it all with a string quartet. While it seems obvious for the familiar melody of Chopin's Opus 64 No. 2, hearing it delicately, smoothly and quickly picked out on guitar is a testament to Andrews' vast talent. No spotlight-hogger, Andrews lets the strings bring a whole new appreciation to the charms of Let Me Fish Of Cape St. Mary's.
Known for previous albums with fiddler Dwayne Côté or guitarist Craig Young, as well as The Swinging Belles, once again Andrews shows he plays well with others. Catch him Nov. 28 in Saint John, N.B. at The Sanctuary, along with the Saint John String Quartet.
Yates has had quite a career, and you can hear about some of the most interesting parts on this grand alt-country outing, a career highlight. It's her first since 2007's The Book Of Minerva, and a big reminder that she's one of the country's best singers and writers.
Out of the same Toronto cowpunk scene that coalesced around Handsome Ned. Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies, Yates was lead singer for Rang Tango, and swept up to Nashville, Sony Music there looking (rightly) for the next big thing. The conservative town never likes rebels, and after a debut solo album, Yates was back in Canada for a couple of albums for Virgin in the '90's. Next came the sorta-supergroup Hey Stella!, with ace roots guitarist producer David Gavan Baxter, Prairie Oyster drummer Michelle Josef, and Blue Rodeo's Bazil Donovan for an album in the 2001's. She's also become an integral part of the powerful Hamilton music scene.
A gifted storyteller, Yates offers a mix of cautionary tales, life lessons and colourful people and places. Hamilton's full of them you know, and several show up in Corktown, a number about the legendary tavern (Canada's oldest), where you have to prove yourself, something Yates certainly did. Trouble In The Country is about the situation Yates found herself in arriving in Nashville, especially a run-in with the famous producer Billy Sherrill.
Oh, back to Hey Stella!, the band got back together for this one, and they sparkle throughout, with tasty licks from Baxter and a solid country groove to match Yates' natural twang. There's still lots of the punk in her as well. She might be a sweetheart, but she'll kick your ass too. It's a kick-ass record in fact.
Monday, November 23, 2015
Isaak does one thing, but he does it very well. Apart from his last album, Beyond the Sun, a tribute to Sun Records, he makes love-in-trouble songs centered around his Orbison/Elvis pipes. When he does branch out, it's not far, usually with rockabilly numbers with more lighthearted lyrics. Somehow over a 13-album career, he's managed to keep a spark despite the constant theme, mostly by always writing and singing them well.
There are several highlight songs here, including the title cut, a blue (as in bayou) break-up ballad, with a solid lyric ('First comes the heartache darling, it ain't always gonna hurt this way'). Dry Your Eyes is a Latin lover come-on, a little marimba and a little heavy breathing. Don't Break My Heart rocks it up a bit more, a desperate plea from a love-sick fool.
Isaak's still careful not to give us too much of a good thing over the whole album, and the novelty numbers deliver quality as well. The rockabilly tune Down In Flames is a cheery-sounding number about dying spectacularly, burning out before fading away: 'James Dean bought it on a highway, Marilyn found it in a pill/Elvis died, or did he? They're looking for him still.' Insects is weird, in a compelling way: 'Bad ideas are like insects on the windshield of my mine.' I always like forward to an Isaak album; I don't expect big changes, but it's never a let-down either.
Saturday, November 21, 2015
Although these aren't the full-bore packages afforded the reissue of Moondance, the album issued between these two, they are certainly mightily welcome new versions of these classics. Moondance was given a four-disc-plus-DVD set, but that meant take after take of variations, never the most rewarding listening experience. This time, they go for less is more, with just a handful of alternate takes from the sessions as bonus cuts, on single disc packages.
The discs are giving spiffy new liner notes, again nothing over-the-top, just a good essay explaining the sessions, and the historical context. The bonus cuts are all familiar, and at the most present some slightly different backing, or versions on Street Choir before strings. The biggest highlight would be the take of Slim Slow Slider that restores the original ending rather than the fast fade-out of the cut preferred by producer Lewis Merenstein for its discomforting ending to the album. Again, we're not talking major new finds here.
So what's the big deal? Sound, my friends. Never have these gems, these classics, sounded better, and for fans of Astral Weeks especially, that is tremendous news. The instruments sound so clear and separated now, with so much presence to each one. You can focus in on every sound, let your ears concentrate on the flute as it enters, pick out the guitar licks of Jay Berliner, follow along with Richard Davis' bass as he leads the band forward, none of them really familiar with Morrison or his tunes before these sessions. There were miles and miles of column-inches written over the years by critics enthralled by the jazz-blues-Celtic-pop fusion Morrison created, and you'll constantly find this album in the top-ten-ever lists, so don't go without.
I'm actually a bigger fan of Moondance and His Band and the Street Choir, but that's because I simply like concise, arranged music more, no biggie. After the huge success of Moondance, Morrison got right back on the horse and did a fun album, nothing too intense on the surface but full of brilliance just the same. It's the home of Domino after all, and the hit Blue Money too. If this was Morrison having a lark with the group, he showed it could be serious fun too. Also here are some of his best R'n'B workouts, including Give Me A Kiss and I've Been Working, the latter becoming a powerhouse life track as heard on 1974's epic It's Too Late To Stop Now concert album.
I've never noticed this before, but when I heard Crazy Face on the album this time, with all its odd character names, and then thought about the title "and the Street Choir", I put two and two together, and came up with Springsteen, a huge fan, well-influenced by this period of Morrison's work. His early songs had characters such as Crazy Davey and such. Just sayin'. Anyway, time for an upgrade on both, I'm not steering you wrong, money well spent.
Friday, November 20, 2015
We could have used more Georgie Fame though. One of the key players of Swingin' London, Fame scored just two well-known cuts this side of the ocean, his ultra-hip take on Yeh, Yeh in 1964, and the surprise novelty hit The Ballad of Bonnie & Clyde from 1967. But there's a treasure trove of music in between, as featured on this handsome box set.
It's comprised of five CD's, including the four albums Fame made during this four-year span, plus a fifth of rare cuts, demos and out-takes. Plus, each original album is nearly doubled in size (disc one is more than doubled) by the addition of single and E.P. cuts, alternates and the like. It's meant to be a collector's package, with a hard-bound book, a large poster and several postcards included as well.
Fame's first album showcased what he and the band did well, entertain the club-goers each night with high-energy R 'n' B, centered around Fame's organ playing. He'd picked up on the Hammond organ sound of Booker T and the MG's from U.S. servicemen who used to drop by his gigs and play him records they'd brought from home. Fame developed his own take on cool jazz, soul and blues, leading a tight band complete with horns. The album Rhythm and Blues at The Flamingo sees the band in full, locked-in groove, making the party happen with James Brown and Motown cuts, working in a little Mose Allison, and playing favourites like Let The Good Times Roll. You can hear the fans having a ball, and you can picture Austin Powers strolling in, shouting 'Ya baby.' The plentiful bonus cuts here include several sessions for the BBC, more good-time numbers, and a rare bit of history, as Long John Baldry joins the group to take the vocals on You're Breaking My Heart.
Disc two is the best of the bunch. Fame had by this time developed his own sound, relying less on well-known artists and more on his own blend of influences. There were still lots of well-known covers on the album Fame At Last, including Marvin Gaye's Pride and Joy, Gimme That Wine by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross, and his own version of Green Onions, but the mix of all these influences combined with the freedom of London's music scene at the time really gives his music energy. But oh, those bonus tracks, that takes his disc over the top. First, you get Yeh, Yeh, a non-album single track, always a killer tune. And it's the home to quite an amazing musical moment. Fame was one of the very first artists to pick up on a new sound coming out of Jamaica. Ska music was popular in the Jamaican areas of London, and Fame recording an EP called Rhythm & Blue-beat, adding yet another element to his set. Hearing him incorporate the classic inverted rhythm into his energetic style, so far ahead of the rest of his peers, is pretty mind-blowing now, one of those things I wish I'd known about 30 years ago.
Disc three saw Fame head a little more in the hits direction, with a greater emphasis on radio-friendly, concise songs, and less of the R 'n' B style. The album was called Sweet Things, the fare was along that line, with a version of My Girl, a ballad in Funny How Time Slips Away, and a cover of Dobie Gray's The In Crowd. The hoped-for follow-up smash to Yeh, Yeh didn't happen, but there were decent-sized hits with In The Meantime, Like We Used To Be and Something, all of which are featured in the bonus tracks here.
Disc four was a big departure for an album called Sound Venture. Here Fame was paired up with The Harry South Big Band, and took on the role of crooner. It's not his crowning achievement. Fame was a singer who had a lot of feel, but not a great tone or range. The rougher the music got, the better, but here he's a little out of his comfort zone, or at least ours. Really, the whole thing was a mis-fire, as the band is about a decade behind the times, or perhaps 40 years too early; but Fame did not become the Buble of the day. The bonus cuts are better because we're back to regular fare, including the British #1 Get Away, and the sizable hit version of Bobbie Hebb's Sunny.
Disc five is a relief from the big band sound, as we go to the rare cuts collection. It features a mix of pretty much all the sounds heard in the other sets, on radio sessions, some alternate takes, and a few that didn't sneak out along the way. Best is another of the ska tracks, Tan Tan's Tune, while the awfully racist Black Head Chinaman would be good if it wasn't ...you know. But I told you it felt like Austin Powers was in the room. For those who like to make discoveries and don't mind laying out a few bucks, this is a rewarding addition to the wall o' sound.
Thursday, November 19, 2015
This is an expanded boxed set of DVD's from the iconic '70's music show, now coming in at a whopping 11 discs. Midnight Special was hugely important at a pre-MTV time when you could barely find music on television. Don Kirshner's Rock Concert had the harder stuff, Saturday Night Live would give you two songs once a week by somebody cool, and Midnight Special was Top 40.
Considering the late-night time slot, they did play it safe and often, lame. With bland hosts such as Helen Reddy and the Captain & Tennille, plus the horrifically bad links taped by Wolfman Jack, you could go entire shows without leaving the middle of the road. It's actually quite hilarious how bad it can be, as you watch Barry Manilow trying to bust a move on It's A Miracle (worst.dancer.ever.), and if you want to shock your kids, show them the sad scene of Rick Dees and a cast of musicians with no self-respect miming to Disco Duck.
But here's the flip-side of '70's TV: on the same disc, you can also find a one-time-only, historic performance featuring host George Benson, at the time the respected jazz guitarist had mellowed out for the Top 40 hit Breezin'. Instead of bringing in the usual guests that week, it was a superstar jam session, no lip-sync, no backing tracks, all live, with Carlos Santana, Tom Scott, Dr. John, Etta James and, of all people, the no-nonsense Van Morrison. Seeing this bunch all on stage for Moondance is worth wading through the KC and the Sunshine Band and Village People moments.
Great costumes though; from Labelle's space suits to Jim Croce's 'stash, the era was all about big. No band performed without some member shirtless. The knitted sling/halter thing that Aretha Franklin was wearing was outrageous and frankly distracting, but what a performance.
And so it goes, from incredible to okay to laughingly bad. On the big, big plus side, you get The Kinks, Steely Dan, Tom Petty, and a brilliant Love Train from the O'Jays. You'll zone out through REO Speedwagon, and find yourself debating the merits of John Denver.
This expanded set also adds a disc of stand-up comedy, a very different beast in those days, when comics where being treated like rock stars, and still on tour with them too. Maybe its just generational, but I'll stack this line-up against today's supposed funny people: Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Robert Klein, Andy Kaufman, George Carlin, the young Billy Crystal, vets Flip Wilson and Redd Foxx, and even Jimmie J.J. Walker. Normally I'm just about the music, but this is welcome.
The major problem with the set is the hugely-annoying way they have compiled the clips. They create mini-versions of shows, featuring the opening and closing credits, and host links between each song, and then three or four cuts, before moving on to the next mini-show. So you get the Midnight Special theme everytime, the lameness of Reddy or Wolfman every time, the credits for technicians every time, all of which break up the enjoyment and quite simply waste everyone's time. Oh, to be allowed to edit all this out, and add in more great songs, but it's probably all been done for financial reasons, filling out the discs with free stuff, rather than having to pay royalties for more songs. But over 11 discs, there is a ton of excellent viewing, and if you have a sense of humour about certain acts, it's even better.
Tuesday, November 17, 2015
The latest band to storm the beaches comes out of P.E.I., an acoustic power trio, The East Pointers. Well, the Maritimes version of a power trio, with a guitar yes, but also a fiddle and a banjo. There's still lots of power in that, when you have banjo and fiddle trading licks, weaving around the driving guitar chords, and pounding footsteps as percussion. The players in the group aren't new to the scene, three long-time pals who knew they'd make a mark if they teamed up. Tim Chiasson has been wowing folk and country fans with his golden voice and tender lyrics on his solo albums, plus as fans know, he's a killer fiddler as well. When he wasn't fishing professionally for lobster (seriously, it is P.E.I.), Koady Chiasson, was playing bass in cousin Tim's band. Thing is, he's also a brilliant hand at the banjo. On guitar is Jake Charron, a much in-demand instrumentalist whose last release, a duo album with Shane Cook called Head to Head, was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award. We're talking a P.E.I. supergroup, then.
With a singer like Tim C. on board, you're not going to keep him silent, and three new vocal cuts are on the album, written by the band. The rest of the ten cuts are instrumental, but these aren't numbers out of the Celtic College playbook. The members are all composers, and have brought their own melodies and licks to the project. Medleys move from one writer's work to another duo or trio composition seamlessly. It sounds old and new all at once, the members playing the way they were taught in kitchens and town halls, but adding in more modern melodies and a touch of deft production as well.
Then there are those vocal tracks, adding not just another mood, but a really a hands-down showstopper each time. The cut Cold just aches, Chiasson adding an extra tug of sadness, his cousin and Charron harmonizing, the backing a kind of mournful bluegrass jazz.
The group is finishing up a few Ontario dates this week, with a show in Ottawa Wednesday, Nov. 18 at Live On Elgin, another Thursday in Toronto at Hugh's Room, the London Music Club on Friday, and The Livery in Goderich on the 21st.
Monday, November 16, 2015
Now, we all have the music, and that's not the point here. What you get is a video to accompany each song. And please, no ho-humming that detail. Video clips from the band haven't been readily available to purchase like most other groups. You got bits and pieces in The Beatles Anthology and the movies, but no full collection, so this is the one area of Beatledom that has actually been under-serviced to the audience (and under-exploited by Apple).
None of this would be exciting if the clips were average, but The Beatles were ground-breakers in that field as well. It's been argued they created the rock video, thanks to the several films they made in their heyday out of necessity. There were so many requests for their appearances all over the world, that it was figured the best thing to do was make films of them performing the new singles, and send them out to TV shows, movie theatres, whoever would play them. Even Ed Sullivan had to make do sometimes with these films. Later, when the group stopped performing live, they became even more important for fans dying to see the group in person.
Each of the 27 tracks from the 1 album is matched by a corresponding video. However, not every one of them had one of these specially-made videos in the first place, so the remainders have come from a variety of sources. There are TV show appearances, live concert bits, some of them older, some of them made up well after The Beatles split. The one for Come Together is an animated piece done in 2000 for the launch of the beatles.com website, and is really quite a dull bit. But its a rare failure. The Love Me Do clip is brand-new, a skillful 2015 edit using a partially-surviving live performance film from 1963. From Me To You is the famous Royal Variety Performance from that same year.
As important as those historical documents are, it's what The Beatles did without an audience that really impresses. Faced with the task of recording promotional films, and not just standing there miming to the backing tracks, the boys did what they did best, and relied on their chemistry, wit and charm. For I Feel Fine, they got up to Beatle hijinks. While John and George played it cool and laughed a little, George started singing into a punching bag set up like a microphone. Meanwhile Ringo, at first nowhere to be seen, sprints on and sits on an exercise bike, set up where the drums would normally be, and peddles away. It's simple and awesome.
Help! sees them sitting in a straight row facing the camera, John at the front singing. The others poke their heads out, around John's to sing a harmony line or just get on camera. Ringo, inexplicably, is holding an umbrella, and just starting at us. It's riveting. Oh, then it starts snowing indoors, and Ringo stays dry.
The technical work is tremendous, with the original films cleaned up in amazing details, for pictures and sound. The colours leap out once the black and white days end, Paperback Writer positive sparkling. The audio work continues on the companion CD as well, this new version of 1 now sporting the latest stereo remixes.
This is one where I'd advice seriously looking at the deluxe version, even with the added price. It's called 1+, and features an entire second disc of videos. There are so many important ones here, including the famous clip for Strawberry Fields Forever, not a #1 hit so not included on the first disc. It's my favourite, trippy, a little scary and very much a piece straight out of London of the time, with the shell of a piano looking like its melting on acid. Take that, Pink Floyd. By luck, a film crew was sent to follow the group on the day they happened to be recording Hey Bulldog, so there's actual footage of the real performance for the record. And there's two different takes of the Hello Goodbye video, this time with the band doing more goofy stuff, Lennon acting like Elvis, and them wearing street clothes instead of the Sgt. Pepper outfits.
Other bonuses include a hard-bound book with notes and sources for each video on both discs. There are also commentaries on a handful of tracks by McCartney and Starr, but those are disappointments across the board. Both have long ago run out of stories about the songs, and struggle to think of what to say. Plus, there's nobody to say 'That sucked Ringo, do it again.'
So, get it, and if you can, get the expensive one. The deluxe limited edition of 1+ is selling for $70.00 for the blu-ray edition, and $60.00 on DVD, while you can get various editions featuring just the DVD or blu-ray, or the CD/DVD or CD/blu-ray combos, in the $20 to $35 range. There's even a new double LP available. Pick the option that works best for you.
Thursday, November 12, 2015
It can't be overstated how important the live show is to Neil Young's career. While we tend to look at long-established artists by following their albums, with Young you have to follow his tours too, as they are almost always linked. The songs come, and some get taken on the road, some get developed in the studio. Sometimes entire tours are inspired by one set of tunes, but then develop into something else on the road, resulting in the completely different album a few months later.
The best Young tours have been the ones where he launches brand-new songs. Of course this can be much to the chagrin of those who want greatest hits when they go see him, but hindsight shows how lucky they were to have been there. How about the crowds who got to see Rust Never Sleeps debut months before the album in 1979? Or the solo shows post-After The Gold Rush, when Young started adding the Harvest numbers to the set?
That's what makes his on-going Archives releases so rewarding, as he's been going back to those important shows and tours from the past. This particular set is is one of the most interesting, because it sheds light on a period that saw Young climb from one of his lowest points back to favour, thanks to, of all things, a big blues band.
The '80's were Young's most controversial and unsuccessful. Signed by David Geffen to a huge contract, he immediately pissed off the boss, and most of the general public with the album Trans, a hugely-misunderstood album about technology. Geffen refused his next album, an all-country affair, and then sued him for making uncommercial music. Young then answered his demands for a rock album with just that, Everybody's Rockin', a 28-minute lark filled with rockabilly numbers. Then came the reworked country album Old Ways, which satisfied no-one. He went back to more conventional rock after that, but his audience had largely left him. No wonder he had the blues.
But things were looking up. His Geffen contract was up, and he was back at Reprise Records, his old home. He hit the road with a band he called The Blue Notes, after a club back in Winnipeg. It featured some old friends, such as Crazy Horse guitar player Frank Sampedro and long-time pedal steel foil Ben Keith, but they were out for a lark, playing keyboards and alto sax respectively. There was a whole bunch of other horn players, plus a heavy hitting new rhythm section, Chad Cromwell on drums and Rick Rosas on bass. This was going to be fun.
The shows started at the end of '87, almost completely full of new material. And it wasn't strictly blues either, more an amalgam of rock and blues, a good part of Young's signature sound, and lots of horns. It was good stuff too; the song This Note's For You became an unlikely hit a few months later upon release, with Young standing up against his fellow musicians taking big buck sponsorship from corporations, mocking Michael Jackson singing for soft drink money. It was the start of a new generation appreciating Young, and just a couple of years later, the same youngsters would be wearing plaid like Neil and praising him as the godfather of grunge.
Part-way through the tour, an album of these heavy blues numbers appeared, called This Note's For You. At first it was credited to Neil and the Blue Notes, but Harold Melvin's lawyers quickly pointed out he owned that name. Then the band became Ten Men Workin', but now Neil's calling it Blue Note Cafe for this release. What we get is 21 songs recorded over nine months of touring. And, we get to see the band, set list and sound develop into something even better.
As happens when Young gets on a roll, the songs keep coming and a new concept comes out of the old one. There were plenty of numbers that didn't make the This Note's For You album, fun blues numbers found here such as Doghouse (as in, I'm in the...). There were several about rocky relationships. One of the best Neil moments is heard here, not from a song, but from a brief spoken intro, where he asks the crowd, "Who here is having trouble at home? Let's talk about that awhile," before launching into Married Man. There are, as usual, better songs that weren't included on the album, including Don't Take Your Love Away From Me.
Most famously came a classic Young epic, a dark, wordy trip that would have fit nicely onto the On The Beach album, called Ordinary People. It had a bunch of verses, told a rich tale, and eventually did make it out on the Chrome Dreams II album in 2007. Here we get one of the life recordings of this major Young number which was still evolving at that time. You can pretty much figure this is why Young is now putting out these live albums at a steady rate, to give us these gems.
When the new songs arrived in 1988, there were more along the lines of Ordinary People, most importantly Crime In The City. It was another one that had lots of verses, a long narrative and a dark tale to tell. It would go through a lot of changes over the next year, but it signaled the next phase for Young. He kept Rosas and Cromwell, and pared down to a power trio called The Restless for a Far East tour. Then they set about making the Freedom album, with a much-altered Crime In The City, and massively-successful Rockin' in The Free World. But to see how he got there, you have to know about this tour.
It's not just historically important, it's a grand listen. Bad New Comes To Town, another song found nowhere else, is like a gunfighter ballad fused with jump blues. Then there's a 20-minute version of Tonight's The Night, one of the few old songs he played, completely re-arranged and deranged for the horns. Available as a 2-CD or 4-LP set, I'm loving the big box of albums, with a wonderfully-warm tone, and lively horns. And with all the unreleased numbers from this tour, it's like getting an album of new songs too.