Tuesday, March 31, 2015


I have never thought of Ron Sexsmith as particularly glum, just thoughtful and sentimental, bittersweet at times. If you're going to write accurate slices of life, well, a little rain must fall (it's April after all). And there are lots of poppy numbers in his many albums, yet he's saddled with a sad sack reputation, at least in the blogosphere.

So Carousel One has already become known as his attempt to lighten the mood. He even tries a smile on the cover, and it does look painful for him. There's no arguing that the mood is bright throughout, and Sexsmith's somewhat silly sense of humour is even on display. Lead single Saint Bernard is Sexsmith's tribute to what he imagines would be his ideal pet, right down to his famous hangdog expression: "Who else is going to rescue me when I''m face down in the snow/No other dog looks more like me and could fill in when I'm ill and unable to make the show."

Ron rocks! It's true! He's done it before, but check out Getaway Car, where he channels his long-standing McCartney/Wings-era side. And several of the tracks have an easy-going, breezy feel, such as Lucky Penny. What do you know, the sun is shining in that song, and a couple of others. Maybe spring has sprung for Sexsmith, as this does feel like the perfect album to get us out of the winter of our discontent.

Monday, March 30, 2015


The three original Specials albums have received the double-deluxe treatment, each with an added disc of bonus material. The classic debut from 1979, produced by Elvis Costello, was the high point, full of excitement and before tensions ripped apart the members.

Leading the Two-Tone movement, the Specials did more than front a ska revival; they actually took the music into the Top Ten in England, and found a sound that could unite black and white audiences. The multi-racial group was also overtly political, targeting racism, poverty and oppression. All that, while making this dynamic, thrilling and highly danceable set of songs.

Specials includes a great mix of originals and updates of classic Jamaican numbers. They do a mean version of Toots & the Maytals' Monkey Man, with more energy than the original, borrowing the frenetic approach of punk and New Wave. They proved strong lyricists as well, with Concrete Jungle set inside Britain's oppressive class system, and Too Much Too Young about teen pregnancy.

The bonuses include the Gangsters single, not on the original album. Also pleasing is the inclusion of the full-length, six-plus minute version of Too Much Too Young, as Canada was long stuck with a two-minute edit. The second disc is all live, including the three-track Too Much Too Young E.P. tracks, and a 1979 BBC In Concert recording, which shows that the group could match any original Jamaican group on stage.

Sunday, March 29, 2015


Sexton's always been known for his ability to jump from style to style, and here he puts that to good use. He's collected a group of his songs that exemplify that, and put them together much the same way you'd make a mixtape of different artists. The musical gumbo that is the road in America is the theme, and he proves a fine travel guide and DJ for the trip.

Remember That Ride rocks the best, a big groove and catchy chorus about the best-ever amusement part ride, "This ain't your grandmother's tilt-a-whirl." Shut Up And Sing channels The Grateful Dead, with lots of rolling guitar licks. I Believe In You is a warm, sentimental number, real-life touches, a love story that brings up..hey, a mixtape full of Dead songs, what do you know. Sexton's soulful voice fits well in all these roots styles, and like John Hiatt, he knows how to write and sing them all, making this a hell of a ride.

Saturday, March 28, 2015


Producer Haynie has made hits for everyone from Eminem to Lana Del Rey to Bruno Mars, but here he launches his own career in the spotlight. Except, he's no great singer, so most of the vocal duties are handed over to his many connections. It's a celebration of L.A. pop styles, past and present, recorded at the infamous Chateau Marmont, Guest singers include 60's heroes Brian Wilson, Randy Newman and Colin Blunstone of The Zombies, and from today he calls on Del Rey, Andrew Wyatt, Rufus Wainwright, Lykke Li, Father John Misty, Nate Ruess of fun. and others.

This cast of characters helps turn the album into a song arc, with voices cast in various styles. Newman brings his jovial charm to the uplifting (in music anyway), Who To Blame. Wainwright's theatrical singing takes us into some of the sadness, while Wyatt and Ruess are along for the dream pop that permeates most of the collection. The backing vocals are equally rich, as secondary voices such as Wilson and Julie Holter take rich parts of counterpoint to the leads. Moody and lush, this reminds me of an Eels album, only more lovely and less cranky and depressed

Thursday, March 26, 2015


Brandi Carlile is hard to pin down stylistically. There's roots-Americana at the core, but she easily moves back and forth from folk to country to rock to noisy and somewhat experimental. That's more the case than ever on this, her fourth, and most powerful to date. It's an album bursting at the seems, lots of ideas and paths to go down.

There's a reason for this. Carlile is the voice, but this is really a band. When she started ten years back, it was with twin brothers Tim and Phil Hanseroth. They came out of Seattle, with an agreement that they would all write, equally share the publishing (like Lennon-McCartney, U2, etc.) but Carlile would take the front role and all the lead singing. Good plan, as she has an amazing voice, haunting and timeless on The Stranger At My Door, a Western film noir number, rockin' and fun on Alibi, sad and hurt on Heroes And Songs. They are all her, but we don't know which pen or part did what, and that's fine, we don't need to. It's a group effort, that's all.

This road-tested group has been growing stronger, and building a loyal following, plus learning from some good ones. In the past they've had Rick Rubin and T Bone Burnett guiding them, and streamlining the overall package into something more easily identifiable. The diversity found here may mean Carlile and crew have to sacrifice some sales and fame, but it's going to be a more fulfilling ride for them and the fans.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015


There are household names, and then there are secret weapons. Ballantyne has so far been the latter, but that should change some day. After all, audiences country-wide have been screaming along to his co-written hits for a decade, whether it's The Trews' Poor Ol' Broken Hearted Me, or Big Sugar's If I Had My Way and All Hell For A Basement. A gifted writer, he has made just two albums in that time, including this, which was released first last summer, and now upgraded with a new cut for larger distribution.

This collection is more introspective than those fist-pumpers he's helped write for others. Days Of Rain has a theme of dealing with loss and moving on, delivered with a lot of depth and an ambitious palette of styles. Rich and moody acoustic tracks such as Roll With It sit alongside big pop numbers, opener King Of The Road the most infectious. The harmony-rich I Follow You adds a Neil Young harmonica break to its campfire singalong feel. Throughout it all, Ballantyne proves himself a master of melody and the turn of a phrase. New track Try Love Instead adds a bit more crunch to the disc, a bluesy turn that would go well for his buddies in Big Sugar.

Ballantyne has lately been working with PEI's Tim Chaisson, no doubt a good move for that rising star. If he can save enough time for his own solo work, Ballantyne certainly deserves a wide audience.

Monday, March 23, 2015


Ron Hawkins has a bit of a disclaimer for folks.  Even though the veteran Canadian singer-songwriter's latest album features more acoustic and calmer versions of his songs than normal, he is not mellowing.  "I've read some reviews of the album, and that's what people have picked up on, because I turned 50 in November, and they think I'm calming down with this album," explains Hawkins from home in Toronto.

In fact, the situation leading to the recording of Garden Songs by Ron Hawkins and the Do Good Assassins was anything but an excess of calmness.  Hawkins has been exploding with songs with this new band, ever since the recording of the 2012 double-CD debut, Rome.  In his mind, the next album was going to be more of the same.  "It was a bit of a left turn, we had another record ready to make, another double album of raucous rock and roll, cinematic pop,  all set to go," says Hawkins.  "But this is my manager's idea, we had these four extra songs that didn't fit, more introspective.  I thought, maybe we'll make a four or five track EP, bid farewell to the country-soul aspect of the band right now.  But he said, 'Why don't you do this as a one-off, instead of making the next album a triple?'"

Next, manager William "Skinny" Tenn suggested going back to older material, and finding songs that might lend themselves to more laid-back arrangements, in new interpretations.  That meant Hawkins and the band tried out material from his previous solo work, as well as albums from his groups Lowest of the Low and The Rusty Nails.  Even Rome, recorded the most recently, saw two of its songs re-worked in this fashion.  "There's a song Propellors that was on the last album, and I never thought we got that quite right sonically," he admits.  "So this is more like I'd envisioned it I think."

Ironically, and happily, after releasing thirteen different albums in his 20-plus year career, Garden Songs is gaining him some of the best attention he's had since the Canadian classic debut from Lowest of the Low, Shakespeare My Butt.  Single Peace and Quiet (originally from 2007's Chemical Sounds) has made the CBC Radio 2 Top Ten.  It's quite a change for a guy who has faithfully toiled away while others have described him as one of the country's hidden gems.  "It's been a great thing," he says of the disc's acceptance.  "I come across this a lot, and it's hard for me to feel under-appreciated, I feel quite blessed in fact to be doing this for twenty years, I'm pretty damned pleased with how it came out.  But I've definitely seen a bump in album sales and audience attendance, with CBC playing a couple of singles.  People are calling me that I had to chase around before.  Incremental things, but I can notice the change."

Part of the attraction is the stripped-down delivery of the songs.  Hawkins' long-standing ability to spin a tale is now upfront in the mix, with his voice and lyrics gaining most of the attention.  He writes most of these in the first person, slices of life, mostly not his own, but full of moments with which we can relate.  "It's just the writer's thing," he says.  "You develop your ear to find the universal in all the little details.  You look at it a little different than other people.  I just look at the world, and think, what's to be learned from this story.  Some of them are a bit closer to me though.  There's a song on there called Saskia Begins, about a friend of mine, Mick Thomas from the Australian band Weddings Parties Anything.  He and his wife Jen had a baby but three months early.  The baby, Saskia, was in an incubator, and when I heard about it, I just had to sit down and write, I felt like I had to help, it was almost like fight or flight to me.  And later Jen told me they used to listen to it when they drove to see Saskia in the incubator."

It's also one of the songs that would have been out of place on that proposed raucous double-album.  It's still in the cards, of course, ready for the next go-round.  For now, Hawkins has the enjoyable problem of having to play more shows and work this collection, an album that wasn't even in the cards.  Ron Hawkins will be at The Carleton in Halifax Friday, March 27.

Sunday, March 22, 2015


Paxton is one of those guys whose songs have been with you a long time, whether you knew it was him or not. "Bottle of wine, fruit of the vine, when you gonna let me get sober," is a classic, and The Last Thing On My Mind is a folk song standard now. He had a great way with kids' songs: "It went zip when it moved and bop when it stopped and whirr when it stood still," is from The Marvelous Toy. He was writing his own material in Greenwich Village before Dylan came along, and has now released a stunning 62 albums in his career, which includes a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.

That's the history; the impressive current album sees him present thirteen new originals along with a traditional number, with his usual mix of topical, political, personal and fun. John Prine joins to sing a verse of Skeeters'll Gitcha (that would be the fun one). From the heart of the protest era that he helped create comes If The Poor Don't Matter, the answer to which is "then neither do I." Charmingly, he has a tune to celebrate his old pal Dave Van Ronk, hanging out in the Gaslight back in the day, in The Mayor Of Macdougal Street. Van Ronk, one of the best observers of the Great Folk Scare of the late '50's and early '60's, considered Paxton the guy who really got it all going, once he started writing new songs instead of singing the same old ones. He's still got it going, almost 60 years later.

Friday, March 20, 2015


From the Juno-winning Winnipeg alt-country group Nathan comes this side project, headed by singer Keri Latimer, along with her band mate/spouse/bassist Devin Latimer.  She's the driving force here, with off-kilter lyrics and other-worldly country and pop sounds, plus a sweetheart voice singing not-so-sweet subject matter.  Vultures circle overhead, squirrels are in the attic, there's a kiss in the toxic rain, and a town that hits 40-below at 4 AM.  Stuff is going on here.

Meanwhile, more stuff is happening in the music.  In the producer's chair was the formidable Steve Dawson, a master performer and sound-steward.  Dawson has no problem with the roots side of course, handling all the guitar, slide, pedal steel, etc., but also stretching everyone's perceptions of what the genre can offer.  Beds of mystery sounds back up Latimer's vocals at times, some doctored guitars, and even some theremin playing from the singer.  There's a sense of space throughout, all matching those enigmatic lyrics.  The most traditional song is actually a cover of The Handsome Family's Don't Be Scared.  The biggest surprise is a spacey cover of Bowie's The Man Who Sold The World.  Everything else comes from Latimer, including Healing Feeling, with it's plea, "Is there a doctor in the house?  Is there a poet in the crowd?  I think I'm dying but the bleeding is deep inside where reason hides."  Stuff is going on here. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Committed, uncompromising, and passionate, this is serious blues, at its base form. Throwing out all the unnecessary, Doo-Kingué presents her ace guitar playing and songwriting in this totally solo acoustic album. It's made up of nine hard-core numbers that look at everything from social injustices to prejudice to desire.

Those who think the blues can't tackle modern problems would learn a lot here. Doo-Kingué tears Vladimir Putin a new one over anti-gay legislation in Russia in the song Bloodstained Vodka, and in the process points out how little Western countries did during the Olympics in that country as well. Her unique upbringing adds to her lyrics; from NYC, of Cameroon parents, lived in France, and now Montreal, her multi-cultural, multi-lingual world view is one of compassion with an angry streak in all the right directions. Plus, you can hear it in her guitar playing as well, a world blues.

She's not the first person to step away from the band and make a solo acoustic record, but it's incredibly arresting coming from her. All the emotions she brings seem sharper in this setting, enough to make you blush when she gets personal, smile at her life-affirming moments, or join her in protest. And good news; this is the first of a trilogy.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015


Who else could start and end a song on a subtle jazz and bass groove, echoing Take Five, with the main part being a Celtic-flavoured tale of rough and tumble youth, called Laughs and Jokes and Drinks and Smokes? Knopfler is still making subtle tales, filled with moving musical moments, always memories of a special time. He just doesn't do it in a flashy way, nor with the name Dire Straits. But for my money, this is simply a continuation of what he's been about since Sultans of Swing. But he doesn't want his MTV anymore, no hype allowed.

He writes about river towns, boxers, old gamblers, great British characters and British cities a couple of generations ago. There are surprises too; one song (Lights of Taormina) seems to be about Dylan, observed from his days touring with him in the '80's, a traveling Emperor. Another is about the Liverpudlian author Beryl Bainbridge. Knopfler always gives us a fine story in these songs, using small details and moments. Beryl is about the writer winning the Booker Prize, but posthumously. A complementary number, Basil, eavesdrops on a grumbling newspaper writer, churning out copy for small wages, beneath his talents. We find out its the true story of poet Basil Bunting.

I like that the guitar heroics have been mostly abandoned. Now we get tasteful stuff always. He isn't overdoing the trademark licks either. When he does finally let loose on his well-known sound, on Beryl, it's even more effective, because it hasn't been overdone. In the Dire Straits years, there were probably music execs telling him to add more solos. Oh, and special bonus! Winnipeg's Ruth Moody, of the Wailin' Jennys gets full cover billing for her duet on the track Wherever I Go, continuing the run of guest appearances they have done on each other's recent albums. And make sure to buy the slightly pricier deluxe version of this album, the four extra cuts are just as strong as the rest, especially the wonderful Terminal of Tribute To.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Love might be the theme, but the first thing I thought of was soul classics. Whatever the topic, this is a pretty solid, if short, mixdisc of grand '60's and '70's soul hits, other than one clunker, thankfully at the very end. There's lots of Motown, natch, but a few nice surprises too.

Starting off, Natalie Cole's first hit, This Will Be (An Everlasting Love) from 1975 is a better song than I remembered, a fun way to begin. Things get serious fast, with a first hit of Motown magic. Happily, this aren't the usual selections, but still big hits and great tracks, starting with one of my very favourites, Stevie Wonder's amazing I Was Made To Love Her. That's followed up by a great Four Tops track, although not from their Motown tenure. Ain't No Woman (Like The One I've Got) was a hit just after they left Berry Gordy's leadership, and proved the magic was in the people, not the label. Then comes a classic Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell duet, You're All I Need To Get By. Those two truly did soar together.

But you know all that stuff, even if you don't own it all. The most fun comes from the rediscovery of old hits that don't get the oldies play others do. I always think about the disco era track Car Wash when Rose Royce get mentioned, but I Wanna Get Next To You has a lot more going for it, and rarely seen on compilations. The same goes for the Cornelius Brothers & Sister Rose cut Too Late To Turn Back Now, a nice piece of pop soul. Oh, if only the people who picked the tracks hadn't been seduced by the idea of ending with a smash ballad, a famous last waltz number, Three Times A Lady by The Commodores. It's the kind of treacle that gives R&B Love Classics a bad name in general, and just made me reach for the stop button three minutes early.

Sunday, March 15, 2015


Dramatic and melodic, Saskatchewan native Straker is a throw-back to days when a piano and sincerity ruled. Classically trained, there are lots of echoes of '60's and '70's pop, back when the writers, producers and arrangers worked at keyboards, looking for the right rhyme or change, what chord to end the middle eight with.

Straker isn't stuck in the past; I Wanna Go Back There is suitably stripped down, with an echoed beat behind it, and a bit of dark soul to go with it. But it's clear he's more concerned with substance than style. Choruses soar, piano accents are always impeccable, everything is ear-pleasing. I think the mix of ballads to uptempo tracks is off by a couple. The rolling number Like It's The Last One is one of the best here, a bit of a country-pop feel, almost like a Glen Campbell single. It's all classy though.

Saturday, March 14, 2015


Another collection from the early rock 'n' roll days, similar to yesterday's review feature (Happy Days), and from the same label, the U.K.'s Sure Shot. This one concentrates a lot more on the hits however. Some of the very biggest are here, including Rock Around The Clock, Runaway, La Bamba, and Blue Suede Shoes. There are a couple of non-original versions, later recordings by the same artists, which are annoying at times, but these are both good quality, Little Richard's Good Golly Miss Molly and Bill Haley's Shake, Rattle and Roll. There are a lot worse transgressions on many of these compilations, so it's not a deal-breaker.

There are a few surprises, chief among them the version of Summertime Blues chosen. Of all the many hits and covers, it comes from obscure Kentucky rockbilly dude Rusty York, in a non-charting version. I love the fact we get the first version of The Twist, Hank Ballard's originator before the weaker Chubby Checker smash. Skip & Flip's Cherry Pie isn't very common on these type of sets, so that's a plus, as is Little Anthony's Shimmy, Shimmy, Ko-Ko-Bop. I sniff a little at the several typos in the booklet (Cherrie instead of Cherry, Safaris instead of The Surfaris, the makers of Wipe Out), but it doesn't hurt the music.

Friday, March 13, 2015


A well-stacked, 30-track compilation of '50's and very early '60's cuts, to match the iconic TV show name associated with that time.  I'd say hits, but some of these border on the obscure, even if they did chart way back then.  It's a funny mix, with such genuine classics as Ain't That A Shame by Fats Domino and The Twist by Chubby Checker sitting alongside Fool, Fool, Fool by The Clovers and Bobby Helms' Tennessee Rock 'N' Roll.  The lesser-known outnumber the major hits, with Be Bop a Lula by Gene Vincent here, but also his rarer Lotta Lovin'.

I like it when the people behind a compilation go to greater lengths than the obvious.  There are lots of great instrumental hits from the era, but you rarely hear 1957's Raunchy by Bill Justice, often cited as the first "twangy" guitar on record.   The typical selection for Freddie Cannon would be Palisades Park or perhaps Tallahassie Lassie, but somebody came up with his version of Irving Berlin's Blue Skies, from Cannon's 1962 album Sings Happy Shades Of Blue.  And it's good.  It's the rare compilation that includes a cut from Windsor, Ontario-born Jack Scott, who had a pile of Top 40 hits in that era, but it's too bad it's one of his sappiest ballads (and biggest numbers), Burning Bridges, there are much better rockabilly cuts from him.  Paul Anka had a couple of dozen 50's hits to pick, so the dreadful My Hometown (#8, 1959) is a miss. 

For all the thoughtful work that went into choosing the rare tracks, sometimes there is no distinction made between quality (Billy Bland's Let The Little Girl Dance) and novelty (Pineapple Princess by Annette Funicello).  There's odd repetition too, with four of the songs big hits of Fats Domino (Blueberry Hill, I'm Walkin') and three cuts from Bill Haley, but none of his hits.  I can't figure this one out really, but the good outweighs the bad, the hard-to-find outweigh the repeats in your collection.  If you collect this time period, I'd go for it.

Thursday, March 12, 2015


The last few years have been turbulent times for Les chiens d'or. They hit the glass ceiling for indie bands in the 2000's, loved by a core group and their peers (Feist, Zeus) but not breaking out of that circuit. After their third album, 2010's Coat Of Arms, leaders/couple Dave Azzolini and Jessica Grassia found themselves without band mates, and without a clue how to proceed. Dissolution, re-branding, career changes, everything was on the table.

Luckily, the music won out, with the pair working away to rekindle their interest, and in the process redefining the band. Grassia switched from keys to drums, and two new members were added. In this new mini-album of just under a half-hour, the trademark energy is there, The set opens with a funky psych-out, Decided, Do It For You sees Grassia compliment her pounding with distorted power pop. Elsewhere, all sorts of feedback, synths and sound sections get offered up. One cut ends with a Brian Wilson/SMiLE kind of coda, another features a volume assault, and Azzolini and Grassia sing the loudest harmonies going. The Golden Dogs are revitalized, and then some.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015


Remember when Green Day used to be a punk band? Yes youngsters, way before American Idiot and rock operas and mega-millions, they started out in Northern California in the late '80's, in a DIY scene that soon blossomed and produced others such as Rancid, The Offspring and Sublime. Oh, and The Lookouts, we can't forget them. Not because they became famous, but because that's where future Green Day drummer Tré Cool came from.

Back then, he certainly was a punk, just 12 years old when he started playing with the band. The Lookouts story is unique, as these were kids who were living in an off-the-grid community in the California wilderness, no power, and no punk rock before they got going. They actually did have to use solar power to run rehearsals, and eventually got good enough to head to the Berkeley area where like-minded kids were getting together. Also in the band was Larry Livermore, who would go on to form a record label, and release the first Green Day album. Down in Berkeley, the band made friends with the group Operation Ivy, whose members included Tim Armstrong (Rancid) and Billie Joe Armstrong (you know who).

The Lookouts recorded a couple of very indie albums, the usual compilation tracks and a couple of EP's. For the first time, the best of the bunch have been compiled and released on this set. It includes cameos with both of the Armstrong boys, making it historically valuable. And there's significant quality among the 24 tracks as well. The pop-punk influences typical of that scene are there, and even though they started out young and clueless, they picked up some chops and ideas quickly. Every song has been put together well, they don't just thrash because they don't have any other tricks. The best songs have some sarcasm, including California/Mendocino, where they remind us "the beach is just the most and the surf is really wild," but by the end of the song are asking "Do I have to stay here all my life?" In a song Cool wrote, That Girl's From Outer Space, he falls in love with an alien with a hundred heads and eyes of red. Like you do. It ain't the Holy Grail, but there's fun for punk fans for sure.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015


For those who find Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings too modern! Horsefly, B.C.'s pride and joy are immersed in the folk tradition, searching out rare old stuff, or writing vintage-styled work themselves. Then there's the whole banjo business, Jason being a master craftsman, Pharis handling the inlay and graphic design. You couldn't make this couple up if it weren't perfectly true.

This is their third album, and a little broader than the previous two, as they have welcomed some guests, adding a bit of fiddle, bass, drums and pedal steel to the proceedings, usually just their own guitar, banjo and harmonies. Fear not, it just adds a dimension really, and doesn't place them anywhere near the 21st century. Pharis certainly has the knack for old-time lyrics, plain-spoken and powerful: "It's a wicked world when you're all alone/It's a wicked and mean old place." Her lonesome and sad voice cuts across your heart in her timeless tales.

The older material leaves some room for fun. It's also more obscure than your usual covers, the Romeros digging a little deeper than most. It's a Sin to Tell a Lie they picked up from the Steve Martin movie Pennies From Heaven, although it's an old Fats Waller and Billie Holiday song, among others. Best is Cocaine Blues, credited to one Luke Jordan back in 1927, possibly the first-ever coke song, and a real toot, er, hoot. This makes me really uninterested in the new Mumfords album.

Monday, March 9, 2015


Since putting his long-time alias of Snailhouse out to pasture, Mr. Feuerstack has concentrated on more conventional, pop-acquainted singer/songwriter fare, to fine results.  Now, nobody is rushing to the dance floor here, but there's a beat you can sway to, if the music is largely calm and contemplative.  Still, numbers such as Receiver and The Devil have some indie spark.  But there are far more pleasant sounds here than noisy ones, and a refreshing gentleness.  The whole thing sounds like a hug.

The insights inside are a little more edgy, with his slightly askew lyrics:  "Mother tongue, she always eats her young."  You're never quite sure if Feuerstack is positive or negative, particularly about love.  In his song, he has to point out that Cupid's arrows aren't meant to kill, but that doesn't mean they don't hurt, and the dude is a bit sadistic:  "He just wants to see you dance."  In all this pleasing music, there are a lot of negative words, almost to balance out the pretty.  So there you go, it sounds great and makes you think.

Friday, March 6, 2015


A great voice, great producer, great band, great material, what could go wrong?  In this case, not a thing, as Toronto's Miss Robin Banks shows her stuff with the help of the masterful Duke Robillard.  Modern Classic is an apt title, as Banks' compositions harken back to days when a vocalist owned the bandstand and your ears.  There's some swing, some blues, some R'n'B, jazz, even country, all vintage.  Robillard brought along his stinging guitar, and his stellar band mates, especially those great Roomful of Blues horn men, and long-time baritone sax specialist Doug "Mr. Low" James.  You don't want Banks to stop singing, but when she does pause, it's just as sweet.

The secret weapon here, and what's perhaps even more impressive than her vocal chops, is her songwriting.  Jumping effortlessly from style to style, Banks hits each retro button bang-on.  Some Day Soon is small combo jazz that swings up a storm, with such a spark you just tipped the cigarette girl five bucks.  I'll Meet You There takes us into 70's Memphis soul, as the horns channel the Hi guys.  A Man Is Just A Man is a fun mash-up of styles not unlike what Nick Lowe does to 50's sounds, with an equally-clever lyric:  "Much like a bus, another one will be right along."  This is sophisticated, fun and expertly performed by all.

Thursday, March 5, 2015


Thumbing her nose at the Jazz Police, Krall has made a full-on, orchestrated pop album, almost entirely of 70's radio hits, piano ballads for the most part.  And she doesn't even play that piano; instead, it's the producer...(pause for the sound of jaw-dropping), David Foster.  Jazz?  Not a drop of it.  There's even a Buble duet.  A Carpenters song.  And two Eagles tunes.  And no, she wasn't captured by aliens or Stephen Harper, Krall says she wanted to make this album, these songs are as much a part of her as jazz.  We're not far apart in age, and I get that, I have just as big a soft spot for 10cc's I'm Not In Love, Desperado, and Sorry Seems To Be The Hardest Word.  But she is crossing a big line, and not just the one placed by music snobs and jazz purists.  There's a commercial one as well, and this is the kind of album that seems more in line with Rod Stewart's Great American Songbook series, grand money-makers that those were.

Let's look at the choices;  I Can't Tell You Why by The Eagles, the Elton song, Jim Croce's Operator, California Dreamin', The Beatles' In My Life as a bonus cut.  All that's missing is Halle-fuckin'-lujah, and a Hallmark card.  There are a few interesting ones that get us out of the middle of the road, such as the title cut, an obscure Dylan number, and Randy Newman's Feels Like Home, which is done as a duet with Bryan Adams.  What, Sting busy?  Maybe she didn't want to stretch, maybe she just wanted to say, simply, I can do this stuff and do it well.  And it's okay to like it.  Okay, I'll concede that point.  But surely a few more surprises is not asking much.

One thing that does stand out is her voice.  She clearly has a passion for this romantic, melodic style, and hearing her on these very familiar numbers is at times a revelation.  She kicks Buble butt on Gilbert O'Sullivan's Alone Again (Naturally), and even helps point out the sophistication of the lyrics in The Eagles' tunes.  There, I praised The Eagles, what a giveaway.  I'm a 70's pop weenie, and truth be told, get more out of this album than Krall's jazz stuff.  Happy now Diana?  I just shot my credibility for you.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015


Never a pop singer, despite a couple of big hits along the way, de Burgh doesn't stray too far from his story-telling style, with lots of drama and swelling music, a little romance, and PBS-style Celtic music. On his 20th album, that's still the key, although he also tackles aging as well. Smart move, his audience is doing that as well. That's not a shot, that's the reality, and there's nothing wrong with keeping things real.

A couple of the songs directly refer to families growing up, realizing you're not a kid anymore, and neither are your kids. Where Would I Be? speaks to a lifetime partner, perhaps The Lady In Red now grown older, the singer wondering what would have become of him without her in his life. Empty Rooms takes on the empty nest syndrome, reminding those grown kids the same love follows them out the door. It isn't all tears and retirement though; Letting Go is about the need for them to go crazy still, every once in a while, and it rocks a bit.

On the other side, de Burgh comes up with a couple of his historic tales, in the vein of Don't Pay The Ferryman. The Ghost Of Old King Richard refers to a holy relic stolen from the imprisoned Lionheart. The Holy Grail perhaps? The Bridge is about a pledge between two lovers, brought back together years later. Correctly identifying the period referenced in The Fields of Agincourt will get you an A in Grade 11 history. This is Chris de Burgh as you like it.

Monday, March 2, 2015


Well whaddya know? Another surprise from Earle, who has thrown us many curve balls over the years. This one isn't as radical as the loops he used a couple of albums back, but sure enough, it's different. It's a full-on blues album, music and themes. But with this one, it feels a lot more natural, another part of his roots background, and the real surprise is that he hasn't done more in the past, because it's that good.

Earle has been exposed to the blues all along, from his Texas upbringing, to the blues side of all the hurt and heartache he's gone through in his life. It's there in songs such as Better Off Alone, a break-up song with the admission "I'm going to miss you when you're gone, but I'm better off alone." Earle understands the mythology as well, conjuring up his own deal with the devil story in The Tennessee Kid, another guitar slinger who gave up his soul in a foolish deal. Then there's the epic King Of The Blues, "descended directly from St. John the Conqueroo." Earle knows the blues in-depth, and knows how to have fun with it too.

Really, he didn't have to change his sound much either. The Dukes let the electricity and guitar flow a bit more, and the bluegrass is put away for the time being. But the blues have influenced Earle's music going back to Copperhead Road, so fans shouldn't have any issues at all. In fact, it's one of his most focused and enjoyable sets, and that's saying a lot.

Sunday, March 1, 2015


More pop noir from Canada's coolest couple, Luke Doucet and Melissa McClelland. Expanding on the sound of the previous The Fate of the World Depends on This Kiss, everything gets drums and bass now, but it's still the centered around the core strengths of the duo: co-lead vocals, big and strong guitar playing, and everything drenched in echo.

Mystery, sadness, hints of worse are dotted throughout the songs. Lead cut Baby What's Wrong? asks the question to a lover who has a dark secret. Downtown is the polar opposite of Petula Clark's '60's version of hip urban living; instead Whitehorse sings "I live in downtown, and it's killing me." Sweet Disaster is a tribute to a bad-news lover. In You Get Older, there's panic, confusion and bruised knuckles.

Amid all the mystery, irony, hurt feelings and worse, these are still love songs, just for a complicated and real world. There is room for some fun though, and the album ends on upbeat numbers. Oh Dolores might feature "the queen of pain," but she sure can rock. Closing track The Walls Have Drunken Ears is a rockabilly number that goes through a few quick phases with some Beatles musical references, kind of like a mini-Abbey Road. This is smart, sexy, superbly crafted and harmony-heavy, an album with so much to enjoy.