Thursday, April 30, 2015


Randy Bachman will certainly try almost anything on the guitar.  He's done jazz albums, collaborative work, country-rock, hard rock, instrumentals, British Invasion, and pop, just to name a few.  He's collaborated, lead bands, gone solo, produced and reunited.  The one constant is his desire to have whatever he's doing be a hit in some chart or measurement.  When something seems to be done its course, he'll move onto the next, secure in the knowledge he's done it before, he might do it again this time.

This time, hard blues guitar is the game.  Leading a thundering power trio, Bachman crashes through a set of originals, handling all the lead vocals and most of the guitar.  He does hand over parts to pals and stars, including Neil Young, Joe Bonamassa, Luke Doucet from Whitehorse, Robert Randolph and an archival appearance by the late Jeff Healey.  The drums pound, the bass rumbles, and the guitar is mostly nasty and loud.  Thanks to the varied sounds of the guest soloists, things never get boring.  Oh My Lord, despite its hellish crunch, takes on a gospel vibe, especially when Robert Randolph does a sacred steel blitz through his solo.  Neil Young sounds just like Neil Young should on Little Girl Lost, the Crazy Horse version.

Previously, Bachman's hardest sounds were featured in the '70's sounds of BTO, but they always had pop and even jazz in the mix, and were only as metallic as Top 40 radio would allow.  This is the real deal, and Bachman actually gave up a lot of control to get there.  He's been in charge of his sound since The Guess Who days, but here he let hard rock icon producer Kevin Shirley (Jimmy Page & the Black Crowes, Iron Maiden, Aerosmith) work up his tricks.  Drummer Dali Anna Brindon and bass player Anna Ruddick make a mighty noise and bring guts to the project.  Bachman might not get back to number one here, but he'll sure make a lot of noise among guitar fans, and maybe wander down another rewarding path, at least for awhile.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015


A generous collection made up of three discs, breaking down Clapton into his three main categories: Disc one tackles the pop-rock hits, disc two his live releases, and the third covering the blues. But before you start humming I Shot The Sheriff, know that this is only from his later career once he joined forces with Reprise Records through his own Duck label. That era starts in 1983, with the I've Got A Rock 'N' Roll Heart single, right up to 2013's Old Sock album. So, no original Cream cuts, no Lay Down Sally, and the Layla you get is the live, Unplugged acoustic version.

Let's leave the question of what era is the best for Clapton, you can supplement this set with any number of best-of's and boxes that cover the '60's and '70's if you don't have it already. The real decision here is how much value there is in his second-half, the past thirty-plus years. The studio disc offers mellow highlights My Father's Eyes, Tears In Heaven and Change The World, plus the delightful collaboration with B.B. King, Ridin' With The King. But beefing up the content to CD length proves a bit problematic, with so-so singles Bad Love, Forever Man and Pretending more formula than inspiration. One plus is the inclusion of Clapton's version of Call Me The Breeze from the tribute album he curated last year in honour of J.J. Cale.

The live disc is made up of tracks from four different Clapton concert albums over the years, and allows for some of his old hits to get included here. From 1991's Royal Albert Hall shows come a trio of Cream numbers, Badge, Sunshine Of Your Love and White Room. A reunion tour with his Blind Faith pal Steve Winwood in 2008 give us Them Changes and Presence Of The Lord. This is perhaps the most valuable of the discs, as only the craziest Claptonites would have his many live sets, and it's good to get this overview. There's even a live Cocaine previously only available to fanclub members.

The blues set collects cuts from several different albums, although the Robert Johnson cover versions he did for the 2004 albums Me and Mr. Johnson and Sessions for Robert J feature heavily. Still, you'll find blues tracks on pretty much every one of his albums, and cuts from 1989's Journeyman, 1994's From The Cradle and 2010's Clapton all show up. Given the spotty nature of disc one, I'd say given the evidence here, Clapton still shines best doing the blues.

Here's where I stand on this material, and the last 30 years of Clapton: The best albums he made are collaborations with friends, such as the B.B. King one, and The Road To Escondido with J.J. Cale. Get those, plus maybe the Robert Johnson discs, and Unplugged if you are so inclined. All the rest are okay to weak, and you'll probably be able to fill in all the blanks you need with this collection.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


A simple but emotional piano tune starts the recording, played well enough, a little clunky but serviceable.  A voice starts up after a bit, a soft balladeer reminiscent of any number of 70's pop singers, people like Gilbert O'Sullivan and Jonathan Edwards, good-hearted and ear-pleasing.  The piano stays the main instrument, with some light synth string voices behind.  In its simplicity, we're being introduced to a smart new songwriter with good old instincts.

Tobias Jesso Jr. comes from Vancouver, and spent several years as a backing musician in L.A., a bass player.  He started playing piano just a couple of years ago, which accounts for the unseasoned form, but that's part of the charm, as is the affable voice.  The power though, is in the melodies.  Jesso, who claims not to have been familiar with any of the 70's icons he's compared to (Nilsson, Badfinger, etc.), seems to have innocently stumbled on what's been missing in pop music for awhile.  Simple, honest writing combined with pleasing music.

Retro?  That's a tough call.  There's no attempt to sound old.  For You, a track mostly just piano, also has thundering, very modern drums.  Yet Crocodile Tears could be on Paul McCartney's Ram album, even with its wacky, off-kilter guitar solo and abrupt ending.  I think the biggest retro part of the album is the piano, whether acoustic or electric, an instrument long out of fashion.  

Jesso will get better on the piano, and this album will make him bigger.  Adele is already tweeting about him, so that's guaranteed now.  And it's deserved, it's the best new thing I've heard all year.  He'll probably move on from all the ballads and the simple production, and it sounds like he's a strong enough writer to be interesting for a long time.  But right here, right now, this is a much-needed album, perhaps even one that will set a new course.

Monday, April 27, 2015


Yoakam's been active but not exactly sizzling over the past few years, but this feels like he's been re-energized.  It's a stirring collection of songs that show how his style has evolved into a singular sound.  For a guy who was once Bakersfield redux, Yoakam is now pretty much his own genre, not part of any one field, and certainly not what passes for country now.  He also no longer sounds like country back then, either.

What Yoakam does is deliver an amalgam of licks, tricks and songwriting that blends some twang with pop and rock hooks.  Cut two here, She, is really a power pop number, complete with jangly guitar.  There are rich harmonies to counter his drawl.  Dreams of Clay is Elvis, the Suspicious Minds era.  In other places, it's Beatles songwriting, but played country.  In Another World plays like an Orbison number, but a ringing piano hints at pop roots, and then some Beach Boys' oo-weee-oo vocals take it back across the pop charts. 

You can't call this alt-country, or roots rock, or anything else I can think of.  It has the rhythm guitar excitement of Tom Petty's best hits, but transplanted into a California Cowboy.  It's one of Yoakam's very best, too.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


One of Canada's greatest songwriters and hit makers of the late '60's and '70's, Kim is the answer to three or four pub trivia questions: Who hit #1 with Rock Me Gently in 1974? What Canadian co-wrote The Archies' smash Sugar Sugar? Dig a little deeper and you'll find some true pop gems, including his solo debut How'd We Ever Get This Way, and his pair of Ronettes re-makes, Baby, I Love You and Be My Baby.

It's no wonder most don't know him today though. Here's a guy with a dozen Billboard chart hits, including seven top 40 singles, yet there is no decent greatest hits collection available, hardly anything in fact. The sporadic times he has reappeared from the 80's on have led to nothing, despite strong work, and that's just not the way it should be for such a quality artist, especially here at home.

Perhaps this set will change things. This time he has a hip name and label championing him. Kevin Drew of Broken Social Scene has brought him into the Arts & Crafts label folk, writing with Kim and co-producing the album. It's modern, dreamy pop, slow and rich and melodious. Another great fan, Ron Sexsmith, co-wrote one of the very best songs here, Why Can't I, a lush, sad, inward-looking number, with Drew's wispy clouds of ambiance surrounding the track.

There's one giant nod to Kim's past; After a brief snippet of the original version of his bouncy 1968 hit Shoot 'em Up, Baby, a new take on the song starts up. Now it fits with the rest of the album, with a rich orchestral opening, a much slower tempo and a cushion of sound rather than a wall. If you didn't know the original, and most now don't, you'd never know the age of the song. And you surely would never say this artist is anything but contemporary.

Friday, April 24, 2015


A new low in fidelity, but a Dead Sea Scrolls for British blues fans.  A legendary incarnation of John Mayall's Bluesbreakers, this band existing for only three months, before Peter Green, Mick Fleetwood and John McVie scuppered off to form Fleetwood Mac.  No high quality recordings were ever made of the band, but one fan from Holland did follow them around London for five shows with a basic mono reel-to-reel tape deck.  He just set up in the clubs and recorded, and not very well.  Vocals are muffled, there's little colour or clarity, and that's after much modern restoring.

The real excitement here is hearing Peter Green in a blues guitar hero setting.  Each night, he had to hold the spot that Eric Clapton had filled before, during the "Clapton is God" era, and prove himself the equal.  He's up for the challenge, never laying back, being the fast-fingered master on Looking Back, holding the sad notes on So Many Roads, accented with slashes and stabs.

For what we can hear of Mayall, he sounds like a killer front man, and perhaps his reputation has been neglected over the years as more focus has been on his famous sidemen.  This is easily a set I'd be thrilled with seeing today, peppered with Otis Rush and Freddie King numbers, the players seriously in synch.  I've heard much better bootlegs, but not many better performances.

Thursday, April 23, 2015


This is wilder and more experimental, but just as damn catchy as the band's breakthrough debut.  Still hearts full of soul, the band chops it up and takes the music in directions previously inconceivable.  Hearing the nasty, fuzzy guitar turn into clock chimes at the end of Dunes is the smallest, yet coolest example of innovation and surprise on the disc.

The weapon that is Brittany Howard is even more powerful here.  Her performance on Gimme All Your Love is a showstopper, a classic vocal that is part Etta James, part Macy Gray, which builds and builds in intensity each time the chorus is given back to her. Wonderfully, the songs never stay still.  What starts out as a ballad will morph into something funky.  The goal seems to be to never play it straight.  But even with these delightful and odd turns, you can still hear the basics of the song and style.  Guess Who would make a great Philly soul number. with its driving rhythm guitar chords and melodic bass line, but here come some outer space strings and fractured percussion.

The Greatest is the wildest cut here, as somehow the group has turned it into a punk tune.  On a soul album.  That's what success can do for you sometimes, give you the confidence to go farther, to throw away the rules.  A triumph.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015


Gruff-voiced and noir-tinged, Ottawa-area troubadour Zeman is at home in a folk setting but is equally edgy. He's a story-teller, an observer who sings real-life struggles about characters you care about.

10 Year Fight is shot through with sadness, about a father who has seen his family torn apart. With a mournful cello behind, it's like early Tom Waits. But then Zeman turns up the volume, adds slide guitar, a hard smack from the drums, and Drop Your Bucket puts the alternative in roots music. Now he's Springsteen in a bad mood. Closing tune Everybody Loves Elvis is an emotional gut punch about the power of music, where Zeman wants to know what kind of song plays on your radio; "Does it steal away your breath, does it knock you off your feet, does it blow your hair back, or make your heart skip a beat?"

That's the kind of song that plays on my radio.

Monday, April 20, 2015


As much as I love the beautiful melodies and harmonies of Brian Wilson, the syrup is way too thick on this collection.  Attempting to be part of the modern pop world, the 72-year old gives it a go with guests Nate Ruess of .fun, Kacey Musgraves, Sabu and She & Him, with everything from dance to country in the mix.  Nothing takes off, and the songs are all mediocre at best.  Wilson himself sounds pretty good, his voice at the strongest its been since his comeback, but this is sterile and bland. 

Writing with Joe Thomas, who has been involved in many of Wilson's project over the past 25 years, including the recent Beach Boys reunion album, seems to be one of the chief problems.  These are just minor-league efforts, with hack lyrics.  Seriously, they make Kokomo sound like Good Vibrations.  Every once in a while, touches of Wilson's instrumental genious comes through, but it's no surprise that the best song here is an instrumental, Half Moon Bay.  It's nice that Beach Boys colleagues David Marks, Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin contribute, and certainly Jardine sounds the best he has in many years, but it's pointless to sound great on a dumb song. 

Somewhere Quiet is a return to the old 50's/Four Freshman sound which influenced Wilson in the first place, and it works pretty well.  I wonder if he could have made a Sinatra album such as Dylan just did?  Really though, Capitol's Don Was, who has worked with Wilson several times before, should have put a halt to these proceedings and told Wilson it just wasn't worth it to his reputation.  And what happened to those sessions Wilson did with Jeff Beck a couple of years back, anyway?  Could they have been worse?  This smells like everybody wanted to have this album out before the well-reviewed Wilson biopic Love and Mercy hits theatres in June. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015


In the folk tradition, the older and more obscure the song, the better. And if you happen to discover a long-lost song, that's a treasure. Imagine finding out about an entire genre, with a century of recordings and a rich, obscure history waiting to be popularized? Man, every Avett brother and Lomax son would be drooling.

That's what Kevin Breit did with his 2012 album Field Recording, introducing us to the ancient and still-active players of the Upper York Mandolin Orchestra, under the guidance of the great Thomas Dooley, third-generation leader of a grand band of mandolin, mandola, and mandocello players. The rich, wonderful sounds of those antique and beautiful wooden works of art rang through the disc, delicious chords and spectacular trills and thrills from the massed strings.

Except not a whit of it was true. The orchestra was all Breit, as was the conceit. But the album was all real, and the real deal too. He had conceived of something new, a special sound of mandolins (and acoustic bass) leaning precipitously on the edge, dipping back and forth between the past and present, history and fact, today's musical smarts and yesterday's beauty.

So that's why one of North America's premiere guitar innovators (think Tom Waits as a guitar player rather than a singer) is still firing away on eight and more strings. This time, it's a double album, two distinct parts, with two different stories to tell. Ernesto is the continuation of the collaboration between Dooley and Breit, but this time on a trip to Rio. Dooley, it seems, has finally succeeded in acquiring the rights to the great Brazilian composer Ernesto Ciari's work. This disc is all instrumental.

Delilah is, surprisingly, all true. It's an album of duets with the similarly-talented Toronto vocalist Rebecca Jenkins, a collaboration much on Breit's mind for some time. Here he pairs his quirky charms with a willing participant. The delightful stories are full of rich tales and characters such as Murderous Dimitri and Henry Marx, playing the marxophone of course. Once again history and present day merge. Then's there's the rather other-worldly sensation caused by listening to two albums of mandolin music. I doubt Breit is bold enough to suggest he's invented new folk music, so I'll do it for him.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Kaia Kater is one of the rising stars in traditional folk comes from Toronto via Quebec, playing North American banjo music from both sides of the border. With a mix of old-time and original tunes, it's hard to tell which is 19th century and which is all hers.

Kater is just 21, and has already absorbed the Appalachian style, that haunting and sorrowful form of traditional ballad, with roots as deep as they go. Even her lyrics reflect the old speech patterns, on numbers such as When Sorrows Encompass Me Round. Although she's made a study of the Appalachian style (even going to school in West Virgina), she's one of the few to bring Canada into the equation. Here she sings in french on the traditional Quebec song En filant ma Quenouille,

On her instrumentals, Kater picks and trills along, best at dueling with producer Chris Bartos on fiddle. Other than those instruments and voices, there is just the occasional touch of the modern, a production effect here and there. Kater seems already accomplished; it will be grand to watch her grow over the next few years, to see where her gifts take her.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015


The Sun Harmonic is one of the many projects for Toronto-based Kaleb Hikele. He`s led rock bands, been a folk performer, and helped create an artist collective, as well as solidifying his creative empire by building a downtown studio. Now, he returns to his first instrument, the piano, to create this body of songs on the new set After We Fly.

It`s actually a sampler for a bigger work to come, a wide-ranging double album he`s preparing for 2016, called Winter. So this has the alternate title of 8 Winter Songs. How snowy the whole thing gets remains to be recorded, but for now After We Fly is a tempting treat. Hikele knows full well how to make modern, delicious tracks, rich in melody and intricately composed. What he avoids here is the temptation to chop it all up and dose it in trickery and finery. Instead, each song has as its main instrument the piano, so sadly out of fashion in most genres. Yet here it is in all its glory, chords and triplets and trills and tremolos.

That's not to say he doesn't embellish; there are lots more instruments, even some effects, but those glorious melodies came straight from the old Joanna. He introduces jazz moves, classical ideas, and lush pop, with cello, trumpet, and a grand chorus of voices among the guests. With a fine, soothing voice as well, Hikele has done wonders for the piano player.