Sunday, August 30, 2015


Finally, after a few tries, The Strokes Albert Hammond Jr. gives us the record we thought should be in there. Free from the restrictions of the band, one would assume he'd chase those secret pop dreams, but he's held back on past solo work. With Momentary Masters, there are lots of little gems where he revels in big melodies and power chords.

A little glam, a lot of power pop, and great guitar sounds fill the set. Touche lifts off with nasty notes, the kind of lead guitar Bowie filled his late 70's work with. All the songs are energetic, with lots of drive and no real concern to do anything except jam as many great chords in as possible. Bravo.

Perhaps the most fun is the notable cover, Dylan's Don't Think Twice (It's Alright). Most people are afraid to mess with the big guy too much, but here Hammond gives the song an eerie guitar in the background, and a rather chipper upgrade. It's cocky and fun, like the whole album.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015


The popular HBO series is known for its music, as supervised by the one and only T Bone Burnett, soundtrack wiz (O Brother Where Art Thou, Nashville, etc.). Each episode is packed with mood-appropriate music, causing fans to rush to their computers to find out just who that was singing. There can be as much talk about which songs are used as there is about plot points.

It's surprising it took this long for a soundtrack to come out, given the clamor by fans, and the amount used in each show. They could have had a half-dozen volumes by now. Since there was so much to choose from, this collection will polarize fans as well, just as much as the debate over the quality of season two.

Everybody loved season one's theme song, from The Handsome Family, Far From Any Road, and it's here, as is the more controversial choice for the second season, Leonard Cohen's Nevermind. A lot of the disc is given over to cast member Lera Lynn, five songs. She's also a recording artist, and Burnett chose her as a co-writer for the series, along with Rosanne Cash, to come up with these tunes. Some are very powerful, including A Church In Ruins, but she's not the most striking performer, I'm surprised at her choice. There's probably a ton of available talent who would die for the gig, even established stars, and a more evocative voice would have left a stronger mark.

By using all these original songs, there's not a lot of room for the many strong choices from the series. At least the real score Burnett arranged does find a home here. Back in 1963, Bob Dylan made a last-minute line-up change to his second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan. Just before it came out, four songs were dropped, in favour of stronger, newer material including Masters of War and Girl From the North Country. The song Rocks and Gravel has stayed in the archives until it was used in the first-ever episode of True Detective last year, and now finally shows up in a place we can buy it. That alone is reason enough to grab this, and with other strong material from Nick Cave, Father John Misty and Cassandra Wilson, it's a worthy set. Still, it could have been much better. Vol. 2 anyone?

Monday, August 24, 2015


A first solo album without the Nocturnals, but did anyone ever consider the group anything but a Grace Potter vehicle?  Perhaps she felt the band named tied her to the soul/blues/jam crowd which originally turned her into a festival star, but that same group has been seeing her change over the past couple of albums for better or worse.  Here's the full transition now, with lots of pop and dance beats, and enough hooks to make Carly Rae proud.

Now, I'm not saying she's gone teeny-bop here, but certainly those fans who followed her ripping blues riffs on guitar or big soul chords on organ are going to be confused by the funky bass line and synth burble on Your Girl.  It is actually a nice little Prince-styled number, and Potter sings this stuff with lots of energy and conviction.  But when it's sitting on the album beside a killer track such as Empty Heart, with its stompin' R'n'B and Rolling Stones grooves and gospel choir, it's hard for the old fans to let go of the old direction.  We're just going to have to accept that there's now a bigger part of her that wants to chase a modern pop dream for now, and maybe we should loosen up a little and accept her dance moves too.

Sunday, August 23, 2015


Erickson is a mezzo soprano, composer and pianist from Thunder Bay, where she teaches music at Lakehead University. Her interests range from classical to traditional styles, world music, cabaret and folk. While most accomplished vocalists pursue that specialty, Erickson writes the majority of the collection here, and provides the grand piano, the lead instrument in the small orchestra on The Raven's Wing.

Poetic and romantic, the songs feature a nod to grand Gaelic ballads. The emotional path introduces us to characters fair and tender, with hearts strong enough to make sorrows drop away. Love is equal to, and another element here, standing strong in the wind, traveling long journeys on the sea, growing new with springtime. The language is modern, but the form is that of centuries past; "Dark is the raven's wing/My love is darker still."

Erickson is joined by double-bassist Joe Phillips, who also arranged the string section of Drew Jurecka (violin) and Amy Laing (cello), and in yeoman service, provides the inspired classical guitar in the middle of the collection, for Woman of Valour and Come All Your Fair Ones, the latter a new arrangement of the traditional song. These two songs share more than the guitar; they are the plucky centerpiece to the album, songs of great strength amidst the swirling emotions, letting us know these are not lightweight hearts or songs, just beautiful ones, the strongest ones of course.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015


Talk about your extensive liner notes! Aymar's latest, a live one, doesn't have a booklet, it has a book. Yes, a real, full-length, full-sized book. Actually, it's more of a case of the book also including a CD, but whatever. It's the best way to take in everything Aymar does. He's a storyteller, writing, singing, or in person.

The collection came about as an extension of what Aymar has been doing the past while, writing down his stories and observations in blog postings. The project took on a bigger scope earlier this year when friends found a great-sounding church where he could record with an audience. Everything was in place.

As a songwriter, Aymar shines best when he's telling you tale soaked in big truths. He's learned these the hard way, touring the country endlessly, playing off the beaten path on purpose, and finding the best people that way. In fact, he's even given up any idea of a home, other than the road. He's become the modern troubadour, at home everywhere and nowhere officially.

With the book, you get even more insight into what makes him tick, and what Canada is about. When Aymar inevitably runs into a deer on the highway, a series of great-hearted people come to his aid, just because they are decent, and because they are in a position to help. We drop into every province and territory with him, and start to understand what it is that drives Aymar and his fellow touring musicians to keep going, to bring their talents to the people who appreciate them.

If you're one of the many semi-pros that share some of the spirit, Aymar even includes the sheet music to the album tunes. And there are guests, both in print and on disc. The terrific young Toronto singer Jadea Kelly takes the lead on Always In Her Dreams, while legendary promoter and publicist Richard Flohil contributes a chapter on the realities of Canada's music biz, and the true spirit of it all as found in these independent musicians. Aymar and company have done more than entertain here; this will give you insight, and a new respect for anyone who chooses this profession, and it gives you a little bit more national pride as well.

Thursday, August 13, 2015


There's a touching and powerful back story to the title cut on Earl's new album.  He'd been estranged from his own father over the years, an Auschwitz survivor named Jerry Horvath.  But they made their amends on Father's Day of 2014, shortly before Horvath passed away. 

That inspired Earl to write the cut, which advises everyone that time is getting short, and asks if you can be the generous one to make peace.  The slow blues doesn't say much more, and doesn't need to, it's a powerful statement about the importance of healing.

Elsewhere on the new album, Earl pays tribute to his other fathers, blues greats who have inspired him to continue the tradition.  There are a couple of Otis Rush, two more from Magic Sam, and one from B.B., along with the three originals from Earl.  He takes care of the guitar work; in the vocal booth are two strong guest singers for the album, Diane Blue and Michael Ledbetter.  Both have classic voices along the soul line, and the songs are divided up for each ones' strengths, Ledbetter getting perhaps the grittier numbers, although both can belt.  This is a terrific move.  Let the talented singers take the microphone, while Earl can concentrate on the best guitar lines.

As always with an album from Earl, that's the big highlight.  His soloing is never an exercise in playing fast, with too many notes, he's always precise and in control.  But what sting, what tone.  He's putting everything into each note, and is the embodiment of the guitar player's maxim that it's not how many notes you play, but which ones.

It's a wide-ranging collection as well.  Earl's take on the Art Blakey jazz instrumental Moanin' shows the band knows how to swing with style.  Both Earl and B3 player Dave Limina carry off tasty solos, Earl cheekily quoting from Fever at one point.  The gang brings the same touch to the spiritual Precious Lord, a showcase for Diane Blue's gospel roots, with more dramatic, ringing notes from Earl.  Father would have been proud.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015


I've said it before, it's no secret, I have Iris Dementia.  The not-too prolific singer and writer has been making some of the most emotionally powerful roots music over the last 20-plus years, but often with huge breaks in between albums, a couple of eight year gaps in there.  It's only been three years since the last, Sing The Delta, so that's a good sign.

Often highly personal, and known for laying bare aspects of her life, and themes such as small-town and religious upbringing, this time her muse was a surprising choice, but one that becomes more obvious as the back story is explained.  Dement found some of the poems of a 20th century Russian writer in a book given to her by a friend.  Anna Akhmatova suffered until the turbulence of revolution, two World Wars and Communist persecution during her life.  She wrote about the terror under Stalin that saw many of her contemporaries banished to Gulags or murdered, and she herself was censored and condemned, but somehow survived and kept writing and witnessing.  Much of her work remained unpublished until after her death in 1966.

Dement's tie to the material comes from her daughter.  She and her husband (singer-songwriter Greg Brown) adopted a girl from Siberia in 2005, and Dement decided this would be part of her efforts to help her daughter know more about her original culture.

It's easy to understand Dement's artistic connection as well.  As translated, Anna Akhmatova's poetry is plain-spoken, powerful and uses a slightly-antiquated vocabulary.  It feels like old church language, perfect for Dement, who has often used that form, even recording an album of hymns.  While it's a strange mix on paper, this somewhat radical Russian intellectual, and the voice of rural, conservative, Christian Americana, Dement sounds as if she was working her life to this set of songs.

Recording sparsely over a few days in her own living room, the main instrument is Dement's parlor piano and of course, her distinctive, Appalachian-inspired voice.  It is a collection of mostly sadness, given the topics, but it's broken up a bit by Dement's way with melodies, and ear for knowing when a little bit of honky-tonk could spice up a dour Russian tale.  And when Dement sings Anna Akhmatova's words about her country, which she refused to leave despite all its many ills and dangers, you realize it's the poet's spirit that is the connection: "I knew it is all mine, and nothing can divide us, it is my soul, it is my body too."  This is a slow-builder, but one that keeps delivering more each listen.

Sunday, August 9, 2015


If you're looking for superstars rushing out to say how great Smith was, in the typical deceased rock star bio, this ain't it. You'd have to be a pretty big music fan to recognize more than a couple of the names here. Instead, these are the real friends, old colleagues from Smith's indie days, and back-stage people who really knew and meant something to the fated singer-songwriter.

The basic story is pretty much known. He had a tough time dealing with the star system he found himself in, after the fluke Oscar nomination for his work on Good Will Hunting. Then he got this rep as a really depressed guy with the saddest lyrics and sound ever, and eventually got into drugs and took his own live. What the filmmakers have done, and very successfully, is show that tiny little snapshots of people's lives are never the whole story, and in this case, not even close to it.

Bit by bit, we find out the surprises. Smith was mostly a punk rocker instead of the introspective acoustic dude we mostly know, until his songwriting simply overtook the limits of the genre. He never lost that indie, D.I.Y. spirit. He was far from a quiet, reclusive, mopey type. He was actually the leader of the Portland, Oregon music scene in the '90's, an obvious talent that couldn't stay locked in one town. He was a fun, interesting guy, with lots of friends. He himself admitted he probably wasn't cut out for attention, and didn't even realize the level of his talent, but mostly he was humble, not flummoxed by the spotlight. He certainly saw the irony of his appearance at the Oscars, the supreme joke of being given advice on nerves from Celine Dion.

The film doesn't try to say what might have helped Smith in his battle. He'd actually cleaned himself up at the time of his death, and had mended a few fences. There wasn't any great villain in the story, no evil record company exploiting a troubled soul. He went willingly, always interested in having people enjoy his music. The film lets you come away with a better description of Smith, and a deeper appreciation of his talent. It's a sad story, but now, the more people who get to hear him the better, and this will only help.

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Anybody that lived through the '70's knows that there's no universe where Rupert Holmes' offensive Pina Colada Song belongs on the same compilation as the sublime Go All The Way by The Raspberries. So I have to think this is for those who have only experienced the '70's through current pop culture and nostalgic movies.

It's a 50-50 mix of good and blah, but that's the '70's I suppose. For each gem such as Dobie Gray's Drift Away, the compilers counter with dregs like Come Sail Away by Styx. There's no theme or rhyme or reason; BTO and You Ain't Seen Nothing Yet, Andy Kim's Rock Me Gently, Heart's Magic Man. All classics? Nope. There must have been a sale on at a certain Music Publisher's Clearing House.

Friday, August 7, 2015


There are two thousand Motown compilations available, why do we need another? There's a good reason. It's to keep the catalog fresh, something new every few months in the store. And that's because month after month, year after year, new generations discover and quickly fall in love with the classic sounds. Fifty years later, these songs still pack the same punch, up there with The Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys and few others.

When you do a Motown best-of, you have about 200 cuts you can choose from, easy. You can't go too heavy on one or two artists, so it gets pretty hard to choose one Stevie Wonder or Marvin Gaye or Supremes or Four Tops, but that's what's called for. This does a pretty good job of cherry-picking the best, offering 25 cuts over two CD's. Wisely, they keep it heavily in the '60's, with a few good '70's numbers, and only one dubious choice, Rockwell's Somebody's Watching Me.

There are a few lesser-known cuts, but still big hits of the day: Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate, Canadian Bobby Taylor & the Vancouvers' Does Your Mama Know About Me, and even a real surprise, Barbara McNair's Here I Am Baby. While none of the rest of the tracks is a shocker, overall, you can tell they decided to pick a few less common ones. Uptight by Stevie Wonder rather than Superstition or Fingertips Pt. 2 or Ma Cherie Amour. Marvin's Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) instead of What's Going On or I Heard It Through The Grapevine. The Temptations' Ball Of Confusion instead of My Girl. So this can appeal to the typical fan who already has one Motown set, and maybe The Big Chill soundtrack too.

Anyway, it's hard to complain about this, it's great from start to finish, aside from Rockwell, who was the boss's son, so that's why he shows up so much. And I can happily do without The Commodores, but that's just me. You get Smokey's Tears Of A Clown, The Contours and Do You Love Me, Barrett Strong's Money, it doesn't get any better.

Thursday, August 6, 2015


Ortega is the bomb, or whatever it is one is supposed to say these days. She makes remarkably cool country crossed with Southern soul, just the way Elvis and Gram Parsons knew it could be done, Tony Joe White crossed with Ode To Billy Joe. Over four terrific albums, she's never once faltered, and her exceptional voice is always a thrill.

Hearing this new album continues the love affair. It's a good thing she keeps it to ten cuts, a touch under forty minutes. Every track is a gem, and it's over way too fast, leaving you wanting more, always the sign of something special.

This time out, Ortega took her compositions to three different settings, and different producers, each with a slightly different touch, but all three keeping the core intact, letting her soaring, edgy-sweet vocals take the spotlight. Fellow Ontario vet Colin Linden starts off the album at his Nashville studio, with the first three cuts. This is the more thoughtful material, where we enter Faded Gloryville, as she explains, the place you have to go through to get to Paradise.

Then comes a trio of tracks from the famed Muscle Shoals area, produced by the team of Ben Tanner and John Paul White. These are, natch, the more soulful cuts, a bit more of a groove. This ain't the first time the Bee Gees' hit To Love Somebody has been turned country, but Ortega's spin sees it get a more funky feel.

Back in Nashville for three more, this time the producer is Dave Cobb, he of Jason Isbell and Shooter Jennings fame. Now she cranks it a bit, puts more life in the party, including the rip-snorter, Run Amuck. To calm things down and go out on a grace note, she slides back over to Linden's place for album closer Half Moon, a tremendous old-time ballad, about being the half-moon hanging in the sky, and she's "wonderin' 'bout the side of you that hides."

Ever the Queen Of The Road (please, somebody get the Roger Miller reference), Ortega will be all over the U.S. and Canada the rest of the year, but I'm looking forward to her show in Halifax Sept. 1, at the Carleton, part of the ever-incredible Halifax Urban Folk Festival. Be there!

Tuesday, August 4, 2015


Psychedelic and electronic are perhaps the most overcrowded fields these days, so it takes a lot to climb above the ranks. Australia's Kevin Parker is top dog now methinks, especially since The Flaming Lips got too weird. Parker's use of song structure and grand melodies take the songs here to a new level, as pleasing a pop album as it is an experimental one.

Aside from a few obvious examples of deliberate impishness, Currents is one of the most infectious and charming collections in years. Lead cut Let It Happen serves the purpose of turning away those who like pop but can't take a little mind-warping. At a couple of points, the music gets muffled, like someone is holding a pillow over the speaker. Then at the four minute mark, it begins to repeat, sounding like a CD skip, going on long enough to bring the mainstream rock fan in from the kitchen, thinking the damn thing was stuck. He was annoyed, I kept going.

After that, Parker goes into wacky producer mode, with all the tools in the world open to him. Imagine what Spector or Wilson would have done in the 60's, layering instruments and voices, bouncing tracks off effects, chambers and delays, with no time pressures in the studio, or having to stop and teach the musicians the parts. Not only is he armed with the imagination, Parker can write the songs too, with bouncy beats and decades of pop music to draw on, from 60's tunefulness to 70's disco-funk to 80's electronic happiness. The sky's the limit, and Parker is sounding like Icarus before the fall.

Saturday, August 1, 2015


There is more, and far better country music on this album than anything being made in Nashville these days, but you can't call it a country album.  That's even though it is the real stuff, many of the tracks the equal of something made at Owen Bradley's Quonset Hut studio, or maybe a George Jones weeper from the '60's.  Then there are his philosophical numbers, the wise and deep numbers Willie has given us so often.  But no, there are enough moments here to remind us that Romano has lots of broad musical knowledge, rich talent across the board, and an indie background and attitude from his past in City and Colour and Attack In Black.

Romano calls the music Mosey, creating his own term to suggest he will at any time mosey across any genre rules.  The biggest examples of this here are the linking bits that connect each track here.  So while you have a straight country song for three minutes, then you get a completely unrelated bit of a string section, a left-over bass line, or a small chunk of what could have been a soundtrack to a blacksploitation film, with backing singers adding "mosey", name-checking his personal musical principle.

Romano has perfected the classic couplet.  From Learning To Do Without Me, we get "See the girl at the table sipping on wine/Would you believe that once she was mine?" It's full of heart-crushing moments, almost all of them featuring that old-school Nashville archetype, the guy who screwed up and is now paying the price in lost love.  Even when he breaks the mood on the upbeat, somewhat comic Two Word Joe, we find out he can only utter two words at a time because he lost at love twice and basically went stupid.

Not only has Romano learned to write 'em, they sound just as impressive and classic too.  That's quite the feat itself, as it was done in his home studio, with few other musicians.  There's one big track though, the opener I'm Gonna Teach You.  It features a large orchestra sound, complete with kettle drum, in a beautiful arrangement.  It's dramatic rather than simply sweetened with strings, and I'd love to hear more cuts in that style from him.  Elsewhere, accordion, peddle steel and Cramer-style piano add lots to the tracks, a tremendous set of emotional and musical achievement.