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.
Tuesday, November 10, 2015
Mavericks they were, and obviously quite excited that strange things were happening nearby in NYC. At this period in their career, the influences are easy to spot, going back to the Velvet Underground and au curaunt with Talking Heads. The Scenics would also develop nicely as well, seeing the limitations of punk and embracing the art rock of New Wave. An album, Underneath The Door, did arrive in 1979, but these studio tracks are plenty polished enough for full release, and far surpass many of the supposed key records of that period, from Toronto and the other punk capitols.
Twitchy and angular, the band was making up chord combinations and vocal intonations, sounds that weren't supposed to be pretty but certainly were once you had ears to hear. The title cut has all the swagger of Sweet Jane, the beauty of The Byrds vocals on the chorus, and a mad scientist singing lead everywhere else. Great Piles of Leaves is about a fish-out-of-water kid who really just wants to play cello like Pablo Casals, and Wild Trout is just about a fish. And it rocks. Meanwhile, the Juno Award for Best Selling Album in 1978 went to Dan Hill for Longer Fuse. Just sayin'.
Monday, November 9, 2015
I have a unique perspective about this whole Ryan Adams-Taylor Swift situation. In case you aren't familiar, the edgy roots rocker has covered the entire Swift album, 1989, without irony and straight as can be. It's now his new album.
While I know Swift's name of course, I don't know any of her songs. Seriously. I couldn't name one, hum a note, couldn't pick her out of a police line-up. This is not some unlikely twist of fate, where somehow I have avoided her ubiquitous presence over the years. No, it's down to hard work. I monitor my exposure to popular culture with great precision, something I've perfected.
I never have pop music radio stations on, nor TV channels that still play videos. I don't have friends on Facebook that would post such stuff, and if they accidentally did, I have the sound turned off anyway. I don't go into trendy clothing stores where they would play that kind of music, and avert my eyes in the magazine racks, rushing past Tiger Beat (or whatever it's called these days) to make my way to Curmudgeon Weekly.
It's not just Taylor Swift. I avoid them all. Lady Gaga, Beyonce, Jay-Z, Avril Lavigne, Drake, Bieber, it's a long list. I saw a Kanye West performance by accident a few months ago, it was ridiculous. I've picked a lifestyle, I'm proud of it, it's right for me. Don't judge me.
And for the record, I started doing this back in the '90's, when pop music, my former love, went all to shit. I warned you all about Milli Vanilli and Debbie Gibson and Britney Spears, and I was right.
Look, for all I know, Swift could be a lot better than the rest of the pop stars of today, and I get the sense she is, at least marginally. I've heard some rumblings in the reviewers world, the same people who give Carly Rae Jetson props (Elroy's sister, I assume). And in the hands of a master craftsman such as Mr Adams, her work certainly sounds like the kind of stuff I'd enjoy. It sounds exactly like a Ryan Adams album in fact.
So what does this mean? Am I totally wrong about Taylor Swift and should rush out and get all her albums and discover a brilliant poet and performer? Is Ryan Adams so brilliant he can take a lightweight, manufactured pop star and turn their work into high art? Is there good in every piece of music, just waiting for the right person to come along and polish it, revealing the gem?
Nah. Here's what it means. It means I like Ryan Adams. I liked him when he did that Heartbreaker album, and I'm probably always going to like him now. I don't like current pop music, because I'm too old for it, have a closed mind, whatever. I don't like much post-bop jazz either. Seldom do I listen to classical. I'm not perfect. We like what we like, ain't nothing wrong with that. I don't know what Adams was trying to prove with this album, but it's cool, you like him, you'll like it. We all get to like or dislike whatever we want. It's good to be open-minded, but there's nothing wrong with having particular tastes too. Sometimes it is only rock and roll.
Sunday, November 8, 2015
We know the stories of Rodriguez and Charles Bradley, but an even more unlikely tale is that of Ted Hawkins, a brilliant singer-songwriter who died back in 1995. Born impoverished in Mississippi, he spent much of his early life in reform school and jail, where he picked up music. He developed his own blend of country and blues, with a distinctive, rough voice and wrote songs that were simple yet powerful, full of life's pain, and occasional humour. He was famously discovered, more than once, busking on the boardwalk in California's Venice Beach, where he did most of his playing, between jobs and jail.
At least, that's how the American version of the story goes. In Europe, he was far better known, and lived there for stretches, playing far better gigs, doing BBC radio sessions, having a respectable career. But he had flaws that followed him his whole life, and crime and addiction continued to show up, plus a contrary attitude. Even with record deals and opportunities, he would prove erratic, and end up busking on the boardwalk again.
Hawkins seemed to finally get the break he deserved with the release of the album The Next Hundred Years in 1994, on Geffen Records. Lots of people were hearing his music for the first time (me included), at a time when roots music was really starting to gather a large following. But just as soon as the records and shows were selling, Hawkins died at 58, of a stroke.
While his death didn't inspire the same sort of interest in his music as other such as Jeff Buckley and Elliot Smith, here fellow musicians get together to celebrate a remarkable group of songs. Because they remain largely unfamiliar, this set doesn't have to struggle with the problem that usually wrecks tribute albums; that the originals are done better. Most won't know them. Also, except for the Geffen album, Hawkins could never afford to have a band back him, so again, these don't suffer from comparison. What you get is a batch of fantastic songs, with his Southern background shining through.
Hawkins had a way with language that cut through all pretense or ego. He'd just put emotions out there simply, and sometimes shatteringly: "I was cruel, mean and selfish," he sings in the hidden bonus track here, Great New Year, a story about a man wishing all his family was with him at Christmas, but eventually letting us know all the kids are with their mother, whom they choose to give the love he foolishly ignored in the past.
The main album though, is an excellent set of tributes from artists in the roots field, with some familiar names (James McMurtry, Kasey Chambers, Mary Gauthier) and several more obscure (Even Felker, Shinyribs). The best cut of all is from Sunny Sweeney, a country singer out of the Austin school, putting a good twang into Happy Hour. For anybody who misses country songs like Dark End of the Street or Ode to Billy Joe, this stuff will be a revelation.
Saturday, November 7, 2015
The talented guitar player from Hamilton has been a mainstay on the scene there, working with talented friends (Harrison Kennedy, Marta Pacek) and equally-talented family (wife Kim, daughter Marra, son Jordan). But after 20-plus years in that career, he's stepped up front on this debut album. Like all well-traveled sidemen, he has experience in several styles, so this is a varied and wide-ranging collection.
Lead track I'm Already Down has a country-roots feel, a solid strummer with organ and lots of guitar lines shot through. My Life goes further down that roots road, this time with pedal steel and piano. The tempo picks back up for Winter Dream, some good-time rock on this one. Reckless Train lets Koren get into an outlaw sound, with some driving acoustic, bottleneck and a some nasty electric, as he handles all the guitar parts.
Halfway through the 10-track album, Koren moves on from the roots tracks to some broader, more experimental works. The title cut is a lengthy, mysterious number, built on power atmospheric guitar layers. Water Dance has shots of percussion and burbling keys, hypnotic and funky. And the group really gets a groove on for the closer, Look But Never Touch, with beatbox vocals and a Robert Palmer feel.
Koren will launch the album Saturday, Nov. 14 with a show at The Casbah in Hamilton.
Friday, November 6, 2015
Things do open up with an instrumental, the traditional Ridin' the Fiddle, which no doubt the encyclopedic MacKeeman learned from King Ganam, the great Western (Canadian) player from the '40's to the '60's. Here the band adds its own touches to the speedy piece, with a some clip-clop percussion. We get into the vocals right after that, with a great choice, the somewhat obscure Gene MacLellan number, Song to a Young Seagull. Not only do they pay tribute to the excellent P.E.I. songwriter, they do it with a surprising, rockabilly piece with a typical wise MacLellan lyric on top. Guitar ace Peter Cann joins in with a number of his own, Cavan Road, more in the folk-pop world, MacKeeman sounding sweet in the solos. Then it's back to classic fiddling for a bit, with Gordie's own Dusty Derby, a strong melody on top of percussion that sounds half-way between step-dancing and hip-hop beats.
Other notables along the way include Hot Vacation, one that MacKeeman wrote and sings, with twangy guitars and cheesy organ, straight out of the garage band '60's. And a cover they've been doing life for a bit, Tom Petty's King's Highway, is a gem turned into banjo-fuelled bluegrass. Ably produced by Dale Murray (Christina Martin, Cuff the Duke), this is as much a rock album as a fiddle one, as a folk one as a roots one, with MacKeeman especially showing you can do all that and still be a great traditional player.
Thursday, November 5, 2015
NLX is perfectly capable of breaking hearts with just piano and voice, as she does here on the cut Silence, but she's also brimming with ideas, all packed into her latest. A banjo plays in the distance, a music box winds down, dissolving into a street-tough theme, in Haymaker. Layers and layers of soft magic are unveiled as each track progresses, from clouds of electronic gloss to various keyboard textures to real strings.
All that melodic inventiveness is important, because she has a pretty intense journey to take us on. It's a series of songs about making mistakes and getting through it, learning, and embracing them, being able to appreciate having the luxury of failure. Whether its relationships, or any other experience, it's all life. Lessons learned, then.
The key track is Little Victories, which takes it all back to baby steps: "First you learn to crawl, then you stand up tall, and even if you fall, you start again." No wonder the album is so beautiful; strength and beauty are always connected.
Of course, it's filled with lots of great performances and recordings from Winehouse, and fans will be thrilled with the selections in the movie, some of which appear here. The best thing is that the release includes rare and previously unreleased versions, either live, demo or out-take. Best of all is the live recording of Rehab, from the Jools Holland show, a drastically-reimagined version that sparkles in different ways. Back To Black is stripped down to an a cappella mix. What Is It About Men comes from the North Sea Jazz Festival, showing once again what a sensational vocalist and live performer she was, when she was on (and straight). Each track is broken up by original soundtrack music by Antonio Pinto, which actually adds to the drama as one new vocal wonder after another comes along. Amy fans should find lots to cheer about here.
Tuesday, November 3, 2015
Much is made of New York's punk scene of the mid-'70's, and the New Wave acts that came along as well. But while that was going on, there were other spots where magic was happening, just far under the radar. Winston-Salem, North Carolina, certainly did its part.
A bunch of school friends who could barely get local gigs were determined to make a record, a ridiculous prospect. But they loved music, and had a fantastic songwriter named Chris Stamey in their midst. In fact, the whole batch of them were future auteurs. Stamey and Will Rigby would go on to form the dB's, band buddy Mitch Easter, who helped on acoustic guitar, led Let's Active, and the guy who recorded them, Don Dixon, would make his own excellent albums, plus produce R.E.M.'s early work with Easter.
Sneakers released a six-track E.P. in 1976, that shockingly sold several thousand copies, mostly mail-order to fans of this growing independent movement of punk, New Wave and power pop, Sneakers falling into the latter category. Such was the beginning of indie rock. The songs were little jewels, chord changes coming fast and furious, hit singles as played by garage bands. But it wasn't pretty. At time when big, glossy productions were the norm, this bunch had only basic equipment and little knowledge at that point. It was muddy, cruddy, and that was part of the lure for the burgeoning indie world.
This reissue combines the original six with five later recordings, to make a 30-minute album. There's s great cover of the Grass Roots' hit Let's Live For Today, which gives you a good idea of the overall idea of the band. Then four more cuts were original Sneakers numbers from the time, but never recorded until Stamey and Easter did versions in 1992. These are valuable because not only are they great songs, it gives you a much better feel for what the band would have been like if recorded well in the first place, which is very good. All involved would go on to bigger things, but this is both an important historical record, and a darn good one too.
Monday, November 2, 2015
The new Bill Murray movie is about a rock star manager (Murray) who takes his client to Afghanistan for some humanitarian work, but gets ditched and stranded there in the process. Then, he discovers an Afghan woman with an extraordinary voice, and stuff happens after that. So right away, it's got to be heavy on the music.
As is so often the case though, what makes for an interesting scene doesn't do a whole lot as a purely listening experience. The amazing voice he discovers belongs to actress Leem Lubany, who covers three Cat Stevens classics on the disc. She has a decent voice, but not spectacular, and these are simply nice versions. Cat himself is used, the old 1970 cut Pop Star, a pretty good fit here, and a good inclusion of one of his lesser-known gems.
Also on board is Zooey Deschanel, who does sing in the duo She & Him, and who does a bang-up job on Bitch, the old Meredith Brooks hit. Bill Murray singing Smoke On The Water is comedy of course, not exactly a cut for your mixtape. There's a couple of more '70's cuts, Dylan doing Knockin' On Heaven's Door and Nilsson's Jump Into The Fire, unarguably excellent. A mixed bag.
Sunday, November 1, 2015
A strong compilation that covers the hit years Rich spent with Epic Records, from 1967 to 1977. That includes all the biggies he's known for, including Behind Closed Doors, The Most Beautiful Girl, A Very Special Love Song, and Every Time You Touch Me (I Get High). Although working as a country artist, there was so much sophistication (and a little jazz) that these crossed over in a big way, giving him major pop hits as well.
Produced and sometimes written by Nashville heavyweight Billy Sherrill, he took the journeyman Rich, who had drifted through a decade of little fame, and gave him a countrypolitan makeover. The material was romantic, and in the songs, Rich became the guy whose only lucky break in life was somehow attracting the best woman in the world, who loved him no matter what. There are plenty of other cuts here that didn't storm the pop charts, but continued the theme as country hits. My Elusive Dream went to #3 in 1975, a weeper about a guy who can't pin down a good job his whole life, and the woman who goes with him from town to town.
The subject matter is a little tired (and a little more sexist), but what makes these cuts still special is Rich's charm and voice, the Silver Fox indeed. Apparently he wasn't far from these characters in real life, so he knew how to turn on the charm naturally. These piano ballads were something different for country (and pop) as well, and for a time, Rich was a major star. It's too bad they didn't go back and license a couple of his early tunes, especially his 1960 rockabilly hit for Sun Records, Lonely Weekends, or the fun rocker from '65, Mohair Sam. Then they could have dumped the mawkish America the Beautiful and the lounge classic Spanish Eyes, making this even better.