Wednesday, December 30, 2015
What a difference eight years made in The Rolling Stones. Watching this back-to-back with 1982's Leeds concert (see last review), then it was still basically a rock show, the core band with a a couple of sidemen. By 1990, the technical improvements were huge, and the extra musicians outnumbered the official Stones ten to five. The set was gigantic, and it was a spectacle more than a music event. They had truly become a rock and roll circus.
What all this sound reinforcement meant was that the Stones were part of a performance rather than the whole show. Each night was going to be the same by and large, the only real differences night to night being Mick's energy and moves, and Keith and Ronnie's playing quality. Rough edges such as Keith's shaky vocals didn't matter, because the melody was handled by three professional singers behind him, so his grizzled harmonies were colourful rather than essential. Huge arrangements featuring five horns and two keyboards pushed the set along and all those tens of thousands under the Tokyo Dome were going to walk out thinking they'd seen the biggest and the best.
The group would learn to do these shows better on future tours. On 1989-90's jaunt, they were still trying to sell the current album, Steel Wheels, trusting in their old songwriting magic. So there are some pretty dull moments as we are made to sit through Sad Sad Sad (does anybody remember that song?) and Almost Hear You Sigh. Rock and a Hard Place and Mixed Emotions are better, because they are bigger, brass and backing vocalists again, and a very un-Stones-like glossiness.
Much was made during the tour of the inclusion of some long-ignored older songs in the set list. Ruby Tuesday and Paint It Black are lots of fun to hear again, and so refreshing amidst the set of the usual suspects (Satisfaction, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Midnight Rambler). 2000 Light Years From Home was a complete disaster though, with boring instrumental keyboard passages, an odd arrangement, and a long ending that is only tacked on to allow Jagger to spend the time climbing to the top of the massive set for his dramatic re-appearance at the start of Sympathy For The Devil.
I saw a Toronto show in 1989 on this tour, at the CNE, me and about 60,000 of my closest peeps. I'm reminded of the highs and lows of that show by watching this; great classics and fun moments, followed by clunkers and the feeling we were being hyped. The Stones have learned not to bother trying to sell new music anymore, and to tone down the contributions of the extra musicians since Steel Wheels. But there are always great points in any Stones show, and heck, Keith sings Happy on this, so it's all worth it for that.
Monday, December 28, 2015
This live album comes from a time when the Stones had to earn the title of Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World every night, rather than having it bestowed via a grandfather clause. They had vanquished all the old foes; Zeppelin died with Bonzo, The Who were giving up on a final tour that year, no spark after moon had died, and McCartney put an end to Wings after the Japanese bust and Lennon's murder. Now they were taking on upstarts such as The Clash and The Police, edgy new music they had countered with their own Some Girls and the instant classic singles Start Me Up.
Try as they might though, the band did have a hard time keeping up the street cred. It was becoming more and more about money, as the American leg of the tour, was said to be the most profitable in history, mega-millions flying about for all concerned. Plus, it was famously sponsored by Jovan Musk, the Stones being the first big name to allow corporate sponsorship into the game, for even more profit. While the critics sniped, the band laughed all the way to the bank, but as for their status as the greatest, well, uneasy lies the head who wears a crown. After the European leg of the tour in 1982, they wouldn't hit the road again until 1989, after pretty much ending things in '85.
This is the last show from that '82 tour, the last for seven years, as performed outdoors at Roundhay Park in Leeds, U.K. It's the latest in the continuing From The Vault series, which has presented some spectacular live sets over the last couple of years, from the Marquee Club in 1971 in front of a handful, to the Tokyo Dome in 1990, and tens of thousands. The shows high-quality video to newly-remixed audio from the master, Bob Clearmountain, available in CD/DVD or Blu-ray combos. The Roundhay show is full of close-ups of the band, shot for the mammoth screens (a relative new idea then) used to help the 80,000 people see something of the show. The downside is watching Bill Wyman just stand there, expressionless, over and over. The good part is lots of shots of Mick and Keith doing their thing in your living room.
Another set in the From The Vault series is from the Hampton, Virginia show of 1981, the last show on the U.S. leg. The difference is night and day, this the winner hands-down. That one was shot for pay-per-view, the first music one ever, and there's none of the immediacy you get from the Leeds close-ups. The band seems much more relaxed, and on top of their game as well. There are several highlights along the way, including the best Angie I've heard live, and the band really enjoyed the Motown covers Just My Imagination and Going To A Go-Go. Keith's really enjoying his little licks and fills, and everybody gets into playing Tumbling Dice; Keith's pulling guitar-hero poses, saxman Bobby Keys is winking, Ian Stewart's grooving, and wow, Charlie just smiled. Meanwhile, Bill Wyman...well, nothing happening there.
Seriously, an hour-and-a-half into the show, they are cooking so well, they make lame new numbers She's So Cold and Hang Fire fun. Charlie grins through the whole thing. But why is the camera back on Wyman, who now looks like he's attending the village council tax assessment meeting?
In 1982, The Rolling Stones were not touring a great album (Tattoo You), were no longer the baddest bunch on the block, were a long way from the being the most innovative, and weren't really close to the blues anymore. But on that night, once again, they earned the title of World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band.
Sunday, December 27, 2015
Recorded this past June, this was The Who's big present back to London, a huge outdoor show in the iconic park, crammed on this occasion with 65,000 people. Although it was billed as a 50th birthday show, it was really 51, and like everything else on this show, it felt a bit off. That was Roger and Pete up there, but the rest of the band was a dull bunch, including three keyboard players when one would do. Only Zak Starkey offered any kind of personality and flair.
It seems the group has been talked into the kind of show The Stones and McCartney have been doing the last few years, a tribute to themselves, with a greatest hits set and projection screens showing pictures of past moments and tributes to fallen bandmates. But the whole time you can watch the DVD and see how awkward the principals are doing such a show. When John Entwistle's mug appears on the big screen behind him during an instrumental break, Daltry gamely raises his arm in salute, then does it again a few seconds later, not sure what else to do. In the commentary in between some of the songs, Townshend repeats his usual complaints about not wanting to be playing live, ambivalence about the group, training to be gracious to the fans but seeming more above this kind of hero worship.
McCartney is fine with this kind of show, a narcissist. Jagger has that as well, and Richards wants to grow old ungracefully. Townshend and Daltry probably want to do all this for the fans, and The Who legacy, but they just can't be phony. It never was an act for them, and when it does become that, the edge is gone.
There are great moments; when the Quadrophenia songs come up, I'm One and Love Reign On Me, you do get taken away for a bit, a taste of the epic in those songs. That goes double for good ol' Tommy, five songs from it and sounding as good as the day it was made. Townshend and Daltry still do a credible job, even if the keys have been dropped to accommodate aging voices, and there aren't many leaps and windmills. It's wall-to-wall hits, except for the dire Eminence Front, the youngest cut here, from 1982, but the rest is of course wonderful material. The Who remain, of all the giants, the ones least able to reconcile their present with the past.
Saturday, December 26, 2015
To this day, Tusk is a confusing and largely misunderstood album in Fleetwood Mac's long career. It was many things: experimental, bratty, forward-thinking, game-changing, panned at the time, and potential career suicide. In hindsight, it's just as many things: part brilliant, party folly, career-killer in some ways, career-saver in others. But 36 years on, it's better than its reputation at the time certainly, and well-worthy of this bulky re-examination.
Available in several formats, including a stand-alone 180-gram vinyl edition for purists, the big super-deluxe edition covers it all. The original double album is on the first CD, at nearly 80 minutes. Disc two is singles, out-takes and sessions, featuring several remixes and edits for radio, then a bunch of early versions of the songs, in various attempts over the long year making the album
Disc three is novel, a complete alternate version of the album, featuring the songs in sometimes quite different forms, from largely acoustic to different instrumentation, to a take of Christine McVie's Brown Eyes, featuring band founder Peter Green doing a guitar solo. Discs four and five feature a reconstructed live album, with songs from various sources along the lengthy Tusk tour, but feeling very much like a single show. The final disc is for the audio junkies, in 5.1 surround and 24/96 stereo.
It is Lindsay Buckingham's album, and is has his reaction to the ridiculous success of Rumours, That album had made them the biggest band in the world in the days of the greatest glory and excess. They were also the most dysfunctional group of people in the world. If Rumours had been a soap opera, Tusk was a farce. Nicks had an affair with Fleetwood, destroying his marriage. Then Fleetwood took up with Nicks' best friend, Sara (as in the hit single). Christine McVie, having split with the bass player before Rumours, now ended her relationship with the group's lighting designer. Then she started seeing Beach Boy Dennis Wilson, probably the most unstable, self-destructive person on the planet. Only Buckingham seemed to have it somewhat together, except he wanted to experiment with recording techniques, make wildly different songs from his usual hit singles, go all over the map stylistically, and in general say screw you to fame, record companies, and anyone's expectations.
The record-buying public certainly noticed that Tusk wasn't Rumours pt. 2. It sold a few million, but nowhere close to the previous mark. Those who bought it barely played it. The first single, much anticipated, was the title cut, a most odd percussion experiment. There were more typical singles to come, from McVie's Think About Me, and Nicks' Sara and Sisters of the Moon, but without an upbeat Buckingham tune like Go Your Own Way, the more moody songs from Nicks couldn't carry the disc.
If you do go through it now, song-by-song, appreciating Buckingham's, techniques and lofty goals, and stop waiting for the hits, it's a very strong collection. It has a horrible running order, so it never gels as an album, and is too long, but there's something there for sure. I know lots of music fans who don't listen to Rumours because it's so overplayed. They should try out Tusk, because it is a lot better than its been given credit for all along.
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
Crisis! As Jethro Tull fans know, the classic '70's albums are being reissued chronologically, in wonderful box sets complete with plenty of bonus cuts, excellent booklets and multiple remixes. The centrepiece of each one is a brand-new mix of the original album by the renowned Steven Wilson, the leading light in progressive rock audio circles. However, the only way you can remix an album is to have the original master tapes, with all the tracks separate. And for this Tull album, several of the masters had disappeared.
After fruitless searches, a surprising solution was found. A few weeks after the album's release, the band negotiated a performance on a British TV show, in a unique format. The show they did featured band performances, a bit of acting out the storyline, plus linking frames of cartoon illustrations, as found on the original album's sleeve. And because of the famous Musician's Union rules, the band could not simply mime to the original album tapes. It had to be live (risky) or a new recording of the songs, so the group re-recording the whole album.
Guess what? It's better. The band, especially Ian Anderson, won't admit such a thing, but listening back, these are tougher, tour-worn versions, more about the stage and less about the studio crafting. There are moments on the original album were the songs are too soft, especially at the start of the oft-quoted title cut, but on the re-done version, it starts with needed strength.
Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die is not one of the best-loved Tull albums, but it didn't get a fair shake. The press and some fans had grown tired of the band at the time of A Passion Play in 1973, and follow-ups War Child and Minstrel In The Gallery had failed to grab the excitement of the Aqualung and Thick As A Brick days. So there was decreasing audience and interest in Tull's usual concept albums and prog sounds.
It was another concept release, but as Tull stories go, not so hard to follow. As for the music, it was a lively and varied set, with plenty of rock moments, even some blues for the first time in several years for the group, featuring Anderson on harmonica. There were also light acoustic parts, and as good a batch of melodies as Anderson had placed on a record since Brick.
The concept story wasn't too lofty or odd either. There was an old rocker from the '50's, who refuses to change with the trends, feels washed up but then he survives a motorcycle crash, rock 'n' roll comes back in style, and he gets re-discovered. Hardly Quadrophenia but not too hard on the head. The songs, some related to the concept and others not, were a cut above.
Then there were a batch of other cuts dropped along the way, included as well. Originally the idea was to present this concept as a stage play, and there were several for that, plus a couple more dropped for time restrictions on the album proper. Some showed up later (One Brown Mouse on Heavy Horses in 1978), others that should have, and some that really should have made the album (A Small Cigar).
Again, lots of great bonuses, a very good album you probably have never heard, and a great book to keep you company all afternoon. Plus, I've seen this selling for less than $40 online, so definitely something worth considering for your Boxing Week purchases.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
This is kinda perfect. The next generation of the extended Wainwright, McGarrigle, and Roche families have been mingling, mixing and matching their whole lives, in various combinations, for events such as Christmas specials. Now for the first time, Martha Wainwright and her half-sister Lucy Wainwright Roche have teamed up for a full album. For those who need a program to follow the family connections, they share a dad, Loudon, Martha being Kate McGarrigle's daughter, while Lucy's mom is Suzzy Roche.
The concept here is a series of dark lullabies, inspired by a mixtape given to Martha when her first son was born. Dark, you betcha. While the music may soothe the youngsters, if they knew what the words were, they'd have nightmares the rest of their lives. Take the traditional All The Pretty Little Horses, with its rarely-sung second verse, with a poor little lamb in the meadow, bees and butterflies plucking out its eyes. Then there's long-time family friend Richard Thompson's End of the Rainbow, telling an infant about the realities of life waiting for them outside the nursery: "Your father is a bully and he thinks that you're a pest/and your sister is no better than a whore."
It seems the sisters come by this naturally. Various family members have taken to the dark lullaby genre with glee. After all, it is a folk staple going back a few centuries, and the Wainright/McGarrigle/Roche clans are hip to all that. There are a couple of Loudon's songs, including Lullaby, where he sings to the horrible kid (Martha? Rufus? Lucy?) causing him so much grief, who needs to sleep so they can get up and do it all over again the next day. That's followed by Lullaby For A Doll, one of Kate's, a bittersweet song for a young Martha, her mother remembering her own childhood.
There are some others in the set to lighten the mood, including El Condor Pasa, best-known in its adaptation by Paul Simon, and the traditional tune Long Lankin, a vocal number the duo sings with their cousins, Lily and Sylvan Lanken, another family in-joke. The Wainwright Sisters delight in these family connections, and the way it's all wrapped around folk tradition. Good humour, good music, and the ties that bind.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
Del-Fi Records was a Los Angeles label best known for signing Richie Valens and releasing La Bamba, plus being the home of early rockers The Bobby Fuller Four, Chan Romero of Hippy Hippy Shake fame (covered by The Beatles live), and even a young Frank Zappa. It was a small, but very cool label.
Toronto group The Del-Fi's are a small, but very cool new band. Small, in that they are an indie group, immersed in music, not hype and trends. Very cool, in that they have a great raw-roots feel, certainly something that the musicians around the old Del-Fi Records would have appreciated. Very cool as well, because they are 20-to-30-year-olds, probably never heard of Del-Fi Records or Chan Romero before, but sure love and can play the real roots stuff. They are old souls.
The group is an off-shoot project of songwriter Jerry Leger, one of the best young talents of the last half-decade, with a half-dozen of his own consistently strong albums. These are always rich, impressively-written sets, but sometimes you gotta just get the gang together and blast, you know? Leger had saved up a bunch of songs that had that old feel, with outlaws and femme fatales and Saturday nights and rockabilly and noisy bars. With a some fellow compatriots such as Sam Cash and Aaron Comeau, the Cameron House crew, they rolled into Comeau's trailer studio (The Trailer, natch) and in ten hours had eleven cuts down.
I wouldn't call it ragged,or sloppy,or raw, even if the band was after that feel, because it's not really true. Rough and ready perhaps, but this bunch is just too good for mistakes or late cues or parts that don't quite work. Mandolins, pedal steel, parlour piano, harmonica, it all fits right in as natural as can be. And while the songs were orphans, they aren't throw-aways from Leger's notebook. Who's Been Haunting You, with its Tex-Mex organ and slashing garage guitar is a wise take-down of a boy with a problem. Tabletop Jukebox might be a sentimental look back at seemingly better days, but it's hardly a novelty number, it's a statement of purpose: "Bring me back across the tracks, that's where I belong."
Catch the album launch why doncha? The Del-Fi's will release Crowd Pleaser with a show at Junction City Music Hall on Saturday, December 19.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
It's time for the Christmas roundup, with the best (and the rest) of the new or slightly-used releases for this year's holiday purchasing. As usual, new collections have been put together, old favourites given new life, and old standby's are being re-gifted with the same old stuff just given new wrapping.
One of the keys to making a popular Christmas album is having a voice people want to hear singing their favourite holiday numbers. There's a reason Ozzy Osborne hasn't released a Yuletide collection, not that I know of anyway. Jann Arden has one of those voices that fans appreciate, full of warmth and friendliness. That's what she brings to A Jann Arden Christmas, a run through 13 of the usual suspects, from carols to John & Yoko's Happy X-mas (War is Over). While it doesn't break the mold, it sure sounds great, thanks to Arden's voice and Bob Rock's big production. This one leaps out of the speakers with rock band backing, plus strings, horns and lots of voices. The only real surprise is that it took her this long to join the holiday parade.
One of the biggest-selling Christmas albums of the last few years is back, with a little extra in the package in case you loved it so much you need more. Rod Stewart keeps trying to write and record new music (his latest is just out, Another Country), but what his fans keep buying is old retreads, songbook selections and best-ofs. First released in 2012, Merry Christmas, Baby was a huge success, going gold and platinum all over, including Canada, and has sold millions. Why? Don't have a clue. It's a rather lifeless set, built around Stewart's familiar pipes, in crooner mode. Cee Lo Green and Mary J. Blige bring a little life as duet partners, but there should be a label warning on this one, as somebody thought it would be classy to drag the late Ella Fitzgerald's memory through the muck with one of those after-life duets with Rod. Shame. Also, why do I have to be the one to point out that When You Wish Upon a Star is not a Christmas song? The upgrades here are a bonus DVD of five cuts, in case seeing Rod sing these makes them better.
Brian Setzer has been doing Christmas right for over a decade, with four different studio albums, live albums and TV specials, and has become a favourite talk show guest this time of year because of it. With his rockabilly and jump blues styles adapted to the Christmas swing, he's really put a lot of life and effort into the genre. This year, another new one, called Rockin' Rudolph, credited to the Brian Setzer Orchestra. As usual, his guitar is the star, ripping off some great solos along the way. He certainly can do the faves such as Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree, and finds a more obscure tune by the same writer, Johnny Marks, called Rockabilly Rudolph, great stuff. I like the way he puts some boogie into normally-staid numbers such as Most Wonderful Time of the Year. But I'm not sold on the need of turning The Flintstones theme song, one of his party pieces, into something called Yabba-Dabba Yuletide. It's the only bum note on the set though.
There's long-running series called Now, which comes from England where it first appeared as Now That's What I Call Music, a hits series that often went to #1 and always sold tons. Now it is used for catalogue collections from the Universal empire, and this year's Christmas-themed set is Now 25 Top Hits Best of Christmas. Spread over two CD's, it includes some old time faves (Dean Martin, Jimmy Durante), the Motown family (Jackson 5, Four Tops, Marvin Gaye), more modern stuff (Sheryl Crow, Lady Antebellum) and some Can-Con (Anne Murray, Arden, The Rankin Sisters, Nikki Yanofsky). These things always have a couple of ringers to warm your heart, such as Bing's White Christmas and Burl Ives' A Holly Jolly Christmas, and some surprises, like a very good Pretty Paper by Glen Campbell. Overall, it won't bug you, but its more likely a background disc for Christmas morning.
Those compilations can be pretty darn good sometimes too. The Number 1 Jazz Christmas Album is a very good listen, Christmas or not. Starting with Vince Guaraldi's Linus and Lucy, where we get the full-length, somewhat unfamiliar version. It's classy all the way through, with many great female singers especially, including Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, Billie Holiday, Kay Starr and more. There are also some grand instrumental versions, by Bill Evans, The Ramsey Lewis Trio, and even Dexter Gordon. This is a real winner.
Monday, December 14, 2015
This live set is of bootleg quality, but should please fans anyway. It's taken from the early days of the second era of the band, when originals Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens were augmented by The Posies, Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer. What had started as a quick reunion had blossomed into a fully-functioning band that lasted until Chilton's death in 2010.
The set list rarely changed for those shows, heavy on the first couple of albums, the big favourites of the Big Star cult, including In The Street, September Gurls and The Ballad of El Goodo. Chilton was fully engaged in the show, serving as a good-humoured frontman, after largely ignoring the band for years. The audience treats the songs with reverence, each one of the well-memorized album cuts greeted with a cheer, like its currently climbing the charts. Small but mighty was the Big Star fan club by this point.
This is the full set, coming in at about an hour-and-a-quarter, featuring some well-chosen covers such as The Kinks' 'Til The End Of The Day, Baby Strange by T. Rex, and Todd Rundgren's Slut. The source was an FM broadcast in Chicago, and as such there's a couple of noticeable dips in volume, some audience chatter mid-song, and an overall lack of clarity. But as for the show, it's probably the best I've heard this band from the legitimate sources available, so it is valuable.
Victoria, B.C.'s Astrocolor mess with the classics, turning them inside out and clearly modern, but at the same time still recognizable. Retaining the bare essentials of each song, carols and kids' favourites then get deconstructed into electro, jazz and lounge. Let It Snow! Let It Snow! lopes along with a reggae bass, a couple of lines of familiar melody on guitar, some sax soloing, and then the Let It Snow vocal is dropped in, suitably manipulated by electronics.
For the first few bars, you often have no idea what song you're about to hear, with a much different rhythm cooked up, and some programming, keys or guitar offered up in a few scattered lines. But then that well-known melody line comes in, just one usually, but its enough that you immediately know the song, and what's happening with it.
One song starts off with a sultry vocal, "You be my king," and then slips into a deep groove, before the bass slides into what we recognize as We Three Kings. And Little Drummer Boy finally gets the big drums it's always deserved. There are lots of moments of beauty, some musically-sophisticated re-arrangements, and in total, a unique way to experience the holiday canon.
Saturday, December 12, 2015
It's already been a good year for new Christmas albums, with The dB's and Friends, and The Weber Brothers putting out excellent sets. But the biggest excitement comes from the wonderful Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, who put all their soul talent into this celebration. There's no blue at all it, as old favourites and new gems get the big horns, big vocals, and big rhythm section, uptempo from start to end.
The large band is augmented by guest vocalist Saun & Starr, the latest stars of the Daptone stable, although long-time partners of Jones, and also known the Dapettes, so that great tradition of lead with strong back-up (think Aretha and her singers) is here. Those harmonies are put to great use on the hilarious Big Bulbs, finally available widely after being released via Google a couple of years back. And the pa-rum-pa-pa-pums they contribute are the best ever.
So is the drum breakbeats on what they call Funky Little Drummer Boy, which certainly earns its name. The glorious funkified versions of the classics are one of the best elements of the album, with Silver Bells, White Christmas and even Silent Night magically now dance tunes. Always one to share the spotlight, the disc ends on jazzy instrumental treatment of God Rest Ye Merry Gents, with the horns taking us home. Don't think of this as a stocking-stuffer, this should be top of your wish list.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
Montreal's Officer is making a lot out of his travels. Last time out, the album I'm Free came from spending six months checking out jazz and blues haunts in New York. This time, his inspiration came from a sojourn to L.A., where things got a little more varied. Officer explores R'n'B, pop, Tex-Mex, country, as well as the blues and jazz, a chance to work with all his influences.
Mostly covers, and great choices all, Officer chose to work with in a trio setting, the drums and bass playing subtle roles to his laid-back vocals, but monster guitar work. Got You On My Mind is a perfect choice, a '50's song that's been a hit both as blues and country. Shot of Rhythm and Blues is catchy as hell, his former employer Susie Arioli providing the backing vocal, a monumental groove that could fill any dance floor with fans of any style. The biggest and best surprise is The Crystals hit Then (S)He Kissed Me, shorn of its Phil Spector production, now a playful, loping tune, with Officer spitting out fast licks between lines, sounding part-way between Les Paul and Django.
Add in covers of Big Joe Turner, Leroy Carr, Fats Domino, a recent Dylan blues, When The Deal Goes Down, and a guest appearance by Tex-Mex keyboard king Augie Meyers (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornadoes) on Officer's own Takin' Off, and you have a roots explosion. But make no mistake, while the band, the arrangements, Officer's singing, the smart covers and fun are all a delight, this guy's tasty, retro guitar is astonishing.
Wednesday, December 9, 2015
Starting with some easy, melodic reggae numbers, I thought I had this guy pegged from the start, kind of soulful, with a good groove. But by cut three, Red Moon, he was messing with the usual, expanding and defying my expectations. There's something else going on from this Vancouver artist, lots in fact, in the music and the lyrics.
Although reggae is the dominate sound for much of the album, Coe and Co. incorporate a wildly-imaginative variety of styles, weaving them in and around the verses. Que Nos Espera is almost impossible to pin down, with big rock moments, dramatic Latin lines, strings in the reggae verse, and two languages. Love's Eternal starts with ukulele, a favourite of Coe's, Hawaiian music a big influence, really emphasizing his cool soul side. Rubber Bands is orchestra and pop, sounding very British and Beatles-influenced. Nine cuts in, and you'll probably have forgotten this started as a reggae album. Closer After All is a beautiful piece that has echoes of both Rufus Wainwright and Jeff Buckley.
Coe covers lots of bases lyrically as well, from romantic to spiritual to political. Several of the songs reflect what a lot of people feel about the environment and industry of late. Carnival Ride takes on the topic of pipelines directly, Coe observing how protesters in his area come from both aboriginal and non-aboriginal communities. And the title is a Hawaiian phrase that pretty much sums up the belief system, meaning respect the land and live in harmony. Coe certainly shows how to do that musically over the whole of this album.
Monday, December 7, 2015
For the past two summers Gallant has been presenting a musical theatre piece in Charlottetown that expands on his usual role of songwriter, performer and story-teller. Called Searching For Abegweit, it's been a great hit, with sold-out performances every night. Gallant tells stories, legends and lore about his beloved home province, in and around his many songs that feature the Island.
The show itself (which I had the pleasure of seeing) works on several levels, including a dynamic visual one, with projections of his sister's paintings of Island life and history behind him, as well as some multi-media work with film, etc. Gallant is a comfortable actor in this situation, still retaining his usual on-stage presence, just incorporating a bit of script and a set list of stories and songs into the show. But at the heart of it all are his songs, some of his best-loved, and some brand-new ones as well.
For this double album, not a lot of the talk is retained; after all, you'd need the whole visual experience to make it all work, and this is more the soundtrack. But you can easily get the story, which is the tale of this rather wonderful place, going back to its First People, ahead to some of the very first settlers in North America, long traditions of fishing and farming, and life in a rural setting that still holds true today.
It wasn't a stretch to incorporate several of Gallant's tunes to the play, including the beloved Peter's Dream (fishing, hard times), Which Way Does The River Run (heading out and seeing the rest of the world), and Tales of the Phantom Ship (classic Island ghost story), Tales and Back To Rustico dated back to his very first album, Breakwater from 1988. But he also brought new material to the show, including Country Store, inspired by the Gallant family business back in Rustico growing up, and Searching For Abegweit, the theme song of the production. All 22 songs from the stage show are here, featuring his dynamic young band of relatives and Islanders. Searching For Abegweit is threatening to become the next Anne of Green Gables.
Now here's a Christmas gift that keeps on giving and giving. This album started life in the 1980's, when the dB's were still a going concern, and over the years it has been reissued, but each time with more new tracks added. Brilliant! Even better is the fact these guys have always had A-list buddies to call on.
The dB's themselves are one of the great power pop groups, like ever, and not only does the band have a few cuts here, leader Chris Stamey adds more of his own. Then there's old partner Peter Holsapple, who also knows lots of folks. From his stint as a touring member of R.E.M., he was able to call on Mike Mills for a live recording of Big Star's lovely Jesus Christ, done with Jody Stephens from that group. Keeping with the Big Star theme, Alex Chilton got involved in the past, and his version of The Christmas Song is featured.
On the awesome side is Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams' old band, with an original cut, Houses on the Hill, and Marshall Crenshaw does a good one, (It's Going to be a) Lonely Christmas. New for this year is Yo La Tengo with Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, doing an old Gary U.S. Bonds song Eight Day Weekend, Brett Harris contributing a lovely take on Harry Nillson's Remember (Christmas) and Robyn Hitchcock with a wacky spoken word piece called The Day Before Boxing Day. This set is now up to 22 cuts and over an hour long. Let's hope next time they make it a double set.
Sunday, December 6, 2015
The V.U. Matrix tapes, from a two-night stand in San Francisco in 1969, have been floating around for years on various packages, but this is the first time all available songs have been released, and all in one package. Recorded with a pro set-up installed at the side of the stage by the ownership, it was turned on to grab all four shows the group did those two nights, with some repetition but lots of variety as well.
This is the post-Cale lineup, nothing to sneeze at though, and probably better in focus and reliability. Replacement Doug Yule provided steady bass and organ when needed, plus good backing vocals for Lou Reed, now obviously in charge and the star. The group no longer felt like an art project either. This was a serious show, and could be appreciated by a more mature rock audience of that time. Not that there was much of an audience; anywhere from a dozen to a hundred, at various times in the sets. But those who were there liked it, and were appreciated back by the band.
The V.U.'s sets were still edgy, of course. Reed was still singing about heroin and S&M and NYC street life. And they could wind themselves up into a manic jam, such as the 36-minute version of Sister Ray on set three, the only time it was attempted during the run. But the tunefulness and love of pop songs that Reed also had were on display as well. The basic set featured three-minute hopeful hits We're Gonna Have A Real Good Time Together", Some Kinda Love and There She Goes Again,
Reed was also trying out some of his new stuff that ended up on Loaded, the immortal tracks Rock and Roll and Sweet Jane, the latter quite different, and closer to the speed Cowboy Junkies did it at. Yes, you could pare down this four-disc set to a two-disc one and get rid of lots of repetition (four versions of Heroin, anyone?), but each set has its own distinct charm. Set one has the only Pale Blue Eyes for instance, and closes on Maureen Tucker's always cute After Hours. And while the other three all feature 12 songs, set three only has six, thanks to the epic Sister Ray and the only appearance of Ocean. Might as well have it all.
Saturday, December 5, 2015
Somehow The Jam never really rose above the pack in North America, while contemporaries such as The Clash and Elvis Costello were selling healthy quantities, even getting radio hits. Yet at home, they were the top band in England for a couple of years. Perhaps if they had stayed together a little longer than 1982, the public here would have caught up to them.
The group sits in a hard-to-describe middle ground between punk, New Wave, Mod and soul, with lots of hits and a good deal of misses along the way as well. But you could always count on their energy, and The Jam were known for tremendous live shows. This box has an interesting concept; it features a live set from the six different years they were recording, 1977 - 1982.
All guts and swagger when they first came to the public's attention, the group actually had four years of build-up as social club and pub regulars, doing the cover versions. When punk opened up doors for them, they just turned up the intensity and speed. The first live set here, at punk headquarters the 100 Club in London, sees them padding out the setlist with soul favourites Back In My Arms Again, Heat Wave and In The Midnight Hour, their growing interest in Mod with The Who's So Sad About Us, and Larry Williams via The Beatles cut, Slow Down. Running out of tunes for the enthusiastic crowd, they had to do a final encore of early hit In The City a second time.
A year later, a tighter band with more originals can be heard, and this is one for the big fans, with some rarer cuts indeed getting an airing, including Aunties and Uncles, and as a bonus, a very polished soundcheck version of News of the World. Disc three from 1979 saw them now a major deal, and armed with big hits that pushing the crowds into a frenzy, including the social commentary of Down In The Tube Station At Midnight. As the title suggests, maybe they were just too English with such topics, mentioning take-away curry and Wormwood Scrubs.
Disc Four saw them introducing their best album, Sound Affects, which featured some more melancholy and calmer songs including Monday, mixed in with the usual explosive cuts Start! and But I'm Different Now. For overall strength, this is the best of the shows here, The Jam at their peak. 1981's show goes from hit to hit, now that they had so many, introducing new funky songs such as Town Called Malice and The Gift.
Disc Six is one of their last-ever shows, from a closing run at the Wembley Arena in front of a huge crowd. For the final tour, the group had brought in horns, backing singers and a keyboard player, none of which really add to the songs. They were best as a power trio, bringing the energy to the songs themselves, and like the whole way the group finished, this has a feeling of disappointment to it. They were no longer a people's group, they were Paul Weller's, and he chose to pull the plug despite being outvoted a million to one.
That's water under the bridge now, and The Jam have never lost their status in Great Britain, hence this live box. It's another of these classy small packages, a four-by-six box with the six discs, some post cards, and a very strong hard-bound book with an essay that explains the times and recordings. Maybe it will convince a few more North Americans to hop on board.
Friday, December 4, 2015
The set opens with When Christmas Falls On Peterborough, in tribute to home, done in a rural country style, with charms of a Santa Claus parade, a cold, frosty night and an acoustic feel that would make Lightfoot smile. Next up is the first of many radical departures, Talkin' 'Bout Christmas (Ode to Leon), which, as advertised, presents a big, organ-fired soul groove in the mode of Leon Russell: "Talkin' bout Rudolph, talkin' 'bout Vixen, talkin' 'bout Cupid, Donder and Blitzen."
And on it goes. Prove Your Love This Christmas is as smooth and sexy as Smokey Robinson, definitely for that time after the kids are settled down for a long winter's nap. Snowflakes is something completely different, just piano and emotion, tinkling and gorgeous notes imitating falling snow, the singer looking for someone special visiting at Christmas: "When I open up the door, maybe next year there'll be more/than only snowflakes."
Then there's the wackiness of We Make Toys, a crazy, catchy, snap-along song with elves singing, kind of like those Chipmunk records only a lot more cool. They even do a message song, in the tradition of John and Yoko and others, with What I Want For Christmas, "..is for Christians to behave like Christ, if even for one day like Christ," sounding like Roger McGuinn singing Turn, Turn, Turn. I never thought the Baddest Band in the Land would do a Christmas album, but it turns out they have a big sentimental side. That, and an encyclopedic knowledge of all the various holiday styles makes this another killer in their impeccable catalogue.
Thursday, December 3, 2015
An ambitious and versatile group out of Ottawa, The Bushpilots have a healthy respect for swaggering guitar rock, one part roots, and the rest from Sticky Fingers. That just screams vinyl to me, and this comes in a classic sleeve that looks like it's been sitting in my stacks since university. That's 1978, for those counting (and the rest of you smirking).
Although just six songs long, each side runs about 17 minutes, so I hesitate to call it an EP. All the tracks are rich band workouts, with lots of solid groove workouts filling up the cuts. You Don't Believe Me kicks things off with an electric edge, but they can do the heartache ballad too. Pollyanna lives on its rich piano, but gets driven along by hard-hitting drums and sad vocal from Rob Bennett. The song builds by adding new parts, including a great, ragged backing vocal section, excellent classic horn parts, and finally a coup de grâce guitar solo from Glen Russell.
Don't call it retro, call it rock, it's how it's supposed to be made, and how it still sounds best. Check them out if you are in the Ottawa area on Saturday, Dec. 12. The band will be officially launching the vinyl version (yes, you can get a CD or download too) at The Record Centre. Gee, just what record stores used to be like.
Leave it up to our pals on P.E.I. to have a great time at Christmas, and for a good cause. This set was put together to benefit Special Olympics PEI, and features an all-star Island line-up. Lennie Gallant? Yup, he's here, doing The Little Drummer Boy, those mellow pipes giving us the pa-rum-pa-pa-pums. You're probably sold already.
It's a collection of ten classics, with added Island charm. Gordie MacKeeman & his Rhythm Boys have some fun with God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen, with guest singer (and current Dixie Chicks fave) Meaghan Blanchard taking the guest vocals. Tim Chiasson turns in a beauteous We Three Kings, harmonies supplied by Amy and Rachel Beck. Ashley Condon gives a spirited, folky feel to Go Tell It On The Mountain, and Dennis Ellsworth gets a little misty over Blue Christmas.
Jon Matthews produced and engineered the set, and gives it a warm and rootsy vibe throughout, from the jazz combo feel of Brian J. Dunn and Ian Toms on Winter Wonderland to the sanctuary glow of the Becks' O Holy Night. Paper Lions cap things off in a surprising new arrangement of Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, with close harmonies the whole way through, a great pop version. This is certainly one of the best charity Christmas sets I've heard.
Wednesday, December 2, 2015
Okay, here we go with the Christmas albums. Unlike the music industry, which starts sending them out in October, I won't listen until December, because it's Just. Not. Right.
We can start off the festive month with an semi-old favourite. Dwight's disc came out in 1997, in that strange time between peaks in vinyl interest, and therefore has never had the benefit of being on 33-1/3. Now here it is on holiday-ready green vinyl, sounding just great.
This is a cut above your usual Christmas offering, thanks to Dwight's ability to move between styles and arrangements, his willingness to be playful, and a couple of fine cuts he penned for the set. It starts with the title track, a sad, jazzy number, kind of like a Chet Baker ballad. Then it revs up, switching styles from song to song.
Silver Bells gets a find Tex-Mex arrangement, with great horns. I'll Be Home For Christmas is turned into a '60's soul number, with organ and backing singers. In Santa Claus Is Back In Town, Dwight teases us with a "Ho ho ho, honey", before the fiddle kicks in.
There's a swingin' take on The Christmas Song, with big band accompaniment, followed by an old-timey version of Away In A Manger. Then there's a spacey-lounge reworking of Here Comes Santa Claus, before the party closes with his own Santa Can't Stay that's part-Dwight, part-Phil Spector's Christmas Album.
Well whaddya know? I'm actually getting in the spirit of things.
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
Then there's the time when Brian Wilson invented the unplugged concept, 24 years before MTV's show went on the air. Working hard in the studio on the highly-ambitious Pet Sounds album, Wilson was pressured by Capitol Records for a new album for the Christmas 1965 season. Not wanting to rush his Pet project, instead Wilson started throwing around different ideas for something fast. Since the band had issued a live album the year before, that was out. Instead, he came up with the unique plan to record a party album.
Wilson would assemble The Beach Boys in the studio, but give them all simple instruments, like you would at a house party: acoustic guitars, harmonica, bongos. Then they played some of their favourite songs, old hits they grew up with, current stuff from The Beatles, even Dylan, plus some general clowning around on their own hits.
Then, Wilson added a backing track of "party" sounds. He got his gang together, and they recorded sounds of laughing, chatting, eating chips, general teenage hanging out. This was dubbed into the music tracks, and the Party! album was done, quick and easy. When the loose version of The Regents' old hit Barbara Ann became a huge hit single, the album did very well indeed, and Wilson's idea had paid off.
The trouble was, it wasn't that great of an album. The chatting in behind was annoying, the goofing around childish. But since the actual party never happened, something could be done about that. Here, producers have gone back to the original tapes, and dumped the phony party. Now what you get it the original album as recorded, stripped down, by The Beach Boys and a couple of pals. You bet it's better.
Mostly, you hear what great natural singers they were. Barely rehearsed, still stumbling over the words and chords, the boys gamely go through the chosen songs, quickly coming to solid arrangements that would certainly work in a real live concert. They mimic The Beatles on I Should Have Known Better and Tell Me Why, but turn those songs into California beach classics. The much-maligned Mike Love is heard doing a perfect harmony with Brian on The Everly Brothers' Devoted To You. And Dennis Wilson's You've Got To Hide Your Love Away shows the deeper, mellow voice he would eventually showcase in the early '70's.
So that's a slam-bang success, but what comes next over the rest of the two-CD set, about two hours' worth, is all the sessions and out-takes for the disc. This is very much hit-and-miss stuff, with stops and starts and lots more dumb-ass humour. There were five sessions in total for the album, and lots of repetition of songs. But there are also a few gems that didn't make the final album, and those are the best moments. A couple of takes of Satisfaction are pretty interesting, and if they had remembered more of the words, could easily have made the album. And I'm not sure why they didn't try another take of Blowin' In The Wind, it's a better choice than The Times They Are a-Changin' , which did make the record.
Wilson never did get the unplugged concept perfected. It was a stop-gap, he did it and moved on. The band actually sounds great stripped down when they do a few of their own songs, and that could have easily been a better album than Party!. The instrumentation was not quite right, with the bongos getting pretty annoying after awhile, just as they did in your rec room parties. But this new set makes Party! a better album, and offers a handful of bonus moments as well, if you're willing to sit through some silliness.