Thursday, March 31, 2016
Here's a dream-team duo for folks in the Antipodes, recorded on a joint homeland tour in 2013. Of course, New Zealand's Finn has plenty of fans in these parts, but Australian Kelly remains largely unknown, his music hard to find. He's quite a different performer than Finn, more of a singer-songwriter than a pop band guy, and if he moved to the U.S., he'd live in Austin, not L.A. His songs are charming slices of life, and I think he'd gain a lot more fans with a bit more exposure.
Perhaps this set will help with that. It's a double-CD, recorded at the final show of their joint tour. What could have been an easy trip around the theatres, with each veteran doing their best-known material, turned into a real artistic partnership. Both decided before the tour to put together a whole new band, and learn each other's songs, bringing something new to the performance. As they rehearsed, new rearrangements were added, and they took to trading vocals on the other's material. Sometimes it was a verse, sometimes the whole song. Hearing Kelly do the Crowded House number Into Temptation is a completely different experience, a more solitary examination of guilt. Finn's work on Kelly's songs brings several of them into broader arrangements, harmonies and instruments opening up the melodic secrets of the songs.
They chose band members wisely, making it a family affair. Finn brought along his son Elroy to drum, while Dan Kelly, a nephew of Paul's and a well-known Australian recording artist on his own, came out on guitar and vocals. The fifth member, bass player Zoe Hauptmann, finalized a lineup of five strong singers, ready to throw away all the old arrangements. Finn really seemed to enjoy exploring the new possibilities, ripping open well-known cuts such as Private Universe, starting it as an acoustic number, adding beautiful three-part harmonies, and some haunting harmonica. He went back over his whole career, messing about with Split Enz songs (One Step Ahead, Message To My Girl), and even the one-off Finn Brothers album (Only Talking Sense). Meantime, even if you don't know Kelly now, try out To Her Door, Dumb Things and Before Too Long, all beloved hits back home. Imagine if Bob Dylan and Neil Young went on tour and did this.
Wednesday, March 30, 2016
Not many major league artists leave behind entire albums' worth of unreleased studio material, at least the good stuff. But the late Healey had a treasure chest full that he never got around to dealing with in his short lifetime. These are tracks recorded for his final rock-blues album with the Jeff Healey Band, 2000's Get Me Some. He had recorded lots of tracks that didn't make that album, some he really liked a lot, but never found a way to put them out. That's largely because it was right at the last gasp of the original band, as Healey got fed up with the whole business side, and chucked it all for his main love, traditional jazz.
Now the family trust has put together this set, with some of the colleagues and friends from that time, trusted to make choices Healey would approve. This is a surprisingly hard-rocking set, especially his guitar playing. It features some of his most incendiary solos, and in many cases, start-to-finish loud, unrestrained riffing. The cut Please is one of those, the soloing almost constant. Moodswing is another raver, unlike anything he'd done before. Fans of Healey's guitar work will find a whole new side to his playing here, and will wonder what might have happened had he continued down this road.
Wisely, the folks involved left the tracks alone, choosing to go with bare-bones performances of the trio rather than adding even discrete embellishment. There are some mix issues, some guitar work that might have been replaced or sweetened, but it's always better to hear where the artist was going, rather than hear somebody's guesswork. There are a couple of calmer tracks, including All The Saints, which only had his acoustic guitar and voice, but it's much more effective and beautiful this way, especially contrasted with all the electric guitar blitz. The only disappointment is a cover of Richard Thompson's I Misunderstood, where Healey misses the subtlety and ache of the original. But the 11 other cuts could easily have made one his albums, and that's pretty rare indeed for a posthumous collection.
Monday, March 28, 2016
One of the most unlikely comebacks in pop music history sees this brand-new collection from cult figure Rhodes. A one-time 70's chart hopeful, he had precisely one entry to his name, 1971's Fresh As A Daisy, which stalled at #54. At least his '60's band, The Merry-Go-Round, had done slightly better, with two singles breaking the Top 100 in 1967. He was better known for his three albums early on in the '70's, which he wrote, recorded and produced himself, highly-regarded but time-consuming to create. Under a ridiculous contract to deliver an album every six months, Rhodes saw his career wrecked, unable to get out of the contract or get any royalties, so eventually he just gave up, and moved into work as an engineer and producer.
There was always a small following, and slowly but surely others picked up on him. The 2000's started with an old song featured on The Royal Tenenbaums soundtrack, then came tentative steps back in the game; a cut here and there for various small projects, a Record Store Day single, and then some folks familiar with his work started helping him out in the L.A. area, such as Richard Thompson and a couple of Bangles.
Still shy of the recording industry, finally young fan/producer Chris Price convinced him back for this full album, with the help of a Pledge Music campaign. Price rounded up more of his friends, and turned them on Rhodes, including Aimee Mann, Jellyfish members Roger Manning and Jason Falkner, members of Brian Wilson's band, Susanna Hoffs, and Wilco's Nels Cline.
So, that's the whole back story you need to know, and the good news is that the comeback has indeed been successful. Rhodes is a strong pop artist, with a compelling, warm voice, and some fine, emotional songs. Instead of making the stars shine here, Price puts them all in anonymous support roles, the focus staying firmly on Rhodes' voice and words. There's a melancholy through it all, no doubt the result of some troubles over his 66 years, but you're not left searching for damage or music business shell-shock. Indeed, the strength of his voice is remarkable, and the quality of the songs consistently strong.
It does have a shiny '70's vibe to it, and the radio in my head has these numbers playing on a summer's eve in the calm hours when the program director won't allow screechy electric guitar solos. And there are a couple that get a little too mellow, a little too close to an England Dan and John Ford Coley sound. But on everything else, this is a darn fine pop album, '70's touches but for those fans who have grown along with times.
Sunday, March 27, 2016
The future is now, and any doubts are answered, any small concern now moot, gone. Down Below, The Status Quo takes us way past any easy retro-soul label, no matter how much one loves that classic sound. Soul music is still the base of what Costelo does, but this is so clearly her own big, wonderful, ambitious, exciting music. Seriously, these are 10 cuts that take you through a variety of emotions, with grand rave-ups, gorgeous, sweeping ballads, and a new mix that is all her own. That Southern soul is still there, but so is a big-city jazz feel, plus intense, emotional singer-songwriter lyrics. Plus, there's a great flow to the order of the tracks, the sequence of the songs, taking us from fun to quiet to climax to denouement.
You can tell Costelo worked exceptionally hard on these songs in the production phase, and yes, she is the producer. The arrangements and the chosen instruments and voices are placed perfectly, the tempos can shift in a moment, and seamlessly. But she also doesn't rely on these elements to carry the song; the strings don't soar, she does, her voice carrying all the drama, the instruments adding the colour. It's a piano album for sure, but one where the keyboard is used almost equally as a percussion element as a melodic one.
Here's a snapshot, dropping in on a couple of cuts: The song Low, third on the album, comes in with crafty percussion and bass, a dark mood, a flute thrown in before a first blast of intensity, a rising chorus with Costelo and singers doing stabs of "high, high, high" before sinking low. Funky horns step in when needed, and it feels like Shaft, only more sophisticated. Next comes Fighter, a slower tempo, as Dave Marsh from The Emergency lays down a tough beat and Costelo comes out swinging, as mean as Nina Simone. Then Clive MacNutt stings like a bee on the craziest guitar solo you can imagine, yet it works perfectly.
The second-to-last song, Titanic, is written with Stephen Fearing (the pair have done several together the past few years), the only co-write on the disc. It's the emotional high point of the collection, a quiet, soft ballad that features a stunning instrumental moment between sections, with a fluttering harp, strings from the Blue Engine String Quartet, and orchestral percussion, which made me catch my breath. That's about the time I noticed the "String and Horn arrangements by Erin Costelo" credit. An ocean of soul, and beyond.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
This collection was made, ostensibly, to celebrate the sub-genre of country music that comes from Southern writers, with old values of family, tradition, faith, community and the land. And while those are the common themes here, more importantly, it's also a collection of modern country music and songwriters that offer a lot of hope for the future of the form. It's proof there's life past the packaged pablum of the last 20 years, and the re-purposed rock music that's passed for country.
Some of the young turks are here, including Jamey Johnson, Shooter Jennings, Anderson East and Chris Stapleton. There are some of the more respected star names of Nashville, including Miranda Lambert and Zac Brown. Then there are some of the favourite Nashville songwriters these days, people such as Brandy Clark and Brent Cobb, who are respected for their work that returns to core country styles.
The curators did a bang-up job with this, as it filled with high-quality, soulful writing, songs feel honest and heartfelt. Clark's I Cried has emotional appeal sorely lacking in Top 40 country. Jason Isbell's God is a Working Man would be trite from a lesser writer's pen, but he relates real Southern stories that connect whether you're a believer or not. East and Jennings both bring life to the party, making sure this isn't too sentimental a collection.
There's always the danger that the family values theme can get a little too overdone, and that happens here with both Brown and Johnson's tracks. They each try to walk the road Merle Haggard paved with Mama Tried back in '68, a #1 hit, but overdone since as a theme. Brown sings about Grandma's Garden, and Johnson' reminisces about Mama's Table. It's the fine line between homage and cliche, but the performances are bang-on. As enjoyable as this whole set is, the fact there's a growing interest in these types of songs is even more pleasing.
Tuesday, March 22, 2016
Honestly, I've been waiting for these guys to give me another song as infectious as Weighty Ghost for awhile, through two albums. Not that they haven't given us good stuff, but heck, I have a book out with that song listed as one of the country's Top 100 singles, like, ever. How's about another of those, I'm thinking.
I'm happy to say the lead cut and single here, Amerika, has that same spark, and so does most of the rest of album. Cut after cut, joyous melodies and matching vocals are met with big drums, some nifty keyboard parts and the mystery band element, a kind of otherworldly sonic presence. No, not ghosts, more alien I reckon. Hey, it's late.
The most enjoyable part is the upbeat energy across the album. More Than has a great closing part with gang vocals, and the infectious bass work on Spirit, matched with some crunchy guitar and more happy chanting makes that track another potential hit. As for a celebrity cameo, a bass part by Mr. Geddy Lee on Territory works just fine, thank you very much. It's inspired from start to finish.
Sunday, March 20, 2016
Celebrating 20 years of the Truckers existence and 30 years of playing in bands together, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley and the current, very stable line-up of the group hit their favourite venue for this live, 3-CD album. And they really did pull out all the stops for it. Recorded over 3 nights at the Fillmore in San Francisco, the band worked up a special multi-night selection that covered all eras of their existence, and even some early cuts from Hood and Cooley's previous band. They even splurged on some horns for the occasion,
With three-plus hours of music, the band has plenty of time to show off what they do best, which is make big story-songs with lots and lots of guitar. Hood especially writes big tales of the south, mostly character-driven. There are family tales, such as one about his grandfather, narrated at the start to explain, then developed into Box of Spiders. Taking these small, proud characters, he builds them up into stars no less important than Springsteen's parents and cousins and Jersey pals. He also explores the modern South with equal pride in working-class heroes zeroes.
There are moments of modern mythology, like the song Ronnie and Neil, which looks at the story of Neil Young writing Southern Man and Alabama, Ronnie Van Zandt answering with Sweet Home Alabama, and how the musicians became good friends. We go to Muscle Shoals to watch Aretha Franklin record, and get to know some other friends in Girls Who Smoke. All these big narratives happen in a wash of fuzzy chords and feedback, a thick sound that is always supercharged. Drive-By Truckers have always been at their very best live, and this is their very best. The CD version is very affordable at $25.00, or you can also splurge for a 5-LP box going for around $88 (not bad at all), or a 2-LP set edited from this called This Weekend's The Night, at $32 (all prices the current listings from amazon.ca).
Thursday, March 17, 2016
Whether or not veteran blues/roots performer Rob Lutes and jazz vibraphonist Michael Emenau set out to create something totally new is beside the point; they did, it's here in this genre-ignoring group, Sussex. If you put a gun to my head, I'd start throwing terms out, such as singer-songwriter jazz, or jazz-folk, or roots jazz. But really, it's more like "The guy who writes roots folk, blues and jazz songs on acoustic guitar teams up with a vibraphone player with beautiful melodies, and they colour it with violin, acoustic bass, trumpet and some electric guitar." File under:
Emenau and Lutes are two old friends from back in New Brunswick, who even played in the same high school band, went their separate paths, but hooked up again in 2014. They even named their joint project after a New Brunswick town. As for how such a combo of theirs would work, there were certainly no precedents out there, but it turned out to be a natural fit. With hints of early jazz, folk and blues material, both found common ground. Lutes, a spry and light-hearted lyricist, keeps the fun going and the pace lively. Emenau, on that most heavenly instrument, pours on a supply of wonderful, surprising notes, a beautiful compliment to Lutes' aching vocals.
Sage Reynolds' bass and Josh Zubot's violin are integral to the album's sound as well, and Ben Charest's guitar lines and Ivanhoe Jolicoeur's trumpet provide some special moments as well. Truth and Lies is an especially exciting number, as Emenau chases Lutes' quick vocal with ringing notes of his own, Zubot and Reynolds scooting along as well, dashing from key change to key change. This is new, I want more.
Wednesday, March 16, 2016
The title cut is Z.Z. Top-style stomper, which explodes into a major lead after some heavy-duty crunch-filled verses. Got Love moves a little more to the rock side, with a big hook catching us in the chorus. The guitar stays king right across the album, with lots of Durst's slide driving solos as well. It only calms down at the end, with the lovely sign-off tune, I Regret To Say ("I cannot play my guitar today"). He doesn't mean it though, thanks goodness. Durst's at a blazing peak with this one.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
It's been six years since the Crew last released an album, not coincidentally the same amount of time since leader Colepaugh took over lead guitar duties with fellow NB'er Roch Voisine, joining the Acadian star on his international tours. While he has less time to devote to his own activities, that's led Colepaugh to take his time, working while he can on recording. It gave him some room for reflection perhaps, and the big move here is deciding how much he wanted to rock.
This is CCCC in its purest form, a riff-happy set of loud rock songs, classic guitar-bass-drums solidly locked into the '70's. Even the bluesiest, slowest number here, Thinkin' About You, is wall-to-wall layered guitar, sweet tones and crunching chords. With a bedrock bottom end, the rest of the album is Colepaugh providing monster lines, showing both his lead skills and his ability to coax all sorts of cool tones out of his gear.
Colepaugh is also singing great on this one, a little more oomph to go along with the power. And, the material is still highly-tuneful, with lots of strong melody lines and plenty of added hooks to sweeten the deal. The album closes with a lone cover, the Big Star power-pop classic When My Baby's Beside Me, where Colepaugh adds his own arrangement of a middle break which fits in perfectly. The guy's totally connecting with his guitar these days, and it's the band's best start-to-finish effort in a 20-plus year career.
Sunday, March 13, 2016
British R'n'B singer Hunter has been around since the 80's, but first became known as a protege of Van Morrison, who spotted him in London clubs. Then he had a breakthrough album a decade ago with his first album in these parts, People Gonna Talk, a vocal gem. Somehow the promise of that didn't come through, so in a very smart move, he's found a natural home with the soul powerhouse Daptone Records.
Daptone fans certainly know the horn-driven, retro-influenced sound of label stars Sharon Jones and Charles Bradley, but Hunter offers a somewhat different style, just as piping, but a little earlier on the soul scale. The small, tight horn punches are still there, but it's more sophisticated, less Stax-raw. This is late '50's-influenced, more jazzy at times, people such as Ray Charles, Bobby Bland, even a little Jackie Wilson. You can hear what Morrison liked about him, the similar loves.
There's also more room in Hunter's tunes to mix up the sounds. Satchel Foot, an instrumental where the Six get to show off, has twangy surf guitar and chugging sax on top of organ, a nod back to the sounds of Georgie Fame holding court in the early '60's London clubs. But what will bring you back time and again is Hunter's grand voice, a remarkable blend of smooth and gruff, able to bend into the blue notes with deep emotion and a ton of groove.
Saturday, March 12, 2016
Multi-cultural, multi-genre, multi-influenced, multi-talented, multi-everything, Montreal's Neema is impossible to categorize or limit. Her unique life experiences inform both her words and music, reflecting time spent in Egypt and the Far North, plus growing up Lebanese and Egyptian. She's worked and traveled with First Peoples, taught street children, backbacked through the Far East, studied guitar and voice with more Egyptian masters, earned a management degree, and to top it all off, has been guided in her career by her hometown friend, Leonard Cohen, who she famously met on the street.
All this and more mixes into a one-off combination of traditional folk song values, modern and world sounds, a spiritual outlook and a world-wise sense of humour and play. There's a gentle, compassionate tone to many of the songs, offering words of understanding and hope. Even loneliness and breakup is reflected on in the bigger picture: "Cuz at the end of all our worries, at the end of all our lies. we're just two kids trying to survive," she sings in That's Where I'll Be. Later, "I'm taking time to go and ease my mind," is the last thought in that song. The death of her sister is tackled in the title cut, dealing with that loss, and honouring her memory.
Often Neema's words break through into the most powerful of poetry, those simple, undeniable, plain-spoken lines that hit and stick: "I send you love, I send you light, I send you hope with all my might," she sings in For You, a duet with the majestic Emmylou Harris. Even the translated version of Steve Earle's Goodbye, sung in French, transcends into a healing offering. With various musical soundscapes and cultural influences throughout the album, Neema's understanding of people and artistic forms far and wide gives here the ability to create remarkable music.
Thursday, March 10, 2016
Here's a set that falls somewhat in between the current reissue campaign of Tull albums. The group's albums have been appearing in chronological order for the most part, in tremendous boxes. But this set was a compilation of sorts, released in 1972 at the height of the group's fame, after the breakthrough success of Aqualung and Thick As A Brick. It was meant to collect all the odd tracks, British singles and rare things, plus introduce new fans to the older stuff. It certainly did the job, hitting #3 on the Billboard charts.
So to find a place for this set, it's been reissued on vinyl, a double-album in a heavyweight pressing, with the original deluxe booklet with dozens of photos included. There are no new tracks, but that's because all the extras and out-takes and such have ended up on the other reissues. Plus, this was essentially a "deluxe set" of the day, made up of b-sides, U.K.-only singles, the British-only cuts for the "Live Is A Long Song" EP, five in all. Side three is live, two cuts from Carnegie Hall in 1970, with requisite flute solos. And there's only the slightest bit of padding, a song each from four different albums, just to fill up the sides presumably.
The real surprise came when the title cut was released as a single in North America, a full three years after its release in England. It went Top 20 in both Canada and the U.S., and became the group's all-time biggest chart hit. A darn good cut too, and if you don't have it on another compilation or greatest hits, it's a must. In fact as rare tracks sets go, this is aces. Even though most of the cuts are showing up again on the individual album reissues, this was always a very good album, and nice to have it back in vinyl.
Wednesday, March 9, 2016
After the all-out assault of 2014's Armageddon Blues, where Harness unleashed a surprising torrent of political numbers, taking aim at the Tories, corporations, the greedy and powerful, this album sees him return to his more usual fare. Perhaps he's feeling the sunny ways, or at least a bit of a relief. So back to matters of the heart, tongue-in-cheek jibes, and some heart-felt, purely positive thoughts.
Our title cut is a fine image, a stoplight moon being that brief, impactful moment in the city, when you catch a glimpse of nature stuck among the nighttime buildings. Where The Spirit Resides is a celebration of the best of people: "It's in the one who asks forgiveness, and the one who offers it." Still Learning is a gentle, touching look at parenthood by someone not quite at ease with the situation, but happy to be there.
It's not all so positive; Old Hippie is a pretty hilarious shot at a stereotypical 60-something, who might have gone to Woodstock, and still thinks he's that same guy, but doesn't know he capitulated sometime in the '70's. "You still believe in peace, but only as an abstract concept/meanwhile you have some property you want to lease." And there's a hurtin' country song, called, umm, I Hurt.
So, easier fare, until you dig into the lyrics and discover the depth of Harness's observances, and understand of what makes us tick. Some writers can put a whole world in one song.
Tuesday, March 8, 2016
Here's the collection blues fans who watched the Marks-hosted HIFI TV series Cities In Blue have been calling for since it started airing in 2014. A strong concept about the bedrock cities of the blues, eight in all (Chicago, Memphis, etc.), Marks was not only the perfect guy to lead the journey, he was also the heart of the program, contributing his own new music for each destination. You have to have knowledge, interest and sweeping ability to move from style to style, and create new music that compliments the sacred sounds of each blues home.
Marks also put together an A-list of Toronto players, also able to do anything from electric Chicago to classic Piedmont. The brothers Whiteley are here, producer Alec Fraser on bass, drummers Bucky Berger and Al Cross, David Rotundo on harp, Julian Fauth on keys, and several more. But key to it all is Marks, both vocally and on guitar, digging out just the right instrument for each selection, and selecting the right players.
If you're not completely familiar with each city's classic style, Marks gives you the goods in a tune that could have come from one of the local masters. Kansas City Shout swings along with lines about 12th Street and Vine, a jazzy piano from Fauth, and references to Big Joe Turner. Memphis Got Soul has horn nods to Stax, guitar for B.B., and shout-outs to Sun Records, the whole stew down there. Heading Down to New Orleans has an easy stroll, and in it you can hear the common root of jazz and blues and whatever else gets thrown in. Hey, New York Town! is sophisticated and modern, with a hint of danger and nightlife in there.
Best of all, the songs are fresh and fun, as current as they are in classic styles. In lesser hands, these stylistic tributes could have come out as cliched facsimiles, but Marks has written, and the band has played, strong new cuts that would work well on their own, even if we weren't happily joining him on the travelogue.
Monday, March 7, 2016
For the most part the songs feature just Sarkar on guitar or piano, along with Adam Fine's upright bass, an intimate and warm production. There's the occasional embellishment, a helpful banjo, dobro, violin or mandolin, but mostly you sink back with Sarkar's easy, mellow voice. Philip is a lyrical departure, a violent death in vivid detail, once again showing Sarkar's visual songwriting abilities. The Open Way has the easy-going swagger of Gram Parsons' solo works, Andrew Sneddon's dobro and Rebecca Zolkower's harmonies sweet accompaniment.
Then there's the tribute to Halifax songwriter and poet Tanya Davis, an inspired bit of writing that matches her impact: "You don't know what she's feeling or what she will say, but you know that the next drink will taste different." As much as I like the grandness of Bend The River's 2014 album So Long Joan Fontaine, Sarkar does small just as potently.
Sunday, March 6, 2016
Charles Kelley has used the downtime between Lady Antebellum albums and tours to start on his solo career. Unlike some who use solo work to explore different interests, Kelley's definitely continuing to go for a successful country career, going with big name guests, and lots of potential hits. The title cut earned him a Grammy nomination right out of the block when released as a single last fall, in a one-off trio with Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay.
Even though Kelley's a true southerner (from Atlanta), he's never sung in a forced twang, and has one of the smoothest Nashville voices around. That suits him well on broad mix, from the basic rock of Your Love to the soulful Dancing Around It. Ironically, the song where his voice does fall flat is the cover of Tom Petty's Southern Accents, where despite the guest pipes of Stevie Nicks, he doesn't have enough personality to pull it off. Much better is his version of Canadian Donovan Woods' Leaving Nashville, where he sings the sadness of 10,000 would-be songwriters who never do make it. Overall, this set sounds a bit more sincere than the carefully-crafted Lady Antebellum albums, and it does set him up nicely for more solo work down the road.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
If you ever end up in David Francey's company, just be careful what you say. He may seem terrifically friendly in person (I can vouch for that), but tell him something personal, if it's interesting enough, he could turn it into a song. Just ask the guy from California who sat beside him on a plane trip, telling him all about being a football coach in the past, and how he was heading to the Holy Land. The story became the song here, Holy Ground. Francey has an ear for stories.
More often though, he has an eye for them. He observes moments, actions, expressions, stillness, places and sometimes just things. The title cut is about the empty trains Francey noticed in B.C., banging and crashing along, and how that noisy emptiness can be what it's like for a lonely person. Mirror Ball is about that ultimate spectator's sport, sitting alone at a dance, watching but not participating.
As always, these moments, small as they might be, became bigger and richer when served up as folk songs by Francey. Timeless and enthusiastic, this is about the joy of playing and crafting, the same as it ever was. It's also far removed from the hipster folk scene. Francey grew his beard a long time ago, and he earned it!