Sunday, June 24, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STILL ON THE RUN - THE JEFF BECK STORY (Blu-ray)

"There's everybody else and then there's Jeff Beck." That's a pretty great statement, especially coming from a well-known guitar player, Joe Perry. "I don't even know what he's doing half the time." That's a pretty stunning statement, considering it's Eric Clapton talking. There's a whole lot of other stars ready to praise Beck through this documentary, from Jimmy Page to Rod Stewart to Dave Gilmour, but more importantly over the course of the film we are able to understand what sets him apart. That's a tough thing in music, showing what makes someone great and different, especially when we're up at that level of expertise. Clapton, Page, Gilmour, the late George Martin and various band mates from over the years, famous or not, point out the characteristics and inquisitive nature that makes him tick. Martin points out that more than anyone else, the guitar is Beck's voice, and that's the way to listen to him. Our eyes and ears do the rest.

Just as remarkable is the steadfast way he kept going for the music rather than the fame. Hearing his story from The Yardbirds til today, it's obvious he only ever made decisions based on integrity instead of money and applause. He quit The Yardbirds two dates into a North American package tour that had the band doing three songs on a bill with lightweight pop stars. He broke up the famed Jeff Beck Group (with Rod Stewart and Ron Wood) two weeks before Woodstock. He'd start new groups to learn and advance, and generally follow his muse. He sat out great stretches of the '80's and beyond, not for lack of offers but because he didn't feel he fit in the button-pushing technology of the day. The last decade, the guitar player who could join any band or have the most famous people back him, instead chooses to play with relative unknowns but excellent musicians he's met, often women who excel equally as their male peers.

He seems remarkably humble and even-keeled, although since he's not interested in show biz gossip and star worship, the documentary doesn't dwell on any of that. All we really learn about him personally is that he loves working on cars just as much as playing music. Fair enough, In biographies you generally, and rightly, look for important clues from an artist's personal life that have affected their art, but Beck does seem to be that singular person who is exactly as he seems. The big emotional highlight of the story is a memory of being taken to the Hollywood Bowl during The Yardbird's first American tour, and thinking what an honour it would be to play it, and then having that happen finally like, 45 years later, long after it was due, and still being so proud and awestruck over it. It's probably a really good thing that he's not over-the-top famous like those other stars singing his praises, because it's kept him refreshingly humble.

Bonus features: Not much, a five-song excerpt from a 2007 show in Montreux, but of course, he's awesome.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHANNON SHAW - SHANNON IN NASHVILLE

Richly produced at Dan Auerbach's Music City studio, with all his bells and tricks and thickness, Shaw has the big and interesting voice to pull off such lushness. She falls somewhere between early '60's girl group and James Bond theme-singer, natural, compelling but not a show-off or vocal gymnast. She knows how to put a lot of emotion and mystery into the tunes. Auerbach adds all the drama, digging into a ton of production tricks and little treats from his grab-bag of '60's strategies.

It's really a master class in sounds and layers, Auerbach able to take all the early '60's techniques and apply modern effects and depth in the multi-channel pallet. For instance, everything doesn't have to be drenched in the same echo, he can do that to individual parts, in various amounts. Cymbals can come to the front, backing vocalists can be more ethereal, strings can explode on entrance. Spector, Bacharach, Brian Wilson, they'd all nod with appreciation, if not a little jealousy about how their old tricks can get repurposed with such ease. Meanwhile Shaw's characters are in a constant state of upset, heartbroken, confused, rejected, alone, haunted. Leslie Gore would understand.This one's especially made for vinyl fans.

Friday, June 22, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALONE WITH CHRISSIE HYNDE (DVD)

A fascinating and very different documentary on Hynde, which instead of the usual talking heads and archival footage, has the camera following her around from city to city, doing what she does. A lot of it involves being alone, something she is not only used to, but has come to realize she prefers. It was also the name of her last album with The Pretenders, so it fits beautifully. Hynde of course has always been an interesting character, and she still is, maybe even more so, with age and wisdom.

Hynde shows us the upside of being solo personally, from being able to spend months on her new interest, painting, to all the quiet time she finds to stroll gardens in London or stores in Paris, shopping for clothes. She goes back to her hometown, Akron, and talks about the her childhood, and the loneliness of middle America. There are laugh moments too, clowning around with her pal Sandra Bernhard on her radio show, and joking with the documentary crew, pretty much a running conversation through the whole 90 minutes. There were probably dozens of hours of footage that got edited, and I have the feeling it was all interesting. I don't think she can have a dull conversation. In the end, you're left with a much better understanding of her, definitely more normal than your usual celebrity. She's very down to earth, and pretty much likes what she likes, and does what she does, and would rather be left alone. Sounds pretty normal.

What about the music then? There are a few songs spread throughout from recent shows, but it doesn't give you the full experience. So wisely this DVD includes a real treat, a full show from the original Pretenders lineup, on the famous German TV show Rockpalast, from 1981. That's just after the release of Pretenders II, with the band at their peak, before the OD deaths of original guitar and bass players James Honeyman Scott and Pete Farndon. I wouldn't call that a bonus, I'd call it a double-feature.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAT LEPOIDEVIN - CAPTAIN MYLES & THE SPR

Fun! Pat LePoidevin's new one is a concept sci-fi trip to outer space and the future, as seen through the eyes of two explorer kids. Captain Myles and Lucy are two members of the Society of Planet Research (SPR), a group of future kids who build a space ship out of discarded parts from junkyards, and go on an adventure. It's a deceptive little adventure that seems childlike on the surface but is all about relationships, both childhood and adult, responsibility (adults kind of fail at that one), where we're headed down the road, and all this crazy technology we're getting so used to and dependent on.

That's just my reading of it, LePoidevin probably has a few other tricks up his sleeve embedded in the story and the game. That's right, the game, because there's a video game too, over at www.patlepoidevin.com. I'm no gamer, so I'll stick with the tunes, which are pretty easy-going and easy to follow, which is preferable in a concept album. It's good to have a story that's understandable. Musically, it's your basic indie with a twangy guitar doing much of the talking, along with LePoidevin's plaintive telling of the tale.

It's a tour too, as LePoidevin's taking the rocket ship on the road. He's waltzing through the Maritimes to start, with shows in the following:

Friday, June 22 - Governors' Pub, Sydney, N.S.
Sun., June 24 - Buddha Bear Cafe/Holy Whale Brewery, Alma N.B, 3 PM
Sun., June 24 - Baba's Lounge, Charlottetown, 8 PM
Friday, June 29 - Broad Cove Hall, South Shore, N.S.
Sat., June 30 - The Seahorse, Halifax
Thurs, July 5 - The Commune New Glasgow, N.S.
Friday, July 6 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Sat., July 7 - Red Herring, St. Andrews, N.B.

Monday, June 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BARRA MACNEILS - ON THE BRIGHT SIDE

It's been a long time between albums for the MacNeil clan. The last was a Christmas album in 2013, and before that, not counting collaborative releases or live shows, it was All At Once in 2005 when the group last recorded a proper set of new stuff. Not that they haven't been busy of course; touring throughout Canada, the U.S. and Europe has seen them earn their nickname of Canada's music ambassadors, considered one of the top groups in the Celtic scene.  They must have been itching to do it; the new album has kicked off a string of live dates the last few months, partying it up in Toronto this week. Having caught one lately, I can report they're kicking up a storm.

What has always set the group apart has been the flexibility of the family, each member able to bring something different to the table. That means they can be as trad as can be for the purists, but can also throw in a couple of curve balls with some modern pop sounds. Here we get an instrumental jig to start things off, "Welcome To Boston," but by cut three, Living The Dream, it's a track with a funky beat, singing about modern conveniences and overspending, getting their house with "a satellite dish and a couple of cats." Of course it's delivered so fresh and fun, it fits in well with all the lively Celtic stuff. And by the next track, Ribhinn Donn, which Lucy sings entirely in Gaelic, a lovely number able to stir any heart. The men show off their vocal prowess too, on the a cappella The Underachiever, which sounds like some ancient sea shanty but features a modern lyric about the trials of someone who can't get ahead. Daisy could be a standout track on any singer-songwriter record, Lucy shining again, only the slightest trad touch coming from the driving bouzouki line. Clouds Under My Feet is even more surprising, with its Euro-beat and thick bass and drums, Lucy channeling her inner Annie Lennox. Pretty crafty, these MacNeils, yes they're Celtic, but they're Celtic-plus.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LUCKY LOSERS - BLIND SPOT

Gritty and funky, The Lucky Losers come from the Bay Area of California, and are the duo of Cathy Lemons and Phil Berkowitz. Most of their songs are built around their strong vocals, either duet or solo, and a devotion to the '60's/'70's Stax/Volt/Hi Records sound. They do that exceptionally well, including a vein of the psychedelic blues that came along at that point, and lots of modern, electric grooves.

Backed by a team of West Coast all-star players, the duo leave lots of room for those musicians to shine as well, and the album features a ton of stand-out parts, including some blistering solos from guitarist Laura Chavez on Supernatural Blues and fun violin by Annie Staninec (Rod Stewart) on Make A Right Turn. Berkowitz provides a soulful harmonica thoughout as well, a necessary ingredient for the grit. Berkowitz and Lemons have a cool blend, with his smoother, higher range and her gutsy toughness, although she can get sweet too, providing the second part in Bulldogs & Angels. Most importantly though, it's all new material, the two each writing a wide selection of material, with lots of social comment, not just the boy-girl stories that duets albums often get stuck on. It may be based on a retro sound but it still feels fresh and forward-moving.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMMYLOU HARRIS - THE BALLAD OF SALLY ROSE (Expanded Edition)

Given Harris's iconic status, it's surprising to realize she had her share of flops too, and fell out of favour in the country world for a long stretch. Now she's Americana, the ultimate roots artist, but back in 1985 she was still considered a Nashville star. That is, until this concept album. She called it a country opera, and it marked her first release after her personal and professional split with producer Brian Ahern. Instead it was made with new partner Paul Kennerley, the songwriter who bequeathed her the hit Born To Run (not the Springsteen one). For the first time since her obscure 1969 folk debut, Harris would write all the songs, quite a departure for an artist who had made her name with striking cover versions, known as the singer's singer.

Harris had a story she wanted to get out, a personal one. Sally Rose was based on herself, and this was a re-imagination of her time with the legendary Gram Parsons. Harris had sung harmonies at his side for a year, and had made it her career goal to continue his music after he died. The story told of Sally Rose wasn't true-to-life, and a lot more than just the names were changed. It had been mythologized, but the point was clear, Sally loved The Singer, as Emmylou had loved Gram.

Country radio had loved Emmylou, but didn't for the singles from this album. They were perhaps a little too involved in the plot, not obvious and easy to digest, and even too smart. That translated into diminished album sales and a lack of tour buzz too. Wouldn't you know it, Harris had made the most substantial album of her career, and also just torpedoed it. She went back to covers soon after, and spent a decade bouncing around stylistically before teaming up with Daniel Lanois for Wrecking Ball, attracting a new audience that became known as Americana, and once again feeling confident in her writing skills.

What everybody realized now is that not only could she write, she was fantastic, and this album was a gem. The story of Sally Rose's climb to fame while The Singer declines is actually more like A Star Is Born rather than the Gram-Emmylou tale, but no matter, the individual songs are tight and the tale fun to follow: "You better move fast 'cause tickets are tight/if you wanna see Sally Rose pick it tonight."

This reissue comes with new liner notes explaining the story and what happened, including Harris's own: "The album was a bust in commercial terms." Now it comes with a second disc of the original acoustic demos of most of the album tracks, and in many cases I like that stripped-down takes just as much if not more. The hope from all involved is now it will find a larger audience, and her new roots fans would be wise to go back and discover it.

Friday, June 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ERIC CLAPTON - LIFE IN 12 BARS (Blu-ray or DVD), LIFE IN 12 BARS (Soundtrack)

While you think you may know everything about Clapton, you'll still find lots to learn in this documentary, made with his blessing and participation, but not his interference. Director Lili Zanuck was given access to all the footage and photos he'd been storing up, and carte blanche for a story line. Clapton doesn't really have much to hide, as he told all, quite painfully, in his autobiography several years back, so the all the booze, drugs, infidelity, obsession and heartache was already on the table. What Zanuck was able to to do was invite more people to give their observations. They don't pull punches, especially exes. A real find was one of his oldest friends, an early bandmate from his first groups, The Roosters, one Ben Palmer, who stayed around as Cream's road manager, and then a friend. He's able to bring us lots of insight into what drove Clapton. Also Clapton's aunt, who witnessed some of the terrible hurt his mother caused in his life, was able to show how that trauma affected him through his adult life. In the end though, it's Clapton himself who has the best perspective, able to sift through all the lies and failings in his life, the wasted years as an addict and alcoholic, and his inability to form a genuine relationship, until conquering all those demons after the death of his son, Conor. The film really ends with the release of the cathartic Tears In Heaven, except for some well-earned accolades and his significant charity work, but that's okay, we get the point that he got his act together and the drama largely ended.

One thing the film fails to do is showcase just what an exceptional guitar player he is, focusing on the life story as it does. That's solved too, with the double-CD soundtrack. There are of course tons of Clapton collections available, from box sets to live-only compilations to blues-only to a dozen or more best-ofs, but this certainly is one of the better overviews. Playing through this mostly-familiar material, the inventiveness and sheer excellence hit home, especially going quickly from style to style, as he did in the late '60's. Going from the Bluesbreaker's All Your Love to Cream's crazy pop of I Feel Free to the power of Sunshine Of Your Love to his historic solo on The Beatles' While My Guitar Gently Weeps, the breadth of it all is spectacular. The film wisely used his guest playing on Aretha Franklin's Good To Me As I Am To You, two giants in their heyday.  There are a few cuts with that "previously unreleased" asterisk beside them, although nothing too important. There's a live version of Cream doing Spoonful, but at over 17 minutes, it feels like you had to be there to enjoy it. A song recorded for the aborted second Derek and the Dominos album, High, gets its first official release here, although it's been well-bootlegged over the years, and isn't much to write home about. Better is a live Little Wing from that same band, and the original, 6'50" version of I Shot The Sheriff is a nice extra treat. The other treat is that there's nothing after 1974 except Tears In Heaven, but that's just me being catty.

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANA SIPOS - TRICK OF THE LIGHT

Dana Sipos likes being outdoors, in the woods or biking and canoeing around, so it's fitting she's playing tonight (June 15) on Ministers Island in St. Andrews, N.B. It's an outdoor show at the amazing Bath House on the historic Van Horne property, only accessible during low tide. No doubt it will be a wonderful evening experience, starting at 7 p.m.

That's just the start of the East Coast tour though, as Sipos promotes her new Trick Of The Light album. Always keen on pushing the boundaries of folk, it's unclear where and when her songs are set, both musically and lyrically. Both Shenandoah and the Blue Ridge Mountains show up, but are they places or states of mind, those iconic folk spots? The language and references are equally blurry. The hurricanes approaching in Lily In The Window could be today's bad weather or last century's, as the singer thinks they are payback for wicked ways: "Too much moonshine, not enough God-fearing," she sings. But in another weather number, Windsong, drivers notice the glow of the nearby power plant. There's more great observation later in that song, as they drive by "under the watchful eyes of the bovine, chewing hard and staring us down."

The music is based around Sipos' haunting, 19th century voice, a tremendously evocative instrument in itself. She lingers over words, "walking in the rain" becoming a slow stroll over several notes. Producer Sandro Perri, equally adventurous, puts a combination of old instruments and new sounds around her, including violin, which matches her voice -- or vice-versa. Her own gentle picking is matched with piano or keyboards and light percussion, and the occasional eerie bits of electronics surprisingly make it feel more ancient that modern. To put a final ribbon on it, everyone's favourite eccentric, Mary Margaret O'Hara, joins to add vocal calisthenics on When The Body Breaks.

In addition to Ministers Island, Sipos plays Saturday, June 16 at the Arts and Culture Centre in Sussex, N.B., Monday June 18 in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse Brewpub, plus a few house concerts in N.S. Then she's at the Full Circle Festival in Windsor, N.S. from June 22- 24, and the Oakdene Centre in Bear River, N.S. on Monday, June 25.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - WILL I LEARN TO LOVE AGAIN?

Poor Thomas Stajcer. Joel Plaskett's had him locked up inside of the bunker that is his New Scotland Yard studio, where Stajcer's the in-house engineer. Wouldn't you know thought, that anyone with such good ears would be a musician as well. While he's been slaving away on Plaskett's various projects (and his own, he's also produced albums for others), he's not just been working on his studio tan. Stajcer's debut has arrived, and it's a full country opus. Looks like we got us another country outlaw here, with some rough-and-ready real stuff, like those Waylon and Willie hits of back in the day.

Stajcer's album is a song cycle about the Sad Cowboy, one with a broken heart, who's faced with the titular question. "Now there's a million pieces of me, is there someone out there who can make me complete?" he wonders, and there's no clear answer, only hope for the desperate. He takes us through all the stages of hurt, from anger to hope of reconciliation to despair, each one in a different shade of country. There are weepers and barroom ballads, twangy rockers and one old-fashioned shit-kicker, How Long Could I Wait?, which hints that our cowboy may be coming through all right in the end.

The album doesn't land until July 6, but now's the time to catch Stajcer, as it looks like he's taking a few weekends off from the studio for some live gigs. He's at the Union St. Cafe in Berwick, N.S. on Friday, June 15, then at The Well in Miramichi, N.B. on Saturday, June 16. On Thursday, June 21 he's at the Trailside Music Cafe in Mt. Stewart, P.E.I., then the next night at the Sportsman's in Charlottetown. June 26 sees him in Antigonish, N.S. at the Townhouse, July 5 is the Carleton in Halifax, and July 6 catch Stajcer at the Trellis Cafe in Hubbards, N.S.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ENNIS SISTERS - KEEPING TIME

The unmistakable family harmonies will always be the highlight of the Ennis Sisters' albums, but this is one to watch for the songwriting especially. Maureen is the writer, and responsible for 10 of 11 cuts here, with a theme of time passing, and using it wisely. Much of that was inspired by the recent passing of their father to dementia, and is partially in honour of him, and partially about transitions we all go through.

Produced by NL countryman Alan Doyle (two co-writes as well), the album has all the trad music bells and whistles (quite literally) but feels far more contemporary thanks to the subject matter, Maureen's way with melodies, and the vocal arrangements, which show the group's pop sensibilities as well. While many of the songs are poignant, none are sad, but more reflective. Of particular grace is the title cut, written for Karen's wedding day, and her dance with her father, with lots of mentions of past waltzes and places and times shared. The album wraps up with the lone cover, the CSN hit Wasted On The Way, with a new arrangement for their voices rather than those other harmony guys. With its message about time wasted on the way, it wraps up the theme well.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVE ALVIN AND JIMMIE DALE GILMORE - DOWNEY TO LUBBOCK

Here are two troubadours who took different paths but ended up at the same destination. Alvin came out of California and the punkish roots of The Blasters, while Gilmore was an instigator in the country folk of Texas. But its clear it's all the same thing in this set. In a first-time collaboration, Gilmore and Alvin tackle a set mostly of classic Americana, churning their way through just about every influence they've had, like they couldn't wait to make music together and can't decide what to do next, there are so many options.

Alvin and Gilmore co-wrote the title cut, a fun biographical nod to their hometowns and the roads they've taken. Alvin brought one more original, Billy the Kid and Geronimo, two icons with something to say about these days. The rest run from blues (Lightnin' Hopkins' Buddy Brown's Blues), folk (Guthrie's Deportees) to early rock (Lawdy Miss Clawdy), delivered with either Gilmore's distinctive twang or Alvin's lived-in gruffness. The common trait in everything, from the material to the partnership, is authenticity. Even when Gilmore pulls out the chestnut Get Together, he manages to remind us it actually had a great message and lyric before being a hippy cliche. Meanwhile, Alvin brings passion and fire, obviously relishing the opportunity to play with a fellow traveler. Live shows and a promise of more to come make this feel like a beginning rather than a victory lap.

Monday, June 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BESIDE BOWIE - THE MICK RONSON STORY SOUNDTRACK

This is the companion soundtrack to a new documentary about the under-praised and often-overlooked hero of the Spiders From Mars, Mick Ronson. He's best known as Bowie's foil on those early albums, first appearing on The Man Who Sold The World, and then Hunky Dory, Ziggy, Aladdin Sane, and Pin-Ups. His role was far more than simply the guitar player Bowie leaned on, literally and figuratively. The soft-spoken, simple gent from Hull was blessed with tremendous talent and classical training, and conceiving of many of the arrangements and ideas on those Bowie classics, as well as many iconic solos.

That's just the start though, as this soundtrack points out. His music-making included an early take of Elton John's Madman Across The Water (unreleased at the time, but later included on a reissue) that he absolutely owns. There are his own solo albums, which all had moments, and his long partnership with Mott The Hoople's Ian Hunter, including the gigantic Once Bitten, Twice Shy. Even this collection doesn't tell the whole story though, as Ronson's productions included Lou Reed's best solo album, Transformer, John Mellancamp's American Fool, and Morrissey's Your Arsenal. In each case those artists have praised Ronson for being absolutely full of great ideas that greatly helped the albums. Mellancamp goes to great length explained how Ronson turned a junk-heap song, Jack and Diane, into a huge hit with his arrangement ideas.

With all that to consider, the soundtrack is a bit underwhelming, the Ronson solo tracks not that well chosen, and a couple of tribute tunes from pals Joe Elliot of Def Leppard and Mike Garson of Bowie's groups nice but not necessary. Of more interest is the inclusion of two cuts from the Freddie Mercury tribute concert held in 1992 in Wembley Stadium, Ronson once again at his old bosses' side for All The Young Dudes and Heroes. Ronson himself died a year later from liver cancer. Can't wait to see this doc.

Saturday, June 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE HILL - ONE MAN BLUES ROCK BAND

Considering his explosive, dynamic performances, it's surprise that Hill hasn't released a live album before in his two-decade career. One of the most heralded Canadian blues players, including a Juno in 2015 for Best Blues Album, his one-man-band live shows have the energy and sound that any quartet would kill for. Here it's all on display, from his electric mastery to haunting acoustic numbers, there's never a moment when you ask, 'Gee, what would he sound like with a band?' It's simply not necessary.

These are almost all originals, just a couple of covers, including the set-closer Voodoo Child. Using no boards, loops and such, Hill covers bass, percussion, and rhythm needs, and adds harmonica to use acoustic tunes, all when called for. Most of the time, he simply roars. Hill likes to blast away, and these are tunes that showcase his ability to crank it up a notch with his playing. You can hear the crowd getting more carried away as he builds up those numbers as well, knowing they are in the presence of one of the best. His vocals are passionate as well, so even a mid-tempo ballad like Emily has strength and guts, without any guitar solos to lead the cheers. There's good variety throughout, with Nothing New something dark, dirty and dangerous, evoking Howlin' Wolf. Band? He don't need no stinking band.

Friday, June 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS WITH THE ROYAL PHILHARMONIC ORCHESTRA

I'm usually not that keen on these projects where they mess with the originals, adding elements to the familiar hits. It kinda seems like sacrilege, no? Or another precocious idea to milk more money out the cash cow for record companies. This one intrigues me however, as The Beach Boys music yields lots of opportunities to had some interesting orchestral parts, already being quite advanced in structure, arrangement and performance, and no doubt Brian Wilson would have loved to have a symphony kicking around when he was doing some of these productions. He was also on board with allowing the project to happen, so why not just approach it with open ears?

The set kicks off with an opening symphony piece called California Suite, just to introduce the orchestra. That moves right into the famous opening of California Girls, and the orchestra backs off, as there are certain bits that are so iconic, and in this case perfect, you don't want to mess with them. That's followed by Wouldn't It Be Nice, and I was a bit surprised at how little the orchestra was used on these cuts, given their dynamic productions. It's almost as if the arrangers didn't feel there was much of a place for the symphony. Surprisingly, it's an old rock 'n' roll number, Fun Fun Fun, that is the first to truly benefit from the added orchestra, as we get a bit of a surprise hearing the new parts on such a familiar cut. Sloop John B is another that gets an interesting opening, and it becomes apparent that this is the best place for the orchestra to get involved, adding new starts, endings and links to the pieces, already so well produced. There are a few stand-outs certainly. Bruce Johnston's underrated Disney Girls from 1971's Surf's Up album gets a full orchestra through the whole song, and it really does lift the song to a new level. As for Kokomo, well, it's always going to be a love-it-or-hate-it number, and no amount of flutes and tympanis can change that.

In My Room has some nice new moments, to bolster the harp that was already on the track (courtesy of Mike Love's sister Maureen, trivia buffs), and Darlin' is even beefier with the orchestra cooking along on the rocker. They save the best for last, and it's a real surprise, Good Vibrations, where the whole orchestra plays along. And it works very well, not wrecking the classic but instead giving it a new feel, more sweeping and grand. It may not improve on the original, but it's not offensive, it's just different, and really, why not? If anything, I'd say the people involved might have been a little too tentative and conservative with the arrangements, fearful of complaints.  A few more cuts could have used the full-on treatment.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL MCCARTNEY - WINGS GREATEST, THRILLINGTON

The latest McCartney reissues are being pushed on coloured vinyl, but I'm just as thrilled to get these two on CD, two much welcome additions to my collection. Wings Greatest is the classic 1978 hits package owned by many on vinyl release, but since surpassed by collections such as All The Best and 2016's Pure box. There's a solidness to this single-disc set though, every cut a hit, and no debatable choices, even if you're not a big fan of, say, Silly Love Songs. In fact, there were so many hits McCartney could choose from for the set, he left off Listen To What The Man Says, which was too bad, and other Top 40 hits such as Helen Wheels and Venus and Mars/Rock Show. Since it was before such annoying numbers as Goodnite Tonight, Say Say Say and Ebony and Ivory, it's simply a stronger listen, with Band On The Run, My Love, Jet, etc. It just feels like an essential benchmark release for McCartney too, as it was the first appearance on one of his albums for such singles as Another Day, Live And Let Die, Junior's Farm, Mull Of Kintyre and Hi, Hi, Hi. I always admired the fact he continued releasing singles in between albums well into the '70's, the old British way of doing things.

The other album is on wide release for the very first time, apart from its inclusion on the pricey super-deluxe version of the Ram box reissue. Thrillington was a legendary lark for McCartney, released back in 1977 on the sly, without him being credited. The cover story was that Percy "Thrills" Thrillington was an eccentric British musical genius, who had taken McCartney's 1971 album Ram, and created a full orchestral version of it. It was a scam, the whole thing done by McCartney. It was released semi-secretly, and it took months for the secret to be widely known. By that point, the album had disappeared, and it's been a rare collector's item since, original copies going for a hundred bucks or more. Now, there's a tongue-in-cheek element to the music too. Richard Hewson, who had done the strings for Let It Be cuts such as Long and Winding Road, arranged and conducted, Paul produced, and the thing at times had a cheese factor, like those '60's instrumental pop hits albums, the James Last Orchestra, those kinds of things. One cut even has the sound of a dog bark as a kind of vocal throughout. At other times, it's really interesting, with similar instrument usage as Brian Wilson did on Pet Sounds. There are quite a few people (I'm one of them) that are passionate about Ram, and consider it McCartney's finest, so to hear these reinterpretations is very interesting. I've always known about, but had never heard it, and I must say it's much better than I thought it would be.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MATT STEELE & THE CORVETTE SUNSET - HALF GIRL HALF GHOST

Matt Steele is from Kentucky and ended up in Halifax, but that's another story. The story behind this second album from his band, following 2016's Songs For Catherine Anne, is equally interesting, and pretty intense too. It follows a partially-autobiographical situation that goes through a manipulative relationship, lost love, overcompensation, mental health trials and addiction. Somehow it all comes out in some of the most upbeat and exciting guitar rock in the true Halifax pop explosion tradition.

With lots of stabbing guitars, revved-up choruses and sweet lead lines, the band tears through eight bold numbers easily described as power pop. The buzzsaw attack of It Won't Happen Again is a brave face in a bad place, "I don't scare easy, I don't fall apart." Rescue Ship is a nautically-themed rebound number: "I've been deep down in my own Marianas Trench, plumbing the depths just to see how bad it can get." There's lots of fine lines, sarcasm, false bravado and hope too, all packaged like a perfect Friday-midnight rock show at the best club in town. If this album had a motto, it would be "Life's crazy, hand me that guitar."

If you're looking for a perfect Thursday night rock show at the best club in town, check out the album launch dates this week for Half Girl Half Ghost. Steele and Corvette Sunset will be at the Seahorse in Halifax Thursday, June 7, Peppers Pub in Saint John Friday night, Back Alley Music in Charlottetown Saturday afternoon for an in-store, and then Saturday night it's Hunter's Ale House in that fine city. Nick Faye and the Deputies support each show, while Hello Delaware join in for Saint John and Charlottetown.

Friday, June 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE YOUNG NOVELISTS - IN CITY & COUNTRY

Ooh, I like a good premise, and that's what The Young Novelists have given us on their third album, In City & Country. As opposed to the dreaded concept album, which tries and usually fails to deliver a cohesive story line, an album with a good premise is one that gives you several songs (although not necessarily all of them) based around one idea. Here, literate folkies Graydon James and Laura Spink look at small towns vs. big cities, getting out into the country from their Toronto homes. This isn't some loaded idea of city kids getting in touch with nature though; writer James is a professed farm boy who loves small towns (and covered bridges, he stuck one on the group's last album cover). But the couple love the city too, and here are looking at the magic in each, while keeping mind that city people generally feel there's nothing to do in a smaller place, while rural fans complain about the soulless nature of metros and suburbia.

It's fun to follow that thread, hearing lines like "Even the cities are calling out," from the title cut. In Two Of A Kind, you can hear them describe the town of Goderich, ON, as they relate the story of a love triangle dilemma. What's even more cool about the premise is that they actually went to several places to do research on events, the geography, and to soak up the local attitude. Of course, you don't need to follow any of this, you can just enjoy the performances. I love the harmonies from the duo on each song, not just saved for choruses but often heard through much or most of a track. It's folk-rock, closer to calm for the most part, but they do get in your face at times, Come Round Again a sharp guitar-drums rocker, still with those twin lead vocals though. Lots of the songs have clear '60's pop harmony influences, and I'd compare some of them to the wistful, baroque quality of middle-period Byrds cuts such as Goin' Back and Wasn't Born To Follow.

The Young Novelists are bringing their thing to the East Coast over the next few days.  You can catch them in Fredericton at Corked Wine Bar on Thursday, June 7, at the Parkindale Hall in Elgin, NB on Friday, June 8, in Rice Point, PEI at a house show Saturday June 9, and then at The Carleton in Halifax for Sunday, June 10.