Tuesday, August 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SHEMEKIA COPELAND - AMERICA'S CHILD

Copeland has already made a case for being the most powerful blues voice of this generation, and of late she's been crossing lines, working in the roots field as well. This album is potentially her biggest statement, inspired of course by the dire straits face by her nation. Quite rightly, she realizes the need for the right people to claim ownership of that flag, for the truth it represents, not the ignorance.

Copeland is a masterful interpreter, able to imbue well-written songs with added gravitas, even with the authors present. John Prine joins for a duet on his 1990's cut Great Rain, and that number gets new strength in this protest setting, while Prine's vocal seems to come up a notch to match, too. Her reworking of The Kinks' '60's cut I'm Not Like Everybody Else uncovers a bold, empowering statement that's been overlooked for decades.

It's the new material that really drives the album though, especially two from Mary Gauthier, Americans and Smoked Ham and Peaches. In the latter, Copeland is able to sum up the national nightmare with lines such as "Are you under the covers with a flashlight like the rest of us now? Does the world make you think that everything's coming unwound?" Later, she offers a respite, for now: "When the whole world seems fake, give me something real/Hank Williams singing, a whistle, a far-away train." All the while, Copeland's ruling with her vocals, all the authority of Mavis Staples and the intensity of Etta James.

The album also includes lots of variety, including the ballad Promised Myself, an old cut from her late father, Johnny Clyde Copeland, a Stones-style rocker In The Blood Of The Blues, and the calming closer, the traditional Go To Sleepy Little Baby. With plenty of stinging lead guitar from producer Will Kimbrough, and guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Steve Cropper, Rhiannon Giddens, Prine and Gauthier, this is also a real statement about Copeland's artistic prominence as well, claiming a place as a major cross-genre artist today.

Monday, August 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: I WANNA BE SEDATED - FROM THE UNDERGROUND

Here's another in the four-album collection celebrating the 60th birthday of Warner Bros. Records. This double vinyl set features tracks from the late '70's to early 2000's, key cuts from punk, new wave and alternative groups and artists. It's especially strong on the early days of those movements, with Ramones, Dead Boys, Flamin' Groovies, Talking Heads, Richard Hell & the Voidoids and Johnny Thunders here. That's because of the foresight of Sire Records boss, the recently-retired Seymour Stein, who signed all those groups, and understood the art behind punk.

Warner picked up the ball when the Sire boutique label sold so much, it became a big deal. More bright signings followed, and their major tracks are here. That includes Blister In The Sun by Violent Femmes, The Pretenders and Talk Of The Town, the B-52's with Roam, and The Rezillos charming Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight. They got to release major British post-punk groups as well, including New Order (Love Vigilantes), The Jesus and Mary Chain (April Skies) and Echo & the Bunnymen (The Killing Moon).

With such strong results, the company stayed brave, signing less-than-safe bets The Replacements, Jane's Addiction, Ministry, and Husker Du, while deep pockets let them grab prizes such as Elvis Costello and Wilco. It's all good, and even if you already have some or most of these cuts, it's pretty hard to pass up an album with a Side Two like this:

  • 1. Blister In The Sun - Violent Femmes
  • 2. You Can't Put Your Arms Around A Memory - Johnny Thunders
  • 3. Alex Chilton - The Replacements
  • 4. Jane Says - Jane's Addiction
  • 5. Jesus Built My Hot Rod - Ministry

Saturday, August 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE KRASE BAND - JUST WAITIN'

Houston harp hero Krase pulls a fast and fun one on his fourth album, with a batch of uptempo tunes, some unexpected. The old Hank Williams number Settin' The Woods On Fire kicks things off, putting some boogie into the legendary country sound. And on one of the most out-there covers in years, he turns the beloved theme of the Beverly Hillbillies, The Ballad of Jed Clampett, into a zydeco party number.

Party tricks aside, Krase once again delivers plenty of energy, injecting some new life in a couple of Howlin' Wolf numbers. Even the slow blues, Nobody Loves Me, features searing licks from guitar player David Carter. And the very fast (1:56) Blame It All On Love, a new cut from producer/bassist Rock Romano, is full of zip, reminding me of the beloved Canuck group Doug and the Slugs. For a blues album, this sure rocks.

Friday, August 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LEWINSKIES - YESTERDAY WE HAD EVERYTHING

Accordion-fronted bands are normally either polka or comedy, so Nova Scotia's Lewinskies stand out immediately. There's no novelty factor here though, this is a modern, unique folk based around the portable keys, voice and composing talents of Kristen Hatt Lewis and her partner, guitar player Matthew Lewis. Thoughtful and compelling, Kristen's words and delivery have an old-world feel with contemporary approaches and attitudes.

The set was recorded live off the floor of the Old Confidence Lodge in rural N.S. by producer Charles Austin, along with some flown-in parts by folk pals in England, and it has a fascinating aural quality. That starts with the accordion of course, but also gets rich Euro-touches from the clarinet of Phil Sedore, especially on the minor key klezmer of Icy So Long. Deep acoustic bass and woody percussion from the dynamic Halifax duo of Tom Easley and Geoff Arsenault is featured throughout, and guest violin from the UK's Matt Steady help give the music everything from a Parisienne cafe atmosphere to a beat poetry recital. Matthew Lewis flourishes sometimes give the songs Gypsy touches, so it's a absolutely a blend of their own.

With the slower tempos and dramatic moments, there's a distinct power in each song, especially when Kristen Lewis moves into crucial lines and a higher, forceful delivery. It's highly effective and moody, and I'm betting even more so in a club setting, the duo recently having return from a lengthy tour of England. They do have a few upcoming Maritime shows, so catch details at www.thelewinskies.com.

Monday, August 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN COLTRANE - BOTH DIRECTIONS AT ONCE THE LOST ALBUM

Much excitement greeted the news of the discovery of this previously-unheard music from Coltrane. For his fans, it's the same as, say, a full unknown Beatles album uncovered from 1965, or a Robert Johnson 78 from 1936. It's from his most important era, 1963, when he was leading his so-called Classic Quartet, with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass, and drummer Elvin Jones. That's right after My Favorite Things, and just before A Love Supreme. Coltrane was by this point a star, albeit a controversial one, with free jazz dividing the jazz community.

Recording sessions were very different events then, not spread over days and weeks, with parts layered on multiple tracks. Bands went in, played complete takes and in Coltrane's case, planned to make an album in one day's work. Exactly why this day's work at Rudy Van Gelder's New Jersey studio didn't result in an album is now guesswork, but considering there were four other Coltrane albums released that year, including one with vocalist Johnny Hartman recorded the very next day, it might simply have been too much of a good thing.

The tapes remained on the shelf until Coltrane's untimely death in 1967, when Van Gelder handed over everything he had to the record label. Those were shipped to storage in Los Angeles, and classic bureaucratic thinking, all non-master tapes were destroyed to save space. As luck would have it, Coltrane was also given second, mono copies of his day's work when he left the studio. Those he had given to his first wife to hear, and decades later, that's why we get to hear them as well.

It's remarkable what can be done in a few hours, when you have a band at full stride. The quartet was just finishing a two-week run at Birdland, and had been playing some of this material, including one of Coltrane's major live works, Impressions. He was also working on versions of two well-known melodies, Nat King Cole's Nature Boy, and Vilia, best known as an Artie Shaw big band number. There were also untitled pieces, or at least those titles weren't recorded and aren't obvious now. Added up, the different selections would make an album. For this release, the different full takes done by the group are here as well, adding up to nearly 90 minutes, spread over two discs. Before you worry about wading through different takes of the same tune, a practice which bogs down so many retrospective rock albums, remember that this is a group of improvisational genius. On some takes, Tyner doesn't play, leaving the solos to Coltrane. On others, he switches from tenor to soprano sax. The group never plays it the same way twice.

As for the music, it's a fascinating session where Coltrane plays some old, some new, some conservative, some ground-breaking, both playing it safe and stretching. He was willing to be more accessible, but also wanted to take his music and perhaps his audience further. That's quite a day's work. Coltrane fans are making a fuss, and for good reason. It's providing a clearer picture of a crucial time for one of the giants of jazz.

Thursday, August 2, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS ARTISTS - LOTTA LOVE SOUNDS CALIFORNIA

Happy 60th birthday to the celebrated Warner Bros. record label, certainly home to some of the biggest records of our time, and generally regarded as a class act among companies. Thanks to a roster of artist-friendly producers and A&R execs over the years, many careers have been nurtured, and beloved stars have reached our stereos, radios and laptops because of the company's dedication. Of course, you don't usually hear that about record companies, but Warner was known to stick with acts they thought deserved to be heard (Little Feat, Gram Parsons) or give a home to true talents who probably were a little too weird for the mainstream (Van Dyke Parks, Capt. Beefheart). Of course, they also had plenty, I mean plenty of stars too, from James Taylor to Seals & Crofts to The Doobie Brothers.

For their birthday, the company is releasing a series of vinyl double albums, compilations that reflect the various sides to the roster. This set shows the company's California roots, as the label did start out as an offshoot of the Warner Bros. film company. During the singer-songwriter heyday, Warner (and associated label Reprise) had a lock on that cool pop style of writer. Even though the artists weren't all from that area, they were drawn there, as L.A. became the recording capitol over New York and Nashville. Even our own beloved Gord Lightfoot is featured here in a California collection, with his U.S. breakthrough If You Could Read My Mind, after he had signed up to the Warner empire. The former folkie was immediately rewarded with pop stardom, which continued right through the '70's.

Just to prove there's no real California music style (it's more a hip thing than a sound), you have such diverse artists as Norman Greenbaum (Spirit In The Sky), Christopher Cross (Ride Like The Wind) and Maria Muldaur (Midnight At The Oasis) here. There's a bit of the hippie vibe from Arlo Guthrie (The Motorcycle Song) and John Sebastian (She's A Lady). Master writers are included, Jimmy Webb doing his own version of Galveston (a little overwrought, Glen did a better job), and oh my goodness, the great Randy Newman, with Sail Away. You could knock this a bit by dragging out that old term, soft rock, but come on, Summer Breeze, Fire And Rain, and Willin'? This stuff has stood the test of time. Sadly, no Neil or Joni, both of whom were California standard-bearers by this era, but they routinely refuse to be part of such compilations, I'm assuming that's why. Also available are a New Wave 80's set, a Punk Nuggets collection, and still to come, I Wanna Be Sedated, a very strong underground set with Ramones, Replacements, Talking Heads, etc.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RORY BLOCK - A WOMAN'S SOUL A TRIBUTE TO BESSIE SMITH

Block's Mentor Series of six collections was her way to celebrate the greats who inspired her in the blues. They were all originals who she was lucky enough to meet and study as a teen in New York in the '60's. Her tribute albums to Rev. Gary Davis, Mississippi Fred McDowell and the rest were not simply covers collections. They set Block apart as the leading interpreter of classic country blues today.

Now she has started a new series, and it will no doubt prove as excellent, and perhaps even more important than the Mentor Series. She's calling this Power Women Of The Blues, and she'll be following the same format, a full-length release on each of the legends selected. There's certainly no better place to start than Bessie Smith, the Empress of the Blues, from the '20's and '30's. Her voice was like no other, so utterly real, filled with the reality of her struggles but also her absolute joy with what life could offer. Smith's lyrics still resonate, and can still even shock with the raw sexuality she describes in the flimsiest of codes.

"Oh, his jelly roll is so nice and hot
Never fails to touch the spot
I can't do without my kitchen man."

Then there's that description of a Harlem party on Saturday night:

"Gimme a pigfoot and a bottle of beer
Send me again, I don't care, I feel just like I wanna clown
Give the piano player a drink because he's bringing me down."

It takes someone with experience and their own true quality to do justice to Smith's songs, to give them not only a proper airing but a believable one. Block plays every bit of every song here, all the percussion, bass and of course, her own acoustic guitar, including the stirring slide parts. These are also her own new arrangements. Smith recorded with piano and jazz combos, while Block has re-imagined the material as guitar-based, a whole new way of listening to these classics, and very satisfying.

It's worth noting how needed this collection is, and no doubt the rest to follow. You can't go a day without another blues album being released by some guy or band, doing yet another cover of the same Robert Johnson or Howlin' Wolf songs. Yet there are so many great women pioneers barely recognized today. Block acknowledges the lifetime work of Bonnie Raitt and Maria Muldaur in her liner notes, long-time keepers of the flame, and having started this series, she'll also do lots to remind us of these incredible early performers.