Monday, November 18, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MY BLACK RAM

Peter Hicks is the singer-songwriter fronting Fredericton's admired Sleepy Driver, but here he takes a holiday for a new project. Joined by a trio of indie-rock inspired friends, the new group takes Hicks' always-solid songs on a punchier path. With the songs short and sweet, My Black Ram puts the emphasis on fast impact, with guitar, synth, organ and piano providing the hit-and-run on cuts such as "Golden Era" and "Another Lover."

Hicks likes to write mystery-noir stories for Sleepy Driver, and some of that appears in My Black Ram, notably "Uh Huh" and "Lost That Feeling" in the middle of the nine-song set. Here, instead of letting the words control the mood, the band gets to add colours, from sweet to sinister, the latter song getting an especially dramatic groove. And just to prove its (almost) all about the instruments, a couple of keyboard-led instrumentals are featured as well.

The band is launching the album with a hometown show coming up this Saturday, Nov. 23. It's at the Capital Complex, 10 p.m., with Graeme Kennedy opening.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SIMPLE MINDS - 40: THE BEST OF 1979 - 2019

Hmm, three full CD's of Simple Minds? They have been around long enough for sure, this is a 40th anniversary collection, but let's face it, the heyday was firmly in the '80's. I was, however, pleasantly surprised how well the set held up over three hours.

I think what makes the group's output sound more fresh these days is the lasting popularity of EMD, and the renewed interest in vintage synths. Simple Minds were, if not pioneers in both, at least one of the most popular groups of those genres' first eras. Coming in at the end of the New Wave era, they helped popularize synth rock, and tracks such as "Promised You A Miracle" and "Waterfront" are certainly among the very top of that early '80's sound. There's lots to dive in to from that period here, including "Glittering Prize," "Love Song," and that exceptional instrumental, "Theme For Great Cities."

Then it all got weird for the band when they had a shocking North American hit with "Don't You (Forget About Me)." In that awkward position of having to choose between their core British audience and the newfound huge pop following, the group took the latter path, serving up similar-sounding hits "Sanctify Yourself," "Alive and Kicking," and "All The Things She Said." That lasted for a bit, but in a couple of years they were off the U.S. charts again, and back to being simply massive as home.

Wisely this doesn't go chronologically, but instead new, less familiar numbers such as "Honest Town," "Home" and "Cry" are spread throughout, to give them an honest shot at standing up. And they do really, the band has kept up the quality and Jim Kerr's always been a strong singer. There's certainly more to the band than its connection to The Breakfast Club, and this is a good way to dive in if you haven't paid much attention before.

Thursday, November 14, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SCIENTISTS OF SOUND - THE BEGINNING (OF THE BEGINNING OF THE END)

This Halifax band hearkens back to the days when synth players wore white lab coats on stage and they were only half-joking. All sorts of old-school synthesizer drives tracks such as the single "Dark Side Of The Room" while... wait a minute! That's an awfully sharp guitar sneaking in there, and the further we get into the album, the nastier it gets. Truth be told, this mixes as much '70's prog (with a touch of harder rock) into the mix as it does '80's early electronica. And it's all quite dance-worthy.

"Cookie Cutter" is so heavy it's scary, while still making you move to the chanted gang chorus, "Cookie cutter, cookie cutter, can't you see?/They're making cookies, making cookies out of you and me." That's not the only singalong slogan offered up. "People United" with its riot sound effects, is based around the cheer, "People united will never be defeated." For all the fun, there's some revolutionary thinking going on. If it's the '80's, then it's 1984, big brother.

Another element that steers the band away from the glut of electronica bands past and present is lead singer Craig Mercer's worthy pipes. He can turn these numbers into stadium anthems when needed, doing his best Bono. Throw in a couple of actual violin solos, and these Scientists are full of surprises and magic formulas.

The group is on tour to launch the new album. You can catch them starting on release day at the following:

Friday, Nov. 15 - The Capitol, Fredericton
Saturday, Nov. 16 - Pub Down Under, Saint John
Saturday, Nov. 23 - Marquee Ballroom, Halifax

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE KINKS - ARTHUR OR THE DECLINE AND FALL OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE

Another 50th anniversary classic from The Kinks, surely the most underrated band of rock's golden era. This comes from the band's best period for albums, when leader Ray Davies was writing so eloquently about the changing way of life in England, and looking back with equal parts sympathy and sarcasm at the waning glory of the Empire. As with their previous album, The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, the album tells the story of a fictional character and his family, coming to grips with the effects on a working class family. There were hints of biography in the story of Arthur, which happened to be the name of Ray and Dave's brother-in-law, who really did move to Australia in the mid-60's, but mostly it's a fine story. All through the album's creation, it was supposed to form the basis for a British TV play, but the producers screwed it up and it got cancelled. No matter, the album was a gem, although not a commercial success.

Davies' writing is concise, and the stories easy to follow and enjoy. That's a devilishly hard thing to pull off in a concept album, and while he would struggle with clarity in later '70's releases such as Preservation Acts 1, 2 and 3, here tje songs resonate. "Some Mother's Son" is as poignant as any war tale, a soldier killed viewed as just another picture for a frame back home. "Mr. Churchill Says" sums up the WW II attitude of what was expected of each good citizen,while "Shangri-La" looks at what all the working class families got post-war, and how it didn't really match up to all that sacrifice. When the mood lightens, as on the Sunday afternoon leisure pursuit "Drivin'," the songs are fun, great singalongs. "Victoria" is about England's ultimate days of glory, coming out of the Victorian era, and has a tremendous, celebratory feel, one of the greatest Kinks songs.

Like Village Green last year, this set comes in a grand, super deluxe box, or this more price-friendly two-disc version. Even stripped down, this is jammed with extras and associated era tracks. The previously-unreleased tracks have been saved for the big box, but this version does have lots of rare stuff, so unless you've bought a bunch of reissues and compilations in the past, you probably won't have most of it. There are singles from this time that don't appear on the album, notably the quirky chart failure "Plastic Man"/"King Kong" and the Dave Davies solo numbers "Lincoln County" and "Hold My Hand." Most fun here is the collection of all the Dave D. tracks, 12 in total, which were being recorded for a proposed Dave solo album. It was eventually scrapped, so having them all in one place gives us a very good look at what might have been. Dave's not quite the writer his brother is, but there's a charm and fun there as well. The set comes in a swell hard-cover CD format, with a strong essay and memorabilia photos.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK - HITSVILLE: THE MAKING OF MOTOWN

The explosion of streaming services and specialty programming has been a boon to fans of music films. Documentaries are especially popular, and the pipeline is full of projects looking at stars, eras and styles. This film is featured on Showtime, and examines the oft-told story of Motown during its glory years. Don't expect dirt, as it was commissioned by Motown's current ownership as part of the label's 60th anniversary celebration, but we already know it's a great story.

Of course the soundtrack is a big part of it, and the compilers took the easy route, piling on hit after hit. That's still only a portion of Motown's dozens and dozens of classics during that time. You could make a two-hour collection of just Stevie Wonder alone, and not run out of Top 40 hits. It's more a question of what has to be there: "Dancing In The Street," "My Girl," "My Guy," "Heat Wave," "Shotgun," "Where Did Our Love Go," and "I Heard It Through The Grapevine," both Marvin Gaye's and Gladys Knight's versions. The only odd choice here is a Jackson 5 b-side, "Who's Lovin' You," but it's been covered so many times, and been reissued in England as a single, so it has gained at least cult status.

The documentary only covers up to when the company moved to Los Angeles, so the latest material here is from Marvin Gaye's groundbreaking What's Going On, which ushered in the albums era for the label. This collection is one of the best Motown samplers around, with its only fault its parade of over-familiar hits. As if that's a bad thing.

Monday, November 11, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WIDE MOUTH MASON - I WANNA GO WITH YOU

The Saskatchewan favourites have moved around musically over their career, but the blues has always been there in varying amounts. The group's eighth album sees them focus much more on the blues, which means lots of Shaun Verreault's blistering slide and lap steel. But don't expect basic 12-bar cliches from this always-imaginative duo. There are just too many places for them to go, and great ideas to try, for them to stick to the tried-and-true.

Always able to put a pop melody inside explosive performances, Verreault and drummer Safwan Javed scorch and pound around the edges of the extremely catchy "Every Red Light," sweet enough to be a Top 40 hit. "Anywhere" has the hooks of a Joel Plaskett anthem, and lots and lots of piled-on chorus vocals. But those tracks are followed up with the down-and-dirty "Erase Any Trace" with distortion threatening to take over.

Rather than being stuck in the typical blues language, the band has no trouble finding current themes and subjects to explore. "Outsourced" looks at jobs being sent overseas and company towns closing down. On "Only Child," Verreault sums up how we're all feeling in one line: "The times, they are a-strangin'." Meanwhile, for fun, gather your friends and see how long it takes them to recognize the harmonica blues cover of Bowie's "Modern Love." No matter where they are heading, Wide Mouth Mason always make great sounding albums.

Friday, November 8, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAMES BROWN - LIVE AT HOME WITH HIS BAD SELF

James Brown had big plans for his homecoming show in Augusta, Georgia in 1969. The whole show was being recorded for release at a time when Brown was at peak, with a big traveling review and the hottest band in the world. There was no bigger star in black America, and Brown's influence was such that he was helping bridge the divide between cultures in the States. 

Things didn't work out as planned, largely due to Brown's notorious heavy-handed treatment of his band. Shortly after this show, the band got together and demanded Brown increase their pay, or they'd walk. He called their bluff, and sacked them, immediately forming a new group, the JB's, with Bootsy Collins and other hot youngsters. The proposed life album was now out of date, as he was moving on to new grooves with the new band.

Of course, being a tough businessman, he wasn't about to take a complete loss on the show he'd taped, so an abridged version of the show did eventually come out under the title of Sex Machine, about half the show, along with some re-recordings and faked applause. Now, the entire original performance, with no embellishments, has been unearthed and issued the way it happened that night.

Brown knew showbiz, and knew how to hold back and keep the audience in the palm of his hand, teasing them. The first part of his show was not the fireworks they were there for. The band would do instrumentals, the backup singers would get a turn, and his own performances were almost subdued. And he talked. We here him give these rambling, barely coherent speeches about the city, what amazing things he was doing for the people, and for a good minute or so, I have absolutely no idea what he's talking about. Then, with the very best band in the world on stage with him, he introduces his new song that he hopes will be a movie theme, called "World," and proceeds to sing it to ... a backing track! He explains to the audience he brought the tape to sing to because it was too big a production, with an orchestra and all, and he couldn't afford to bring all those people. Then he has the band play a couple of instrumentals, including of all things, the then-hot hit from Blood, Sweat & Tears, "Spinning Wheel." If it was me, I might have been asking for my money back.

But it was all a set-up. A break is announced, and the fans knew what would be coming next: Star Time. The second half of the show was as explosive as anything you've heard from Brown, matching the energy of such famous shows as the Apollo Theatre in 1962 or the TAMI Show from 1964. Oldies like "Try Me" and "Please Please Please" are mixed in with his new, funky material such as "Licking Stick-Licking Stick" and "Mother Popcorn." And that band? Well, he was traveling with three drummers at the time, each one a monster, and he'd have them switch up depending on what style he wanted for each song. His six-piece horn section included both Maceo Parker and Fred Wesley. They were as tight as tight can be, drilled to precision. No wonder they quit. At one point, Brown chides the group in the middle of a song, telling them not to play so "jazzy".

I think it's fantastic that this performance has been saved and restored. It's the real story, not the hatchet job that came out originally. And for all the oddness of the first half of the show, once Star Time starts, it's jaw-dropping.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENNIS ELLSWORTH - COMMON SENSELESS


Ellsworth went for a more expansive, somewhat more rocking sound last time out on his Joel-Plaskett produced Things Changed from 2018. Here though, he's living up the name of his old band, Haunted Hearts. Not so much musically, but in subject matter, with a deeply-felt collection of moody observations and deeper thinking. As for the tunes, they are more on the dreamy pop side, ranging from moody to majestic. No matter how heavy the lyric, Ellsworth still comes through with a gorgeous melody and a chorus that makes you sail away.

Ellsworth kept close to home to make this set, recording most of it as a two-man unit with engineer and musician Adam Gallant in P.E.I. producing himself for a change. He's a new dad, after all. The set feels personal, observations on dealing with the crap in the world, and the crap inside. It isn't overly blue, and has lots of good advice. "Everything's fine, even when it isn't," he sings on "Don't Worry About It," also pointing out we are inside out and upside down at the best of times. In the title cut, "everyone is laughing to keep from crying," letting us know we're all in the same boat, and we should show more compassion. With those dreamy oceans of sound, it's my kind of mindfulness.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUSSEX - THE OCEAN WIDE



Looking back, I concluded my review of the first Sussex album, Parade Day, from 2016, with the words "This is new, I want more." Yay then, there's more, and it's even more enjoyable. Sussex is a group made of two old musical friends from New Brunswick, who played in the same high school band, and rediscovered each other a couple of decades later, both living in Montreal. Rob Lutes is a nationally-loved roots singer-songwriter, and Michael Emenau a respected jazz vibraphonist. Magically they found a common ground musically, a mysterious and stirring combination of their talents, along with fascinating musical colours and some of Lutes' fine road stories.

For the second album, the pair have stretched even further, throwing out the boundaries. The songs go anywhere, from jazz to bluegrass to blues. With each song, surprising sounds make them sound unlike any of those genres though. It's not just the gorgeous tones from Emenau; this time it's basically a quarter album, with guests Ivanhoe Jolicouer (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Bruno Lamarche (clarinet, sax) adding major parts. Opener "Everything I Wanted" would make a great folk-blues tune on its own, sung by Lutes with his nearly-gruff, but very melodic bluesman voice. But it becomes a wonder of tones and notes with Emaneu's good vibes and some perfectly placed brass. And as always, you get Lutes' fine wordplay. New Brunswickers, or any who've traveled the remote cross-northern road will recognize this feeling: "The Renous highway will get you here to there/If you're looking for the middle of nowhere." In "Kite Strings" the punch line is everything: "I'm leaving you, and you're coming too."

Sussex has some upcoming dates in and around Montreal, and in the meanwhile, Lutes continues his usual road warrior activities, including stops back in the home province.  He's playing at the following:

Wednesday, Nov. 6 - Salty Towers, St. Andrews, NB
Thursday, Nov. 7 - The Tipsy Muse, Fredericton
Friday, Nov. 8 - Shadow Lawn Inn, Rothesay, NB
Saturday, Nov. 9 - Temple on Queen, Bridgetown, NS
Sunday, Nov. 10 - Petite Riviere Vineyards, Crousetown, NS

Monday, November 4, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE DOORS - THE SOFT PARADE 50th Anniversary Edition

 
The Soft Parade is the most debated, and least-loved album in The Doors catalogue proper. This 50th anniversary collection might help its reputation a little, or at least make it more enjoyable for some, thanks to some smart bonus material. The deluxe set features three CDs and the original album on vinyl, a good booklet featuring original engineer Bruce Botnick's recollections and an attractive hardcover package. The best move isn't what they added to the package, but rather what they took away.

First, some context. The problem with The Soft Parade was of course Jim Morrison. By the time the group set out to record, he was in his self-destructive phase, often drunk, and boldly confrontational. The infamous Miami incident happened during this period. He was bothered by the fame and job being the lead voice in a superstar rock band, and his work was suffering. The result was that he didn't have enough new songs for these sessions, so up stepped Robby Krieger, called on to provide four songs plus co-writing another of the final nine.

The other person to step up was producer Paul Rothchild, who followed his instincts, and tried to get the band some more hit singles. So Krieger's songs got a big production treatment, with strings, horns, woodwinds and even bluegrass instruments (on "Runnin' Blue"). It worked in one way, with "Touch Me" a big hit, but critics and many fans howled, as the raw blues were tempered, and Morrison was heard singing with the same session players who might add flourishes to, say, the next Sinatra album.

It wasn't all that bad really, and to my 2019 ears, I hear a bit of Nick Cave in those treatments. But it was a divisive album, and always will be it seems. In a very smart move, what's been removed for this release, at least on disc two, are those horns and strings and things. Calling them "Doors Only" mixes, all the Krieger tracks have been scrubbed back to the basics, and they are quite revelatory. They are not the big, crazy Morrison epics like "The End" but they are quite solid rock songs from the late '60's, and if Morrison had brought more A-list material to the sessions, these would have been a strong counterpoint.

The next great move by the compilers was doing yet another mix, this time invited Kreiger to add brand-new guitar parts to those same songs to beef them up, the idea being that he lost that opportunity with the horns, etc., added in the original sessions. Usually these kind of tricks don't work, but Krieger really came through with some great sounds and solos, and now we get yet another view of what might have been. Really, I've never heard of such a bold move, and it truly does work well. Purists can squawk, but hey, the original album is included on CD and album, so there.

The rest of the bonus stuff is interesting for what it is, but ultimately not great. There's a three-song session when Morrison was missing, Ray Manzarek taking over the vocal duties under his bluesman alias Screamin' Ray Daniels. Manzarek is no singer. It's raw and basically a jam, two blues covers plus one original. That's the only interesting thing here, as its an early attempt at "Roadhouse Blues," but Jim would do it much, much better.

Disc three is a bit of a bust, as it's almost completely taken up by the hour-plus studio workout called "Rock Is Dead." For that, Morrison was in charge, rambling away in his classic diatribe form on many of his favourite themes, while the band plays blues riffs and basically has jamming fun behind him. Thing is, it really didn't come up to his great theatrical pieces, not by a long shot, and I can't imagine wanting to listen to this more than once.

For fans of rock and roll forensics, this is a great way to dig into a beloved band, and see what went into the making of an album, from the raw tracks to the story in the accompanying booklet. Not a bad way to spend a day.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE ROLLING STONES - LET IT BLEED 50th anniversary

I'm going to argue that Let It Bleed is the very best Stones album. The other contenders are Exile On Main Street, Sticky Fingers and Beggars Banquet, all worthy, but for track-by-track excellence, I'll go with Let It Bleed. Plus the big highlight tracks, "Gimme Shelter," "Midnight Rambler" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" all place within the all-time top ten for the band. Then add up the classic moments: Merry Clayton's vocal on "Gimme Shelter," Mick's scream of "I"m a monkey" in "Monkey Man," the choir on "You Can't Always Get What You Want." There's Keith's vocal on "You Got The Silver," his debut of that raspy blues-pirate persona, plus the arrival of the immensely talented Mick Taylor. There's country, blues, and country blues. Everything that makes up the pinnacle Stones period arrives for this album.

Once again, there is no new bonus material for this reissue, either on the single-disc set or the Super Deluxe version, as with the anniversary editions of Their Satanic Majesties Request and Beggars Banquet. It's due to the legal mess of the Allen Klein deal, which still gives the late businessman's ABKCO company rights to everything the group made during their tenure at Decca Records. No compromise has been found to open up the vaults to the many outtakes and alternates from this era (see the bootlegs). So for the big box, we get stereo and mono versions of the original album on both vinyl and CD, a replica single of "Honky Tonk Women", and a great big hardcover book with a new essay from David Fricke and tons of photos from Ethan Russell. Basically it's an art book. The single disc/LP has a shorter essay and the new remaster of the album, which does sound great, lots of space around solo parts such as the fiddle on "Country Honk."

Basically, it comes down to this: If your vinyl copy of Let It Bleed is old and scratched up, or your CD is an early, inferior pressing, it's time for a new one. If you can't live without every Super Deluxe boxed set, well, I'd like to have your wallet.