Tuesday, August 4, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ORIGINAL SOUNDTRACK - ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS

 
Best-known as the home of one of David Bowie's better soundtrack songs, Absolute Beginners was a 1986 British film that looked at racial and cultural challenges of late 1950's London. Directed by Julien Temple, who had previously collaborated with Bowie on the "Jazzin' For Blue Jean" video, the movie saw several musicians cast in roles, including Bowie, Ray Davies, Sade, and, quite poorly, co-lead Patsy Kensit. The movie was a bust, lost a ton of money, but the soundtrack proved a much more worthy project.

Bowie was commissioned to write the theme song and really came through, presenting a cut that was much, much superior to his most recent material on the Tonight album. It was lost in North America, coming from a film that got no box office traction here, but the single was a huge hit elsewhere, hitting #2 in England, and going top ten in several other countries. He contributed two other songs to the double album (reissued now as two CD's), but neither are essential for fans. His "That's Motivation" is character-driven for his part in the film, and if you've ever thought you had to hear his version of the classic Italian crooner "Volare," you're dead wrong.

However, the rest of the soundtrack is quite a fine listen. The film looks at jazz culture in England, and uses a lot of cool vocals and brassy orchestrated numbers. On board was the great Gil Evans, in one of his final projects. The famous Miles Davis collaborator arranged several cuts, and composed all the instrumental music. It is rich, detailed, sometimes curious and always arresting, It's probably better not to see the film, but rather imagine what it hints at.

There were more hits on the album, including The Style Council's "Have you Ever Had It Blue?" and Ray Davies' first-ever solo single, "Quiet Life". Sade turns in a fine non-album cut, "Killer Blow" and reggae great Laurel Aitken provided the lively "Landlords & Tenants" for that element of the movie's cultural mix. Two really intriguing pieces close each disc. The Specials' Jerry Dammers was brought in to score a fight sequence, and handed in a brilliant, eight-minute montage that saw him embrace film music tropes with some of his zaniness. And Evans put together a closing number with British reggae singer Smiley Culture with new lyrics to his classic Kind Of Blue number "So What." If it wasn't such a lark, it might have been sacrilege to fans of Miles Davis, but clearly Evans was telling us to open our ears to music, not keep it in closets. If the movie had been any good at all, this soundtrack might be far more renowned today.

Friday, July 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MIKE BRAVENER - DEPENDS UPON THE PAY TRADITIONAL MIRAMICHI AND NEW BRUNSWICK FOLK SONGS

With Covid restrictions in place, many of us have been finding pleasure in touring our own areas in stay-cations, or just getting out for walks and drives to new or favourite places. I'm one of those, and these day trips have led to lots of discoveries. Many of these involve historic spots, and I've found myself reading up on New Brunswick history a few times. I'll admit, and I'm sure I'm not alone, to a woefully limited knowledge of our past.

Fredericton musician Mike Bravener has been helping people learn our history as a musician at King's Landing, the historic village that recreates 19th century New Brunswick. To take on the role, Bravener researched the traditional folk songs unique to the area. He used the scarce few resources in print, and even learned a couple handed down through generations of local families.

These are the songs of English New Brunswick, and the bulk of them Miramichi folk songs, celebrating that area and its rich logging history. Best known is "The Lumberman's Alphabet" ("A's for the axes..."), perhaps the only one a few of us could sing along to. There are history lessons, such as "The Miramichi Fire," the gigantic 1825 conflagration that killed hundreds and destroyed a fifth of the province's forests, regarded as one of the three biggest forest fires ever in North America. Others give the flavour of the times, such as "The Scow On Cowden Shore," which calls out the towns where the workers have come from, and "Peter Emberley" who watches the big ships sail majestically.

Bravener sticks to the traditional arrangements and instruments for the songs, with mostly acoustic guitar, fiddle, accordion and lots of gang vocals. He sings out the lyrics clearly, in the story-telling way these would have first been heard in lumber camps and around campfires. We're lucky in New Brunswick where we can still see remnants of these days in historic sites such as the Fundy Trail or the Woodman's Museum, and a history lesson goes a long way in helping build cultural pride (and the tourism economy) of a region. Kudos to Bravener for his important work.

There's an album launch concert happening at King's Landing on Sunday, Aug. 2 at 5:30 PM.

Friday, July 10, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - HOMEGROWN

Given its legendary status in the Neil Young world, it's surprising this wasn't the very first release in his Archive series. But perhaps Young has been dickering with the track list all along, as it has a shifting target for fans since the album was first mentioned (and discarded) back in 1975. For those unfamiliar, Homegrown was to have been the follow-up to On The Beach that year, but at a listening party for it, his pals then heard the then-unreleased Tonight's The Night album after. Some listeners were adamant that Young needed to release that album, and the mystery of Homegrown was launched.

It was around this time that Young acquired his reputation for stockpiling great songs for a later date. Frequent tours with Crazy Horse, CSNY or solo would feature unreleased gems, and where and when they would appear was anyone's guess. The Homegrown sessions were first mined for release on American Stars 'n' Bars, There he placed one of its best songs, "Star Of Bethlehem," featuring harmonies from EmmyLou Harris. Also present was the title cut, but recorded by Crazy Horse. The original "Homegrown" here is much different,
faster and funkier, more of a country groove number. Also that year, Young's Decade collection, career highlights to that point, included the brilliant "Love Is A Rose," which had been handed to Linda Ronstadt back in 1975.

Young went back to Homegrown time and again for songs, either on tour or for albums. "Little Wing," a classic Young acoustic/harmonica track, made Hawks & Doves, while the mellow "White Line" showed up on Ragged Glory. Here though it just has Young and fellow Canuck Robbie Robertson, the Band leader, picking on acoustic lead lines to mirror Young's harp.

Most of the rest showed up on tour, and there are lots of other tracks from this series of '74-'75 period that Young has considered Homegrown numbers over the years. But he's finally settled on this 12-track version, and the ones he has picked include more stellar tracks, and only a couple of clunkers. "Vacancy" is a full-band stomp with cohorts Ben Keith on slide, Tim Drummond on bass and Karl Himmel drumming, plus Canuck/Band associate Stan Szelest on piano. It features some great interplay and Young electric soloing, plus the blue vibe of his "Ditch Trilogy" period. There are two tracks famous among Young acolytes, "Separate Ways" and "Try," which address his crumbling marriage with Carrie Snodgrass, the overall theme of the album. That day Levon Helm was behind the drums along with Keith and Drummond, and these feel most like the On The Beach vibe, intimate and bittersweet, lines about trying but really Young sounds more like he's given up on the relationship.

There are a trio of tunes named after U.S. states. "Mexico" and "Kansas" are somewhat slight, just Young on either piano or guitar, more interludes and partial ideas than fully-formed. Still they are nice enough, although not as catchy as, say, the similarly brief "Cripple Creek Ferry" from After The Gold Rush. But "Florida" is just odd, either a stoned-out studio chat or a bizarre poem, accompanied by spooky noises made on a wine glass. It's kind of funny once or twice, but wrecks the album flow. Worse though is a sloppy studio jam called "We Don't Smoke It No More," which seems like the kind of thing best wiped from the tape before you get down to the real business. At best, it's lesser Tonight's The Night material.

Of course it's impossible to say what would have happened to this album if it had been released instead of Tonight's The Night back in 1975. Young calls it the missing link between Harvest and Comes A Time, but it doesn't really have any of the good vibes of either of those albums, with only "Love Is A Rose" a potential hit in the "Heart Of Gold" vein. It doesn't really come together as an album, which may have been Young's problem with it in the first place. But as a collection of very good tracks from a fertile period, it's a must-own set for Young enthusiasts, and makes one long for the rest of the tracks of that period to arrive. When that happens is, of course, at Young's whim.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONT - THANK YOU FOR THE MEDICINE

Jont always has a big message, finding a place of peace in a crazy world. As things have got bigger and crazier, the Halifax-based British troubadour has reacted appropriately, making that message bigger and clearer, for those searching for personal peace in dramatic times. His acoustic music has exploded in all manner of ways. There are big choirs of voices, beats, strings, textures, and a bunch more joy infused throughout.

It's hard to resist the synth burbles and big choral hugs of "Surrounded By Love," Jont and the gang reminding us "Surrounded by love, it's such a simple recipe." But he doesn't have blinders on, acknowledging all the heavy feelings and failures to overcome: "We're going to be told a load of lies/how to be scared and how to close our eyes/we've been led by villains and fools/it's time to leave 'em behind, there's work to do." There are a couple of string-and-piano numbers about the individual power of love, but the bulk of the album is devoted to pumping you up, on both a personal and global citizen level. They do the trick; if we ever get back to live shows, this is festival rave material.

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JULIAN TAYLOR - THE RIDGE

Toronto's Taylor isn't sitting still, even in these Covid times. Scheduled for the fall, Taylor has bumped up release of his latest in case we need some musical inspiration. And he's taken a sharp left turn stylistically too. The hook-heavy r'n'b of his Julian Taylor Band albums has been replaced by an acoustic-based roots sound that showcases his songwriting chops.

Recorded at Blue Rodeo's Woodshed studio, the eight-song set certainly feels more rural than urban, farm over funk. In fact, the title cut is a tribute to summers spent on his grandparents B.C. farm. Personal lyrics and snapshots fill the collection, with Taylor writing about family, memories and emotions. Country flourishes from Burke Carroll's pedal steel and Miranda Mulholland's fiddle sweeten the tunes, while Taylor unveils a low croon for these intimate numbers. While the pictures are personal, the themes are universal; "We all feel out of place/in this Human Race."

Given his multiple talents, Taylor can't help but broaden the sound later on in the album. "Love Enough" sees him in more of a Tex-Mex/Mavericks mode, while "Ola, Let's Dance" is mostly a spoken word over music piece, a la Bruce Cockburn. Direct and simple (as in well-communicated), Taylor's lyrics hold up to the scrutiny this music allows. I was already a fan of his soul music, and now he's added a whole new and welcome dimension.

Friday, June 12, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RACHEL BECK - STRONGER THAN YOU KNOW

P.E.I.'s Beck returns with a second set of shimmering pop, produced with East Coast atmosphere by Daniel Ledwell. This one leans a little more into the pop side than her self-titled debut, her mellow and moody vocals wrapped around electro keyboards and beats on cuts such as "Dancin'." But it's not about partying; "We take and take and take and take," she warns, "We're dancin' on our grave."  The message, gracefully delivered throughout the six-track E.P., is that together we can make a difference, and given what's happened in the past few months since the songs were written and recorded, it seems timely and prophetic.

There's an empowering tone to the songs, especially lead track "Warrior," inspired by the strength Beck sees in her young daughter. It's both a celebration and a hope for the future: "Lift up your voice, cut through the noise." The title cut connects those hopes to nature, our best source of strength when we embrace it: "Just breathe in and let it go, you're stronger than you."

The set closed with Beck back at the piano for the quiet, intimate "Tonight," intense and romantic in its calm beauty. The real strings, from Islanders Kinley Dowling and Natalie Williams Calhoun perfectly soar into that nighttime, and show the Beck-Ledwell team work old-school magic as well. The E.P. is ethereal, uplifting, and even a tiny bit mystical.

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WAYNE NICHOLSON/JOHN CAMPBELLJOHN - ELMORE'S BLUES

Two blues-rock lifers here, Maritime favourites, team up for the first time on this fiery tribute to slide master Elmore James. James was loud, loud, and his songs lend themselves to the rock side of the equation, and these two fit that bill. Nicholson long been regarded as having one of the best sets of pipes to fill the bars and halls of the East Coast, from his days in Horse and Oakley and through his solo years. Campbelljohn is a multiple award-winner for his guitar prowess, and a festival favourite. It's an inspired match.

The James songs have lost none of their power over the years, and never seem dated. The duo keep all the grit the songs require, and bring in a few surprises to the arrangements. "I Believe" gets a reggae groove, powered by Kim Dunn's organ (another East Coast all-star there). "Rollin' and Tumblin'" gets even deeper and nastier than most versions, Nicholson and Campbelljohn growling at each other, duelling in voice and slide. "Shake Your Money Maker" turns into a showcase for the band, with shout-out solos for bassist Bruce Dixon, drummer Neil Robertson and pianist Barry Cooke.

The pair goes for some deeper cuts from the James catalog, including "Sunnyland" and "Knocking At Your Door," while avoiding adding another cover of "Dust My Broom" to the overstuffed pile. With 12 James songs in the can, they couldn't pass up an opportunity to write a couple themselves, and both "If I Was Blue" and "Dancin' With The Blues" feel right at home. Simply put, blues fans: Great singing, great guitar playing.

Friday, June 5, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SUN HARMONIC - IT'S ALL OKAY, THANKS TO YOU


Keeping up with Toronto-based artist Kaleb Hikele is a challenge, thanks to his many musical shifts. He makes music under the name The Sun Harmonic, which used to be just him, but whaddya know? Now it's a full band, as Hikele has been joined by Ian McLennan on bass and Dave Skrtich on drums. The reason behind this latest switch is that Hikele has moved on from his last, piano-driven lush projects and made a straight-ahead rock EP, five songs with grooves and great melodies.

Hikele always has a knack for fine tune, so this certainly isn't a stretch for him, he just had to leave his jazzy-folky-classical sounds at home. "Get Lost" is the calmest number, with a bluesy guitar in some dreamy moments. "A Question For You" dials up the funk and even adds a little raunchy guitar mid-way. The title cut is a brilliantly happy romp, the kind of cheerful pop song you just don't hear anymore, with a la-la-la wordless chorus of singalong fun from the whole group.

It's a bummer of a time for so many people, with lots of serious issues of which we need to pay close attention, but spare 17 minutes for this feel-great five-track EP.

Monday, May 25, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KEN YATES - QUIET TALKERS

"Surviving is easy, but living is hard," Ken Yates tells us on his new set, Quiet Talkers. We get through, day to day, but being happy with life is a whole different story for most of us. A self-professed Quiet Talker and full-time observer, Yates lets us in on his own thoughts of how to navigate the journey, with lots of stops to battle the internal demons and external demands.

Produced by the nimble Jim Bryson, at times Yates' voice is as soft, sad and soothing as vintage Paul Simon, and loaded with lines just as powerful. "It's the middle of the night, but you're easy to talk to when you're wasted," he sings in the title cut, desperate to feel connected and not lonely. "When We Came Home" is about that trip back to the birthplace you've left and swore you'd never return, "where the streets flow through my memory like some kind of disease."
There's "Disillusion Day," where "We've been watching the TV, wondering who to trust. They make us believe there's somebody fighting for us."

So yeah, Yates is singing what we're all thinking, and perhaps has tapped into this monumental blah we've been feeling, even before Covid days. Luckily he has a voice filled with empathy, so when he sings "I'll keep you safe from yourself," even though its to a troubled partner, we can feel like he's got our backs too.

Friday, May 8, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - LEAVE TONIGHT

Love songs, strong memories and moody reflections fill Myles' latest, which features some of most expressive singing and concise writing. There's a bit of his usual, impressive musical playfulness, with songs that touch on bluegrass, small combo jazz and '50's country, but the core of the 10-track album looks inward with balladry. Subtle strings adorn several cuts, with Myles' usual cohorts Kyle Cunjak on acoustic and electric bass and guitar whiz Alan Jeffries augmented by percussion pal Joshua Van Tassel.

The production is centered around Myles' voice, smoother and more emotive than ever, and he sounds confident and committed in pure love songs such as "Loving You Comes Naturally." A cocktail hour duet with Toronto's Lydia Persaud on "For The First Time" is both sweet and smouldering, and the catchy, plucky "Kind Of Like It" sees Myles and Jeffries try out a J.J. Cale-styled swamp rocker. With all these elements at play, and Myles sounding so connected to the material, this feels like a new peak for him.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PUSS 'N' BOOTS - SISTER

Norah Jones's low-power trio with pals Sasha Dobson and Catherine Popper seems to have more of her attention than her solo career of late, with this full album following an E.P. out for Christmas. Featuring laid-back guitar-bass-drums-harmonies grooves, all three share the writing and lead vocals, plus add some well-chosen covers from the roots world and the edges of punk. It's the hobby band every star wants, where they don't have to lead and can just have fun. All three handle drum duties on various tunes, depending on who's doing the lead vocals, and Jones only bothers to dig out the keyboards on one track.

They came up with some pretty good songs for the album, the best of them Dobson's "You And Me," and another she wrote with label boss Don Was, "The Great Romancer," which also featured on the Christmas EP. Jones has her cowboy boots out for "You Don't Know," a loose ballad with twangy guitar. Most of the tracks feature a late-night vibe, slow and steady and dark, and they bring that same feel to like-minded tunes by Paul Westerberg ("It's A Wonderful Lie"), Concrete Blonde ("Joey") and Dolly's "The Grass Is Blue." The version of Tom Petty's "Angel Baby" is a little too easy-going, but the rest all have just enough edge.

Friday, April 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EMILY ROCKARTS - LITTLE FLOWER

Dreamy-voiced Rockarts can be all gentle on one song, then gut-punch you on the next. The Montreal-based alt. singer-songwriter moves easily from dreamy to aggressive pop, with some sweet little numbers in between, such as the gorgeous title cut. Her best weapons include her compelling, soft voice, and a knack for soothing and catchy melodies.

"We can worry about it later," she sings on "Right Now,", "It's all good, it's okay, it will work out any way, always does somehow," and you can't help but agree, your mind at ease from the confident beauty of the track. But up next is the raunchy "Stranger," about the fear left after a random and nasty confrontation. Current single "Stay" mixes it all together, a bubbly and enthusiastic dream-pop number with guitar edge to rough up the smooth verses. A big thumbs up for this debut.

Friday, April 17, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RON SEXSMITH - HERMITAGE

A relaxed Sexsmith spins through all his favourite styles of pop songwriting, seemingly now without care for a bigger audience. His recent move to lovely Stratford from the Toronto rat race also seems to have lots to do with the jovial tone to the album, with lots of bright melodies and carefree lyrics. The homemade approach to the record, made with only longtime drummer/producer Don Kerr, doesn't hurt the tunes one bit, the recording quality fine and dandy and less laboured than some of his bigger productions.

Side One (if you're listening on vinyl, which you should) is the more whimsical fare, with a spring ditty ("Spring Of The Following Year") kicking things off. Other cuts include one about a gig sabotaged by a cranky sound man ("Winery Blues") and an ode to a homely house, "Chateau Mermaid." These tracks are all pure ear candy, fun and filled with easy-to-digest lyrics, along with cheery tunes. It's an old comparison, but it's apt: These songs remind me of early '70's Wings albums, both McCartney and Sexsmith enjoying putting their considerable talents into pleasing melodies and catchy kitsch.

Side two sees Sexsmith add a little more substance to the tracks, with lead single "You Don't Wanna Hear It" his best soul song since "Whatever It Takes." He gives us master class in lyric writing throughout, his wit on full display. "Dig Nation" rips the self-righteous a new one: "In Dig Nation, there are plenty of people who can never see the chapel for the steeple." It's not only the words, it's the phrasing, as he matches the melody seemingly effortlessly in "Apparently Au Pair": "Where would I be if not for you? Apparently nowhere." Add lots of jaunty keyboards and sweet harmonies, and this is all smiles, especially for the listener.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ANDREA PETRITY - WHAT IF I

Judging by social media posts and online conversations, I'm thinking all this staying-at-home we've been doing has affected the way many of us are listening to music. Basically, people are truly listening more. With more time and less running around, listeners pay attention more. I've even noticed lots of experimental listening going on, people trying out stuff they've always meant to get to, but hadn't found time.

For me, that always means jazz, an area where I'm woefully behind. Deep listening is essential for full appreciation, so I was glad to be able to devote much of this week to the new album by Calgary's Petrity. It's the second album by the pianist and composer, who fronts a classic piano-bass-drums trio (Robin Tufts on drums, Stefano Valdo, bass). I love that format, as it gives so much room to each musician. Valdo handles much of the melody on "He Said, She Said," his acoustic bass rich and strong, able to provide all the needed emotion.

Emotional melodies are certainly Petrity's strong suit. Each of the nine tracks (eight originals and one cover) are filled with mood, evoking feelings ranging from  wonder and hope to memories of mistakes. Never flashy, her playing is still full and intricate, letting the notes and arrangements do the talking. The songs wash over you, warm and positive.

From bebop to samba, the trio goes through classic styles, opener "Conversations In My Head" the most rhythmic and a strong showcase for Tufts. The lone cover, of "Can't Help Falling In Love," is a complete re-do, slow and bluesy, with lots of wonderful improvisation around the theme by Petrity, including some rare flourishes. Never overplayed, I could listen to this trio any time, and hope to the next time I'm out in Calgary.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: AMANDA JACKSON BAND - OCEAN

 
P.E.I.'s Amanda Jackson has vocal power galore, but on this new, sophomore  release, she and the band hold back with more reflective and moody songs. And you know what? In a way, that's more powerful. The collection is the result of a trip to a secluded cabin in the woods of P.E.I., and several days of recording with the band. It's not a rough sound, more warm and inviting. Rather than big drums and guitars, it's filled with acoustics, subtle electric leads, surprising solo horns, and percussion touches, and always that soulful voice.

While they identify as blues, roots is probably a better description, with solid songwriting throughout, and lots of melody for Jackson to work her magic. "Firestorm" isn't a blaze, it's a slow burn of a love song, which is of course more intense. "The Warrior" is a plea for strength, "Hold the line, we'll walk like warriors." The lone cover, a version of Crowded House's "Don't Dream It's Over," is slower and more dramatic than the original, again showing Jackson an able balladeer.

After all that simmering, the tension is released on "Break It To Ya," where the band (Dale McKie, Todd MacLean) gets to turn up, and now we hear the growl the Jackson's been holding back, on this funky, '70's workout. Ultimately this is very smart album; Jackson could easily be known as a belter, but in fact she's a  multifaceted singer.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MAYA RAE - CAN YOU SEE ME?

Not quite 20, this Vancouver singer has emerged with a soulful and emotional voice, and better yet, something to say. Writing all the songs with her brother Gabriel, Rae is a lot more substance than style, and has already seen past the superficial in her songs. The title cut is about the masks we like to wear to hide and protect our inner selves. "Moon Girl" follows a young woman already lost to a toxic lifestyle. "The Sun Will Come Out Again" is that one piece of positive advice to get through the bad days in life.

This debut album sees Rae teamed up with the high-quality roots producer Steve Dawson, a bold move for both of them, as he's usually found working with more traditional roots/blues folk such as Matt Andersen, Jim Byrnes and Big Dave McLean. Both Dawson and Rae stretched to meet in the middle, resulting in a soul-pop sound that keeps her voice in the spotlight. That works best on bright numbers such as "The Sun Will Come Out Again," with its synth hook line and strong backing from the singers in The Birds Of Chicago. Other times Rae sounds a little young still for the heavy Nashville roots players Dawson uses, but I don't doubt she'll get there soon. In another producer's hands, she'd be shoehorned into dance-pop. Nothing against dance-pop of course, but Rae seems to have more weighty matters on her mind.

Friday, March 27, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JERRY LEGER - SONGS FROM THE APARTMENT

As music fans know, the pandemic has created huge problems for almost all musicians. Toronto's Jerry Leger is one of the many, and the timing couldn't have been worse. Leger's album from last fall, Time Out For Tomorrow, won him great reviews, including significant press in Europe, and he was just about to start a tour there when the crisis hit. That's scuttled that, plus a further Canadian tour at a time he should have been capitalizing on the buzz.

As his income streams started to dry up, Leger responded quickly. He announced a different kind of tour, called The Show Must Go Online! He's doing a series of daily live gigs through to April 1, with a shout-out to different European communities where he was due to perform. And he even managed to get together an entire new album, making a surprise release last Friday, Songs From The Apartment, available digitally through his site and on Bandcamp.

The album features 10 songs recorded at home, acoustic performances on guitar or keyboard. They had been lying around, largely forgotten after being demoed, Leger says. Wow, I says. There are brilliant gems throughout, and none of them feel tossed off or unfinished. "You were left off her train of thought, when you only had one last stop," he sings on the opener, a break-up the protagonist didn't see coming. Every song is jammed with lines and rhymes you've never heard before, like "You can't stop a bridge that needs to be burned," where he's "chewing up what's left of this daydream," and exhorts a love to "sing like Satan." The closer, "Back To Marianna's Side," is the Tex-Mex ballad Townes Van Zandt never got to write.

Just a few days in to our forced staycation, musicians like Leger have stepped up and helped keep us sane, through concerts and music presented in different ways. Please don't forget to support them.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GORDON LIGHTFOOT - SOLO

 
One might be skeptical about a batch of Gordon Lightfoot demos that date back to the early 2000's that have laid dormant. Even with his status as one of our pillars of songwriting, by that time it had been a couple of decades since he'd written a classic, and given his dearth of releases since, this had the whiff of finding something, anything new to issue. Plus these are unadorned, just him and his guitar, with no original intention to put them out.

A quick first listen did little to change that opinion. The songs slid by casually, with familiar Lightfoot chord patterns and melodies, his voice in pretty good shape (much better than after his serious illnesses), but without anything grabbing your attention. But that is not the way to approach demos, and not the way to think about later-life Lightfoot. And it would only take one more listen to get into the spirit of this set, and realize the power in the songs.

This isn't a Nebraska-type demo set. Springsteen was performing when he did those, adding darkness and mystery to his characters (and some effects and overdubs too). Lightfoot's demos are one pass at the song, and these are lyrics of emotion, personal thoughts, reminiscences, him still figuring it all out at 60-plus. He wasn't writing about shipwrecks or trains or pussywillows, nothing stirring our national pride. These are questions, mirrors on the soul, and an invitation to read his mind.

These aren't confessional, or at least not obviously so. Often it's unclear what he's trying to say, but that is nothing new with Lightfoot. It's not a lack of ability of course; he's holding some clarity back, avoiding the precise language that will give away the most personal details. But we know how he feels: "The road I chose was not all it should be/But sometimes it was oh so sweet." And from "Return Into Dust," he tells us "They said, 'seek and ye shall find.' All I ever found was this trouble in my mind."

There are newer recordings on the set, obvious from the vocal differences, but not marred, just more fragile. There's no reduction in the quality of the writing, although they are a bit more carefree, a better time in life one could suppose. "Easy Flo" is certainly one of them, a love song, a contented Lightfoot. That's a rarity though; his restlessness rears up even in his golden years. In "Just A Little Bit," where he bemoans the safe path: "Do you ever get tired of the old routine/Do y'ever get tired of the old blue jeans, just a little bit."

Lightfoot has written off writing any more, saying it's too time-consuming, and he'd rather keep doing shows and spending time with his family. Maybe this set will lead to more closet-cleaning, and perhaps a reevaluation of some of the later albums in his career. Since for many of us life is less hectic right now, it's a perfect time to listen closely, especially to the masters.

Monday, March 16, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JANN ARDEN - BLOOD RED CHERRY (20th anniversary edition)

Sad timing for Jann Arden this past weekend. It was to be her day at the Juno Awards, being inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. Then the world got shut down. Hopefully she will be suitably honoured soon. In the meantime, tons of publicity and tie-in projects were either put on hold or came out without the full fanfare. That includes this reissue of her fourth album, from 2000 on vinyl for the first time, and CD with five bonus tracks.

Blood Red Cherry continued Arden's run of albums with producers Ed Cherney (Jackson Browne, Dylan, Rolling Stones), Mark Goldenberg (Linda Ronstadt, Pointer Sisters) and guitar player Russell Bloom. She had her style solidified by this point, with deeply emotional lyrics, mostly love songs or unrequited love, but with a uniquely clear style. She spoke like we talked and thought in intense romantic situations. "Buy a ticket for a plane and come and see me baby," she sings to a long-distance love, "Or drive your car all night by just starlight to Canada." Describing another relationship, she sings "You were my favourite hockey card/You were my smokey little bar/You were my cherry popsicle." In the 'stuff we say in a breakup' category, there's "I never really love you, I never loved you back/I never even liked you/I only wanted sex."

The music can also be described as intense and emotional, each song sounding like a dramatic moment unveiled. They're not ballads; clippy percussion drives most of the songs, the beat a key component in keeping up the tension. It's almost overwhelming. In 2000, artists were still filling up too much of the available time on CDs, and the album proper has about three too many cuts at the same tempo and theme. But still there are two previously-unheard tracks here, "Love Me Love" and "Everything," and the first certainly would have made a fine addition, a little fun in the mix.

The other three cuts added for this release are demos of songs on the original album, "Another Human Being," "Cherry Popsicle" and "In Your Keeping." These demos, made by Arden and Broom leading up to the album, are well-constructed and quite close to the final tracks, showing the pair probably didn't need all the L.A. studio support and guns for hire that made it on the final product. Oh, expect for Jim Cuddy, and his excellent duet on "Mend."

Saturday, March 7, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - ALABAMA SONG (40th Anniversary)

All quiet on the Bowie front?  Heavens no. Despite being, you know, bereft of life, he's still maintaining the busiest release schedule in music. This latest is part of the ongoing reissue campaign marking 40th anniversaries of each single, in picture disc format. And now two new sets have been announced for Record Store Day coming up April.18. ChangesNowBowie is a nine-track set that was originally released on BBC Radio back in 1997 to mark his 50th birthday, and consisted of then-newly recorded versions of some of his classics, including "The Man Who Sold The World," "Lady Stardust" and "Aladdin Sane." Some of these have been streaming the past few weeks, and are excellent versions. The other release is called I'm Only Dancing (The Soul Tour '74), a double disc from 1974. Half-way into the Diamond Dogs tour, Bowie did an about-face, ditched the expensive "1984"-themed sets, changed the band, and started doing some of the new soul music he'd been toying with. This was the vibe he'd soon capture on the Young Americans album, and here the new band featured a large group of backing singers including Luther Vandross, new material from the forthcoming album, and a cover of The Flares' "Footstompin'." Can't wait for this one.

This latest anniversary single includes the usual in this series, a couple of great photos on each side of the disc, and a couple of previously unreleased b-sides. "Alabama Song" was a non-LP track released in 1980 in Europe, but first performed on the 1978 Isolar 2 tour, a song written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. A twisted tale, it became a hot import favourite for Canadian fans, and has risen to beloved status thanks to its inclusion on various hits and reissue packages. The reason to grab this even if you aren't collecting all the picture discs is on the flip side, track 1. It's from a soundcheck on the 1978 tour, Earl's Court in London, Bowie and his band trying out a version of "Joe The Lion" from his latest album, Heroes. It hadn't been part of the setlist, and wouldn't be played in any of the shows. So this is a very rare treat, as it only appeared a handful of times in future tours. The other track is a live version of "Alabama Song" also taken from that London stand, although a different version than the one featured on the Welcome To The Blackout album. Hope you fans who have to have everything feel satisfied.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HANK WILLIAMS - PICTURES FROM LIFE'S OTHER SIDE

While the biggest stars of country music today travel in limos and private jets and perform for tens of thousands, the biggest star of 1951 drove hundreds of miles a day to shows in a sedan with the bass strapped to the roof. He did a radio show Monday to Friday on a Nashville station at 7:45 AM for 15 minutes, for a measly $100 a week. And when he wanted to go on tour, he had to make sure he had the radio shows covered, which meant recording several programs in advance.

Thank goodness that happened. Most radio broadcasts of the day were live, and never taped, so lost to the ages. Hank Williams recorded on acetate records, big heavy platters, and by miracle, hours of them were rescued back in the 1960's as they were on the way to the dumpster. These are the famous Mother's Best shows, named for the flour company and sponsor of the show.  They have been released in various forms before, but this is easily the best collection of them, comprising all the songs Hank sang and removing all the instrumentals, guest performances and intro music. In total, there are six CD's worth that survived, a huge chunk of music that reveals much about Williams as a performer and adds greatly to his recording legacy.

With just 15 minutes to play with, and some of that committed to shilling flour to the homebodies, there wasn't much room each broadcast. Usually you'd get a Hank hit, a cover version of some old song he knew, and then a gospel number. This was driven by the audience; the Nashville station (WSM, home of the Opry) believed its listeners would be rural, God-fearing folk, housewives setting out to make their family meals for the day, and elderly shut-ins. Often Williams would go into his Luke The Drifter personality, whom he referred to as "one of my closest relatives," and do those almost spoken word weepers that were just as popular as his honky tonk hits.

With Williams at the height of his popularity, we get most of his greatest hits, including "Lovesick Blues," "Cold Cold Heart," "Move It On Over" and "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)." Although Williams struggled with alcohol and drug problems his whole career, he was still quite reliable in these months, and the current version of his Drifting Cowboys was filled with crack players. So these are tight and high-quality versions, with the band able to shine in the recording studio, with no audience and a good instrument blend. The cover versions in particular provide many highlights. There's a fantastic version of "Cool Water," Hank and the Cowboys giving it an other-worldly, almost spooky treatment. On the old Southern hymn "Farther Along," the harmonies are gorgeous, and you can hear why it went on to become a favourite covered by Elvis, The Byrds and many more.

The one downside of the set is the occasional appearance of Hank's first wife Audrey. While she was his biggest booster, she was a mediocre singer, and their duets on the most craggy old gospel numbers can be painful at times, thanks to her. Thankfully its only those numbers where she appears, and Williams probably knew the gospel fans were used to poor singing in their churches. Other gospel numbers without Audrey are striking, Williams able to croon classics such as "Softly and Tenderly" so well, he'd turn the heart of the sturdiest non-believers.

Also helping to make this an essential collection is the gorgeous hard-cover book. It features 270 glossy pages, mostly of Williams photos, pretty much the entire archive. Many of them are previously unpublished, and have been transferred and touched-up with the latest techniques. There are official publicity shots for tours, Hank and the band looking splendid in their cowboy outfits, and candid shots back stage, with adoring fans and bandmates relaxing. We see him clowning around with fellow performers such as Minnie Pearl and Little Jimmy Dickens, and being glad-handed by all the usual promoters, theatre owners and disc jockeys. While I'm usually one who wants written content, these photos and their brief captions tell us as much as any book. I feel I've learned lots about Williams from this release, which is truly what you want from a box set.

Monday, March 2, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELTON JOHN with RAY COOPER - LIVE FROM MOSCOW 1979

1979 saw Elton John in a period of transition. He'd dumped his band, and more crucially, ended (temporarily as it turns out) his partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin. The resulting album, A Single Man, had turned into the biggest dud of his career so far. But he had found solace on the road, running from demons, splits and failures. The Single Man tour saw him playing solo piano for one set, then joined only by percussionist Ray Cooper for the second. It had turned into the longest tour of his career, as he rediscovered the joys of being only the piano player, hammering out the hits and improvising on lengthy versions of favourite covers.

It was also an easy show to take on the road, pretty much anywhere. And since he was still the biggest pop star in the world, all the world wanted him. Surprisingly that including the Soviet Union, and in May of 1979 he became the first Western pop star to grace a stage in the U.S.S.R. It was a big deal, but still a safe bet for all. The normal Soviet citizen had no chance of gaining a ticket to the shows, and the audience was filled with ranking Communist party members and their families, plus British embassy types. Still, it was an early indication of Glasnost, and not to be dismissed as meaningless.

The BBC was allowed to broadcast one of the shows, and apart from a TV and DVD special which including bits and pieces, this is the first true release of the concert. The two-CD set includes about two-thirds of the lengthy concert, which offered a career-spanning hits set, covers and a couple of dips into the deep catalog of album tracks many fans knew by heart. So too did the Russians; although the applause was polite and reserved, songs such as "Daniel," "Goodbye Yellow Brick Road" and "Bennie And The Jets" were greeted with lots of recognition, meaning they were hearing them somewhere other than official state channels.

Elton was used to a livelier crowd, and you can hear him working hard to get people out of their seats. A lengthy version of "I Heard It Through The Grapevine" goes on too long as he tries his best to build energy. It's really not until the second set when he hits them with sure-fire numbers such as "Saturday Night's Alright For Fighting" and a "Crocodile Rock"/"Get Back"/"Back In The U.S.S.R." medley that everyone loosens up.

But the real value here for today's listeners is the chance to hear Elton return to old ballads and early tracks in this stripped-down performance. "Skyline Pigeon" and "Take Me To The Pilot" are as great or better than most of his big hits, and "Tonight" and "Better Off Dead" are welcome deep album cuts. As for the usual suspects, we've heard them so many times it's a relief to have piano-only versions of chestnuts "Rocket Man" and "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me." Plus, he could still hit all the high notes in the original keys.

Friday, February 28, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAMES TAYLOR - AMERICAN STANDARD

James Taylor knows a few things about American standards. He's written a few of them after all, at least from his generation. Here he goes back a few decades, presenting some of the songs he grew up with, his early inspirations. We've seen this before of course, from Ronstadt to Buble to Rod Stewart, but Taylor's take is completely his own, and puts his stamp on all of it.

When Taylor does a cover version, he takes over that song. It's been that way with his pop hits. His versions of "Mockingbird" and "How Sweet It Is" could be considered the definitive ones, coming to mind ahead of the originals by Charles and Inez Foxx and Marvin Gaye, respectively. That's the case with everything here, even the most familiar of standards, as he makes them unmistakably James Taylor songs. Much of it is his voice of course, that leisurely, laid-back style he's always used, truly now a trusted old friend to all of us. But he also bravely adapts each piece, turning them all into something surprising and new. Even a piece of theatre fluff such as "The Surrey With The Fringe On Top" from Oklahoma becomes mellow and thoughtful in his hands.

If he was going to do standards (and let's face facts, it's one of the few things record companies think they can sell from heritage acts), he was going to make a real effort at it. Instead of the usual chestnuts, done with orchestra or big band arrangements, Taylor picked the songs that played in his house growing up, largely show tunes. They include "Moon River," "My Blue Heaven," "Pennies From Heaven," "God Bless The Child" and "Ol' Man River," very interesting choices. For the arrangements, he went back to the way he learned to play them on guitar, then worked out new treatments with his co-producer, the fine jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli. So each one has that Taylor-style acoustic at its core, those kinda blue notes he loves to hit. Then his core touring band added to them. There's a unique vocal arrangement on "Almost Like Being In Love" which features his exceptional touring backup singers. "Sit Down, You're Rockin' The Boat" gets another fantastic arrangment, a weave between the singers and the band. His gentle take on "God Bless The Child" features stirring dobro lines from the Nashville great Jerry Douglas.

Taylor is about to embark on a major cross-Canada tour in April and May, and after seeing his last local show a couple of years back, I heartily recommend it. He puts on one of the most positive, affirming shows, showering the people with warmth and appreciation from the stage. Ohh, and Bonnie Raitt. It's a must.

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NICK EARLE - BREAKING NEW GROUND

Is it too early to be talking, dare I say it, summer? This spate of fine weather (here on the East Coast) has us thinking signs of spring, but now I've seen the first mentions of acts playing at the upcoming summer music festivals as well. It's just been announced that Newfoundland's Nick Earle will be returning to N.B.'s Larlee Creek Hullabaloo in August, where I caught his set last year. This time it will be a full-band show. Earle's been moving fast since the split of the award-winning Earle & Coffin duo. In 2019 he put out his debut solo work, Breaking New Ground, and now he has a new one coming in April, this time with his touring band, called Nick Earle and the Restless Hearts. A first single, "I Wanna Know," is out now gaining spins and streams.

While we wait for the new album, I thought I'd take the opportunity to get caught up on his last one. Breaking New Ground was an apt title. Working on his own, Earle has moved away from the acoustic blues of Earle & Coffin, instead showcasing his roots-rock side. Nine of the ten tracks are originals, and feature catchy melodies and great vocals from Earle. He has an appealing voice, warm with lots of heart, a pleasure to hear. The album is almost all a solo affair, with Earle covering all the guitars and bass, Dan George handling drums and Islanders Quote The Raven on backing vocals on four cuts. Rachel Cousins adds a fine duet lead on "Only Wanted You," which the pair co-wrote. Earle impresses throughout on guitar, especially lots of slide licks. And while he doesn't surpass Bonnie Raitt's cover of "Angel From Montgomery," he still nails it, and it tells you a lot about the songwriting he admires.

His own writing is showing lots of spark and promise as well. "Back In Montreal" is a solid road trip story, and it definitely feels like we're still at the start of a long journey for Earle, talent on the rise.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LYNNE HANSON - JUST WORDS

The last couple of years have seen Lynne Hanson stretching way past her comfort zone. First she teamed up with fellow Ottawa folkie Lynn Miles for the acclaimed duo The LYNNeS, with the album Heartbreak Song For The Radio, and lots of touring on top for that. That meant a couple of new roles for Hanson; being a co-writer, and being the lead guitar player, often electric. That stretching has continued for her latest solo album, one that's different from any of her previous efforts.

Just Words sees Hanson adding more, I mean a lot more, electric guitar to her songs, certainly pushing past her folk sound into the edgier side of roots music. The title track, "Just Words," is punctuated by dark and nasty guitar lines and effects, to match the intense lyric, a song about the devastating effect of verbal abuse. While it's the toughest song in the collection, most of the rest also feature lead electric and smart arrangements.  Veteran producer Jim Bryson came on board to amp up the edge, and it works very well. Hanson's lyrics, some soul-searching and others sharply observational, feel just that more piercing.  The teamwork is special too. As well as Hanson's guitar, Bryson and guest Kevin Breit star on lead, and there are rich harmony lines all the way through, from Tara Holloway, Catherine MacLellan and Justin Rutledge. Big changes, great results.

Monday, February 17, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAYS OF THE LOOKING GLASS - AL TUCK SINGS GENE MACLELLAN



Tuck has always been a devotee of his fellow Island songwriter, and here he presents a nuanced look at MacLellan's rich catalog. With quiet instrumentation and slower tempos, we all lean in for a closer study of the lyrics, Tuck's wavering vocals highlighting both the beauty and the sadness. Drops of pedal steel, along with surprising touches of penny whistle and clarinet highlight the laid-back, clubhouse feel of the recordings.

Wisely Tuck leaves "Snowbird" off the setlist, that song's fame too much for this nuanced collection. But "Put Your Hand In The Hand" is here, a reminder of the great quality of that Christian anthem, presented here with a shuffle beat, as catchy as always. "Street Corner Preacher" is successfully turned into a much bluesier number, losing the dated arrangement of MacLellan's early '70's recording. Even "Days Of The Looking Glass" (along the same theme as "Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife" by Glen Campbell) loses its sentimentality, and becomes a wise look at how life slips by. And that's the real success of the album, bringing the songs out of their decade into this one. Tuck has added an edge, and more of a roots feel to these gems. If any Canadian songwriter needs that, it's MacLellan, whose own fine recordings are long out-of-print.

Monday, February 10, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RICH JUNCO - ONE WAY TRACK

Last week the annual Maple Blues Awards were handed out, trophies for the usual categories, such as best recordings, best singers, best players, etc. But the award that always captures my attention is one that is unique to Maple Blues. It's the Cobalt Award, which goes to the best contemporary blues composition. In other words, the person who has written the best new blues song.

The award was set up by a fine writer himself, Paul Reddick. His intention was to "encourage and support blues music by promoting the creation of new songs that both draw on the rich traditions of the genre and manage to strike a fresh chord with contemporary audiences." That's key, because blues is a classic form, and needs to be kept alive by advancing, not relying on cliches.

This year's award went to a New Brunswicker, Rich Junco, for his song "Cope." It can be found on his new release, One Way Track, released in December. Fresh it is. There are no Robert Johnson covers, none of the usual 12 bar classics, no Stevie Ray salute. Instead, Junco is a songwriter first, with thoughtful lyrics, no throw-away lines repeating all the blues tropes. You can stop any song and grab a cool couplet, such as "Everafter"'s gem, "You took the harness from the plow/and hitched it to a sacred cow."

The production is simple but rich, made in Memramcook N.B. by Mike Trask, a solid band sitting close over four days, recording on analog tape. The award-winning "Cope" is the richest track for sure, with a Band groove, with tight horn parts from Seb Michaud, Carter Chaplin playing a sharp, sweet lead, and Christien Belliveau supplying meaty, tight drums. Junco himself has one of those relaxed voices, full of character, sounding somewhere between Leon Redbone and Dutch Mason. As befits the Cobalt Award-winner, Junco has carved out a place by putting his own stamp on the blues.

Thursday, February 6, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAVEBOY - NIGHT IN THE PARK, KISS IN THE DARK

Montreal trio Caveboy has been busy building a sterling live reputation the past few years, getting ready for this debut album, since created buzz with a 2015 EP.  Early singles from this have already grabbed them lots of attention, including the CBC Music #1 "Hide Your Love," showcasing a sublime and catchy groove, sounding retro and current all at once. It's dance but it rocks, chill but lively, heavily produced but still emotional and personal, heck, it's everything.

I like all the mystery found in the production (Juno-nominated Derek Hoffman) and vocals, a tension threaded through the ten tracks. Singer Michelle Bensimhon has an addictive voice, parts Kate Bush and Martha Wainwright, selling those little mysteries with passion. Electro-pop with retro sounds is an easy description for this, but the best old-school trait is the hard-earned quality in the songwriting, each track offering substance plus hooks. There's still room for a little dance floor euphoria too, "Landslide" just a joy start to finish. This is a band to love.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BLACKIE & THE RODEO KINGS - KING OF THIS TOWN

It really is the best of both worlds for the members of Blackie & the Rodeo Kings, and if you don't know about their status as roots giants in Canada, you aren't paying attention. Colin Linden grabbed a Grammy win for Best Americana album on the weekend for producing Keb' Mo's latest, Oklahoma. Just today (Tuesday), Tom Wilson was honoured with a Juno nomination for his latest release under his Lee Harvey Osmond persona, Mohawk. Plus he's a best-selling author. And if there was any justice, Stephen Fearing would have been nominated as well for his excellent The Unconquerable Past. But he's won before of course.

With all this success (and that's just scratching the surface of their many projects), that they still manage to drop it all every couple of years and put out a new Blackie album is a testament to the bond they've developed. The band is that rare example of three distinct personalities that manage to blend as well as highlight different genres; Linden the blues, Fearing for folk, Wilson the eccentric rocker, all adding up to roots music.

King Of This Town features some of their best group compositions. "North Star" is a dreamy harmony ballad, that lonesome search for the woman with the North Star in her eyes, a nod to Canada certainly. So is "Cold 100," a great driving song again featuring all three singing, 100 miles of road in the winter. Each member gets their own spotlight tracks as well, Linden on the title cut, his aching tenor always a mark of authenticity. Fearing handles matters of the adult heart, including the sadness in "Walking On Our Grave." Wilson digs back a bit to his Junkhouse days for the groove-rock number "Medicine Hat."

As always, the music sounds great, produced by Linden (who produces Grammy winners, you know), and featuring the redoubtable backing of de facto members John Dymond on bass and Gary Craig on drums. If I was asked to put together a perfect Canadian band, I don't know if I could do better than Blackie.

Monday, January 27, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JAY AYMAR - YOUR PERFECT MATADOR

Canadian singer/songwriter Jay Aymar's excellent 2018 album Your Perfect Matador is getting a second wind. New label Fallen Tree Records has picked up the release to add to its small but growing roster of Canadian roots offerings. Hopefully that will mean the record will make it to some new ears, as Aymar's one of the nation's best troubadours, and this is arguably his finest work. In honour of the reissue, here's a reissue of my original review:

The veteran singer-songwriter adds some drama and some muscle to his latest. Desiring a fuller production, Aymar brought on the esteemed Michael Phillip Wojewoda, and the results are exciting. The songs, rich stories in themselves, are beefed up with mysterious guitars, deep drums, strings, and lots of cool vocals. Aymar even delivers some spoken-word parts to heighten the book-on-tape feel. Elsewhere, guest singers Chloe Charles, Alejandra Ribera and Shakura S'aida do what they do very well, standout vocal parts.

Even the acoustic tracks get a boost. The Greatest Story Never Told starts out with Aymar and guitar, always a good thing in itself, but takes off by the second verse. The one-man orchestra, string arranger Drew Jurecka, brings in the atmosphere, and Charles duets, adding a touch of sadness. Us Wild Dogs is another half-spoken number, with barest guitar, but now turned into a campfire Western, with warbled voices joining in. The darker duet with Ribera, Alive In The Shadows, starts like a Leonard Cohen song and builds to a huge climax, with the strings and singers raising in volume in a thrilling conclusion. Then out of nowhere comes a funky groove with a synth and distorted guitar called Always Had You, which might get Aymar kicked out of the folk collective.

I've always felt Aymar was a darn fine singer-songwriter who didn't need to change what he did. That's why this is such a surprise, and a delight. Hearing him stretch so successfully is a reminder that artists are always at their best when they challenge themselves and our expectations.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LYNN HARRISON - SOMETHING MORE

Sounds and styles come and go, but strong songwriting never goes out of style. From Toronto, Harrison's sixth album is shot full of humanity and morality, on a personal level and as a broader response to today's turbulent world. Her music has a distinct calmness, not so much a quiet calm but rather one of strength.

Harrison's vocals reflect those qualities as well, with an effortless and unadorned mellowness. She falls in that folk-pop world that suits thoughtful writers so well, just the lightest electric touches and percussion to add a groove and sweeten the melody. After that, it's time to sit back and find your own moments of strength in the songs that speak best to you. In "Pretty It Up," for those who've wasted too many moments on social media, there's "Scrolling feeds of loneliness, a million shades of gray." For women past their youth, "Waves" offers "Now fire is flowing through me as awareness of the grave ... comes over me in waves." Perhaps the most powerful, is "Protester," about how even the apolitical can be motivated by appalling actions: "'Til I saw what you did Sir, I was not a protester."

For those in Toronto, Harrison launches the album with a show at Hugh's Room Live, 7:30 this Sunday, Jan. 26.

Monday, January 20, 2020

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE OFFICIAL SOUNDTRACK - PEAKY BLINDERS

I don't know about you, but I've done nothing since mid-December except binge-watch shows. I'm all caught up on all my favourites, and I must admit it's pretty pathetic when you you look at the calendar to count the days before The Walking Dead starts up again.

I'm now reliving my binge moments through soundtrack CD's. You know a series has a great theme song when you never tire of it, and Nick Cave's "Red Right Hand" was an awesome choice for Peaky Blinders. It was already a great track of course, and nothing says danger and dark thoughts and actions like Cave and the Bad Seeds. So, a perfect match for this British show about particularly nasty gangsters in post-WW 1 England. There's even a version by Cave's equal in gloom, P.J. Harvey.

Having watched all five seasons of the show to this point (there are at least two more coming), I'm surprised there's enough music to fill two CD's of three LP's, but they've done that, and very well. The music matches the show's considerable edge, with selections from The White Stripes, Dan Auerbach, Arctic Monkeys, Joy Division and Black Sabbath among the many notable names. I find the two Radiohead choices ("You And Whose Army?" and "Pyramid Song") particularly poignant, coming as more thoughtful choices instead of the mayhem moments. Cave, being the living embodiment of the show's mood, could have programmed all the music I suppose, and I'm sure the producers have lots more ideas from his catalogue. There are two more featured here, "Breathless," and a rare one, "The Mercy Seat" live from KCRW.

You don't have to be a collector of such folks to appreciate the sounds here, the collection maintains a high quality right through to the end, when Richard Hawley gives a dark take on "Ballad Of A Thin Man," already a pretty mean-spirited Dylan song. Sprinkled through with bits of dialogue from the notorious Shelby family, it is a fun way to experience the show again, while you're desperate for the next season. Stupid January.