Tuesday, March 31, 2020


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


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


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


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


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


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


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.