Thursday, June 10, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COLIN FOWLIE - EAST OF NOWHERE


Fredericton troubadour Fowlie has been patiently trying to launch his latest album with a live show, having already been through a Covid-caused postponement. But things are looking good for June 19 now at the Playhouse. Tickets are available now, and the opening act is N.B. blues songwriter Kendra Gale.

East Of Nowhere is Fowlie's second full album, after 2019's Party Music, and a series of EP's. Produced by Winnipeg's rising roots star Ariel Posen, the songs have a warm and subtle feel, the focus on Fowlie's story-teller vocals. Over 12 tracks, he takes us on a tour from town to town, in private homes, a couple of bars, behind the wheel, and down familiar streets. These are normal folks, in good times and bad, dealing with all the crap life throws at us.

That means Fowlie drops a bunch of emotional bombshells on us, about premature deaths in families, small towns drying up, bigotry handed down through generations, times changing faster than we'd like and not fast enough. There are some personal moments here too, including the single "To Mend," for his daughter. Rather than hearts and flowers, he's there for strength:  "When it hurts you can't help but feel like you're broken/but I know just how far you can bend in the wind." We also get a glimpse of life on the road, which is all about travelling in bad weather, coffee at the same gas station stops, and being on stage: "I've weathered the storm and I can't wait to see my family/But up here tonight I'm singing someone's favourite song." For more on the launch show and new album, visit www.colinfowlie.com.

Monday, May 31, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE 456 - SIMPLE SONGS


Most partnerships seem obvious and meant to be, between people with lots in common. This one seems odd on paper, but produced real magic. Natasha Alexandra is from Hamilton, ON, and usually goes by the nom-de-song NLX. David Wolfert is from NYC, and is an accomplished writer and producer, having composed hits for the likes of Whitney Houston, Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and Dusty Springfield. Wolfert's career goes back to the '70's, while Alexandra's been at it, well, in the 2000's anyway. Her albums, favourites in these pages, move between R'n'B, electronica and rich piano ballads, while his credits are found on diverse mainstream records by everyone from Peter Criss to Lynn Anderson to Paul Anka. As I said, it's kind of a head-scratcher.

Until you listen, that is. The pair came together at a New York songwriting circle. NLX has been living much of the time in that city for the past decade, going back and forth to Ontario. 456 is the number of miles between Hamilton and New York. NLX didn't know Wolfert's credits at the time, but when the idea of writing together came up, she was pleased, and the partnership eventually evolved into a band, centered on her vocals and keys and his multi-instrumental talents and production.

Simple Songs is both a descriptive title, and a feint. These are pure, emotional ballads, focused on Alexandra's heart-tugging vocals and the glorious melodies of each track. The lyrics are straightforward and direct, but behind that simplicity is a great strength, the ability to sing of love and loss, empathy and understanding. In the song "Little Victories," recycled from a previous NLX album, Alexandra compares all our struggles to our first steps: "First you learn to crawl, then you stand up tall/And even if you fall, start again." 

The tracks are deceptively calm, never cluttered, two or three lovely instruments, stringed ones at their sweetest, acoustic guitar beside piano, mandolin dropping in for a verse, acoustic bass appearing on the next, the gentlest drums joining for a chorus. A  dobro joins one song, banjo another. There's not a harsh tone in the set, a collection of late-night beauty.

Friday, May 28, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - THE WIDTH OF A CIRCLE, THE MAN WHO SOLD THE WORLD (picture disc)


The Bowie estate has left no stone unturned digging up every conceivable track he made during the early part of his career. There's been a constant flow of product from the Space Oddity and now The Man Who Sold The World eras, in pretty much every conceivable format. There have been 45 RPM boxed sets of demos, a 45 box looking at just the "Space Oddity" single, CD boxes, LP boxes, picture discs, new mixes, you name it. Yes, there's repetition galore, but each project does offer fascinating twists and turns in his career, even in his choices for mixes, instruments and vocals in individual songs. You can also go broke gathering up all the various releases. And that's just for 1969 and 1970.

Wisely the powers have backed off a little on the expensive variations for this latest effort. They've wrapped up all the loose bits and live efforts from The Man Who Sold The World album in this relatively simple and cost-efficient two-disc set. It's a nice, hard-cover mini-book set, with 52 glossy pages of notes and memorabilia photos, and several different audio sources. Disc one is completely made up of a hour-long BBC radio show hosted by John Peel in February of 1970, while disc two has some alternate single mixes, a couple of different shows, and some brand-new and quite different mixes of stray tracks by original producer Tony Visconti.

The BBC Sunday Show is quite important in Bowie lore, as it features the first appearance of Mick Ronson in his band, having joined just two days before. Along with Visconti on bass and John Cambridge on drums, this became The Hype, the forerunner to the Spiders From Mars. While occasionally a bit sloppy, it was a strong live performance, and a great overview of early fame Bowie. Shockingly they didn't do his only hit, "Space Oddity," but instead jumped from Jacques Brel and Biff Rose covers ("Amsterdam," "Buzz The Fuzz"), album cuts like "Janine" and "Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud," and brand-new and unreleased future favourites like "The Width Of A Circle," where you hear Ronson stretch out. 

Disc two is a mixed bag of curiosities and revelations. In February of 1970, Bowie's old mime teacher Lindsay Kemp asked him to reprise his role in the performance Pierrot In Turquoise for a Scottish TV taping. It ended up quite altered from its 1967 version, and Bowie now supplied five songs with vocals and slim accompaniment, trifles really, based on the plot. "Threepenny Pierrot" is notable as it is a rewritten version of "London Bye. Ta-Ta," but that about it for excitement. Much better is a March 1970 return appearance of The Hype on BBC, this time recording four tracks in their studio showcasing the tough new band. There's a scorching, Ronson-led version of Bowie's favourite Velvet Underground cover, "Waiting For The Man," two cuts from the not-yet recorded Man Who Sold The World LP, "The Supermen" and another "The Width Of  A Circle," and one already-released song, "Wild-Eyed Boy From Freecloud," Sadly the performances are marred by John Cambridge's drumming style, not a fit for the band, and Ronson would have him sacked in favour of future Spider Woody Woodmansey within days. 

Much second-guessing and trial and error went into attempts to find a follow-up hit for Bowie to "Space Oddity", with new mixes, new parts and completely new recordings going into several tracks, none of them working out. These alternates are pretty cool, including "London Bye, Ta-Ta." Originally it was more like his mid-60's, Anthony Newley-styled British numbers, but in a proposed 45 mix, it earned cool back-up soul singers and a new, funky arrangement. "Memory Of A Free Festival" was split into two parts, for the A- and B-sides, and "Prettiest Star" was recorded and released as a huge failure, less than a thousand copies sold, despite featuring Marc Bolan on lead guitar. It would again appear in a new recording three years later as an album track on "Aladdin Sane."

Last year, Visconti presented a brand-new mix of The Man Who Sold The World album, which he retitled The Metrobolist, an early title for the set. To finish up on this time period, he's done new mixes for the non-LP tracks, including "Prettiest Star," "London Bye, Ta-Ta," and "Holy Holy." The nice thing about Visconti's new mixes is that he's willing to throw in some radical differences, including an extended extro on "Prettiest Star," and a much more playful arrangement on "London By, Ta-Ta." 


Finally, they couldn't quite let The Man Who Sold The World rest without one final vinyl for those with too much disposable income. Back to basics, you can buy the original album, with the original mix, in the way most North Americans saw it, the reissue with the leg-kick cover from 1972, post-Ziggy. Anyway, I'm already looking forward to the forensic digging they must be doing for the next album, the beloved Hunky Dory, and I certainly hope there are this many fun extra tracks to hear.

Friday, May 21, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BILL WOOD & THE WOODIES - RADIOLA


Veteran Toronto roots-rocker Bill Wood (Eye Eye) is sounding exactly like a long-haul musician should. At it since the '80's, he's seen his share of ups and downs, lots of time in the trenches and some years away too. All that experience has turned Wood and the Woodies into an adept band, able to rock like kids when needed, and offer up some fine slices of three-chords-and-the-truth songwriting as well. In short, they can make you dance and think, sometimes in the same tune.

Best of all, Wood is able to describe a place in life where many of us are, past the blush of youth, acknowledging we're not going to set the world on fire but that there's nothing wrong with that. He props up the truly important times, when love and friendship and family meen everything. In "Alice Was Dancing," it's just a night at the bar with the right people, the right music, the right hockey team on the TV. In "The Shitt," he acknowledges he might have been it at some point, he's not anymore, but he's okay with that. Meanwhile, The Woodies follow him where he needs, from Western swing to reformed punk. It's modest, high-quality craftsmanship.

Thursday, May 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KEN TIZZARD & FRIENDS - ALL TOGETHER NOW


Nothing like a world-wide pandemic to change all the rules. With an anything goes attitude and time to experiment, musicians have been pushing the envelope with all sorts of projects, cleaning their closets and doing work they'd never imagined they'd release. Newfoundland/Ontario troubadour Ken Tizzard (The Watchmen/Thornley) has always had a hankering for cover versions in his solo shows, and figured now was as good a time as ever to get to that album. But it quickly became a whole new beast when his many music friends heard about it. Asking around who wanted in, some 44 guest musicians took part over 13 cuts.

Tizzard asked each participant, who ranged from seasoned pros to talented amateurs, to pick one of the songs on his list, and say what part and instrument they'd like to add. Then he sent the demo to folks all over North America, and got them to record their part. But here's the kicker; they didn't know what the other guests would be playing, and didn't hear Tizzard's works-in-progress. The magic would be created in the mixing.

It's surprising how well the experiment went. Everybody has an idea of what famous songs should sound like, but this process saw each well-known cut take on a life of its own. "Working Class Hero," John Lennon's tear-down of Western society, is stark and scary, but here it becomes a dark rock ballad, with shared lead vocals from an all-star cast of Matt Mays, Ron Hawkins (Lowest Of The Low), Daniel Greaves (Watchmen), Chris Broadbeck (See Spot Run) and Tizzard. With its echoed harmonica (Peter Boag) it's like a gunfighter scene from a Sergio Leone western. Sandy Morris brings the country flavour out of Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad" with his banjo and dobro work. A couple of friends from a North Carolina bluegrass group called Unspoken Tradition punched up the trad element of Dylan's "Don't Think Twice" way up, especially with Ty Gilpin's deft mandolin solo.

The setlist is heavy on Tizzard's '70's and '80's alt-rock favourites, including Tears For Fears ("Mad World"), REM ("Driver 8) and "I Don't Like Mondays" by the Boomtown Rats. He veers off-script for a couple of fun surprises, especially the 1988 George Jones hit, "Ya Ba Da Ba Do" (a/k/a "The King Is Gone"), a deft piece of writing that references Fred Flintstone and Elvis. With the cast featured mostly rock and folk rock folks, such as Daniel Adair of Nickelback, Tommy MacDonald of Hedley and Grayden James and Laura Spink of The Young Novelists, its surprising how many of the songs took on a country flavour, but then again, but there ain't anything wrong with that. It almost never drops to mere cover band level (the version of "Brown Eyed Girl" is probably the only case of that), and instead is more like a music laboratory experiment which went very well. .

Monday, May 17, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE WEBER BROTHERS and TIMOTHY BRACKEN - CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE


The pandemic has changed pretty much everything, including our interpersonal relationships. Thanks to Zoom meetings, we now spend more time with people half-way across the continent than we do with our next door neighbours and our old groups of friends and colleagues. That's actually eliminated certain borders and boundaries. We're working from anywhere, making friends from anywhere. Each day I work with people from Austin, Texas, London, England and P.E.I., and the two friends I currently talk to the most are in Montreal and Halifax.

Peterborough, ON.'s The Weber Brothers are about as organic as you can get in roots rock. They were founded on the spirit of The Band's The Last Waltz, musical colleagues and soul mates playing together for the love of the music, and that's how they've made their records, banding and bonding together. But Covid screwed with that, leaving them without gigs or audiences, and they couldn't even hang out with their band. 

Unwilling and unable to stop making music, instead of being defeated by Covid instead took inspiration from the new Zoom reality. They got in touch with their oldest music pal, Timothy Bracken, from their old hometown of Westminster, MD. The trio began playing together in 1992, when they were still riding the bus to junior high. They formed a  band, played in the basement, got some gigs, and spent their teen years making music. They never lost touch, and when split-screens became all the rage last spring, they had some fun making a song together. Then it was another and another, and soon it was an album, the Webers sending parts to Bracken in Baltimore and vice versa via Dropbox. 

Since they shared musical DNA, it was painless and largely seamless, each of them trusting the other's instincts. They swapped instruments and roles, each one taking a share of lead vocals. And like other Weber projects, this turned into an adventure of styles and influences, the players showing they understand all the roots, all the sounds, all the engineering and production behind all the great rock 'n' roll. They also know how to make a great album; you need to mix up the moods, change the tempos, put in some surprises and keep the quality up on each song. 

And that's what's here: Ballads, rockers, pop tunes, folk, a dirty electric blues, you just don't know what kind of song or instrument is going to come at you at any moment. By the third song though, you know whatever it is, you're going to like it. It helps that the three of them sound like they're having a ball making these tracks. "Listen" is full of Gene Clark-era Byrds pop, with its sitar sounds and close harmony vocals. "I Don't Know Why" has the joy, and the sound, of A Hard Day's Night Beatles (okay, it's a dead ringer for "Any Time At All"). The title cut is a dreamy psyche epic, and opener "Schoolin'" is a strutting country blues that Levon himself would have loved to jam on. 

Look, I'm all for traditions and old-fashioned music values, and I believe in my heart that there's no better music than that created by players all on one stage or studio floor. But there's something even more powerful than that. It's the magic connection between certain musicians that time and distance can't break down.

Friday, May 14, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: IAN JANES - EPISODE 5


Even before the pandemic, musicians were struggling with finding new ways to connect with audiences. Many have sensed that the personal connection a listener builds with a recording has been weakened in the streaming era. To bridge that gap, Nova Scotia's acclaimed Ian Janes has put together a concept package that takes you away from the screen and helps you focus on his new album. It's a book, but it's not that simple.

When you order the disc (with download), it comes packaged not with the usual skimpy liner notes, but rather an 8 1/2" x 8 1/2" glossy booklet, filled with photos, lyrics and notes. The idea is to give you something to read, not on a screen, that lets you relate to the songs on a more personal level. You hear from Janes what the songs are about, and how they were made. Some artists don't like to give these kinds of hints, but I love it as a listener. Where does a writer come up with the idea of longing for amnesia, as he does in the same-named opening cut? Was there a sleepless night that inspired "Sleepless?" The explanations are just enough to give us a connection with the person behind the songs.

Oh, and the songs, well, they are the usual top-drawer creations from Janes, an adept writer with lots of love for soul and r'n'b sounds. He takes great care in finding the right instrument and the right arrangement, and has a love and flair for both vintage and modern techniques. You get beats mixed with real drums, keyboard swells and actual horns. To enjoy the book-album combo, head on over to his website.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFFERY STRAKER


Saskatchewan roots artist Jeffery Straker takes a moment or ten to pause and reflect on his latest, after the death of his mother in 2019. Most of the songs look back at great memories, growing up on the Prairies, and lots of love and strength that was passed on to him. It's also about taking stock of the things that matter: "Counting treasure when we're old/Won't be coins of silver and gold." And if there's a better song about growing up in a small town and coming back for visits than "One Foot On Main Street," I haven't heard it. Nashville needs to hear this song right away.

That one leans on the country side, but Straker moves easily in all the roots songwriter styles. That's because he's a classically trained pianist, and his songs all have rich melodies, and lots of fresh chord changes. He's happy to have country dobro weaving around a string section, or piano playing alongside banjo and fiddle. Single "Where I Belong" is full of all those elements, and an infectious joy.

Straker is in the middle of a virtual album release tour, playing streaming shows organized by various folk, festival and collective groups across the country. There's one a week, with ticket info at www.jeffstraker.com, and the one I will highlight in my area is coming up May 27 for the Maritimes. It's being organized by fine folks who usually put on in-person performances, and will again soon. The presenters are Lansdowne House Concerts of Fredericton, Patchwork Concerts out of Bedford, N.S., and the Second Wind Music Centre of Florenceville, N.B., with tickets available here.

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - LATEST RECORD PROJECT Volume 1


Bit of a tough one, this. Van looked pretty selfish and cranky complaining about Covid restrictions keeping him from touring. Of course, he's always been a curmudgeon at best, and his self-focus has crept into his lyrics over the years ("copycats ripped off my words..."). A psychiatrist could have a field day analyzing the level of his paranoia here, but he's already told us what he thinks of that industry in track 3, "Psychoanalyst's Ball," where he says "Keep coming back every week/For the rest of your life/Will it ever make any difference at all?"

For a good deal of the three-album set, it's kind of like getting trapped by your co-worker's spouse at the office picnic, while they rail on about what's wrong with people today. The media, Facebook, greedy people, those in power, and people bitching but doing nothing. Funny though, he doesn't go deep in any of the songs, mostly he just puts the complaint out there and doesn't offer up any further arguments or ideas. And by printing the lyrics in a great big book, it's like he's inviting people to criticize and get upset. I sense a little Irish mischievousness at work.

In an album with titles such as "The Long Con" and "Big Lie," the real con here may be coming from Morrison himself. After all, it's not like he's spouting off on songs about anti-fax conspiracies. There's actually so little substance here, it's hard to disagree with much that he's saying. Who hasn't complained about Facebook? Who hasn't uttered the phrase, "Stop bitching, do something?" Courting controversy may simply be a way to attract attention and boost sales. The key could be in the title cut, where he asked "Have you got my latest record project? Not something from so long ago." Are you really listening or do you just love "Moondance?"

When you strip away the controversy-courting song titles, there's a good album in here, probably not one worth three albums of material, but still a good one. The band is tight, the songs groove, and Morrison for the most part remains in fine form vocally. It's certainly going to be a flashpoint album in his career in years to come, but I don't think you can write it off as the ramblings of an old crank.

Monday, May 10, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HALCYON PHASE - TENDRILS


Big themes and big sounds make up the debut of Ottawa's Halcyon Phase, a meeting of songwriter Frank Smith and writer/producer Phillip Victor Bova. Written before Covid, it still matches the times, kicking off with the track "Emergency," a run-down of all the duplicity at work while we face no end of crises. It's all around us, troubles both global and personal, and it seems like they're gaining on us, as we're "checking the rearview mirror for what's yet to come," in "Disquiet." Elsewhere "Time, it marches on, it imperils our sons and our daughters," Smith reminds us, "imprisoning children on the border." Jolly times, these aren't. There's some optimism at least, but it's realistic, not pie-in-the-sky: "It's going to take some time to heal."

Bova provides much-needed musical healing to ease the burden. He brought together a grand group of players working remotely through the pandemic, adding statements of empathy and beauty to the songs. There are bold rock moments, and some heavy sounds, but more often it's rich and melodic ensemble playing, with tasteful guitar lines and some rich keyboards. Best addition of all is harmony singer Rebecca Campbell, a great counter to Smith's leads. The final effect is to counter the downs of the woes and reality in the lyrics with strength and a certain hopefulness from the music. 

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROB LUTES - COME AROUND


Lutes excels at easy-going songwriting that sounds effortless but is of the finest quality. In fact, he makes it all sound easy. He's a masterful singer and guitar player, and gracefully moves across all the roots genres, equal parts folk, blues and rock. And all these tracks just slide on by, each one a little gem, leaving you feeling grand. Here he's supported by a solid, largely acoustic combo, including his longtime guitar buddy Rob MacDonald, tasty keyboards from Bob Stagg, and smooth, understated harmonies from Annabelle Chvostek.

That doesn't mean the songs are light. "That Bird Has My Wings" is inspired by a book by a death row inmate where hope is found imagining freedom in a bird's flight. In "Lightning," it takes bright flashes of realization to let someone see the truth. It's thoughtful stuff, personal but egoless, life-affirming and above all, full of satisfying songcraft.

Monday, April 26, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DANIEL LANOIS - HEAVY SUN


Although best known for his star-power productions, for the past decade Lanois has spent more time on his own projects. They've been wildly different, from his dub-rock set Black Dub, to his 2018 pedal steel-synth-beats collaboration with Venetian Snares. You just never know. 

This time out, Lanois formed a group of some of his close friends, with a purpose in mind. He had a sound in his head, something old, and something new. He wanted to make a vocal album, with lots and lots of harmonies. He wanted it to be soulful, not just in name and style, but in real, gospel-based soul. He wanted it to be modern too, and of course, Lanois knows how to make anything forward-thinking, with his unlimited studio skills and sounds in his head.

It would also need a unified sound, something that can only come from a core group of like-minded souls, who could play and sing like angels. He already had long-time bassist Jim Wilson ready, plus guitarist Rocco DeLuca. But it still needed gospel authenticity. For that, Lanois turned to another connection that he had made through his drummer friend, the great Brian Blade. Blade came from the church, as did his father, Pastor Brady Blade, whom he had met when he had his studio in New Orleans.

"The Blade family certainly introduced me to another dimension of culture in Louisiana," says Lanois, currently in his Toronto studio. "I was introduced to their Pops, who runs the Zion Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana, and I've sat in with the church band and choir a good many times, and that's how I met Johnny Sheppard, who was the choir director and organist. So that's it, we always wanted a harmony singing group, and I heard Johnny and thought maybe he could be that member of the orchestra we've been looking for."

Lanois doesn't choose his projects on a whim, and he pours his heart and effort into each one. Record-making, to him, has important rules. "It's always been my criteria to pay respect to tradition. We all came into this loving something that was already made. But then I have a responsibility to take it into the future. I managed to do it with Bob Dylan and a lot of folks.. We had such an eclectic group, everybody brought something to the table. Johnny had never sung outside a church, how rare is that? Such a pure form. Then me with all my record-making experience, to try and harness the magic as best I can, and then to write songs with these mates. Overall it was a very good setting for making something that will live on."

What leaps out is music full of joy. It's a positive sound, built on the harmony singing and spiritual vibes. It's not Gospel music, religion doesn't feature in the lyrics, but the positivity certainly does, much like the sound of Curtis Mayfield & the Impressions. "That's a good point of reference, because his music always had joy in its spine," says Lanois. "And no matter what the subject matter was, you got the impression he was on the pulse of something. If we could be in that club in any way, that's a big compliment."

Given how we've all been feeling, it could be the tonic you've been craving. Lanois felt it was important to make a positive record right now. "I felt that way before the pandemic," he says. "And so off we went, and Johnny Sheppard said, please make sure that every song has a good message. I said, alright Johnny, no problem, let's go. Then the pandemic came, and apparently the record is being called the Sonic Vaccine."

You don't have to overthink this album, just enjoy this mix of new and old, and simply beautiful melodies and harmonies. 

"I think that if there's any truth that artists feel the wave of the future in the present day, let that apply to this, says Lanois. "I felt something in the air. Nobody's occupying the centre stage in this, it's group singing in most places, and I think people feel that we left our egos hanging at the door. Isn't that why people sing in choirs? They want to harmonize, they want to blend. And there's a lot of harmony and blended singing on this record."

Thursday, April 22, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: WILLIE DUNN - CREATION NEVER SLEEPS, CREATION NEVER DIES: THE WILLIE DUNN ANTHOLOGY


Long before this generation heard about residential schools, Charlie Wenjack, colonial privilege and environmental protests, Willie Dunn was trying to wake people up with his music. A product of the folk singer movement of the early 1960's, grew up in Montreal, where his Mi'gmaq mother from Restigouche and Liverpool-born father had settled. He became one of the core young leaders and creators in an artistic and political movement of First Nations artists, and his music was just part of his make-up. He was a member of the Canadian Armed Forces, a filmmaker with the NFB, a politician, a visual artist, a poet, and a protestor. His inspiring life story would fill a book or two, certainly the lengthy essays in this new collection, and all of it influenced the stunning working collected here.

It's the latest project from the Light In The Attic label, the same group that released the groundbreaking and Grammy-nominated collection Native North America in 2014, which featured three of Dunn's tracks. Dunn died just before the release of that collection, which helped increase his profile, and producer Kevin Howes has brought the same level of excellence to this set. This goes beyond any casual statement that maybe there were a few decent performers found in the First Nations that might have been unjustly ignored. One listen to the music shows that Dunn was a writer and performer of the highest calibre for decades, his songs as powerful and affecting today as they were when first recorded.

There are two reasons Willie Dunn isn't spoken of alongside Joni Mitchell and Gordon Lightfoot in this country, and the first one is obvious. Gatekeepers weren't about to play and promote his music in the past, and most Canadians didn't want to hear it anyway. Dunn himself didn't help matters, since he had no interest in commercializing himself other than the bare essentials of survival. There was no compromise, he was not for sale. Institutions such as the NFB and CBC were supportive in the '60's and '70's, and thankfully Dunn was able to work on lots of productions and recording sessions, and even put out a couple of albums with small commercial companies. For the small audience that did find Dunn's music and film, his work was monumental. 

Much of the music on this two-disc set is either topical or historical, Dunn fully invested in telling the truths about the Native experience under colonial rule. His landmark "The Ballad Of Crowfoot" was turned into a ten-minute NFB film in 1968 which he directed, essentially one of the very first long-form music videos. It takes the listener from 1821 to 1967 (Centennial year), showing the horrible impact felt by the Indigenous peoples. It is the flipside of Lightfoot's Centennial song, "Canadian Railroad Trilogy," and should have been played right after it. It's impossible to listen to this song and not come away changed.

There are lots of others of equal power, especially "I Pity The Country," his condemnation of bureaucracy and bigotry: "I pity the country, I pity the state/And the mind of a man, who thrives on hate." Respect to Gord Downie, but Dunn told Charlie Wenjack's story on his 1971 album, in the song "Charlie." And his spoken-word new version of "O Canada!" is undeniable: "O Canada, once glorious and free/O Canada, we sympathize with thee." 

Not everything is sadness and righteous anger. There are celebrations like "The Carver," who takes the nature and stories of his people, and puts it all in the totem poles and canoes. In "Sonnet 33 and 55/Friendship Dance," he combines the words of Shakespeare with drums and chants, a stunning and brave artistic statement. I've spent decades immersed in the career highlights of rock, pop and folk heroes, many of them ensconced in various Halls of Fame, usually for one or two highlights and then varying levels of achievement. There are precious few, only a handful, who have created at such a pure and powerful level, and with such a true artistic vision, as Willie Dunn.

Tuesday, April 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GABRIEL MINNIKIN - SWEET NOTHINGS


Nova Scotia stalwart Gabriel Minnikin is always a delight, a cowboy with a heart of alt-rock. While capable of acoustic, deep-thinking troubadour tunes, on his latest he lets loose in the studio with great flights of pop production, and great big songs full of instruments and singers. He blows the doors off right at cut one, "Pretty Little Ditty," which is far from little. It takes off with an explosion of horns and ooh-la-la's, a wonderfully idiosyncratic tune that references "Heart Of Gold" and Steve McQueen in the lyrics.

Next up is "The Lion & the Lyre Bird," another magic mega-production with everything including actual bells and whistles. Make that belles, as Minnikin counters his country croak with charming N.S. singers Terra Spencer, Kristin Hatt, Alana Yorke, Mel Stone, and Gabe's sister Ruth. With a nod to Stompin' Tom, the cut "C eh N eh D eh" is a tribute to our homeland, more natural pride than national, but that's the right kind of patriotism.

"The Downtrodden Jubilee" is the most adventurous cut, which is saying a lot for this wildly diverse and imaginative collection. It's dramatic and operatic at times, with a horns and wordless vocals introduction which peels away to reveal a "Day In The Life"-style verse, but then some sort of Brechtian chorus with ummphs and moans instead of lyrics. It's like Brian Wilson, Paul McCartney and Frank Zappa got together in 1968 and played a game of "beat that" in the studio.

After that palate-cleanser, Minnikin calms things down as we head to the end, getting more country as he goes. "Please Forget Me" is a barroom weeper, pedal steel and piano now dominate. And closer "Blood Harmony" is an old-school spaghetti western number, drama and veiled threats in the family, in what could be a murder ballad up in the mountains where family is everything and the police won't go. And I think I heard an oboe. 

There is a lot going on, but in no way is it a challenging listen. It's actually a delight, with lots of ear candy to enjoy and fine playing to appreciate. But the deeper you listen, the more impressive the album becomes. Put on "repeat."

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY - FINDING WILDFLOWERS (Alternate Versions)


I have already waxed enthusiastically about the release last fall of the box set called Wildflowers And All The Rest, a fantastic set featuring all sorts of alternates, live cuts, demos and more from Petty's Wildflowers sessions. What I didn't mention was that there was also a Super Deluxe version with a bunch more artwork and an entire extra album of cuts not available elsewhere. It cost you a bundle more. Well, guess what? After waiting a few months to hopefully not piss off the collectors who spent that bundle more, the extra album has been released separately, meaning smarties like me and you didn't have to shell out all that extra cash.

Enough smugness, I certainly coveted that bonus disc, and now am very happy it's available on its own. It includes a further 16 cuts, alternate versions of most of the songs that made up Wildflowers, plus a couple of b-sides, and a one-off track from the sessions, "You Saw Me Comin'," that makes its debut here. What's with all the alternate versions? Well, Wildflowers took ages to make, from sessions over two years, and was originally planned as a double album. It was at a transitional time for Petty, with drummer Stan Lynch leaving, signing to a new record label, and Tom unsure if he was making a solo album or another Heartbreakers disc. Rick Rubin was producing, some session players had come in, Lynch had been invited back for awhile, and Petty was trying out his songs in various ways. So here you get the tracks sometimes in more rocking versions, others in their acoustic mode, some with different lyrics, and others with completely different moods. 

In the end Petty didn't want to make a Heartbreakers album, even though all of them played on these songs, and the original release from 1994 featured a lot of takes that were more emotive than raw. Here are some of the more rockin' versions, especially on tracks featuring Lynch, and the whole Heartbreakers vibe. "Crawlin' Back To You" is faster here, and "House In The Woods" has a regrettable middle section jam inspired by Mike Campbell's recent interest in the Grateful Dead. Petty probably made the right choice on most of the tracks, even though he must have been sad not to include the Ringo Starr take of "Wildflowers." Yeah, any album that includes a song starting with "You count it in, Ringo," is got to be good. You can pick this up on CD now, on special gold vinyl, or coming soon, regular old black vinyl.

Saturday, April 17, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DIANA HAYES/ANDY MEYERS - DEEPER INTO THE FOREST


Many people in the arts have found themselves shut out of some of their regular work in the Covid reality, which has been a curse financially, but occasionally there have been a few creative blessings. Without readings, conferences and launches on the schedule, B.C. poet Diana Hayes had time to turn some of her most recent work into a different project. Teaming up with guitarist and experimenter Andy Meyers (The Scenics, "The Last Pogo"), Hayes recited a number of her poems, which were then augmented with music, voices and sound effects. It's a rewarding combination of spoken word, music and atmosphere.

Rather than simply composing music to accompany the poems, Meyers lived with the audio, thought about the words, and found sounds, natural or created, to weave in and layer. Since nature is key to Hayes' poetry, field recordings of bird calls and frog peeps appear, treated with effects. There are wordless vocals at various times, supplied by Susheela Dawne, and Hayes' own voice is sometimes echoed back, a ghostly repetition. For the most part Meyers provides calm beds for the poems, fitting as Hayes has a soothing, Hinterland Who's Who-quality of narration. But when fuller sounds appear, it makes it even more dramatic, as found on "Thirteen Ways to Free a Crow." Here the guitar is richer and louder, train-like tones appear and the poet's voice doubled, sometimes repeated. If you too have extra time in lockdown, it's a good chance to expand your listening and try something different. 

Wednesday, April 7, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KAT DANSER - ONE EYE OPEN


There's not too many albums that would qualify as blues with such a straight-up punk rock song as the title cut. But that's the big wide blues world for Kat Danser. She isn't confined to the bar band sound of much modern blues, nor is she confined to her hometown Edmonton sounds, pandemic or not. Danser teamed up with producer Steve Dawson in Nashville, and aces scattered around the continent for this set, recording her vocals remotely in Edmonton, with nobody in the same studio. How they pulled off all her different styles is a testament to the talent involved, and the now-familiar miracle that is Zoom.

Danser is an integrator, taking classic location sounds and smoothly blending them, while still allowing different genres to come to the fore depending on the track. "Mi Corazon," obviously Cuban and sung in Spanish, still has horns that owe as much to New Orleans. And where that pedal steel solo comes from, well, it's part of the magic. In "Lonely & The Dragon," those horns are now serving up slow-burning soul jazz lines, while Kevin McKendree (Brian Setzer, Delbert McClinton) provides a shot of vitamin B-3. And "Bring It With You When You Come" is delightfully Dixieland/Fats Waller, with Dawson sliding in some licks, while the horns go off script for a bebop moment or two. Meanwhile Danser goes from goodtime vocals on "Frenchman Street" to tough as nails on "Way I Like It Done," a different character for every different song. By the time she rages, "What the hell is going on?" in her best punk voice for "One Eye Open," it all makes sense actually.

Friday, April 2, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG - YOUNG SHAKESPEARE


Just imagine the people who went to this concert in January of 1971, and said after, "It was good, but he played a bunch of new songs nobody knew." It would be a year before they came out on Harvest, and that night Young treated the crowds to the brand-new "A Man Needs A Maid," "Old Man," "The Needle And The Damage Done," and "Heart Of Gold." They didn't know how lucky they were at the Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, CT. 

This new LP/CD/DVD is billed as the earliest concert film of Young, but let's be realistic. He looks and sounds the same as he did all for decades, at least when he did these acoustic shows. More importantly, it's a strong show from this crucial time in his career. His songwriting was flowing so well that he couldn't afford to stand still and promote his just-released album After The Gold Rush. The set features just two of those tracks, "Tell Me Why" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down." He did the CSNY favourites "Ohio" and "Helpless," but it was the unreleased material that really held his interest.

Definitely the high point is when he switches to piano, an instrument he admits he's still learning. But he's used it to write stunning new material. We get his "Man Needs A Maid/Heart Of Gold" suite, still in its original medley state. It's funny how "Heart Of Gold" was the afterthought at this point. In introducing "Maid," he explains his recent back injury (slipped disc) had left him bedridden for a time, wishing somebody would clean up. That might have inspired the "maid" lines, but the real story here is the bit about "I fell in love with the actress," a reference to his new relationship with Carrie Snodgrass, probably the heart of gold. Young stays at the keys for "Journey Through The Past," such a strong number it would be saved for his experimental film of the same name the next year. 

Young fans will know this this show was a mere three days after his Massey Hall concert, released in 2007. That featured a longer setlist, and the only difference here is an encore of "Sugar Mountain." Also, the Massey Hall show had a DVD that linked up those cuts with this same exact film footage, since at that point, they didn't realize they had this good audio from the Shakespeare Theatre set. Well, never mind, it's good to have the video and audio now in its proper place, and the Shakespeare show is more serious and quiet, without the excitement of the audience at the hometown Massey Hall gig. It is Young at the very height of his songwriting prowess. You can buy the CD, LP or a deluxe set with the DVD and both audio versions.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JERRY LEGER - SONGS FROM THE APARTMENT (Vinyl), TIME OUT FOR TOMORROW (Deluxe)



Some musicians are using the Covid downtime to work on new music, and others have used it to search back in their vaults for some forgotten treasures to release. Our favourite Toronto roots-rocker (well, mine) Jerry Leger has done both, and been quite generous about it, with a couple of new/old releases. There's finally a (red) vinyl version of his 2020 album Songs From The Apartment, which was a surprise album released digitally at the start of pandemic last year, a collection of acoustic cuts recorded at home, one mic. To spruce that up, Jerry's added a fine new single to the album, "Sweep It Under The Rug," done in the same style, just him at the piano.


You're not missing anything having the song released in this bare-bones version. I wouldn't want the ballad adorned in any way. It's a moving song, sad but looking forward, about a couple who find out they both have been untrue, but agree to put it aside, as there is still love and hope. As for his home demos, they show just how strong a composer Leger is, the songs fully formed before he hits the studio, not relying on other instruments to beef them up. 



The other release just out is a deluxe edition of his 2019 album, Time Out For Tomorrow. I love this full-band album, produced by Michael Timmins of Cowboy Junkies, a big, guitar-centered album. Leger embodies the spirit of a bunch of classic songwriter-rockers here. I could throw out the all-star names, but the point is he sounds a little like all of them, while copying none of them. His work stands on his own, inspiring and engrossing. The great news here is that the album is now beefed up with a remarkable 18 bonus cuts. These include lots more demos, out-takes and some relevetory live tracks. Solo, live or with a band, Leger has become a songwriting treasure. Check out his site for buying details, and his YouTube channel for even more content.

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NEIL YOUNG WITH CRAZY HORSE - WAY DOWN IN THE RUST BUCKET


Another one from Young's Performance Series, this one comes from a special night, a warm-up gig for the Ragged Glory tour in 1990. Young and Crazy Horse took over the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, California, and did three sets for the lucky few, two and a half hours of tunes. Since this was before the tour, the setlist for his upcoming gigs hadn't been put together yet, so there was a good spirit of fun throughout, with some rare cuts, band favourites and almost all the new album played.

There's already a live album from this tour, Weld, which was released in 1991. It's good, but this beats it, for various reasons. First, there's excellent sound on this thanks to the small club feel. Young's vocals especially are up close and personal, and the venue allowed for a better recording. The setlist is very different from the tour document of Weld, and we get some gems here. "Country Home" was an old Horse number that first appeared back in 1975, made the Ragged Glory album, but wasn't featured on the tour. "Surfer Joe And Moe The Sleaze" was a dud on the RE*AC*TOR album, but it proves much more enjoyable played live. Other old '70's tracks "Danger Bird" and "Bite The Bullet" are welcome as well, deep cuts for strong fans, rather than those hoping for "Helpless." 

Throughout, the band is locked in, and Young sounds invested in the performance. You can tell the difference, he's not acting at being Neil Young, he's enjoying the thrill of teaming up once again with his best band, and letting loose on some different and new material. Young was enjoying himself so much, during Don't Cry No Tears, a normally short tune, he got the group to continue playing it rather than ending, explaining to the crowd, "I just felt like singing it some more." 

Of course, it helps that there were so many good new songs to play. Ragged Glory was a very good album, and individually the songs were even better live. "Love To Burn" was a great song to jam on, a long story with full-sized guitar solo breaks. "F*!#in' Up" quickly became both a band and fan favourite, and "Love And Only Love" matched the intensity of other Crazy Horse epics such as "Cortez The Killer," the show closer. 

Yeah, there's a lot of Neil Young albums out there, but this one has everything going for it, if you're a fan of Crazy Horse tours. If that doesn't tempt you, stand by the next one, Young Shakespeare," coming this Friday, solo acoustic from 1971, featuring Harvest-era songs.

Tuesday, March 16, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COLLEEN POWER - TALES FROM DOWNTOWN WEST


Here's another use of Covid down time. St. John's mainstay Colleen Power took the RPM Challenge in February. That's Record Production Month, and the goal is to make an entire album by yourself, from songwriting to finished product. Power managed just that, coming up with six strong new ones, and doing all the playing and producing herself. That includes vocals, guitar, bass, dulcimer, drum programming and editing, ukulele and accordion. 

You get a bit of everything Power is about in these tracks. There's Newfoundland whimsy, trad, biting wit, social observation, punk attitude, Francophone, grass roots and modern folk. In the sharpest bit of commentary, she uses the tiktok trend of sea shanties to skewer the socio-political climate of her own province. "NL Sea Shanty" chides the province for being "Halif an hour later b'ys, and fifty years behind." Power isn't pulling any punches with this one: "While the world is wielding windmills, we're bawlin' out for oil/Join me in this sea shanty, pretend you're Alan Doyle." On a softer note, her "Purple Aster" is a ukulele charmer, maybe the first song tribute to that hardy flower. Her downtown St. John's street cred comes through solidly on "Spell For A Broken Mirror," with "Bad luck, bad luck, enough to fill up a dump truck."

The pandemic has curtailed the usual St. Patrick's Day shenanigans in St. John's, but not the music, and Power is doing her bit of celebrating on Facebook Live. Join her at 8:30 PM NST (which is 8 PM Atlantic, 7 PM Eastern, etc.) at www.facebook.com/ColleenPowerNL. And to pick up a copy of Tales From Downtown West or any of her other releases, go to www.singsonginc.ca.

Saturday, March 13, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LEAHY - GOOD WATER


Man, that's a lot of Leahy's. I count seven in the beloved Ontario family band these days, some of the eleven siblings not active these days, others stepping in to take their place, including a couple of next-generation members. With the changes, they are sounding a lot more progressive these days, with more modern instruments and a world music sound on several cuts, more Enya than trad for sure. Produced by Canadian David Bottrill, with plenty of prog and rock credits from Peter Gabriel to Rush to his credit, there are plenty of big-sounding epic tracks here, lots of soaring vocals, moody keyboards and prominent drums. With Donnell, Doug and Angus all on the sidelines, the fiddle content is way down, not even showing up until the third song on the album.

So, a new chapter, but still with moments of the old "Call To Dance" instrumental excitement. Both "Little Moon" and "Star of the Sea" have that fiddle-and-drum Irish swing, where the group's long-standing prowess as dynamic players takes over. For the rest though, Denise's vocals shine, on rockers such as "Joanne" and the piano ballad "Falling." And for the full family story, check out "My Old Man," which tells how the Leahy music dream got passed down, albeit with the generational shift in tastes we hear in this latest version of the group.

Monday, March 1, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MO KENNEY - COVERS


When Mo Kenney first appeared on the East Coast music scene about a decade ago, one of the songs that made her stand out was her striking solo cover of Bowie's Ziggy-era "Five Years." Stripped of its camp and swagger, Kenney's version brought a chilling humanity to the song, allowing the end-times lyrics to stand out. Kenney has always enjoyed throwing a curve-ball cover into her live show, and for her fourth album she delivers a full set of them.

The album was recorded simply at New Scotland Yard studio with the usual crew, producer Joel Plaskett and engineer Thomas Stajcer. Mostly it's one instrument, guitar or keyboard, and Kenney's vocals. That's key because it lets us focus on her emotional readings of songs that feature thoughtful and sensitive lyrics. Also, we get to hear what it was like for Kenney starting out, learning her favourite songs and adapting them to her interpretations.

The opening track, Big Star's beloved "Thirteen," gives a good sense of the type of song Kenney admires, Alex Chilton's tribute to teenage passion all heart and sentimentality. Kenney has curated a fine bunch of surprises as well, everything from fellow Haligonians Dog Day's "Slow Death" to Guided By Voices' "Game Of Pricks" to Magnetic Fields' "Strange Powers." Her version of "Sour Girl" by Stone Temple Pilots manages to put Scott Weiland as close as possible to Carly Simon. Of the better known songs, Patsy Cline's "You Belong To Me" is a strong reminder of the power of classic songwriting. Her remodeling of The Kinks' "I'm Not Like Everybody Else" featuring one-note spacey organ by Plaskett is more a statement than a pop song. Only the best-known number here, Tom Petty's "Yer So Bad," fails. Slowed down, it's too plodding, and it's supposed to be fun. But without question, Kenney's a singer who owns a song, and inhabits them as well as she does her own writing.

Friday, February 26, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEVE HILL - DESERT TRIP


He may be from Montreal, but the desert fits Steve Hill just fine too. Inspired by a trip to Coachella in California, the ace guitarist went off-road in some iconic spots such as Death Valley and Yosemite, toured around and came up with a bunch of tunes that captured the vibe. It was a side trip musically as well, with Hill expanding his blues-rock into some wild western and alt-country too.

Songs "Rain" and "Judgement Day" have the feel of desperado movies, open skies and danger, with moody tones and lots of atmosphere. "Cold Heart" starts out as an acoustic confessional, and then blossoms into an alt-rocker when he hits the chorus. Renegades and loners appear, and that gives Hill a good opportunity to wow us with fast acoustic licks, like on the bluesy "Gotta Be Strong." In these shut-in days, this album feels like freedom.

Tuesday, February 23, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - MOTHER b/w TRYIN' TO GET TO HEAVEN / BOWIE & MORRISSEY - COSMIC DANCER


I have to admit I am fascinated and more than a little obsessed with the non-stop reissue and archive program for Bowie. Barely a month goes by without some new product. I've had to draw the line at some of them. I won't search out all the coloured vinyl reissues of his regular albums, that seems just repetitive. And there are now so many concert albums I've actually lost track of them. They all seem very good of course, and he did drastically change with each tour, but at some point you have to realize you're spending way too much time listening to one artist.

Each time you think the vaults must be empty of truly unreleased songs, they prove you wrong, The latest new material is featured on two 7-inch 45 rpm releases, cover versions of some famous material, by artists who were strong influences on Bowie. The first features two studio tracks recorded in 1998, for different projects .Bowie did a version of John Lennon's "Mother" for a tribute album, but that ended up shelved. Also that same year, when he was in the studio mixing some live tracks for his Bowie.net site, he recorded a version of Bob Dylan's recent song, "Tryin' To Get To Heaven," and that too has sat on the shelf until now. 


The version of "Mother" is pretty straight-forward, certainly no out-there '90's Bowie experimentation going on. Instead he lets his voice and emotion rule the track, the band really not much of a presence. As such, he doesn't add much to the song's legacy. Lennon's own version was so raw and claustrophobic, it seemed straight from one of his primal scream therapy sessions, so Bowie was never going to touch that. He should have messed with it more. That's what he did with the Dylan song, to better effect, creating a new opening with a prominent synth, and changing the melody and mood of the song. It's certainly odd and different lined up against the original, and I'm not sure it does the lyric any favours, but it's interesting and deserves to be out and heard.

Marc Bolan's spectacular rise and fall has relegated him to the second tier of rock fame, but without Bolan there certainly would have been no Ziggy Stardust, and for while Bowie seemed like the junior partner in their friendship. So when Bowie guested at a Morrissey show in 1991, a T. Rex cover seemed like a natural. The two of them sing together, Bowie doing his low voice for the first bit, and only an acoustic guitar behind them, so it must have been a quick decision. It's cool, but hardly a special moment. This has been on YouTube for ages, so it's no surprise, but the fact Morrissey has allowed its release is more interesting. He's had spotty relations with his former idol over the years, but then again, it's Morrissey, so who knows. It may be more of a question of him trying to get some good publicity for a change. Since this is technically a Morrissey single, not a Bowie, the b-side doesn't feature Dave. It's a cover of The Jam's "That's Entertainment," which Morrissey has already released once before. This is a new version though, recorded last year, much calmer than the original, but quite perfect for Morrissey. Funny, of all the covers here, it's the most successful. 

Monday, February 8, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFF TWEEDY - LOVE IS THE KING


Pandemic, schmandemic. Wilco's leader Tweedy has kept going at his usual heavy pace despite being stuck at home. He's been putting out an album a year or more much of the last decade, between solo and band works. There's been an on-going reissue series of classic Wilco albums, with plenty of unreleased bonus material to organize.  Oh, and he wrote his second book, released in 2020 as well.

Of course being at home is not really an inconvenience for him. When he doesn't have Wilco around, he's got his kids Spencer and Sammy. In effect, he grew his own band. During Covid, the Tweedy family gave us an Instagram series called The Tweedy Show, with dad and the kids doing originals and covers, Spencer the drummer and Sammy helping on vocals. 

Love Is The King isn't a thick and rich album, in the Wilco style. It's lighter, more light-hearted, easily-digested as opposed to the sonically dense group material. However, that doesn't make it any less rewarding, and offers a more accessible way to enjoy Tweedy. He has a great sense of humour, and the pressure's off. If Tweedy wants to write a country song, he just does it, and there are a few here. The lyrics are upfront and uncomplicated, but bang-on with Tweedy's warmhearted sincerity. In "Guess Again," he sings of eating tomatoes right off the vine, "and if you think that's the best thing/That I ever knew/Guess again/My Love/It's you." And "Natural Disaster" is another one to make you smile: "I've never been blown by the winds of a hurricane/Never been in a flood/I've never been buried up to my neck in mud/But I have fallen in love/And that's enough/Of a natural disaster for me." What's fun for Tweedy and his kids is just as fun for us. Vinyl enthusiasts can look for the clear vinyl version.

Monday, January 25, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE KINKS - PART 1. LOLA VERSUS POWERMAN AND THE MONEYGOROUND


Best known for delicious hits and brotherly feuds, The Kinks remain more famous than popular. Despite chart-topping singles in three decades, The Kinks haven't maintained the sales status of their closest contemporaries, The Who, The Beatles and The Stones. And several of the group's very best albums continue to suffer ridiculous neglect. And don't say that they were too British; they didn't sell there either.

Fifty years ago, case in point: The band had a hit single on both sides of the Atlantic, the saucy "Lola," somehow bending genders into the Top 10, #1 in England. The jokey "Apeman" did pretty good as a follow-up too, but still the album stalled out in the mid-'30's in the U.S., and didn't chart at all in England. It seems the band was stuck between two worlds; pop hits and concept albums, and the concepts were a little too hard for the kids to fathom. Starting with 1968's The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society, and continuing with '69's Arthur (Or the Decline and Fall of the British Empire), this album featured a full concept to rival The Who's Tommy, and lots of Ray Davies' growing theatrical flair. 

This two-disc reissue is edited down from the new mega-box issued for the 50th anniversary, and is no doubt a better and cheaper introduction to the album. Disc one features the original, plus some mono single mixes of the hits. Disc two sees the album repeated in alternate versions, some demos, some alternates, some live and a couple of complete tracks dropped from the album back in the day. The story is pretty much about all the garbage and trickery a rock band goes through, thanks to the lawyers, agents, managers, groupies and all the other people trying to take a bit of your soul and a lot of your money. This was very much on Davies' mind at the time, as he was nearing the end of a crushing lawsuit with original management, and had seen his money tied up in proceedings and the spoils divided by countless greedy hands around the world.

That's best described in "The Moneygoround," which names names involved in the suit, and how publishing gets split and split among companies around the world doing not that much other than signing cheques to themselves. "Top Of The Pops" is a very cynical look at success, and how the fame game works as you climb the charts. There are more reflective numbers as well, among the best cuts. "This Time Tomorrow" sees our narrator looking down from another trans-Atlantic flight, taking stock while he can, the trip the only quiet time. "Strangers" is one of the great Kinks album tracks, an almost hopeful song about unity, but at that point in the album, the divide-and-conquer people hadn't entered. The set does end in a positive light though. Our hero, despite all the ill treatment done in the name of commerce, retains his humanity and protects his art, things more precious than cash.

The Lola album is the last great Kinks release. After that, Davies got too enamoured by his concepts, and throughout the mid-'70's delivered a run of increasingly difficult sets, slaves to the story rather than the songs, especially the ones developed around theatrical scripts. Muswell Hillbillies was quite good. Soap Opera was a mess. But the three albums ending with Lola match the great periods of The Who, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, those glory years of the late '60's and early '70's, and deserve to be heralded as such. Me, I think I'm going to go back and buy those Super Deluxe sets.