Monday, October 18, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JACLYN REINHART - SLEEP WITH GHOSTS


A significant step forward for this New Brunswick singer-songwriter, who put out an album and an E.P. in the 2010's. Now with a lot more confidence and development, Reinhart has worked hard finding the right framing for her personal lyrics. The result is a rootsier sound with tighter arrangements and some fine hooks and catchy choruses.

The songs on this five-cut E.P. tell of bad, regretful relationships and coming out the other side stronger. No tears needed now, she's got this covered: "You'll only see one finger when I say goodbye, in my rearview," she sings goodbye to a loser in lead single "Rearview." In "Last Disaster," she adds this bit of muscle to the same topic: "This story's over, I can close this chapter/you should know you'll be my last disaster." And she saves her most heartfelt words for her own healing, in "Apology": "Now I'm sorry -- this apology is for me."

Recorded and mixed by fellow N.B.-er John McLaggan of East Coast favourites Tomato/Tomato, this feels like a whole new start for Reinhart.

Friday, October 15, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAROLINE WILES - GRATEFUL


From the fertile Hamilton music scene, Wiles is a strong singer-songwriter who has the added blessing of a killer voice, emotive and rich. The leads and harmonies here are exceptional, and are wisely highlighted in the mix throughout. She has a voice you want to hear.

Her pop-folk material is lyrically strong as well, straight to the point, emotional and empowering, and the upbeat numbers like "Make A Memory With Me" are tailor-made with big hooks. They do tend towards '70's and '80's clean production, somewhat dated at times, but no problem if that's your era. Some more country-ish numbers later in the album, "Lovey Dovey" and "Old Country Song," benefit more from that approach, good ol' throwback country with a big voice and lots of fiddle. 

Catch her Saturday, Oct. 16 at the Moonshine Cafe in Oakville, ON.

Friday, October 1, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOHN WORT HANNAM - LONG HAUL


I haven't heard an album like this in awhile. Each song is simple, easy to take in, and utterly charming. They're built on clever lines, great humour, touching moments, worldly wisdom and sentimentality. Life, in all its beauty, confusion and irony. It's just the kind of record we loved John Prine for.

Hannam of course is no slouch as a writer. The Alberta troubadour has two decades worth of carefully-honed roots albums, but this one stands out. Not that he's reinvented the wheel, it's just that each song is bang-on, a collection where you go "Now that's a good one" with every new song. And you don't get used to them. Each time I've played this, the same thing has happened, where every one of the eleven tracks grabs my attention is some way.

It starts out that way with a great couplet, on lead track "Long Haul": "I ain't in it for the short term/I'm in it for the slow burn." In "Beautiful Mess," a duet with Shaela Miller, is a classic "We can't break up, who else would have us?" tune: "Oo wee baby, you and me are a tragedy/a shipwreck and a house ablaze/an earthquake and a tidal wave." And lines that might be too much like a Hallmark greeting card in a lesser writer's hands come out sincere and important from Hannam: "May you die young at heart at a ripe old age." Ain't life something? Don't overthink it.

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS - FEEL FLOWS THE SUNFLOWER AND SURF'S UP SESSIONS 1969 - 1971


Truth. I've been trying to get people to listen to this period of The Beach Boys' music since I was in high school. And that was indeed a very, very long time ago. I could never understand why it wasn't considered brilliant then, and I'd like to say to all those doubters over the years that indeed I feel vindicated in my life-long obsession and devotion. This boxed set is being hailed as containing the group's long-lost masterpieces, a must for anyone who takes them more seriously than "Barbara Ann" or "Surfin' U.S.A."

Well, if these albums were lost, they were hiding in plain sight. Both 1970's Sunflower and 1971's Surf's Up, the records from that period, have been easily available and reissued several ways since the '80's. There's simply never been a concerted push for them until now. That's been handled now by expanding the 1969-1971 time period into a five-disc collection, filled with outtakes, different versions, live cuts, works-in-progress and the ever-popular a cappella sections where you can hear the glorious vocals. 

It's a pretty good story too. With leader Brian Wilson going through more and more withdrawal due to his mental health, the band decided to build a recording studio in his house, in order to entice him downstairs. That worked on some days, but not always. Or he'd start a production, then leave it for others to finish. Meanwhile the rest of the group had to step up in production and songwriting, as their resident genius could no longer work at his usual, stunning pace. And surprise surprise, the rest of them showed they all had the skills needed, if not at Brian levels, then combined, they could come close.

Not that Wilson was totally missing. In fact some of his very best songs come from this period, just not in the same numbers. "'til I Die" from Surf's Up is the calm opposite of "Good Vibrations," an impossibly beautiful melody and vocal arrangement with a bittersweet look at mortality: "I'm a leaf on a windy day/pretty soon I'll be blown away."  Whatever thoughts were going through Brian's head, this was "In My Room" all grown up. "This Whole World" is another masterpiece, the song shifting moods and keys several times in two minutes, the vocal arrangement breathtaking. There was no-one else in the world who could conceive of that track, and since then, people have learned to copy the style but not truly create something so fresh and fierce. 

It's notable that Carl Wilson co-produced that cut with Brian, because he had to take the reins most of the time for the next while. The baby of the family had by then learned much of the studio language and could get the needed work from the other members and the session pros who usually looked to Brian. The rest describe this period as among the best for the group, since they were all excited to contribute, bringing in new songs and getting to add their own ideas, solo or collaboratively. Bruce Johnston, who had joined in '66, surprised all with touching piano numbers "Deirdre" and "Disney Girls." Al Jardine, the resident folkie, brought some quirky numbers and a big interest in hippie environmentalism ("Don't Go Near The Water," "Lookin' At Tomorrow") which sounds completely cool in these days of global warming concerns. Even the much-despised Mike Love was hard at work co-writing lyrics with all of them, including the should-have-been-huge singled "Add Some Music," now rightfully regarded as a classic. 

But it was Dennis Wilson who surprised the most with his songs and production. Previously the hot drummer and not much more, he had learned piano in the late '60's and was composing beautiful, dark, atmospheric love songs that were becoming an important part of the early '70's band. Working often with Beach Boys sideman Darryl Dragon (aka the Captain of Captain & Tennille), intense songs such as "Forever" were initially meant for solo records, but got drafted into band tracks in Brian's absence.

Not that they lacked material. As the boxed set shows, there were more than a dozen other tracks complete or near that were rejected, set aside, used as b-sides or saved for later. Some have surfaced over time ("Susie Cincinnati," "San Miguel"), others presented in other boxed sets, but several more are here for the first time, other than notorious bootleg and YouTube clips. Some rank among their best, including Love's "Big Sur," later reshaped as part of a medley on 1973's Holland, but here in its original time signature, a head-scratching drop from Surf's Up. Dennis's European-only solo single "Sound Of Free/Lady" could have easily made Sunflower. However it was Brian who proved the most troublesome writer as his mental state grew worse. Mostly he was childish, silly and inappropriate. "Good Time" was a fun track but nobody wants to hear lyrics like "My girlfriend Penny, she's kind of skinny, and so she needs her falsies on." Makes me cringe every time.

So lots to love here, a couple of things to scratch your head over, but if you don't have these albums you'll probably be shocked they aren't better known. Surf's Up did okay but Sunflower was a complete bomb, at least in North America. England hailed it as the group's best after Pet Sounds, and it probably is. Even the repetitive takes on discs three and four that have the instrumental or a cappella sections are well worth hearing, as the productions are so rich and complicated. The book essay is a bit myth-making, as it wasn't quite the joyous time they make it sound. And while this creative period lasted a couple more years, America discovered nostalgia after that thanks to American Graffiti and Happy Days, and the public demanded they return to their '60's surfin' and cars songs. Unlike The Beatles, you have to pick and choose Beach Boys albums carefully, but this is absolutely one to enjoy.

Monday, September 27, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CAROLINE MARIE BROOKS - EVERYTHING AT THE SAME TIME


"Look how beautiful it is outside but I'm stuck on the inside," is not just a pandemic reference. Like many of us, Caroline Marie Brooks found herself in deep reflection during the past year and a half of isolation. That line in "Birdsong" refers to being stuck emotionally, thoughts and feelings caging us up as much as Covid. Brooks, one of the three members of folk favourites Good Lovelies, found herself flowing with new material but nowhere to share it, kept off the road and away from her partners. The perfect time then, for a first solo album.

Moving from one-third responsibility to handling all the leads herself might have been daunting, but she makes it sound effortless. Brooks has a tremendously pleasing tone, gentle and soothing, easy-going, like a mandolin. It's perfect combined with stringed instruments, and co-producer Jim Bryson underscores her good and lovely vocals rather than overwhelming with anything near loud. Mostly its things like baritone and tenor guitars, a dobro and a tiple, a symphony of soft. There's even an instrumental, two guitars, just Brooks and her dad, called appropriately "Song For Fred."

She had no shortage of inspiration even under lockdown. It was time to take stock of a few memories, a few current realities, and to not forget singing and playing for the simple pleasure of it. Family and children feature prominently, Brooks smack in the middle of life, young people to care for, watch grow older, and parents and partners fitting in there too. It's past, present and future all there under one family, great memories, a few fears, some melancholy and lots of contemplation. But don't forget the joy. A poignant and pleasing last note is a surprising cover of an old Roger Miller song taken from the soundtrack to the '70's Disney movie Robin Hood, "Oo-De-Lally." On the surface you could let this album wash over you as a pleasing and uplifting set, but it doesn't take long for the lyrical weight to sink in.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ARKELLS - BLINK ONCE


Arkells walk a tricky tightrope. Somehow they manage to be dance-y and trance-y, but still come across as rock as well. They have lots of pop elements, big and bold and joyous tunes that lift you up, but also handle lots of heavy issues. In a blind taste-test, they'd probably score well with teens and hipsters and even some Dad Rock fans.

If that sounds accusatory, like the music was purposely a hybrid created by committee, it's not meant to be. It's more a wide-open attitude, ample influences and lots of creativity on tap in the production. The group has a lead singer in Max Kerman with lots of big rock ability, and being from Hamilton, they have history and pedigree and tons of heroes to emulate. 

Anyway, that's why they have had big success and manage to show up in pop, rock and alt-rock charts and playlists. The new album Blink Once, is more poppy and bright than ever, and ridiculously catchy. It's certainly not the group's blah-blah-stuck-inside-Covid album. It's more like a (slightly premature) celebratory get out and have fun collection. Or at least it sounds like that. "Swing Swing Swing" is about as punchy and bouncy as they've ever done, but, classic, it's sung by a dumped guy finally coming to grips with his situation. "Liberation" feels like people breaking free, hitting the road for excitement, but the back story is someone going through cancer and needing to celebrate rather than suffer. "Arm In Arm" is another one where grief is acknowledged but moving forward is the goal. 

Of course, you can ignore all the words and just pump your fist in the air. There are few albums that come close to being this energetic and upbeat. But there's lots to chew over as well.

Monday, September 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHARLIE A'COURT & WITCHITAW - WHEN COUNTRY GETS THE BLUES


Here's a project delayed for a year by Covid but no less potent, and ready to roll. A'Court is the fiery blues and soul guitar slinger originally from Truro, N.S., and Witchitaw is the outlaw country band from the nearby Annapolis Valley. They crossed paths enough at awards shows that Witchitaw singer Jason Spinney realized A'Court would sound great singing their style of country, and the band figured they wouldn't mind getting bluesy too. They approached A'Court with the plan, and he loved the idea too. 

The first gigs included a showcase at the annual, huge Cavendish Beach Music Festival in 2019, and was a hit with the crowd. They planned to tour the show last year, but then, you know, pandemic. So now they're ready to get going, and with a bonus. The Cavendish show was recorded, and is coming out in connection with the fall tour. The ten-track set gives a full picture of what the collaboration offers, with vocals shared by A'Court and the band, some originals, a couple of covers that fit the sound, and everything a bit bluesy, a bit country-rock.

It's an interesting mix. When A'Court isn't singing, he's playing some wicked lead guitar on the more countrified tracks. There's no hint of conflict between the two genres, A'Court happy to twang, and the Witchitaw troupe smooth in the groove. You can hear that best in the Creedence hit "Down On The Corner," when they hit the centre of that swamp classic. Meanwhile Witchaw makes sure there's a local flavour in there as well, with "East Coast Country Side Roads." 

Witchaw and A'Court are finally able to hit the road, with a series of Maritime dates. Catch them at: 

  1. Sept. 25 - Digby Pines Resort, Digby, N.S.
  2. Oct. 1 - Harbourfront Theatre, Summerside, P.E.I.
  3. Oct. 2 - Kings Playhouse, Georgetown, P.E.I.
  4. Oct. 8 - Marigold Theatre, Truro, N.S.
  5. Oct. 9 - Imperial Theatre, Saint John, N.B.
  6. Oct. 16 - Astor Theatre, Liverpool, N.S.
  7. Oct. 22 - The Union Street, Berwick, N.S.
  8. Oct. 23 - The Union Street, Berwick, N.S.

Saturday, September 18, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ADRIAN SUTHERLAND - WHEN THE MAGIC HITS


From Attawapiskat on James Bay, this is roots-rocker Sutherland's first solo album after four with the band Midnight Shine. Smooth-voiced and sensitive, he's tapped into a prevailing mood that many will recognize and understand. Between Covid and all the strident voices of politics, the sad realities of colonial past, it's been a rough couple of years on everyone's psyche. Sutherland was left with one big question: Where's all the love?

The album, Sutherland says, is about all the personal thoughts he hasn't been able to put down in song before. Some are bigger and universal, like dealing with all the chaos out there right now, while others dig up some of his demons from the past. Mostly though, it's a call for us to help each other, walk with each other. Lord knows the guy would have lots to rail about, from his work with young people in the North, watching all the shortages that affect the communities so much, from clean water to mental health care. But instead he uses his voice and words to reach out and connect, by sharing his fears and feelings.

In "Scared," which is actually an upbeat tune with a fine groove, he lets us see inside with words straight from the heart: "I think of all the words that people say/Why we gotta hate so much today?/And it hurts me." The song "Walk With Me," written with Serena Ryder, is about Reconciliation, not why it's important but how to do it, letting ourselves see through other's eyes. 

The album features nine cuts that range from tender ballads with strings to atmospheric productions to poppy roots, all delivered with an emotional honesty. In addition to Ryder, other names present include co-writers Jay Semko from The Northern Pikes, Colin Cripps of Blue Rodeo and Chris Gormley of The Trews. Production is handled mostly by the always-remarkable Colin Linden, with Tim Vesely (Rheostatics) handling two cuts. It's the sound of a very good heart.

Sunday, September 12, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THOMAS STAJCER - MIDWESTERN STATES


The in-house engineer at Joel Plaskett's New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth continues with his hardcore country alternate career, serving up real-deal honky tonk and badass lyrics. In his "Heading To The Bar To Do Bad Again," his protagonist has no illusions about his evening's fate: "I'm willing to make poor decisions/I'm fine with the consequences/I've got a thirst to quench." In "Who Will Listen To Country Music When Trucks Drive Themselves" he asks the question nobody's thought about yet, but the real story here is the scariness of technology vs. culture, and what should be left behind in the race for progress.

But Stajcer is not all booze and country philosophy, not by a long shot. The twang leads the way, but also conceals a deep literary bent, and a lot of the soul searching we go through trying to find the right path.. The title cut has him reading Hemingway, musing on the historic opening of the continent in the 19th century, and longing for a far-off love, a lot to pack into  three verses. That track is about as powerful Americana as I've heard, full of heartland soul and a melange of various roots music sounds. As for an overall style, Stajcer and Co. seem like eleven different bands over the eleven cuts, from fast and furious to heartache, Western swing to Spaghetti Western to Bluegrass to Appalachian folk. Smart, strong, catchy. 

Monday, September 6, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SEAN MCCANN - SHANTYMAN


If you're still scratching your head over the whole sea shanty resurgence on TikTok a few months back, you're not alone. What started out as a joke meme created an honest-to-goodness resurgence, and a career boost for more than a few East Coast musicians. And half of Newfoundland went, 'See? We told ya so.'

It let Sean McCann return to his roots too. Not that the Great Big Sea founding member wasn't about to do that anyway at some point, but the timing was great. Using his Covid downtime, he hit the wayback machine to dig out some trad gems and rework them with new arrangements and instrumentation. Not that shanties don't already rock, but McCann (in his guise as The Shantyman) gives them a big boost of drums and bass, and sings them with great gusto. 

It's a delicate balance for sure, giving the songs a new coat of paint without making them too shiny. For that he assembled some equally-seasoned musicians from both the trad and rock worlds. East Coast string master J.P. Cormier is on board, as well as Hawksley Workman, Jeremy Fisher  and Ken Friesen. So a song like "Shantyman's Life" has a sweet whistle in the verses, but a scorching lead guitar answering back. Meanwhile, tales of brave cabin boys, parson's daughters, rebellious crews and hard and tragic lives spin by, "Go To Sea No More" the most ribald and memorable. That one'll shock the little TikTokkers.

Among all the old tales, McCann gives us one new one, his own song, "On The Water." In it, he makes the connection between the old ways and his current job: "I am just a lowly Shantyman, a servant to the song/I've sailed the wide-world over, on the water I belong." Turns out sea shanties are alive and well, and always have been, internet trends or not. McCann is selling the album on his website only, so no streaming for now, either as a digital collection, or a limited (1.000) edition signed CD. That port of call is seanmccannsings.com.

Tuesday, August 31, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID MYLES - THAT TALL DISTANCE


You've certainly never heard David Myles like this before. In fact, you won't hear him at all. Sing, that is. This all-instrumental jazzy album is a labour of love project that takes Myles all the way back to his high school band days, and his ongoing love and exploration of rich grooves, funk, rhythms, horns, world music and wherever his ears take him. 

Myles picks up the trumpet again, his early instrument, but that is just one element in this wide-ranging set. He combo'd up with a group of friends/players in various spots, and made the album remotely in Covid times. He'd start the tunes off with trumpet and guitar, and then send the cuts out as each musician filled in their parts, drums and bass. Then came the colour, solos and parts from lead guitar, pedal steel, trombone and keyboards. 

Although it's jazzy, to call it a jazz album is incorrect. It ranges far and wide. "Motion" has a country gospel sound, with pedal steel from Asa Brosius. "Hacksaw" has great soul parts, Leith Fleming-Smith's organ underpinned by melody lines from the tight horns. A rockin' guitar solo takes over, hands it back to the organ, and a left-field appearance by pedal steel at the end gives it a spacey ending. Opener "Bird Song" trips along on beats from Joshua Van Tassel, an atmospheric groove. It's certainly an ensemble album, the troupe taking Myles' melodic ideas to surprising and wonderful places. It's a perfect chill-out album, smooth but never too smooth, lots of excellent performances and even as an all-instrumental affair, far too catchy to slip into the background.

Monday, August 30, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARSHALL CRENSHAW - THE WILD, EXCITING SOUNDS OF MARSHALL CRENSHAW: LIVE IN THE 20th and 21st CENTURY


On the surface of it, Crenshaw's a one-hit wonder who peaked with his first album, and didn't live up to the hype. 1982's self-titled debut hit the charts, "Someday, Someway" made the Top 40, and every publication and reviewer loved his retro-pop mashup and glorious hooks. But the followup, Field Day, didn't have another hit single, there were complaints about producer Steve Lillywhite's colossal sound and Warner Brothers lost interest as the 80's closed.

However... that's the surface story. In reality, the fans who stuck with Crenshaw were still rapidly in love with his records, and have followed him with cultish devotion, giving him a solid life on the road and in the studio ever since. Crenshaw's an expert on classic rockabilly, rock 'n' roll and '60's radio hits, and has fused all the best of American guitar rock, British beat music and studio production into his individual style. Every song he makes is filled beginning to end with glorious chord changes, fantastic harmonies and catchy, memorable choruses. Each album he's made has more of the magic for those on the lifelong quest for the perfect pop song. 

It really is music for those who like to both rock and enjoy the songwriting craft. Take for example this gem from "Cynical Girl": "I can tell right away from the look in her eyes/She harbours no illusions and she's wordly wise." 

This generous two-disc live collection features a batch of cuts from his original band, featuring his brother Robert on drums and Chris Donato on bass, from those early exciting showcases. It has all the favourites from his first two albums, plus some dynamite covers that showed the group's versatility. Two Elvis covers (when nobody was covering Elvis), "Got A Lot Of Livin' To Do" and "Big Hunk O' Love" prove his fan smarts, and his version of Al Green's "Here I Am (Come and Take Me)" is a left-field surprise. There's a ton of energy, lots of guitar (from the lead singer no less), and as Crenshaw says, "It sounds like kids having fun."

The second part is a Crenshaw-curated crawl through the rest of his career, deep cuts from various periods and bands. The also-revered Bottle Rockets appear as the band on six of the songs, fellow believers in the beauty of dynamically-arranged rock. And stripped down to solo with guitar on "Passing Through," you get to hear how gorgeous those melodies are. The only time I've seen him live was solo, and it was just as rewarding. Heck of a guitar player too. There have been a couple of other Crenshaw live albums, but this one's the winner, for scope and overall excitement.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NATHAN WILEY - MODERN MAGIC


As more tentative reopening steps take place in the music world, one of Atlantic Canada's best festivals is back with a smaller but still impressive lineup. The Halifax Urban Folk Festival (HUFF) goes from Aug. 29 to Sept. 6, presenting some of the finest established and new performers from the East Coast. There aren't as many shows this time, nor any of the expertly-chosen cross-Canada and international acts that have graced the stages before (think Alejandro Escovedo, Lloyd Cole and Lily Hiatt to name but three), but when you can brag up Matt Mays, Erin Costelo and Reeny Smith for intimate shows, you're a class event for sure.

One of the hallmarks of the festival is its Songwriters Circle series, featuring three nightly artists in an acoustic setting. P.E.I.'s Nathan Wiley will do one of those sets on Saturday, Sept. 4 at Brightwood Brewery, as well as a full-band gig the next night at the Carleton. Wiley is launching his new six-track E.P., Modern Magic. The Summerside songwriter and producer, best known for his 2002 breakout hit "Bottom Dollar Baby," only releases things when he's darn good and ready, but they are always most welcome and solid, start to finish.

This set kicks off with "Heatseeker," a dark and funky track fueled by horns and dramatic stabs of strings plus a mysterious vibe. A tale of a femme fatale, I'd call it soul noire. The horns are especially rich and well-recorded, and it has the glow of real instruments, real playing to it. The horns return for the groove-ier "Nobody's Lookin' At You," this time with organ and backing vocals adding richness to the cool, Bill Withers-type simmering number. Somehow Wiley manages to make a synth sound funky on "Love Through the Eyes of a Shark," real soul instead of plastic soul.

I love the dark and funky late-night mood through all six tracks, and the fantastic arrangements, especially the choices of instruments. Where guitar would suffice for many, with his producer's ears Wiley has used the horns, singers, keys and lots more to make these songs extra-deep with ear candy. As for hooks, he's fully stocked, with "Moneymaker" an especially catchy one. Top notch, this one.

Monday, August 16, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SUZIE UNGERLEIDER - MY NAME IS SUZIE UNGERLEIDER


No longer Oh Susanna, the singer-songwriter has stripped down to the essentials, with concise and clear portraits of friends, family and loves, hers and others. The songs are tender and uncluttered, with her warm, emotional voice in command, graced with guitar and subtle touches of atmosphere and percussion from producer Jim Bryson. 

These are the best and worst of situations. "Disappear" is about a child trying to hide, both literally and figuratively, from an abusive father. Meanwhile, "Baby Blues" features a woman struggling with the moment of decision: "Please don't leave us alone, please don't break up our home." At the other end of the spectrum, "Summerbaby" is a celebration of Ungerleider's own daughter, all joy and love and amazement: "You had my  heart wrapped up in your tiny fingers."

There's a song about the high school rebel hero, half-good, half-bad girl, "North Star Sneakers," which sees her now in a conventional home, two kids and a yard. It's a simple question, was it what she wanted? But it's the stuff of life, is that all there is? Sweet and sad memories, halcyon days, tragedies big and small, Suzie Ungerleider documents those moments with grace and beauty.

Wednesday, August 11, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PAUL RANDY MINGO - COUNTRYFIED REDNECK LOVESONG


More unabashed redneck country from Nova Scotia's Mingo. Of course, that's the genre, not the politics, and I'd say Mingo has more rural Maritime values, and appreciation for small towns and all they offer. "I don't say it enough but I love my country girl," he sings in the new single "Country Girl Ways," and it seems pretty darn respectful.  As for kick-ass country, he's all on board, and writing some fine additions to the songbook.

Mingo is that rare country bird, a lead singer/piano and keyboard player, and his songs stand out for it. There are chord changes and different melodies that you just don't find in your normal country fare. Ballads, sure, it makes them a touch more poignant, but it's the rockers where it really stands out. This isn't Jerry Lee Lewis-pumping piano style, it's the chief instrument driving the song, so melodies, the vocals, it all goes to places your ears aren't expecting. It's basically more musical. 

There's a good team that's been behind Mingo's music for the past decade. Tim Feswick produces at his studio, and handles a bunch of instruments, Kris Richards (Clay Walker's guitar player) does all the lead guitar, and the fantastic Ray Legere adds the fiddle. With Mingo adding the keys, he's really developed a strong and joyous sound from countryfied Nova Scotia.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HOT MONDY (E.P.)


This new Halifax quintet recorded with high-end producer Michael Phillip Wojewoda way back in early 2020, and then had to sit on everything for over a year while Covid took its toll. Finally they've been able to launch this six-track E.P. (an album will follow in 2022). It's a surprising set of songs, the group exploring how many new places they can go in the alt-country genre.

The tunes all have story-telling at their core, little dramas that take off in the imagination. You're never quite sure where each one will lead. "Tell Me I'm Good" begins as a modern country ballad before the beat picks up and a full-on fiddle hoedown breaks out. "Body Of Water" goes from a soft strummer to a dreamscape string middle to a deep and heavy finale, three distinct sections that somehow come together seamlessly. The singer in "Vampire" may have an exaggerated warble for this Western horse opera, but it's all about a modern bloodsucker in a relationship. 

At times, the songs start out like they could make the playlist of your local modern country radio station, but that doesn't last very long before things get twisted. Lead single "Pale Ember" is far too dark and heavy for that brand of country fan. This is for the roots-rock crowd, or for those who took a left turn at Albuquerque.

Thursday, August 5, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PATRICK BALLANTYNE - LOVE/SHADOW/DUST


Ballantyne's penned killer-catchy cuts for others, notably several for Big Sugar, including "If I Had My Way,", and The Trews' fun "Poor Ol' Broken Hearted Me." On the side he's been releasing his own albums at the rate of one every couple of years, chock full of the kind of cuts bands line up for, looking for radio hits. He used his Covid downtime to clean his closets and pour a ton of work into this latest, a whopping 20-track set, with lots of new songs and a few repurposed from older writing projects with others.

Twenty cuts seems like a daunting listen when you're at the start, even from your favourite groups. With this album, I kept waiting for a song I didn't love. And the hits just kept on coming, every one of them a tight, bright, three to four minute joy. It's all guitar rock/pop but there's a twist with every production. Not only did Ballantyne pour the work into the songwriting, he spent valuable time on the tricks of the trade that make the songs different. "Fool" features fantastic horns that open the track alone, a kind of New Orleans parade moment. They sit back through the verses, thickening up the rhythm, and then step forward again for a duelling sax solo, which then morphs into a lead guitar lick to finish. 

"The News You Need To Know" is a completely different kind of lyric, Ballantyne dishing out the headlines, from a snap election to a boating tragedy to the Blue Jays score. Slowly he slides in bits from a personal life, such as "Mary scraped her forehead playing soccer at the school." The song becomes a pointed message to someone who is missing life and the important news, focused too much on themselves: "Usually you seem like you're in cardiac arrest, but don't you need a heart to have it go/that is all the news you need to know." And for a cool ending, some old-fashioned Beatles Mellotron. 

That's just two of the twenty cuts, and there's lots to write about each one. Add in his pleasing, high register vocals and by the time you're half-way in, you'll wish it was 40 cuts.

Tuesday, July 20, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JONI MITCHELL - THE REPRISE ALBUMS (1968-1971)


This is a special box of the first four Mitchell albums reissued on vinyl, part of the new Archives series that debuted last fall. It's a chronological march through her career, which began with a boxed set of previously unreleased live, broadcast and demo recordings from the mid-60's. Now we get the start of the official stuff, and next will be another batch of unreleased material from the late '60's-early '70's, coming this fall.

The first four albums are '68's Song To A Seagull, followed by Clouds, Ladies Of The Canyon and '71's Blue. They went like this: Good, better, great, GOAT. When she had her debut, everybody knew she was a great new talent, tearing up the folk circuit with her different and delicate originals, and championed by erstwhile producer David Crosby. As early as 1966, wise artists Tom Rush and George Hamilton IV had covered her, followed quickly by Ian & Sylvia, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Judy Collins and Dave Van Ronk. She basically had a greatest hits already, with her songs "Circle Game," "Both Sides, Now," "Urge For Going" and "Chelsea Morning" already well-known thanks to the various covers. 

So what does she do for her debut? For some strange reason, she ignored all these gems, perhaps thinking they didn't need more exposure. Instead the songs on Seagull were divided into a concept, side 1 called I Came To The City and the flip titled Out Of The City And Down To The Seaside. These were pretty but odd songs about people and places such as "Michael From Mountains" and "Nathan La Franeer." There was little adornment, just Joni and her strange chords and confident vocals. This album has been given a new mix for this release, basically to take down a couple of odd effects when there was a bit of overdubbing or an extra instrument, but it's nothing that truly improves the album. There are just too many fussy, airy tunes and few memorable ones, other than "Night In The City" and the title cut.

The next year, Mitchell's career was more in focus, and she took control of her own production, along with sympathetic engineer Henry Lewy. Stephen Stills was on hand to flesh the music out more, and she went back to proven favourites "Both Sides, Now" and "Chelsea Morning" to anchor the album. The rest of the songs were certainly serious compositions, Mitchell touching on war, depression, and adult relationships. Her unique arrangements, both vocally and melodically, pointed to a prolonged period of excellence, which was just around the corner.

Ladies Of The Canyon saw both new and older material again, a new palette of colours for the instrumentation featuring lots of her piano, Milt Holland's percussion, some strings, sax and woodwinds, and more focused and clear lyrics. Mitchell was getting more personal in her writing, or at least less ambiguous, and was spearheading the movement of so-called confessional singer-songwriters. It doesn't seem to have been a conscious shift. Instead her writing took another leap, and her images and places became so rich they instantly formed great scenes in the listener's imagination. Whether it's the family home in "Rainy Night House" or the street where the musician is playing clarinet in "For Free," we are effortlessly transported. These are her stories, she's there and now so are we, voyeurs in the scene. Yes, her famous lovers are here, "Willy" is Graham Nash, It's probably Leonard Cohen's mother's house in "Rainy Night House," but the subject isn't gossip, it's emotion. If she's wondering "Who in the world you might be," we're supposed to examine ourselves, not make a flow chart of all her partners (something Rolling Stone magazine did, as it proved over and over again it was no friend to female artists). Mitchell reclaimed her old coffee house favourites "Morning Morgantown" and "The Circle Game," two of her finest (and clearest) early compositions, which she had neglected to record before, and made the whole album even stronger. She took back "Woodstock" from her strutting pals in CSNY, reclaiming it as a cautionary moment about '60's hopefulness rather than an anthem for electric guitar. And she capped it all off with the incredibly infectious "Big Yellow Taxi," disguising her most serious message with her most catchy tune. 

Which brings us to Blue. Mitchell, trying to come to grips with all the chaos and demands surrounding her as her fame and profitability grew, did a runner to Europe to recharge. The resulting songs were (with one notable exception) all new and left little to speculation. They all feature her singing "I" to let us know this is the truth, her life, her heart on display. She has many questions, few answers, lots of experiences, and a fragile heart. Deal with it. Mitchell has enough sense to laugh at herself, describing the brief romance with "Carey" and the excitement of her homecoming in "California" and even adding a brief laugh in the emotionally intense title cut. As for matters of the heart, are there two more remarkable songs than "River" and "A Case Of You?" The old tune she did bring back was perhaps the most personal one she ever wrote, although its true meaning was revealed until years later. "Little Green" was about the daughter she gave up for adoption back in Toronto, and it's easy to see why it found a home among these other revealing songs. It also sounds like no other album, with the heavy use of the dulcimer as the lead instrument.

So that's the package, the original albums are left as is, bonus cuts and out-takes saved for the coming box this fall. The upgrades here feature the new mix of Seagull, heavy-vinyl pressings which sound great, and heavy stock cardboard for the gatefold jackets. Oh, and there's a one-sheet essay from Brandi Carlisle, who has become the official spokesperson for Joni Worship, explaining why these albums not only stand the test of time, they continue to claim the pinnacle. I'd have to agree. 

Friday, July 16, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DENIS PARKER - COUNTRY BLUE


Newfoundland's Denis Parker is doing what bluesmen do best, getting better with age and experience. He's been at it since the late '60's, when he recorded two albums at Abbey Road in London with Panama Limited Jug Band, and more albums have come steadily since moving to NL in 1971.  On this latest, he handles almost everything himself, an acoustic album of 14 cuts, all but one self-composed. That includes three instrumentals that show his prowess at picking hasn't diminished a bit. 

Although he's no stranger to group sounds, this time he chose to write solely in open D tuning, making the songs particularly mellow and rich. The instrumental "Daybreak" is a beautiful piece that's soaked in a good mood like a perfect sunrise, a sound that makes you glad to be alive. "The Golden Years" will make you smile for different reasons, as Parker sings about being a man of a certain age, who may or may not be him; "I got a cane when I walk too far/I smoke the odd marijuana cigar." Age comes up a few times in the album, but he's not complaining at all. Instead he's embracing it, and reminding us you don't stop loving someone with laughing eyes, or waxing poetic about a full moon. Oh, and millennials take note: If you want to know what sexy sounds like, check out his "Love Rushed In." Experience is everything.

Thursday, July 8, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SUN HARMONIC - COAST TO COAST


Here's a labour of love, a love of travel, and a travail to put together in trying Covid times. The Sun Harmonic is the band project of Kaleb Hikele, who does all sorts of styles awesomely. This album was a road trip, quite literally recorded as he crossed from the Pacific to the Atlantic in 2018, indoors and out, onstage and off. While the recordings proper happened in Vancouver Island, Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and Halifax, bits and pieces were collected, added, and inspired by spots large and small. "Flying Over Saskatchewan" takes its title from the obvious, while some ocean waves were recorded on Cape Breton Island to give the true coast-to-coast flavour. 


At the same time, Hikele avoided the obvious cliches, and didn't get bogged down in naming-checking lots of places or writing about Canada. Instead, the inspirations are more personal and subtle, with love for family being the larger theme. "Ocean"may mention on island on the west coast, but it's about a much-loved child. "Build A Boat" is a metaphor for finding a way past troubles, sailing on positivity. As a whole, the album is about the people and the places we hold in our hearts.

"Flying Over Saskatchewan" is an acoustic rave-up, with some fine riffs and gang vocals in the chorus, fast and fun. But for the most part, these are lovely, touching songs, gently performed, highlighted by Hikele's tender voice. The highlight is the closing track, "The Grand Old Lady Sails Away," apparently the last performance on the stage of Massey Hall before its major reno. Recorded with one mic in front of a small group of people, the fitting tribute to the hall is quite beautiful, and shows just how pure his voice is.

The album is being launched in stages; You can buy an early copy now on vinyl and CD, and digital downloads and streaming will arrive Oct. 1. All the info is at https://thesunharmonic.bandcamp.com/

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TOM PETTY & THE HEARTBREAKERS - ANGEL DREAM


Last year's fantastic Wildflowers and All the Rest compilation, a grand total of five discs of songs from those early '90's sessions, was a welcome collection for Petty fans. But it did leave a bit of a problem with his catalogue. The 1996 soundtrack for She's The One had included several of the leftover tracks from those sessions, which now sit properly in the Wildflowers collection. So instead of doubling up on the cuts, the Petty Estate has refashioned She's The One into this new LP, by finding a few new tracks for inclusion. 

The idea was to make the new Angel Dream a coherent album, rather than just a hodgepodge of leftover cuts. Of course, with Petty, his cast-aways are almost always of such quality that this becomes an easier task. Rather than take the approach of a soundtrack, which was how She's The One was assembled, this set is meant to present a normal 12-cut Heartbreakers LP. So we only get one version "Walls," instead of the two versions found on the soundtrack. That's a fantastic song of course, and the same can be said of "Angel Dream" and "Climb That Hill" plus his covers of Lucinda Williams' "Change The Locks" and Beck's "Asshole." Really, being on a soundtrack to a poorly-received movie did these songs no favours, and it sales and chart success suffered for it. Hopefully they'll find a wider audience here.

There are four brand-new songs added here, plus an extended version of "Supernatural Radio." Best of all is another cover, this one a J.J. Cale number called "Thirteen Days," a Southern Gothic piece that could have easily come from Petty's pen. "105 Degrees" may be lyrically slight ("What do you want? Perfection?") but is a classic Heartbreakers jam, one of the last recorded with outgoing drummer/trouble-maker Stan Lynch. "One Of Life's Little Mysteries" is a bit of grin, done in a vaudevillian style. The final new one is actually familiar, as it's an acoustic guitar and organ instrumental version of "Angel Dream," now called "French Disconnection." While there's no major new tracks on this reimagined album, it's probably now a more cohesive and digestable listen than the lengthier and scattered She's The One.

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EDGAR BREAU - SHADOWS OF ECSTASY


There's no more intriguing story in Canadian rock circles than that of Hamilton's cult classic group Simply Saucer, and it's leader, Edgar Breau. Now it's become even more interesting, with this set, Breau's previously unreleased first solo album, from 1990. The group started out in the '70's as a no-hit wonder, with a failed single to its credit and a smattering of interest in the southern Ontario punk scene. But they had done some demos in the Lanois brothers studio (Bob recorded them, Daniel says he was away for the sessions), and a live show was taped. Over a decade after the band split, a local writer released an album called Cyborgs Revisited, and over time it became an underground favourite, with press raves in North America and Europe. It was a unique, missing link album that fit somewhere into between prog and art rock bands such as The Velvet Underground and Barrett-era Pink Floyd, and later visionary acts Talking Heads and Television. 

Meantime, Breau had reconsidered his place in music and become an acoustic folk performer, albeit a quirky one. He had mad skills on acoustic guitar and admired British players. But here he was in a quandary, with a growing rep for Simply Saucer. By the 2000's, Breau had come to grips with past and present, reformed the group and embarked on a career both solo and with the band, which continues with aplomb.

One part of the story remained unresolved though, those 1990 sessions he recorded. Breau had basically given up on music as a career at that time, and shelved the project. Eventually he reworked some of them over a decade later when he revived his career, but this set remained a full, unheard piece.  

It's a gem, no surprise, and finds Breau at an intriguing crossroads in his writing. While they are acoustic based, the cuts are full-band numbers, with old Saucer bandmate Kevin Christoff on bass, plus drums and electric guitar. Breau's quirky vocals are augmented with harmonies from Compton Roberts, and his acoustic licks weave gently with the electric instruments. It's somewhere between his future solo folk and his previous Saucer psyche, but like all his work, utterly unique. The melodies are dreamy and quite beautiful, a contrast with Breau's warble. The lyrics are equally eclectic, mesmerizing stories that seem like fiction from an unknown country or a parallel world. Nothing bizarre, just nothing we've heard before. 

If you're new to the Saucer world, this isn't a bad place to fall into the rabbit hole. For fans it's a great joy, the best of both worlds Breau solo and Saucer-shaped.

Monday, June 28, 2021

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CROSBY, STILLS, NASH & YOUNG - DEJA VU (50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition)


The album that made CSNY superstars sounds as great as ever, certainly the pinnacle of the band's many iterations and reformations. It's also the best of the first three letters of the bunch, but not of course Young, who always held back his best for his own albums. While this is the album that gave us "Helpless," one of Young's most famous cuts, there's not much else to speak of from him (I've never thought much of the "Country Girl" suite), and the other three really provide the bulk of the greatness. "Carry On," "Teach Your Children," "Our House," "Almost Cut My Hair," these would have been just as good if it was another CSN album, so credit should go to that trio. I've often wondered if Young's presence hijacked and ultimately destroyed the band, rather than made it better.

The big surprise here is how much alternative material was left in the can to beef up this fine box set. It's now a full four-CD set, which also includes a vinyl pressing of the original album, with sets of demos, outtakes and alternate mixes making up the new CDs. While a few of these tracks have slipped out over the years, on the career-spanning CSN box and Young's many historical releases, the vast bulk, 29 cuts, are new to us. As always, some are diamonds in the rough, some were deservedly rejected, some are cool as historical documents, and some leave you wondering why they didn't release them in the first place. 

The demo disc shows all four writers working on their own on the songs they brought to the album, those that made the cut and others that got rejected. There are two versions of Nash's "Our House," the second the most compelling, as it features Joni Mitchell, the object of the song, trying out some home harmonies on the beloved classic, a moment to treasure. Crosby tries out his controversial "Triad," given to the Jefferson Airplane after the Byrds rejected it, Crosby still itching to do his own version. Stills, dripping with songs, offered several that never made it to the studio sessions, although his embryonic work was hit-and-miss at best, vehicles for licks and jams. The big surprise here is Young trying out a demo of his "Birds" featuring Nash on harmonies. Ultimately he pulled it back for "After The Goldrush," but if it had been included on Deja Vu, it's presence would certainly have made it a better album, as a replacement for "Country Girl."

The outtakes group of songs is dominated by Stilla, with a few more of his works-in-progress that sound pretty good but don't really take off. He was tinkering with a couple of songs that would show up on his later albums, including the fine "Change Partners" and "Bluebird Revisited" but they weren't ready. There are some great CSN moments, featuring the classic vocal mix that still amazes, especially on one called "Ivory Tower." The best is "Horses Through A Rainstorm" which came out on the CSN box, and if you don't know it, you should. It's another cut. lead by Nash, that could have fit nicely on the original album, a good closer instead of "Everybody I Love You," the other weak track on the disc.

The alternates disc is another fun set, with some significant differences to the well-known originals. It's quite surprising to hear the changes in arrangements in "Woodstock," for instance, in the vocals and timing. Crosby's "Almost Cut My Hair" features completely different singing, and you can hear him striving to get the right attitude into the song. This one is too cocky, and wisely they chose the other take. Clearly, as heard on "Carry On," "Deja Vu" and "Teach Your Children," the key to this album is the famous vocal blend, and that they worked hard to get just the right take.

The big takeaway from the box set is that Stills really was doing all the heavy lifting. He brought the most songs and was the musical and recording leader. He wasn't holding anything back, and neither were Crosby and Nash. All their best songs were considered, and a fine, equal blend of them made up the bulk of the album. Young's addition probably put them over the top, getting them more press and public interest, but his focus remained as a solo artist. As for a listening experience, it's fun. These are such iconic songs that demos and different takes are surprising to hear. The outtakes and rejects pile isn't that interesting, with a couple too many similar Stills songs, but there are more than enough moments to make this a great start-to-finish listen

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.