Monday, May 31, 2021


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


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


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


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


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


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


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, 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


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


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


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.