Wednesday, September 29, 2021


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


"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


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


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


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


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


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