Sunday, September 25, 2016
If you've read anything about the great Zappa family feud, you'll know that there's bad blood between his kids, and Zappa's late wife Gail stirred the pot with her divisive will. This new compilation from the so-called Zappa Family Trust is the first basic best-of set in ages, which one might assume is an attempt by Ahmet, who is in charge now, of getting the catalog back in some comprehensible order. Forget it. There are some 100 different Zappa albums out there, and it's just getting more and more confusing, as the family minders keeps trolling the archive for different mixes, live tapes and discarded ideas, piling more and more two-and-three CD collections out there. It may be glorious for the coterie of Zappaphiles, but I'd bet that group is dwindling rather than growing.
I'd argue instead of more confusing releases (What is Lumpy Money supposed to be, anyway? Some sort of alternate look at two different albums), they need to get back to the core catalog that once earned Zappa a lot of attention. Go the Deluxe set route on such gems as Freak Out!, Over-Nite Sensation and Apostrophe', let a new generation in on the gems the way they came out in the first place. Instead, we're getting 12 (yes, freakin' 12) new sets in 2016 that I can count, between these out-take/alternative mix sets and new-to-disc live shows. I've known a few Zappa fans in my time, and while they may be devoted and even obsessive, none of them were particularly rich.
Ah well, back to this best-of, which they won't call a best-of since Zappa didn't really have a lot of hits. Valley Girl, his lone actual Top 40 number, is here, as are several of the beloved treasures, including the grand Peaches En Regalia, the icy words of wisdom Don't Eat The Yellow Snow and the still-relevant 1966 racism warning, Trouble Every Day. As usual, there's lots of the bodily fluid/sexual depravity numbers that so delight a certain part of his audience, including Bobby Brown Goes Down and Titties and Beer, Frank exercising his First Amendment rights as vociferously as those who scream for their Second Amendment ones. One was never sure if he was a patriot, an anarchist, a homophobe. sexist or just a pervert.
On a single collection, it's impossible to sum up Zappa, and while this admittedly leans towards the rock side, the compilation probably suffers by trying to do too much, ending off with a selection of his instrumental work, even Strictly Genteel withe the London Symphony Orchestra. I don't think Zappa would have ever wanted to continue to appeal only to the converted, but rather catch 'em young and twist their minds his way. This seems like another confusing move when clarity was needed.
Saturday, September 24, 2016
Last year, former singer/songwriter Dana Beeler of Halifax pulled a u-turn and got off the country/bluegrass road she'd been traveling, and instead embraced some inner oomph. Reemerging with a band she dubbed Hello Delaware, Beeler grabbed an electric guitar and vented a lot of anger, directed at some manipulators and fools, your basic lousy boyfriends among them, including one horrific break-up in particular.
Now, this would certainly give license to really thrash away loud and crazy, and there's some YouTube evidence of that, but Beeler is also one fine song-crafter, as shown on her 2012 debut, while she was still in that earlier phase. So instead of totally punking out (which would have been kinda cool too), she took the high craft route, and went into Daniel (Jenn Grant, Gabrielle Papillon) Ledwell's studio for all that magic that happens there. The pair came up with lots of dynamics, hooks and enjoyable complications, all the while keeping the pissed-up factor intact.
My Mistake is centered around a plucky electric piano, and a punchy rhythm, something to dance to, with a screw you, Loretta Lynn lyric. We Were The Ocean is funky, fun and summery, sounding like the product of somebody who has embraced having a good time after living through some lousy ones. Black Cherries is the chippiest track, all angles and anger, but cushioned by a chorus that couldn't be more catchy. What works best of all is that Beeler's voice is right up front, as she's a dynamic singer, with lots of punch and sweetness combined. She might have been angry while writing them, but the songs make me very happy.
Hello Delaware launches the new album Friday, Sept. 30 at The Seahorse in Halifax.
The Searchers are often the forgotten band in the British Invasion story, but they were a fellow Merseybeat band to the Fabs, and had done the same Hamburg/Liverpool club circuit. They probably would have been snapped up by Brian Epstein as so many others of the city had, except that producer Tony Hatch got to them first. In total the band charted 16 times in North America, including seven in the top 40, and of course did even better in England.
The Searchers had a great vocal sound, and a good two-guitar attack, the hallmark of the beat groups. What they didn't have was solid songwriters in the band, so they had to rely on grabbing material from the top writers of the day, often battling it out with other versions of the same songs. Twice they took Jackie DeShannon singles and had better success, probably the best two songs they ever did. They bested her version of Needles and Pins (written by Sonny Bono and Jack Nitzsche, Phil Spector's studio hands), giving them their best-known and enduring hit. They also had the hit version of the DeShannon-written classic When You Walk In The Room.
But 1964 to 1966 were tremendously competitive times on the charts, and follow-ups were needed fast. Without a well of self-written material, the group bounced from U.S. cover versions (a big hit with The Clovers' Love Potion #9) to hot new hitmakers (P.F. Sloan's Take Me For What I'm Worth) to Jagger-Richards' cast-offs (a cut called Take It or Leave It, a minor album cut). Their last chart entry at that time saw them covering fellow Invasion group The Hollies, a low-level placing of Have You Ever Loved Somebody, which sounds like The Hollies with louder guitars. The group soldiered on for many years, and I recall seeing a 'new wave' version of them in the 80's which almost got them going again. Apparently there's still a version out there.
Friday, September 23, 2016
Discs one and two feature the original albums released by Ronstadt, Harris and Parton, in 1987 and 1999. The third, over an hour long, is all the out-takes and alternate versions, longer than either of the original albums. It's pretty obvious it was an embarrassment of riches, and talent. The song that stopped me in my tracks was a stunning version of the old hymn, Softly and Tenderly. There is so much compassion in that original verse, such a balm for the suffering of this world, and to hear the Trio's remarkable voices sing it is truly a thing of beauty. Harris begins it a cappella, Dolly takes over as the sound builds, and Ronstadt, most surprisingly, finishes it with a rousing conclusion. How this was left off the Trio II album is beyond me, but what we missed then is most welcome now.
Both Trio and Trio II did seem a little underwhelming at the time of their respective releases, mostly because they weren't very upbeat. Ronstadt described the music as genteel, not bluegrass or country or folk, but more like parlour sounds. Even the old-timey songs Dolly brought in became softer and more tender once the three raised voices together. They realized they had a magic blend, and decided to forego their celebrity in favour of that blend. It's remarkably soothing at 4 a.m. Look, it isn't all great, sometimes I'm up then listening to Bieber. That, that's hard work, that is.
Thursday, September 22, 2016
The duo of Luke Fraser and Sarah Frank approach folk music from a different perspective, both coming out of the classical music world. Fraser's an East Coaster, growing up near Halifax, while Frank's from Edmonton, and both arrived at McGill to study classical. She's violin, he's guitar, and serious studies gave way to live playing in Montreal clubs, where anything could happen, folk and jazz often on the menu.
That's the atmosphere the duo continues to bring to their highly-regarded shows and recordings, featuring folk tunes done with musical adventure and sophistication, and no shortage of friends with different talents broadening the experience. Flutes and pipes and accordion and a bass clarinet are all on call, plus many others. You could consider the arrangement to be the star of each song, except of course for all the instrumental expertise, fabulous vocal work from the pair, and strong compositions. The version of Doc and Rosa Lee Watson's Long Journey is achingly beautiful, with two voices in harmony and guitar and fiddle on a seemingly ancient melody giving way to a grand string arrangement which could only come from the classical side. Frank's Blankets has a modern bass line, flute and fiddle playing in gorgeous harmony, and mandolin plucked like a harp.
Of course, while I'm listening to moments like that, somebody else could be thinking 'What lovely singers, don't they sound good together?' And they would be completely right. Listening to the incredible new harmonies they found for Wild Mountain Thyme should become required listening in Canadian folk circles.
Wednesday, September 21, 2016
Hey ho, let's ... discuss this. Forty years on, did punk rock ever get any better than this? Maybe, but it didn't get any more influential. This one set the template, by seeming dumb but in truth being really, really smart. The Ramones took the energy and excitement of 60's garage rock, borrowed some metal and glam, and became the anti-stars for a small percentage of the population. Over the years, as the nerds took over, and Nirvana made punk an acceptable word, the group's image has become more famous than their music, and there are a lot more t-shirts out there than copies of this debut album.
Oh well, that happens with trailblazers. Everybody knows who Lou Reed is too, but they don't own any Velvet Underground albums. So maybe the various new 40th anniversary packages will entice some of those people who know who Joey and Johnny were, but can't remember the other ones, to actually learn some of the songs too. As much as they group has become a safe, comic reference for so many, it's always a bit of a shock to realize how far they did push the envelope in their time. It wasn't just the noise, it was the subject matter too: Sniffing glue, child abuse, male prostitution, Nazi iconography, dating violence, this stuff would get them shamed on social media if it came out today.
Somewhat hilariously, the album that was famously made for $6,000 has been remastered and presented in a "superior audio" 40th anniversary edition. I'm not hearing any subtle highs and dynamic lows that were previously hidden in the mix. It still sounds better when you turn it up louder. A super deluxe version is also available, with a mono mix, demos galore, two live shows (identical sets mind you) and a vinyl version to boot. What, no t-shirt?
Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Do I have to make the case for Kaeshammer? He's now 11 albums into his career, one that is defined by his being more than a great piano player. He's that, in spades, and could just keep us happy with expert stride piano numbers. Or he could be that fun singer and entertainer, putting personality on top of the playing. But his influences and interests go much deeper, and in the end, songwriting is what drives him. On No Filter, he goes effortlessly from jazz to pop to soul, with strong songs leading the way, beefed up with his other considerable talents.
Everybody Catches Love Sometimes is a airplay-worthy number, a bright modern soul number, with some tasty playing from none other than Randy Bachman in a guest role. Back Into The Pen has a strong lyric, about an ill-timed letter to a lover at the end of a relationship, that puts the nail in the coffin, a mistake realized too late. And just to remind us he can evoke as much emotion with just the keys, the album finishes on the touching melody of Sunset, one of two instrumentals in the set. Calling Kaeshammer a jazz pianist misses the point.