Tuesday, December 6, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LOOK PARK



Guilty. There, I've admitted it. The first part of tackling a problem is acknowledging it, or whatever. My problem is sheer laziness, refusing to deal with the living room. Boxes, piles, papers, projects, magazines. And of course, CD's. I have no good filing system for the newer review copies coming in, and that led to the following problem: I'm really, really late reviewing this album, because I just found it at the bottom of a pile, underneath a magazine from July I haven't read yet. Darn thing came out five months ago, but I love it so much, I must right this wrong, by writing.


CD in question comes from the fertile mind of Chris Collingwood, heretofore the lead singer of the beloved New England pop group Fountains of Wayne. Although ostensibly a solo album, Collingwood didn't want people to consider this a side project, so he stuck a band name on it, also acknowledging the efforts of top players such as Davey Faragher (bass, Elvis Costello, Cracker) and producer Mitchell Froom. F.O.W. were always known for witty and wonderfully catchy pop tracks such as Stacy's Mom, and that hasn't changed here for Collingwood. The biggest difference is the blatant hit-single sound from the 70's has been toned down, in favour of a little more laid-back, songwriter feel.


Certainly there's a classic feel to the songs, and both Froom and Collingwood have cited The Moody Blues as a sonic influence, a particularly cleanly produced bunch, with the rich use of mellotron string effects and keyboards. It's always refreshing to hear so much piano, and I'm one who falls for the light-lush touch. But the key is the crisp writing, Collingwood's ear candy-coated lyrics: "They walk among us, the stars of New York." Breezy is certainly the tone of that particular song, a little summertime ditty that continues Collingwood's position as heir to the Nick Lowe-Squeeze style. As always, he proves a keen proponent of writing songs about songwriting, MInor Is The Lonely Key a melancholy McCartney number. And he loves to turn a cliche upside-down: "The bird in the tree won't shut the hell up," he tells us in You Can Come Round If You Want To.


Anyway, let's pretend I'm not really late, I'm just doing up my "Best albums of the year" list. There, now I'm early. And I don't have to clean up.

Monday, December 5, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CASSIE JOSEPHINE & GABRIEL MINNIKIN - FLOWER COUNTRY

Here's a new partnership, at least on disc. Cassie Josephine and Gabe Minnikin both hail from Nova Scotia, met each other on a shared bill, and now share everything, on and off stage. Minnikin's career goes back to the seminal turn-of-the-millennium group The Guthries, which gave us Matt Mays, Gabe's sister Ruth Minnikin, Dale Murray and pretty much everybody who went through the group has been a major contributor to the East Coast music community. He was in England for his last solo album, but back home this pairing is now prevailing, and the duo is the deal now.


In an interesting format, the album is split down the middle, the first half featuring Josephine's songs, the second all coming from Minnikin, although they play and sing on each other's tracks as well. It points to their independence as singer-songwriters, as there are no co-writes, they each have their own material, and aid rather than collaborate for the most part. It does help that they have similar styles, storytellers with a bit of western (as in country and ...) influence, Josephine with more of a voice, Minnikin with more of a twang. They blend well, especially on his songs, a low-high, boy-girl, rough-polished mix that's easy-going and happy.


While Minnikin's numbers fall more into the alt-country world, with pedal steel, desire and bad decisions, Josephine has a sunnier disposition. Her songs are more light-hearted, little celebrations of life, such as I Don't Want To Go Anywhere, or August Man, which announces "I want to hold on to this like a Nova Scotia summer. I know just what she means.


Josephine and Minnikin are launching the album in Halifax, coming up this Saturday, Dec. 10. Featuring the Flower Country Band, the show is at 8 p.m. at the Bus Stop Theatre.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SARAH MCLACHLAN - WONDERLAND



Has everybody finally done a Christmas album? The flood of annual yuletide releases has eased to a trickle, and some of the biggest names are onto their second holiday collection. McLachlan has long been a seasonal favourite, thanks to her million-selling 2006 album Wintersong, including her much-loved version of Joni Mitchell's River. 10 years on, she's back at it with more carols, classics and silver bells.


Along with old hands producer Pierre Marchand and drummer Ashwin Sood, McLachlan is joined by guests including the Montreal-based group Half Moon Run, singers Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright, and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. But despite quite a few folks involved, the power of the record comes from the quietness and simplicity of several of the tracks, which let McLachlan wow us with her familiar, and yes, angelic voice. I always think of empathy when she sings, and her soothing quality is perfect for these songs of healing and rejuvenation.


That's not to downplay the playing, of course. There's a jazz magic to The Christmas Song, the most prominent instrument an acoustic bass. The subdued White Christmas features just a simple electric guitar and a trumpet for the lead. The team isn't afraid to mess with the traditions either, bringing in a brand-new melody for Let It Snow. This isn't the festive, tree trimming or egg nog gathering album, this is the one you play when the snow is falling outside, and you're under a blanket.

Friday, December 2, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RANT MAGGIE RANT - LATITUDE



This Ontario folk ensemble might be the ultimate melting pot of musical styles, and delights in mixing elements in surprising and fun new concoctions. There's lots of trad folk, but it's turned on its head, with lots of drums and percussion, obvious jazz bass or a rock guitar, a whistle playing a blues, a bouzouki doing whatever it is bouzoukis do. The band keeps bringing in more and more instruments to the mix: fiddle, recorder, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, tabla, a shifting ensemble of core members and guests, and even they lose count; the group photos are of six main musicians, but the credits list seven.


No matter, these are all special players, giving new life and different twists to originals and classic folk covers. Opening medley Hold The Candle starts with lots of effective beats and a near-reggae bass on an Irish number, which then blows up into a fiddle/drum workout. Then they keep heading east: Mi'kmaq Enigma sees them cover two Arsenault writers from P.E.I., An Dro is a visit to Brittany, France, and then Cocktails in the Cabana finds them in Galicia, Spain, The lovely Paper Boats is perhaps the best example of their first-tier ensemble at work, starting as an acoustic guitar/percussion number, before recorder, fiddle and more join, doubling and tripling the lilting melody line, touches of Africa gliding in.


It's three-quarters instrumental, although when there are vocals, again, it's a wonderful sound, especially the crazy folk-scatting on Cocktails in the Cabana. The singers in the group are aided by guests Katherine Wheatley, and Danya Manning and Emm Gryner of Trent Severn. Perhaps the one area the group doesn't excel in is lyric writing, with The Ballad of Old Jack McGraw a bit clumsy, but A Good Western Wind is a soothing way to end, a sailor's tale done well. There's no shortage of new ideas from this forward-thinking band.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: QUIET PARADE - CHRISTMAS THROUGH THE FOG



I made a rule this year that I wouldn't review a Christmas release until Dec. 1, and I made it. And after two winter storms the last two days, plus a stupid tree in my backyard crashing down and taking out the phone and cable and power and clothesline, I need a little cheering up. So, it's a fun little holiday EP from my favourite fog-rock band from Halifax, Quiet Parade.


The group does three covers of wildly different tracks, and adds one original to the Christmas hymnbook, the number Heavy Winter, borrowed from the group's last album. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is of course the Darlene Love/Phil Spector classic, stood on its head here, with the Parade bypassing the wall of sound and going for a quiet and introspective approach, which actually fits the lyrics really well. Then comes the ancient hymn O Come O Come Emanuel, but now it has a fuzzy punch in the choruses, and dream-world vocals. The third cut comes from The Raveonettes, a duet with Dance Movie's Tara Thorne, a lovely little winter's night tune, like when it's not too cold at all, and it feels great to be out late in December. Heavy Winter fits the mood just fine, with its references to snowstorms, and its easing tone, if just a bit more produced than the other tracks, coming as it is from the group's sessions with Daniel Ledwell.


The group will be celebrating the release of the EP, plus their recent win at Music Nova Scotia for Alternative Recording of the Year, with a launch show Saturday, Dec. 3 in Halifax. It's at Timber Lounge, and the supercool Norma MacDonald is playing too!

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE JERRY CANS - INUUSIQ/LIFE



Despite the fact that it's a huge part of our country, most of us don't have clue about the Arctic, me included. I know it's cold and all that, but imagine if 95 per cent of Americans had never been to, say, Texas. There's lots to discover, and we're on a pretty steep learning curve.


Thankfully, we have Iqaluit-based folk-rockers The Jerry Cans to guide us along. But the award-winning group isn't going to spoon-feed us, the majority of their singing is in Inuktitut, something lead vocalist Andrew Morrison learned as an adult, by the way. There's throat singing from Nancy Mike, traditional but fit into the context of the group's lively tunes, heavily influenced by Celtic folk sounds, which it turns out have been popular in that area as well. So basically you get the band Great Big North.


I joke, but The Jerry Cans have built an exciting live reputation, largely because these are upbeat, energetic and entertaining songs, and while the words may be different to our ears, the music is that to which Canadians coast to coast (to coast) always respond with vigor. Inuktitut is a rhythmic language that's interesting to follow, and the band even provides some basic words to listen for in the liner notes to pick up a lesson or two. It's fun! But mostly, you have fiddle tunes, accordion numbers, thumping, bass-heavy rabble-rousing songs that fit in any concert hall or folk club. Fit? No, more like take over. Then there's Mike's throat singing, which is more like another instrument taking solos in the band's context. All those hot-shot producers looking for ambiance and different sounds to dazzle, well here's one of the world's all-natural and unique forms of communication, adding so much more than some concocted layer of beats.


Just when I thought I was starting to learn some words, I realized Morrison had switched to English for the first time. The song Ukiuq has been translated into Northern Lights, and included twice on the disc, but not to push their way onto radio or because of any pressure to sell out. After all, the band now owns their own label, Nunavut's very first, so they are the boss. It's to give a little more sense of what Iqaluit is like, as it includes lyrics about the area's beauty and ability to lure a certain kind of person. The Jerry Cans are making the Arctic hot.

Monday, November 28, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PRINCE - 4EVER



This is what has been missing for the Prince fan since his death, especially the ones who want to get a lot of hits, more than the basics. It's a 40-track collection from his Warner Bros. years (or "Slave" time, and he once famously wrote on his forehead), from the start of his career as a wonderboy, until '93, when he went on his own, and not coincidentally, pretty much stopped having hits. Then there was that whole symbol-for-a-name thing, but that was later. This is the 1999-Purple Rain-Kiss years.


Oh, and so much more than that. Hopefully you'll stick around for a few more tracks, since he had a glorious run of singles, and shouldn't be remembered for just a handful. As this set shows, Prince had a great way to mix heavy grooves and solid rock, impossible to resist dance floor tracks, and hooks on top of all that. Pretty naughty too; he made Madonna look like a, ahem, virgin.


Amazingly, 40 tracks doesn't even cover all the singles he released although all the big hits are here. I'm a bit miffed that they chose to release the single edits for several cuts, as we miss lots of the best parts of songs. Plus, we all knew the long versions anyway, from the videos, not the radio. Nobody wants a shorter version of Little Red Corvette, that thing can play all night for my money. There will be lots of songs you'll either have forgotten, or not even noticed over the years, especially the pre-1999 (the song, not the year) material, back when he really displayed that dirty mind -- his first single was called Soft and Wet, for goodness sake. Then there are the later tracks you never hear anymore, such as 87's fabulous I Could Never Take The Place Of Your Man, from the mostly-amazing Sign O' The Times album. Unfortunately it also included the annoying Sheena Easton duet U Got The Look, also included on this.


Prince made a major misstep in 1986, trying to do another movie to follow Purple Rain's massive success, the dire Under The Cherry Moon. At least the music from it was tremendous, including Kiss. But he jumped the shark with the Batman soundtrack, and the public started to smell weirdness, never a good thing. He had more moments of glory along the way, and I'll argue that his last studio album, Hit n Run Phase Two was one of his very best ever, back to glory years. There's apparently a vault of gold waiting to be shared, and we do get one previously-unreleased cut here, a very interesting 1982 song called Moonbeam Levels, which certainly doesn't sound like the 1999 album stuff made at the same time. It's more like Diamonds and Pearls, which is sequenced next to it on this set. I'm looking forward to more discoveries, but in the meantime, let's enjoy Raspberry Beret again. It's my fave.