Friday, August 26, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TUNS

This is the supergroup that comes straight from our hearts and dreams, three of the most fun, creative rock folks in the country from the past two-plus decades.  All with Halifax ties and long-time friends, TUNS is named after the Technical University of Nova Scotia, and features Chris Murphy (Sloan), Matt Murphy (Super Friendz, Flashing Lights) and Mike O'Neill (Inbreds).  These guys revel in hook-filled, sweet-sounding guitar rock, with lots of Beatles and Who moments, while retaining just the right amount of indie cred.  In other words, the 20-year-old record nerd inside me is jumping with joy.  Actually, so is the 55-year-old record fan.  This stuff, unlike me, never gets old.

You wanna rock?  Well, how about Mind Over Matter, with its insistent bass line, machine gun rhythm guitar, and those awesome early Beatles answering harmonies ("Do-you-know/do-you-know?").  While the sound is joyous and all-important, the lyrics are a big part of the fun too, these folks love a great couplet:  "The sun is up, the rain is gone, why you feeling so put-upon?" starts To Your Satisfaction.  And what can you say about the sentimental message of opener Back Among Friends, as great a homage to pop music, their own music, and their friendship as can be:  "Maybe we're riding our luck/but from the first chord that we ever struck/rough and a little too tough/it's been easy and natural, off the cuff."

At nine tracks and 28 minutes, this is over way too fast but lets hope that means more songs left over for more albums.  I can't remember an album I love start to finish more that this in years. 

Thursday, August 25, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: OLD CABIN - SATURN RETURN

Lots going on over six songs and 30 minutes, from pastoral, dreamy folk to outlandish noise to East Coast pop-rock (even though Mr. Cabin, Jona Barr, lives in Whitehorse). There's a ridiculously long list of indie stalwarts playing on the album, which was recording in several locations along the dusty trail. I'm thinking of naming that connecting road of gigs and pals and couches that the alt-Canadian music scene travels, perhaps it should be called "the poutine circuit", in homage to the famous chitlin' circuit in the 50s-60s gospel/soul/r'n'b world. But I digress.


While Barr's vocal is always buried and somewhat ragged, it's often contrasted by clear, ear-sweet elements, like the violin part on opener Where Did You Go, or the bit of organ that peaks through the sludge of that track's second, intense part, called !?!. That's the one that goes all nuts with the distortion and chaos at its end. As if in relief, the rest of the set is relatively pain-free musically at least, with the acoustic strumming of Joe, and its gentle admonishment of a friend touching, with actual nice harmonies.Anyway, a lot to digest in a short time, but that's what the repeat option is for.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE HOLLIES - EVOLUTION (2 LP)

In the press for more and more interesting vinyl to tempt the new record buyers, the choices are getting more and more obscure. Nobody has bought Hollies albums in years, and all I ever saw in collections were Greatest Hits; they were a singles band after all. That's despite lots of attempts to break that image; Graham Nash quit the band largely over the internal struggle to get off the Top 40 gravy train and make serious records like the more cool British bands.


I know lots and lots of record collectors and I can't think of one that owned this album, but that's because in 1967, everybody was buying Sgt. Pepper. But even The Hollies were trying to embrace the new psychedelic sounds, and this was their most serious attempt. They insisted they would only record their own compositions, and they wanted to get far out. The cover art was one of the very first psychedelic designs, and inside the songs were filled with special effects; phasing, distortion, all manner of trippy vocals.


Funny though, despite all the attempts, the best songs here have catchy pop underneath the trickery, with the joyous Hollies harmonies bursting out. They were becoming better songwriters, but not in the psychedelic scene. That was better left to the likes of The Pink Floyd; like The Rolling Stones effort of the time, Their Satanic Majesties Request, good songs were somewhat obscured, and a few dumb ideas were allowed because they were, well psychedelic, man.

There are great pop numbers here such as Have You Ever Loved Somebody and You Need Love, as fine as any of their contemporary hits. On the con side, there's the horrible Rain On The Window, with it's "pitter patter, pitter patter" vocal, and a verse pattern stolen from the earlier hit Bus Stop. Ye Old Toffee Shoppe is lame as well, with its harpsichord and "good little boys" buying sweets. I say, Terrance and Phillip.


In case you are that person who has bought this album at some time (I do not know who you are), this is the British version, not the North American. Like many British Invasion bands, they had their albums chopped down from longer lengths in Europe, and here it's 12 cuts instead of the 10 of the U.S./Canadian set. Plus, the original British album had none of their current 45's present, while here they added Carrie Anne to boost interest.


This package features the full psychedelic cover in all its glory (also edited in the North American packaging, the titles changed and cropped), and comes with both the mono and stereo LP's, so you get to decide which you like better. I find a little more depth to the stereo in this case, but both sound great, re-cut from the original master tapes, and pressed on heavyweight vinyl. As it turns out, it was an album I should have had, and it only took 50 years to find out.

Monday, August 22, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEACH BOYS - BECOMING THE BEACH BOYS: THE COMPLETE HITE AND DORINDA MORGAN SESSIONS



Huge boxed sets by The Beach Boys for Pet Sounds and Smile, as well as the fascinating recording studio scenes in the Brian Wilson biopic Love and Mercy have created an interest in the process of making songs. Take after take have been issued, allowing us to listen to the making of a record like Good Vibrations or God Only Knows, with different parts and instruments added and subtracted, vocals flubbed, and lyrics altered. The Beach Boys are not alone in this either; the most recent of the Bob Dylan bootleg series did the very same for his 1965-66 period, including an entire disc of sessions for Like A Rolling Stone.


This two-disc set takes us back to the very creation of the band, even before they were named The Beach Boys, just some suburban L.A. kids who thought surfing might make a good topic for a hit. It's 1961, and the 19-year-old Brian Wilson had dragged his brothers, a cousin and a friend into a local low-level studio, recording for a couple named Hite and Dorinda Morgan, who pretty far down the ladder when it came to the music industry, but a chance is a chance. With a rudimentary mono recording of the song Surfin', written by Wilson and Mike Love, the group got on local radio, got named by a local radio promotion guy, made it to #3 on the charts in Los Angeles and #75 nationally. It was enough to get them in the door at the big time, Capitol Records, and stars were born, with hits such as Surfin' Sufari, Surfer Girl and Surfin' U.S.A. making them the top band in the States for the next five years.


This set shows us it wasn't that quick a process, and how important the six months working with the Morgans were to Wilson, and how much growth the band went through in this short period. Hite Morgan was no great recording genius, and didn't realize he had one right under his nose in Brian. All Morgan did was call out for a new take when a mistake wrecked the recording, and it was left to Brian on the studio floor to figure out how to get a full take from his teenage mob. At this point, they weren't great studio singers, nor were they good players. The instrumentation is as simple as can be, all that they could manage. On Surfin', the percussion is a snare drum played by Brian with his hand. But within a few takes, all heard here, they manage to get it together.


After Surfin' hit, the band was back in, looking for a second single. Now, Wilson brought in more sophisticated tunes, including Surfer Girl and Surfin' Safari. These are early versions, not the hits released a year later by Capitol. The lyrics are very different to the latter track, but the basic tunes and arrangements are fully formed, showing that Wilson had in just a few weeks gone from the simplistic to the sublime, and on his own come up with two future smash hits. The band goes through the process again, several takes of working the songs into a decent shape. But wisely, the band and their manager, the Wilson's father Murray, decided they could do better than the Morgans, and started shopping these tracks around, leading to the Capitol deal.


Some of this music has been available for years of course, and back in the late 60s the Morgans sold most of the tracks to other labels for cheap budget-priced albums. They have filled bargain bins and used stores for years, with titles such as The Beach Boys Biggest Beach Hits, confusing listeners with weaker takes of familiar songs, or a limp instrumental called either Karate or Beach Boys Stomp, 15-year-old Carl Wilson's first attempts at lead guitar. But we've never had all the takes, all the material the Morgans recorded until now. There's the rare Kenny and the Cadets single, where the Morgans hired Brian, Carl and even their mother Audree to sing on a couple of tracks to try to cash in on the Barbie doll craze. Brian's pure falsetto sounds great on that one. There's even a version of Surfer Girl where Morgan added an unknown session singer as the lead voice later in the track, which completely recasts the very famous song.


I can't say everybody will be entranced by this process, hearing several takes of the same song, and only nine different cuts over two-plus hours of listening. But if you're into the history of the great bands, and enjoy the unfolding of the important moments, this kind of set is lots of fun.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS - MONEY MAKER



A righteous and rare reggae set which even the passionate of fans would probably not have until now. This was a set issued in Jamaica back in the mid-70s, collecting sound soulful covers done up by musicians hanging around the label then. Mostly these are instrumentals, versions of older hits by the label's stars, including numbers by John Holt, Burning Spear and the like, Now a newer generation, one influenced by popular U.S. soul music was folding that into reggae.


The stars here include Jackie Mittoo, who by that time was living in Toronto, and gets the title billing on three cuts. There's Im and David, responsible for five of the tracks; the lone full vocal number is Lloyd Williams, and the final number is credited to The Boss, who was of course label head and producer Clement Dodd, who got to intone the title line in Great Gu Gu Mu Ga.


But the real star was JA guitar great Ernest Ranglin, whose ringing wah-wah rhythm and lead playing is mixed way up, and provides a whole bunch of funk, even in Williams' vocal cut. He deserves to be a bigger name for sure. And since it's the 70s, Dodd's production techniques are vastly improved, and the mix here is vibrant, the muddiness of the 60s sides gone. Although a little slight at 10 cuts and 30 minutes, this is a beauty of a listen for reggae lovers.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NINA SIMONE - THE PHILIPS YEARS



Simone's career was still on the rise when she jumped to the Philips label in 1964, and the three years and seven albums she released with that company are a high mark. This box collects all seven, and while there are no bonus, and no liner notes other than the ones on the original jackets, it's for the most part tremendous music and great value. Thanks to the 'net, you can pretty much do all the research yourself these days anyway.


Simone's reputation as a difficult artist has always hung in the air, and restricted interest to an extent, as some have assumed it means a difficult listen too. That's just not the case. It's been established she was bipolar, which goes a long way to explained her erratic nature in concert and in life, but as for her material in her prime, she's extremely enjoyable, and quite accessible. Unique too, as she fused her classical piano expertise (Julliard-trained) with pop, soul, theatre, jazz, virtually everything. Her genius is easy to hear, as both her vocals and arrangements stress emotion, from beauty to anger.


Her move to Phillips coincided with her willingness to put her strong support of the civil rights movement on her recordings. The first here is a live disc (she released several concert albums in her career), Nina Simone In Concert, which featured her stinging Mississippi Goddam, a condemnation of atrocities in the state. It also features a version of her early hit I Loves You, Porgy, and her arrangements of show tunes were certainly one of her strengths.


The six studio albums that follow are all in the 35-minute range, standard for the day, and considering the brief time span covered, that's a bunch of excellent music. There are a couple that don't quite gel, but there are always at least a couple of amazing songs on each. Broadway...Blues...Ballads is the lightest, but has stellar versions of Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood and See-line Woman. Once Simone did her versions, most others paled.


Then there are albums that never let down, the best being I Put A Spell On You. As well as the title cut, she adapts a trio of surprising, and highly-effective show tunes, the fun Marriage Is For Old Folks from The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, and two from Anthony Newley's The Roar of the Greasepaint. These are difficult songs, they are popular, and Simone plays, sings and inhabits them with immense talent.

Friday, August 19, 2016

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: AL BASILE - MID-CENTURY MODERN



Basile reunites with his Roomful of Blues colleague from the 70s, producer Duke Robillard, on a set that features the big horn swing and jump blues they know how to do so well. Basile's a rare bird, a band leader whose instrument is the cornet, and it's such a kick to hear this dynamic, strutting and classic horn take so many solos. It just immediately connects the music back to its century-old roots.


Smartly though, Basile doesn't take too many leads, lest we tire of the novelty. Instead, we get full horn arrangements, featuring another ex-Roomful player, the always mighty Doug James, and Rich Lataille, still helping keep Roomfull alive, on sax. There's some great piano work from Bruce Bears, and lots of guitar, including a couple of guest solos from Robillard. But it's really the great grooves here that make it all special. Listen To The Elders feels like WW II big band, with a clockwork rhythm. Keep Your Love, Where's My Money? is New Orleans, and Big Trees Falling has that unstoppable B.B. King power.


The sounds are diverse throughout, which is a real tribute to Basile's range as a writer. The middle years of the 20th century were a rich time for the blues, and Basile and the players are some of the very best at taking those influences and coming up with new and vibrant material. Forty years on, the Roomful of Blues concept is still bearing fruit.