Saturday, February 18, 2017
We live in a world where the President of the United States routinely lies and gets away with it, where a bottle of Pepsi is cheaper than a bottle of water in restaurants, and where a 50-year old, 35-minute album can be turned into a four-disc, five-hour long box set. I can explain the last one.
It's the whole mono/stereo thing. Take this Cream album, the group's December 1966 debut. Disc one is the album in mono, an outtake in mono, and the singles from the album in mono. But that was only 50-ish minutes, so God bless 'em, here come the French. France loved the E.P. in the 60's, and instead of singles would put out E.P.'s of four cuts. Often, and in the case of two here, they would get slightly different mixes of cuts than the British versions, mostly because nobody checked or cared that much. So now, we're up to 75 minutes, disc one is done.
Disc two, of course, repeats everything in stereo. But because there are no singles or E.P.'s (all in mono those days), to draw on, instead the compilers took it upon themselves to create a few new mixes, just because. Disc three is the outtakes and BBC set, another standard of these collections, where you get early versions of the songs, and a couple more attempted but dropped songs, not fully formed. Then there's four different sessions for the Beeb, with 14 cuts recorded at the radio station studios, plus a couple of interviews with Eric Clapton. Finally, disc four is the now-standard Blu-ray featuring high resolution versions of all the same again, for those with very big ears and matching sound systems.
Whew! That's a lot of versions of these cuts, some here as many as nine times. I don't know about you, but I have to pay pretty close attention to tell if something's in mono or stereo. Now, some of them do have noticeable differences, which is always fun, even the occasional alternative solo from Clapton, or moments buried in mono that come out clear in stereo. But most of the time, it's basically the same. Or, as my son said, didn't we just hear that? Most cool would be the BBC stuff, where the new band showed off some of their live stuff, including Clapton's stand-by Crossroads, and Lawdy Mama, songs not on the Fresh Cream album.
Fresh Cream is probably the least-known release from the band, as they didn't break out in North America until the next year, with Disraeli Gears, followed by Wheels of Fire. It's probably not what you'd expect if unfamiliar with it, and it wasn't what was expected when it came out, either. This trio of exceptional blues players, rock's first supergroup, surprised everyone by being more arty than expected, debuting with the music hall-styled Wrapping Paper (included here) and then some whimsical concoctions of the first side of their album, such as N.S.U. and Sleepy Time Time. They did get to the blues eventually, and the fireworks got going with radical takes on classics Spoonful, Rollin' and Tumblin' and I'm So Glad. Drumming madman Ginger Baker has his famous solo piece here, Toad, thankfully only five minutes long in its studio incarnation. Also included is the very strong second single, I Feel Free, a better indication of where they'd be going than Wrapping Paper suggested. In all, it's a solid debut, not the home run they'd hit as a live band, but worth having in some form.
In this form, you do get all the extras in one place, and the BBC takes are worth repeated listening, as there are some fiery versions. There's typical fine packaging as well, a solid hard-cover book and a good historical essay of how the band formed, and their first year together. These things are always a treat for big fans, and that's a good way to look at it, treating yourself to something a little extra, and going, yeah, I DO want 9 versions of I Feel Free, thank you very much.
Friday, February 17, 2017
From a guy whose breakthrough album was called Heartbreaker, it shouldn't be a surprise that relationship woes can continue to inspire great work. This is Adams' first set of originals since his self-titled album of 2014, a strong set that saw him embrace a more basic rock sound. That was followed by 2015's headline-grabbing complete cover of Taylor Swift's 1989 album, apparently feeling in need of a little joy during the collapse of his marriage. Now, we get the inevitable disc of break-up songs.
Adams sure can write 'em with his heart on display. Lead single Do You Still Love Me? sets the tone, asking "Why can't I feel your love, my heart must be blind." There's no great progression from hurt to anger to acceptance here, it's a whole collection of levels of blue. In Haunted House, he admits, "I live here all alone ain't no one else." To Be Without You states "Every night is lonesome and is longer than before." Even the last track leaves us with "If I was born to be a loner, ok, but I'm not made of stone and I'm so blown away." Heck, even the photo in the booklet shows him lying in bed, clinging to a cat.
I guess enough time has past that he can deal with it all. Musically, in some cases it rocks, and surprisingly doesn't pitch into dreariness. Adams can deliver those lines in a mesmerising way, almost like he is a detached observer, and that lets us off the emotional hook a bit as well. He must be doing okay with it all anyway, as he's doing the big push on every media platform, from The Tonight Show to Marc Maron's WTF podcast, and then going on a big tour. He's still the best broken heart around.
Thursday, February 16, 2017
I recall sitting on a prize jury a few years back, and one of the company disparagingly referred to Joel Plaskett's music as "dad rock". That meant the kind of rock your dad would listen to, if you were in your 30's I guess, and hipper than that, music from the 60's-70's era. I guess this would make him apoplectic, as Plaskett has made his latest with his actual dad.
Fans will be familiar with the senior Plaskett, Bill, as he's recorded on previous works by his son such as Three, and done the occasional tour with him. A folk performer and songwriter himself, he's probably been as big an influence as any on his son's life, natch, but here we find out it's more than just choice of profession. Bill's a died-in-the-wool folksinger, where the words mean something, whether personal or for the people. Some of that is political for sure, and Plaskett the younger certainly has chosen to drive on the left side of that road. That's reflected here in the traditional We Have Fed You All For 1000 Years, and Joel's Blank Cheque, partially a reaction to the U.S. election campaign.
It's more of a folk album certainly, although there are a couple of rockers, where Joel utilizes his New Scotland Yard studio in Dartmouth to add on drums, bass and a handle of guest musicians. But mostly it's the two of them, Bill adding acoustic guitars and bouzouki, while handling lead vocals on a handful of cuts. That includes his own Help Me Somebody Depression Blues, and On Down The River, a favourite of Joel's that he has heard since he was a kid. Politics again comes up in Joel's Solidarity, a song he wrote for the two of them to sing that reflects connected beliefs. While there may be some sentimental reasons behind the project, that's always an element in Joel's music, and this is far more about presenting the folk music the pair have been making for years now.
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
The further on Arcade Fire has moved, the more it's become a big art project, so it's no surprise the whole Reflektor album from 2013 was turned into a film as well. Directed by Kahlil Joseph, a Sundance festival award-winner, The Reflektor Tapes is the centerpiece of this two-disc set. But let's not stop there; it's a well-crammed collection that also includes promo videos, for three cuts, the TV special Here Comes The Night Time, a half-hour piece that followed the group's appearance on Saturday Night Live in 2013, and the group's interesting appearance on the 2013 YouTube Music Awards, which included a live-action story directed by Spike Jonze. And that's just disc one. Disc two is a full live concert from London from the Reflektor tour.
Now, if you don't like your music as a big art project, you'd be better off just heading to disc two, where the group proves they are a fully-functioning, highly entertaining live act. Their anthemic, feel-good songs have lots of power over an audience, and are surprisingly gimmick-free, other than the big visual element of the stage, with all its projections, colours, costumed dancers and travelling circus atmosphere. The big band on the road features a pair of Haitian percussionists, who add crucial rhythms and textures, especially to the new songs, and an absolutely bona fide part of the group's sound. Even the dance numbers ("If you're into that shit," says Win Butler, introducing We Exist) take on a stronger edge in concert than on the Reflektor album tracks.
As for the making-of film, well, it's certainly not a standard documentary. It's meant to be anything but what you'd expect, which can proof frustrating if you're looking for information instead of technique. Narrative quotes from Butler and Regine Chassagne (the other members are seen not heard from) are overlapped, sometimes faded out. The music has elements stripped away, including crowd noise. The visuals are doctored, squeezed, stuttered, all manners of treatment. In effect, the filmmaking becomes the story, instead of the action. There's precious little explanation about what was going on in the making of Reflektor. There's lots of footage involving Haiti and the musicians, and we do hear a tiny bit about Chassagne's heritage, but we never find out the grand concept of how that tied into Butler's dance music. Maybe there just wasn't that much to say, maybe it just is. If that's the case, the live show says that a lot better than the movie, which is a dull head-scratcher in comparison.
Monday, February 13, 2017
Produced by their mentor Sampson, what jumps out the most is the group harmonies, which come out at you in every possible combination. Which each member a singer and writer on their own, they shares the leads, but each track has an arrangement that lets them use that strength to full advantage, coming at you in twos and threes. It's not even safe to speculate on who wrote what, as they all contribute in multiple combinations. It's certainly a situation where the whole is bigger than the parts as well, since the songs take off in surprising ways. Each member has complementary yet distinctive skills. While all write, sing and play, they differ as much as they compare; Guthro's strength is as a player/producer, MacKinnon's is as a composer, while Stone's best known as a writer.
That's resulted in an album with a wide reach of songs, almost impossible to categorize other than thoroughly modern. You'd never call it typical East Coast, except in the strength of the songwriting. The production is bright, clean, layered and modern, with the focus on the vocals, yet lots of edge in behind. They're going to be a band that attracts its own fans, some young, some older adults, some from country, some from pop, some from rock, it won't matter. Back To The Bottom has been the track heard over the past year, and there are more gems to come, with On The Nights You Stay Home a great driving rock cut in the Fleetwood Mac vein. Along with others such as Hillsburn and Ria Mae, the East Coast has a whole new side.
Friday, February 10, 2017
One of the great rockers left standing, the former Green On Red front man continues to blaze out in California. The title cut plays homage to the man who brought us I Fought The Law, and died in an unsolved Hollywood incident, straight out of a crime novel. Backed by a tight, edgy group, the sound is part nerves, part thrills a la Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.
Prophet sums up what we've all been feeling the last few months with Bad Year for Rock and Roll, which begins "The Thin White Duke took a final bow/There's one more star in the heavens now." Ironically, it's an epic rocker, catchy and exciting. In The Mausoleum, another song for a late rocker, in this case Alan Vega of Suicide, is an unrelenting, driving piece of electricity, certainly in the spirit of Vega's best. Rock's annus horribilis at least proved invigorating. And if the spirited rock isn't enough, you can have fun figuring out the story behind Post-War Cinematic Dead Man Blues and If I Was Connie Britton. I'm not hazarding a guess as yet.
Tuesday, February 7, 2017
Fingerpicker Morin proves that often the blues is best served up cut to the bone. This is the latest in his series of acoustic albums, just the man and his nimble fingers, weaving stories that ring true, all the while dazzling with dexterity. There's something haunting about fingerstyle blues, and Morin's soulful delivery just adds to that.
Sometimes he's old blues, sometimes he's more folk, and in a couple of places, he brings on the lived-in roots charm of John Hiatt. You can feel the wide-open spaces of his home in Colorado, and previously in Montana, and an ancient connection through his own Crow tribal heritage. Dawn's Early Light reclaims that uber-patriotic phrase for people who are a lot closer to nature, written especially for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, and it's pipeline fight. Folks might get a kick out of the Phish cover, Back On The Train, but the killer is his blues version of Nothing Compares 2 U, which works really well. For one guitar, one guy, this is a surprisingly diverse, and never dull set.