Thursday, June 30, 2011


The story goes that when the young Tragically Hip were trying to get a record deal in the early 80's, one Canadian record company wanted them to become a country band.  Since they fussily refused, we can only imagine now.  But I have a feeling The Hip would never go Nashville completely,.  Instead, they might have sounded like Toronto's Warped 45's.  With their second album just out, the rootsy folk in the band are digging into the country's soil, ready to join the alt-kinda crowd of twangy singer-songwriter groups, literate patriots.

There's lots of great acoustic-fiddly-mandoliny moments all over the album, and musically, the band have got it down.  This feels like real, woodshed-campfire-ski lodge Canadiana.  By the way, I've finally had to up to here with the genre Americana, since as far as I can figure, The Band pretty much invented it, and The Cowboy Junkies sparked the second wave of it with The Trinity Sessions, way before Uncle Tupelo, Jayhawks, etc.  So, it's now Canadiana.  Co-lead singers Dave and Ryan Wayne McEathron give the group a one-two punch, and have a love of telling a bunch of our stories.

Ryan Wayne wrote the most interesting story-song, Grampa Carl, about a 1920's rum runner from Ontario shipping bootleg brew across the Detroit River.  Dave's Pale Horse is a great way to start off the collection, that particular pony a classic folk song image.  Sometimes the lyrics are a little too clunky, including the desperate metaphor that starts the title cut, "Past the hectares of hay bails like curlers in an old woman's hair".  The song Victoria Day picks on an easy target, the British monarchy we still cling to.  And Live Bait, sung in the seller's voice, is more Red Green than the outlaw Steve Earle song they hoped for.  But there are plenty of other tales that are the work of solid troubadours, including Hurdle River Crossing, a good 19th century tale.

Road warriors already, The 45's are getting to see a lot of the land, going east to west and back again.  The next leg of their tour takes them towards the Atlantic.  You can and should catch them nearest you, at these fine establishments:

08/02- Montreal, QC - Divan Orange
08/03 St. Andrews, NB The Red Herring Pub
08/04 Fredericton, NB - The Capital
08/05 St John, NB - Peppers Pub
08/06 Halifax, NS- The Seahorse Tavern
08/08 Charlottetown, PEI - Baba's
08/09 Moncton, NB - Plan B

Tuesday, June 28, 2011


The Sam Roberts Band headlines the 3rd annual Fred Rock Fest, happening August 13th in Fredericton. The popular outdoor event runs the whole day, and has an impressive lineup of national and East Coast stars. Joined Roberts and Co. on the stage will be hip-hop favourite Classified, the ever-exciting Joel Plaskett Emergency, and rising star Carmen Townsend, all three from Nova Scotia. Plaskett's not doing a whole lot of dates right now as he gears up for a new album and major tour this fall, so there's more anticipation than usual for his appearance. Carmen Townsend is on a roll, and climbing with each appearance. She turned a lot of heads opening up for Heart on a big national tour this spring, and the more people get to see her loud and rocking with her band, the more this guitar hero impresses. Joining them all is the golden-voiced Serena Ryder, appearing this time with The Beauties. Ryder sings like no other, plus knows how to rock the show, so there isn't a weak link in this lineup, from start to finish you have to be there for each set.

Sam Roberts Band is touring on the back of a new album, called Collider. As usual, Roberts takes a bunch of grooves, and builds them up into an intensity that sneaks up and makes you feel great. The songs often take off from the pulse of acoustic guitar, strumming vehicles for Roberts' tales. He's a foot soldier on the front lines of love, fighting and inevitibly loosing the battle, but maybe not the war. The musical drama builds with the personal ones, and hats off to this hard-working bunch, they make great-sounding productions. There are always great choices for the sound of the guitars, and the extra instruments and touches placed in the mix. Roberts' songs are always built up with layers of guitars, vocals, synths, even some excellent horns and woodwinds here. I wouldn't call it atmospheric, like a Daniel Lanois production, but there is almost always a secondary layer of sweet sound going on behind the main theme and melody, whether its the cymbal splash or answering echoes of vocals, the songs are aural treats.

Then there's the Roberts beat; his songs always seem to lope along, as toe-tappers, or head-bobbers, never fast ,never too slow, always catching your attention. It has a mellow feeling that doesn't say party, although it does say feel good, friends. Instead of punching your fist in the air, it makes you want to hug your neighbour and sway along. Ya, this kind of happy-mellow groove, not dissimilar to Crowded House. That, along with the trick of building the intensity on each song results in a positive, sonically triumphant disc, ending in the brilliant, near epic Tractor Beam Blues, the loudest and most celebretory song on the disc. It's a keeper.

Monday, June 27, 2011


This is my favourite period for Nick Cave, largely because it's his calmest period musically, putting the focus on his deep, bleak voice, and his deep, bleak lyrics.  These four reissues come from 1994 - 2001, the middle period of the Bad Seeds years, book-ended by louder, more violent music on both ends.  Ah, not this these disc aren't filled with violence, but it's in the words, more on that later.  It's also the next wave of splendid reissues of the Bad Seeds years.  All four feature two discs; the original album on the CD, and a huge DVD as the second.  It includes the album in 5.1 or stereo, and then a ton of extra material, including video, outtakes, b-sides, live sessions, each one two hours long.  The DVD for No More Shall We Part runs a whopping 2 hours and 36 minutes.

Cave to me is part Cash and part Cohen and part Jagger.  Not the TV-show hosting, Billy Graham buddy Cash, but the bad version, the pill-popping, hell raising, murder ballad-singing guy he fought to keep down.  The threatening guy who knew the dark side of life and religion.  Not the lovable senior citizen-monk Cohen, but the drug-taking, womanizing, low-crooning Cohen of the 70's, embracing his hedonistic side when fame and money came his way.  And not the sprightly dancing Jagger, but the one who wrote Sympathy For The Devil, and knew how powerful it was to be close to the fire.  Cave takes all the dark elements of art, and revels in them, creating sometimes gruesome, sometimes sad, but always powerful music.

Murder Ballads is just as advertised, a group of the classic folk form, except Cave turns of the songs into slasher movies or worse.  His Stagger Lee is the worst you've ever heard, obscene and x-rated.  While some are simpler examples of the form, no worse than the 18th century template versions, others feature killing sprees, such as O'Malley's Bar.  This is not the place to start with Cave.  In fact, if bleak bothers you, it's hard to recommend one of these, but if you believe songs should mirror life, including the sadder and darker parts, this is powerful literature at times, surrounded by the highly dexterous Bad Seeds, here kept simmering but adept.

Cave can go over the top sometimes, and it does get a little much in large amounts.  On Fifteen Feet Of Pure White Snow from No More Shall We Part, it's pretty obvious the guy is from Australia, as he can't capture the snow setting and its isolation, describing someone as having icicles hanging from their knees.  Wives and lovers are always sad, I guess because they're stuck with these deeply flawed men.  It's not all bad in life, but you wouldn't know that from spending a long day in Cave's world.  However, like reading a bleak novelist, say David Adams Richards or Robertson Davies, you learn a lot more about humanity, and once you get past the bad parts, you start to find the inherent good in everyone despite the obvious flaws.

Sunday, June 26, 2011


The former Paris busker has shifted significantly for this album.  For the first time in a decade she's recorded a studio album without Larry Klein, the former Joni Mitchell producer/bassist.  This time the honour goes to Craig Street, known for his work with Norah Jones, k.d. lang and  Cassandra Wilson.  But instead of easy contemporary jazz covers, she instead gone the other way, going more experimental.  I'm betting that avant-atmospheric guitarist Marc Ribot had as much to do with that new sound as anyone.

Peyroux is stretching for sure.  Although she's written some before, she's far better known for her covers, of everyone from Leonard Cohen to Hank Williams to Edith Piaf to Patsy Cline.  Usually you see a phrase comparing her to Billie Holiday in there, too.  Forget that.  The Holiday-isms are toned down, as she takes a relaxed turn at the mic, and the covers are greatly reduced, and a bit further afield.  She leads off with a surprising Beatles number, Martha My Dear, McCartney's ode to a sheepdog.  Later on, there's an equally lesser-heard Dylan number, I Threw It All Away, and instead of her usual Bessie Smith number, she switches genders to Robert Johnson.

But the real difference is all this songwriting, and the unconventional arrangements and accompaniment.  In the past she's attracted us with vocal talent and a somewhat alluring franco-flavoured sultriness.  Now it's a bit of work to hear her, and I'm not convinced there's enough writing talent to justify so many credits for her.  It's okay to be an interpreter after, especially when you do bring something new and enjoyable to the great material.  Just making your music sound different doesn't necessarily make it better though.  Apart from a fun song called Don't Pick A Fight With A Poet, the self-written numbers don't jump out.

Saturday, June 25, 2011


How many tributes to Buddy Holly have been done?  I own three, I know there are others.  This one is for his 75th birthday this year.  Of course, he missed all of them after his death at 22, which is part of the allure. Do we really need more interpretations?  Well, he still seems to attract the attention of new generations of fans and artits.  Part of that attraction is that he didn't grow old and fat and obsolete.  He stays frozen in our pop culture with perfect songs and perfect glasses. 

It's almost a rite of rock 'n' roll passage that every five years, new hit makers join forces with past masters to pay tribute.  This time out, the cool kids include Florence + The Machine, Cee Lo Green, She & Him, Julian Casablancas,  and My Morning Jacket.  The Hall Of Fame team features Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Graham Nash and, inevitably, Paul McCartney.  I assume he insists on getting a track on each tribute, since he owns the catalogue.  Two bad, as usual McCartney tries too hard to sound hip, and tries to raunch up It's So Easy, making one of the few mockeries here.

Of the 19 cuts here, most artists simply play it straight, with better results than Sir Paul.  Justin Townes Earle sounds suitably rockabilly, and She & Him put a girl-group vocal on top of the classic Crickets twang, an interesting twist.  Leave it to the brilliant Nick Lowe to find a rare Holly composition, Changing All Those Changes, and point out what a great writer he was.  Just 22, and all those classics he either wrote or recording.

Some do get some modern touches, such as Words Of Love, turned into a more produced ballad by Patti Smith, complete with some Spanish dialogue, no doubt in tribute to Maria Elana, Holly's widow.  Modest Mouse tries to turn That'll Be The Day into some sort of grungy blues.  But really, it's more fun to hear relative youngsters such as My Morning Jacket's Jim James croon along to rich strings, just like Holly did on True Love Ways.

As with most tributes, it's a novelty record, one which won't get a whole lot of play top to bottom, but it's not bad for a few listens, and you can cherry-pick some cuts for the iPod dog walk.  Rave On.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Among rock guitar aficionados, Rory Gallagher is placed near the very top, and some argue he gave Hendrix a run for his money.  That's due to the famous quote, where Hendrix was asked what it's like to be the best guitar player, and he said he didn't know, ask Rory Gallagher.  Those were back in the Taste days, when Gallagher became one of the very first stars from Ireland.  The success of that band led to an even bigger solo career in the early 70's, as he proved to be a top performer and seller in the FM rock days.  Given his neglected fame these days, he may be the quietest 30-million album seller there is.

It also doesn't help that he's dead.  Gallagher died in 1995, after a liver transplant, necessitated by years of rock lifestyle, hard touring, and a potent prescription diet to combat fear of flying and other insecurities.  Also, he never had a radio hit.  Most people, me included, can't name a song of his off the top of our heads.  However, those guitar aficionados are a stalwart bunch, and they're not going to let Gallagher down.  Neither is Eagle Records, which has launched a huge reissue campaign of all his albums and DVD's, with lots of existing live footage coming out, as well as his best-known piece, Irish Tour '74.

This double-disc is a real bonus.  The whole thing is previously unreleased, dating from a 1977 and 78 attempt to record an album in San Francisco.  Ever the perfectionist, Gallagher shelved it all, the whole project, after months of work, and expensive sessions with Neil Young producer Elliot Mazer.  He later said they couldn't get the mix right at the time, and it had become too complicated, the songs didn't sound right.  He thought most of it could be put out with remixing, but he never got around to it again.  Now, his brother and nephew, who have steadfastly kept the Gallagher legacy going, have done that job, as well as cleaned up some outtakes, and found an entire live show from 1979 to put out on disc two.

This is not a tough call for anyone.  Do you know and like Rory Gallagher?  You need this.  Do you like electric rock guitar?  You will like this.  Do you find yourself wondering if this is for you?  Buy Irish Tour '74, and see if you join the cult first.  There's nothing immediately grabbing about any of the tunes here, but it's not the mess Gallagher thought it was, it just is what it is, decent material played by a very intense guitar god.  The guy played like a monster, with great fills constantly coming at you, but usually in pedestrian songs.  Nobody ever gave him a signature number, a Cocaine or Train Kept a-Rollin' or something to hang his legacy on.  Once he went solo it was all on his shoulders, but if he had've been a team player, say with a band like AC/DC, he would've been unbeatable.  Listening to the very enjoyable live disc here, I can imagine everyone leaving, shaking their heads, going "What a guitar player", but nobody singing the songs into the night.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Polaris Long List Targets NB'ers

Last week, the first step in the summer-long process of choosing the best album in Canada was make public. The long list for the Polaris Music Prize came out, which is made up of 40 choices of albums released between May of 2010 and May of 2011. Since 2006, the Polaris Prize has been handed to a Canadian album deemed the best, as voted by a jury of over 200 music writers, bloggers and broadcasters across the country, including me. So I thought I'd take the time to explain what happens with this award, and talk about the New Brunswickers who make the cut.

First off, it's a darn good idea and prize. The money is now up to 30-thousand dollars, which is a big chunk of what it takes to make an album, a lot more for some thrifty people. But it can be used for whatever the winner wants, it's no-strings-attached. Also, it was needed, and still is. Before Polaris, you only had the Juno Award for album, which pretty much went to the best-seller, or one of them, because it's an industry award. This is a critical one. You don't have to be a big seller or a big star to be the winner. In fact, it's more likely you won't be, as the voters are looking for talent as opposed to marketing and popularity.

Now, these being critics and reviewers, the tastes tend to be a little more esoteric than the general public...okay, a lot more. I listen to a lot of music, and each year there are discs on the long list I've never heard of, and frankly, when I hear them, I don't get it. There have even been winners of the prize that I think stink. But that's okay. It's a voting process, and there are always well over 200 people each year going through everything, all year long. We have a forum just for jury members that sends email messages to everyone where we rant and discuss and argue and fight for our favourites. And by June, the voting starts, each of us picking five favourites. The 40 with the most votes make up the Long List.

Now, you'll recognize lots of names here, starting with Neil Young. He doesn't make it very often, but this year many reviewers thought his album Le Noise was a worthy return to form. Then there's Arcade Fire. This should be an obvious choice, since the band won not only the Juno Award, but the Grammy Award too, for Album of the Year. But there's been some backlash about The Suburbs, the group's last album, among the critics. Some argue it didn't have a great lyrical concept, and that the group sound has become a bit of a cliche since their beloved first album, Funeral. There's a chance you won't even see it make the Short List of ten albums which will be the next step. Other names include Ron Sexsmith, Buck 65, Luke Doucet, East Coasters Sloan, Jenn Grant and Hey Rosetta!, and a whole bunch of people who are pretty unheralded in the mainstream: Hooded Fang, Miracle Fortress, Imaginary Cities and Land Of Talk.

Now, New Brunswick does have several jurors on the panel, so we're well-represented proportionately for the voting. But not too many of our acts make it in. Polaris voters, by and large, go for young and alternative, as rock music critics have done for so long. You don't find many blues fans or folk fans, and I don't know if many Acadians get heard for that matter. This year though the panel did make a big deal out of the alternative music in small town Sackville. Artists there have been catching their attention for a bit, thanks to the interest in sometime resident and previous nominee Julie Doiron, and the scene she help start, the Sappy Records bunch. Julie's moved on for now, but some of her old cohorts are still making vibrant music there, and the Sappy Festival is considered one of the best in the country, happening again this year over the August long weekend. Two Sappy mainstays are on the long list. Fred Squire, who made the album March 12 is there. Fred has recorded with Julie, on solo work and in the succesful Daniel, Fred and Julie album of 2009 of folk music, great old-time harmonies with Daniel Romano in that trio. The other one is Shotgun Jimmie. Jimmie and Fred used to play together, as Shotgun and Jaybird, and are still pals, Fred's on track 13 on Jimmie's disc. Jimmie's also worked with Joel Plaskett this year, and the two have a shared 45 single out right now, but this prize nomination is for his recent album Transistor Sister. Both Fred and Jimmie have garnered a lot of attention over the past few weeks for their work from the Polaris jurors. I was just reading another rave for Fred today on the Polaris insider forum. Will either make the Short List? Can small-town Canada knock off superstars Neil Young and Arcade Fire? In the Polaris voting, anything is possible.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011



These are the first four Neil Young solo albums, reissued on vinyl as part of the ongoing Archives project, and now referred to as numbers 1-4 of the Official Release Series.  You can find all of them on individual CD's or as part of the Archives box, but this is the way they first came out.  There is one major difference though; now you get 180 gram pressings, and thicker, better quality covers.  These babies sound, look and feel better than ever.
For you youngsters, this is the 1968-1972 period for Young, as he was leaving Buffalo Springfield, becoming a superstar with CSNY, and enjoying his most commercial period with Harvest.  While his self-titled debut remains a curiosity, the next three are touchstones in 20th Century popular music, and part of the national DNA in these parts.  In my 2007 survey book The Top 100 Canadian Albums, the 600-plus voters from the country's music world picked Harvest #1, Gold Rush #3, and Nowhere #16.  You can find the blueprint for his entire career in these four records.  There's the acoustic Neil of Heart of Gold and Old Man.  The electric guitar grunge of Cinnamon Girl and Down By The River.  The protest of Southern Man and Alabama.  The environmental concerns of After The Gold Rush, with a touch of sci-fi for good measure.  The country all over Harvest, recorded in Nashville.  As Young said in 1985, when he was baffling critics by touring with a country band but unleashing psychedelic guitar solos, "I've always been like this".
The eponymous first album remains the tough one, and it's also the one most fans don't own.  Young was fleeing the disappointment of the squabbles and drug troubles of Buffalo Springfield, and ran into the arms of Jack Nitzsche, a true L.A. character and one-time arranger for Phil Spector.  The two of them tried to find an advanced sound of orchestral acoustic pop, turned on by the studio creations of Brian Wilson and The Beatles, but as imaginative as Young was, fussy was never his strong suit, and besides, the songwriting wasn't quite up to snuff yet.  The great songs weren't coming in bursts yet, and while The Loner and The Old Laughing Lady as early favourites, the truly bizarre The Last Trip To Tulsa is a mess, a trip only hippies could love.

Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere has a couple of clunkers, but also has the amazing trilogy of Cinnamon Girl, Down By The River and Cowgirl In The Sand.  After The Gold Rush and Harvest are pretty close to flawless.  Should you own them on vinyl?  It's a question of preference.  No matter that Neil thinks Blu-Ray is currently the best sound, I still find vinyl the ...what?... richest sound?  Warmest?  Certainly these albums, which I've heard most of my life, sound better than ever, especially the better-recorded Gold Rush and Harvest.  It's going to run you a hundred bucks or more to get all four, but at least three of them are among the must-own if you're buying vinyl again.

Monday, June 20, 2011


Sheryl Crow's latest, 100 Miles From Memphis, was a bit of a bust, but the marketing plan already had figured in the tour DVD, so for those still interested, here it is.  The album was Crow's homage to her childhood music, southern soul, having been born a hundred miles get it.  In fact she can get pretty funky, and does a fine job on both the album and in concert in that 70's groove.  The trouble is, she didn't come up with really good songs to back it up.  Everything on the album was good, just not particularly memorable.  So considering this concert DVD and the tour its from featured much of the album, it's stymied from the start.

The big surprise is that guitar slinger Doyle Bramhall II is on board as Crow's foil.  So we get him providing the spicy licks, and lots of face time with Crow as she shares the mic for harmony lines.  Crow herself actually steps away from the instruments for lots of the set, dabbling only in a little keyboards and guitar, with her band stoked with top L.A. players.  Actually it's kind of odd she recorded the live set in L.A.'s Pantages Theatre instead of Memphis, but Mavis Staples she ain't.

With the lesser album tracks so prevalent, it's no surprise that the fireworks here come from her past hits.  It's actually quite fun to hear them with this big soul band, the horns and groove players adding a lot to the rearranged hits such as My Favorite Mistake, Everyday Is A Winding Road and If It Makes You Happy.  Everybody gets into the songs because they are strong, and proven.  Crow has shown she can write good stuff, and it already is somewhat soulful.  It seems she was trying too hard to be that Southern Girl.  More of the best moments here are when she and the backing singers get into Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up and her old boss Michael Jackson's I Want You Back.  She might have been born near Memphis, but truly, she's much more comfortable in L.A.

Sunday, June 19, 2011


Montreal's indie stars get lots of play in the Anglo world, the best example of a French-language band being played in English Canada, and even into the U.S.  Just this week it was announced this was the group's third straight disc to be nominate for the Long List by the Anglo-dominated Polaris Award jury.  The group regularly is able to tour in the States, largely because of their understandable indie rock sound.

This might change a bit because of a sonice surprise.  For La caverne, they immerse themselves into synth and dance.  Instead of simply deciding to incorporate some bouncy bass and incorporate a little disco, Malajube goes for it, and becomes a complete synth-pop dance band.  There is a concept in there, something about the caveman of today in our plastic caverns, which kind of explains the techno-modern sounds, which are at the same time retro, if you get what they mean, which I don't exactly.

Lyrically there isn't a lot more to go on, these are mostly love songs with not much to say, other than a few statements about complicated relationships, pretty general stuff and some rather bland images, but then that's part of the scene as well.  The Human League didn't have much more to say than "Don't you want me baby?".  The magic here is the music, and it is a fun, if slight album, coming in at just over a half-hour.  The use of synth is excellent, and indie fans, especially Anglos, won't have much to complain about, unless they really hate fun pop.

Thursday, June 16, 2011


Huge favourites in my hometown of Fredericton, with the Harvest Jazz and Blues Festival crowd. Having seen this couple perform, it's a joy to finally have them on disc. Wives and husbands aren't supposed to work together, according to conventional wisdom, but it's just too perfect. They compliment each other on stage, with Tedeschi happy to handle the lead vocals as well as the odd solo, while Trucks seems better off slightly out of the spotlight, better to blow us away with a lead break when he does stop into the centre spot.

It's a massive, 11-piece organization they've put together for this album, which I imagine will sound awesome on tour. On disc, it's not a free-for-all, and the parts are doled out carefully for this very soulful disc. First came a bunch of well-crafted tunes written by Tedeschi and Trucks in various combinations, with pros such as Jayhawk Gary Louris and John Leventhal and bandmates including Mike Mattison. Then the silky-smooth tracks are built, with the rich grooves, the keyboard fills, horns when needed, and ever-so-tasteful Trucks and Tedeschi leads. On top comes Tedeschi's ultra-cool vocals. She doesn't have as strong a voice as the great 60's soul singers, but they couldn't play like her, and Tedeschi's pretty darn close in vocals department. She's certainly hitting all those great mellow notes.

If anything, she's hurt like so many others by following in Bonnie Raitt's very long shadow. Such is Raitt's complete ownership of this style, a woman can't pick up a guitar near soul-fired blues without another unnecessary comparison (like this one). But, Tedeschi deserves every accolade, and if anything, this is her album far more than Trucks. The huge ballad Until You Remember is a triumph, updated Stax and Otis Redding, and already one that's giving me goosebumps on second and third listening. But while we forget about Trucks for awhile, in he pops with a smart and scintillating solo. Plus, he's the co-producer along with Jim Scott, so it's not like he isn't pulling his weight. It's just that in this perfect band setting, Tedeschi blows me away.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011


Fans have been waiting for this for a long time.  That's because the band took a couple of years to get it together, and was updating people on the project on-line as it progressed.  The concept is that our heroes, Wilson, Fearing and Linden, the Kings, team up with a different Queen for a duet on each song.  The Kings, three accomplished songwriters, came up with the material, and producer Linden went off to studios all over North America to round up the duet partners.  Thankfully, Linden has a pretty intense address book on his smart phone, thanks to his association with producer T-Bone Burnett, and his great reputation in the studio.  And the whole group has made lots of good friends over their careers.

So the guest list is stellar:  Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Patti Scialfa would be the A-listers, but you'll notice class and talent means more than star power. Fellow Canadians feature heavily, with Mary Margaret O'Hara, Serena Ryder and Holly Cole inspired choices.  In fact, every singer is an interesting one, from divas (jazz great Cassandra Wilson) to eccentrics (X vocalist Exene Cervenka). 

Since BARK provides the original songs, the disc is a roots fan's delight, from hard-edged folk to folk-based blues.  All three Blackie singers have strong individual styles, as do their guests, so a lot of care had to go into matching vocal partners to particular songs.  And since none of these women are over-singers, they treat the material with respect instead of being there to show off.  Most of these duets projects that come out are full of over-the-top performers, or have productions aimed at grabbing your attention.  This is much more thoughtful collection, certainly more artistic, with no campy guest slots. 

So it isn't the best vocal performances that make the difference, since they are all fine to great, it's the best-written songs that stay with you.  Nickel Creek's Sara Watkins teams up with Stephen Fearing on the abuse-busting Another Free Woman, one of those driving numbers with memorable choruses that Fearing excels at.  Colin Linden always manages fun numbers, and his Got You Covered with Rosanne Cash is the toe-tapper of the set.  New blues belter Janiva Magness matches pipes with Tom Wilson on How Come You Treat Me So Bad, a number that Mick Jagger and Tina Turner would've done in a perfect world. 

Other highlights include the soft and Lanois-inspired Step Away by Emmylou and Linden, and Fearing's match-up with Cassandra Wilson on the sad story Golden Sorrows.  Really, there's something to be said for every song, and no clunkers.  Best of all, the disc never feels like a marketing ploy, but instead, it's a good idea that worked out very well.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011


The latest offering in the Neil Young Performance Series comes from 1984-85, the time of the International Harvesters, or Neil's Country Period. It was the first show of his I ever saw, in Fredericton's Aitken Centre, with The Judds as opening act. I remember it being a lot more rock than I would have expected from the country album he put out, Old Ways, and that's exactly what this live set shows. Despite the presence of a fiddle, banjo and pedal steel, Young really couldn't keep himself from straying into his other loves. The disc includes 12 cuts, five of them never released officially in any form before, including a couple of legendary unreleased favourites, Grey Riders and Amber Jean. As with the live shows at the time, this set proves the country period was a lot better in the concert hall than it was on the overly-cliched Old Ways disc. It was one of the discs record company Geffen originally refused to release, and ended up with a different track list and a lawsuit from the label against Young, for willfully making uncommercial music.

It sure seemed commercial that night at the Aitken Centre, and on TV shows such as Austin City Limits and Nashville Now. Crowds were generally pleased with the show, especially when it started with Harvest classic Are You Ready For The Country?, included here. My memory tells me there were other well-known tracks played that night, including Heart Of Gold, Needle & the Damage Done, and Helpless, but this disc concentrates on the surprises, quite rightly. For my ears, the best one is Flying On The Ground Is Wrong, the old Buffalo Springfield song, and in fact, the number that so impressed Stephen Stills that he wanted to play with Young. Neil seemed to take delight in finding obscurities which could make the country transition, including Reactor's Southern Pacific and Motor City. Plus, a few shows in, he was writing new songs and itching to play them, as opposed to the old Old Ways numbers, and that pulled him even further from the country trail. The unreleased Soul Of A Woman is a raunchy blues, and nothing but, despite Rufus Thibodeaux's attempts to fiddle with it.

It's a pity in some ways that we don't get a full Old Ways-era concert, but as usual, the reasons are complex and we're at the whim of Young. He states in technical notes you can find on the web that it's all about the audio here, and he found these excellent performances buried away, a cache of tapes pedal steel pal the late Ben Keith called "A Treasure". So audio is the top criteria for Young, and as usual he's leaning us towards blu-ray. For visual content, his archives bunch found some footage online, and synched up a few cuts to the live tapes, but they are not the same performances. In fact, Young points out the video they have even has the wrong bass player, from earlier shows. When they don't have any footage, they used the album cover on the blu-ray. But ya, it does sound great. And bless them for using the Nashville Now version of Amber Jean, which remains a great song and performance. You audiophiles can also bask in the sound of the 180-gram vinyl pressing, over two albums. Even if great sound isn't your bag, this is a very satisfying archive release from Young, from one of his most unheralded periods.

Monday, June 13, 2011


Throw on an electric guitar blues album, especially from the States, and you're liable to hear what sounds like almost every other electric guitar blues album.  I don't know if it's such a limited form, or whether there's just too few innovators in the modern era.  But as the joke goes, how many blues guitar players does it take to do a Stevie Ray Vaughn tribute?  All of them, apparently.

So when I hear somebody pushing, changing, working, and quite simply sounding great and different, it stands out.  David Gogo always stands out.  His albums don't sound like others, and he knows how to rock.  This album just jumps at you, with plenty of great guitar.  Best of all, those stupid cliche songs that fill so many albums, where the singer goes on about his right to have the blues, and being a real man, with those smug, knowing vocals, there's none of that.  Instead, Gogo proves himself to be an excellent curator, choosing great and almost forgotten tracks from such surprising sources as Procol Harum, The Doors and Wilson Pickett.  Oh, and did I mention the Michael Jackson cover?

That's what makes Gogo so enjoyable.  He takes Jackson's The Way You Make Me Feel, leans into the groove and makes it his own.  It's simply a good song, hands down, and Gogo recognizes that and realizes it's ripe for a cover.  You give it a tougher vocal, slow it down a little, blues it up with organ and B.B.-inspired guitar licks, and everybody is smiling.  And the Procol Harum number is perfect for bringing back the harder blues-rock of the early 70's, when guitar giants such as Robin Trower roamed the earth.  Gogo is full of life, volume, and ideas, and makes his blues vital.

Sunday, June 12, 2011


The Grammy-winning jazz singer and piano player has branched out before, collaborating with the likes of B.B. King, Stevie Wonder and (ulp) Barry Manilow.  This one might throw a few people though, as it's a full country album.  It just so happens country has long been an important part of her career, her first love, and even her first single was a weeper.  With Ray Charles as her inspiration from his famous Modern Sounds In Country And Western Music album, she's produced this collection of 10 classic 60's ballads, fused with jazz and R'n'B.  She also cites country pianist Floyd Cramer (Last Date), the inventor of the slip note style, and one of the architects of the 60's Nashville sound.

The set list here includes Willie Nelson's Healing Hands Of Time, Merle Haggard's Today I Started Loving You Again, Tammy Wynette's Til I Can Make It On My Own and Kris Kristofferson's Nobody Wins.  These shouldn't be looked at as hit songs, but rather heartbreak numbers, the saddest of songs from a time when Nashville writers and producers were tapping into maturity and modern attitudes, instead of the traditional rural and hick sound.  The great Hank Cochran is featured, with his hit for Patsy Cline, Why Can't He Be You, a song of pure insight into the trap of love, when only one person matters, even if another person would be so much better for you.

Schuur has a wonderful voice for this type of material, understated but with wonderful technique and timing.  She knows there's a lot more power in phrasing than in volume.  For the most part the music works for the songs, instead of trying to shoehorn the material into some kind of country-jazz hybrid.  It's all about the melody, and melancholy here.  I loves me some heartache, and Schuur delivers.

Friday, June 10, 2011

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOEL PLASKETT - EMERGENCYs, false alarms, shipwrecks, castaways, FRAGILE creatures, special features, demons and demonstrations. 1999-2010

Hey, Joel sure isn't the first one to do this, release a collection of b-sides, demos, alternates, and the like. Rarely do they hit the high quality mark this one does though. It reminds me of that Elvis Costello disc, Taking Liberties, another 20-track collection that became a must-have instead of an interesting aside. Like Costello, Plaskett's meanderings take us to different spots that are just as interesting as the regular tracks. Plus, the guy is a workhorse, so there's lots of killer around, and here, no filler.

The 20 cuts come from his entire solo career, so we get demos back to 1999, just post-Thrush Hermit, including the appropriately titled Waiting To Be Discovered, and the beloved True Patriot Love in its original state. There are several cuts here you're going to know already from the regular versions, but as demos we get a different spin. Drunk Teenagers is even crunchier is its rawer state. Nothing More To Say's famous opening f-word was originally the s-word, not as abrasive, and a little more melancholy at first. Come On, Teacher is positively lecherous. Since Plaskett has a home studio, and has been a keen home recorder, we have the advantage of him rolling tape and overdubbing at will, so his demos are full-band affairs, often as potent as The Emergency would manage.

Plaskett doesn't do a whole lot of covers, but when he does, they are classy and a bit obscure. Here we get a touching 60's folk song that could have easily been taken for autobiographical if the credits weren't included, Black Sheep Boy by Tim Hardin. And one of the famous b-sides of his career, a cover of soul great Irma Thomas's The Hurt's All Gone from 2000 also gets included, truly a career highlight production. Your purchasing options include download, or a 12-cut vinyl with a CD included, with all 20 cuts, all from Plaskett's own New Scotland Records label.
That's the review, here's a couple of choice Plaskett lines I wrote down just because I love them so much: "It isn't how you drive the car/it's how you look behind the wheel," - Money In The Bank. "I want a place named after me/is that too much to ask?" - On The Rail.

Thursday, June 9, 2011


The man who reinvented the rock film with the amazing choreography in Stop Making Sense does it again in this DVD.  I don't say that lightly.  While some of you prefer The Last Waltz or Woodstock or some other, my vote for the best-ever rock flick goes to the Talking Heads number, famous for Byrne's Big Suit.  Now, like that tour, he's created a stage show with unique and riveting visuals that compliment the music and translate well to home video.

This was for the tour for Byrne's latest, and quickly forgotten collaboration with Brian Eno.  Since Eno wasn't going to join him live, the restless Byrne needed another stage idea, since he never just plays.  This time, he came up with a plan to incorporate a small dance troupe of three.  Invited some choreographers he admired in NYC, the show was developed using the whole band, and especially the trio of backing singers and Byrne himself as dancers as well.  Yes, they really danced.  With everyone costumed in white, excited choreography was added to Byrne and Talking Heads favourite tracks.  In one of the best moments, the three dancers kept moving the mic stands around the stage, with the singers having to follow them to make their cues.  For another tune, the dancers all join Byrne with guitars, strumming away in a square.  Sometimes they'd just dance, but almost always their was a concept for each song, or a new grouping, such as a dancer teaming with a backing singer for moves.

The video is broken up between the songs, with interview and rehearsal segments to explain the conception and ideas.  Sometimes, this breaks up an otherwise enjoyable concert, and I'm not thrilled with it, but there's a remarkable editing job done on I Zimbra which jumps from the stage to the rehearsal hall, and it's the best piece in the film, so I'm not going to complain too much. 

Musically, I didn't get much from the new Byrne/Eno songs, and I guess I'm into this for the old hits such as Burning Down The House and Once In A Lifetime.  But Byrne himself is as captivating as ever, and proving himself a mighty force.  He does lots of dancing on every song, which means some serious choreography.  Plus he ain't lip-synching Britney.  And, he's handling all the guitar duties in the band.  Take that, Beyonce.  And those old Heads hits still rock.  Same As It Ever Was.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011


What Django Reinhardt was to hot jazz guitar, Grappelli was to the jazz violin. as partners and founders of the Quintette du Hot Club de France in the 1930's.  Both a virtuoso and a skilled improviser, Grappelli recorded hundreds of sessions as a leader, soloist, and collaborator, in a career that lasted until his death in 1997.  Along the way he partnered with everyone from Duke Ellington and Oscar Peterson to Paul Simon and mandolinist David Grisman.  This reissued set comes from later in his life, 1987, when at 79 he was still pumping out albums and seemingly hadn't lost a lick, at least in the studio.

Playing the songbook classics isn't the toughest stuff, but it can be very enjoyable, and Grappelli certainly rose to the occasion on many of the tracks.  It was a full partnership with producer and conductor Ettore Stratta, the aging violinist digging into his bag of tricks for some impressive runs, agile bow work, and above all, that beautiful tone.  With Kern's best-known songs, such as A Fine Romance and Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, Grappelli could whip away, and keep listeners impressed and engaged. 

If there's a problem with the disc, it's in some of the production and arrangement.  Instead of letting these songs stay in their proper time period (and in fact, Grappelli's as well), there are modern touches that make some selections seem out of place, and touch.  Some scat vocals to accompany a couple of the songs are cheesy, some of the strings are too syrupy.  When the guitarist is allowed to play hot licks along to Grappelli, and the rest of the crew is kept at bay, we really get to enjoy his glory.  Listening to him weave his way through a lenghty version of Ol' Man River is a glorious thing, whether it was done in the 30's or the 80's.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011


It's been a while since I updated my ongoing exploration of the music of Hamilton, Ontario.  To explain, each year I travel to The Hammer for its music awards, usually held in November.  During these trips, I've made many friends, and been introduced to a unique music scene, as strong as any in the country, better than most.  You can find it all there, plus a strong tradition in roots and rock 'n' roll, one of the very first places in the country to welcome the wild sounds.

The big news these days is a major concert being held Saturday, August 27th.  It's a concert in support of local farmers and sustainable farming practices in the area, called the Greenbelt Harvest Picnic.  Musically, the show is backed by local boy-made-good, Daniel Lanois, who is headlining and bringing along a bunch of his friends.  Those include the great Emmylou Harris, whom Lanois has produced, singer-songwriter Ray Lamontagne, Gord Downie and the County of Miracles, Sarah Harmer, and several more.  It's quite a lineup.

Just added to the bill is a duo you won't know outside Greater Hamilton, and this will definitely be their biggest audience ever.  I was introduced to them in a time-honoured way, at a Rising Star competition, indeed the first one the Hamilton Music Awards has held, this past November.  I had a crazy job that night, acting as the MC.  There were something like 15 different acts going for the prize, which was quite substantial, including free studio time and lots of gear, perks and professional help to start young artists along the right path.  These were singers and groups from high school age to early 20's, all realizing this wasn't some lame contest.  Now, I had no idea going in that the level of young talent would be so high that night, but it quickly became apparent that these weren't some American Idol wannabe's, these folks were serious about possibly moving into a professional career, and I know of at least of the acts that are playing lots of pro jobs in the area.

Anyway, I was glad I wasn't judging, because it was tough.  There were three or four that caught my attention (while I was panicking about my next introduction), including the eventual winners.  They were a duo, two young women from nearby Dundas, 18 and 16, named Dawn and Marra.  It was quickly obvious, even with just two songs allowed, that these two had a spark, and a desire to perform.  I'm not talking about the "look-at-me" narcissism you see on Idol shows, or among high school class clowns.  These two wanted to share what they do.  What really impressed most people was that they also wrote their own songs, already.  You can be a great singer, a fine musician, but add songwriting to that mix, and you've turned a corner.  That's the thing about music -- somebody has to write it.  Fine voices, good arrangements, harmonies, confidence playing just by themselves, Dawn and Marra has everything you'd want to see in a professional duo at club, and here they were just starting out.

Fast-forward to, well, today, half a year later, and I have the new, and first Dawn and Marra album, Never Ask Me Why.  Using the buzz and support from the Hamilton Music Awards, they've done exactly what you'd hope they would:  made a strong debut album, played almost every weekend since, and staked out an immediate future in music.  The disc is all original, ten cuts, done in their singer-songwriter style. Marra Koren sings lead and harmony, and handles bass duties, while Dawn Larsh writes the bulk of the songs, also sings lead and harmonies, and plays guitar and ukulele. Quite good ukulele in fact, there's a couple of cool numbers with that as the base instrument, a different sound for sure.

Dawn and Marra are still learning, and there's an awkwardness at times with the lyrics, or times when they still sound like teens.  But mostly on this disc, and live, they're showing their strengths in performing and writing.  Already they stand out.

Monday, June 6, 2011


This type of collection always seems dubious, as they are rarely artist-approved, and usually taken from less-than-top quality sources. And you know Willy wasn't involved, since he passed away in 2009. What does a best-of live album comprise, anyway?  His best live performances, or his best-known songs, or the best of whatever is lying around?  Usually it's the latter, and really, the best rarely comes into it.  It's most often a sad attempt to cash in on an artist well past the best-before date, groups with 2 original members trying to recreate the old hits.

Okay, having got all those negatives out there, I will say this set is an example of how to do it well.  Using several source shows, including the extensive Montreux Jazz Festival catalogue they own, Eagle Records has actually put together a fine retrospective.  Yes, the songs you expect from him are here, including his only real hit, the beautiful Storybook Love from The Princess Bride soundtrack, which brought him the most fame, and an Oscar nomination.  His days leading the New York punkish 70's band Mink Deville are also well represented, with the British hit Spanish Stroll, of course.  When you settle into the other 15 cuts, aside from an odd Mexican version of Hey Joe, complete with cheezy accents, you start to realize why the guy was one of those beloved-by-his-cult performers.

Given the title, I'm confused why there isn't a cover of the famous 60's hit for Jay and the Americans.  After all, that's the template song for DeVille's NYC multicultural rock.  Latin, Puerto Rican, Cajun, Mexican, doo-wop, it's one big melting pot, and DeVille put it all together in a way that Springsteen always attempted, that street sound of punks and lovers.  DeVille could write these songs, and took it many places in his career.  It's no surprise he found his best audiences back in New York, and in Europe, where they wanted to hear these rich tales.  For once, this might be exactly the best kind of compilation for DeVille.

Thursday, June 2, 2011


Bob Dylan said "She's got everything she needs, she's an artist, she don't look back." Some artists are perfectionists however, and Kate Bush obviously felt she didn't get everything she needed from two of her past albums. So her "new" work is actually a reworking of some of her old music, with some of the old parts saved, others scrabbed, and much recorded new. Plus she took some cuts from one album, some from another, and created a third, distinct piece. I can't really recall any other project remotely similar to this.

The albums is question are two of her later, less popular works, post-Hounds Of Love success, at a time when she could do anything she wanted and was certainly following her muse instead of market forces. The Sensual World came out in 1989, and The Red Shoes followed in 1993, and then she disappeared until 2005's Aerial. Bush has been troubled by several different elements from the two collections, most notably the digital technology used at the time for the recordings, so she's gone back at 'em. There may not be an overal theme to the new disc, but it doesn't seem like she intended there to be. It's more that she wants some of these songs to sound better, and the arrangements and performances to be closer to what she wanted. Like many artists, she finds the digital recordings too sterile, and the new parts and mixes were done on analogue gear. In some cases, these are radically different, with the vocals seemingly new throughout, and the keys lowered to accomodate her changed, mature voice. Vet studio pro Steve Gadd has replaced the drums on every cut. And some seem to be completely new, such as the version of This Woman's Work, which has gone from a Michael Kamen-orchestrated production to a Kate and her keyboard small ballad.

So, is this success or just a finicky and obsessive exercise? A little bit of both. Some of the songs are better, some of them just weren't that great to begin with. Hearing Rubberband Girl redone with a Rolling Stones guitar and harmonica, funkier and fun, is quite a hoot, even if she never lets the new vocal get saucy enough. The most different track is the new take of The Sensual World, now called Flower Of The Mountain. Originally, Bush had asked permission from the estate of James Joyce to use a portion of Ulysses for the lyric, but was refused, so she wrote her own take on it. Now that she has the permission, we get Molly Bloom's famous soliloquy ("yes I said yes I will Yes"), which takes it to a whole different place. I wonder had she had that permission in the first place, if the whole project would have come out differently, more succesful? It's the weaker of the two originals, with The Red Shoes actually standing up quite well these days, worthy of reexamining.

If you want to get deep into the project, you can get the Collector's Edition, which includes the original The Sensual World, and a remastered version of The Red Shoes, done from back-up analogue masters rather than the digital copy. If you already have the two albums, just go for the single disc Director's Cut, there's no need to upgrade. Ultimately this is an interesting side-project that won't change the fortunes of these discs, but if it sparks Bush onto more recording, great. Supposedly that is happening, with an album's worth of new songs already written.