Thursday, March 31, 2011



Every once and awhile I'll take a quick break from reviewing new discs, and mention a new find I've picked up at a used music store.  That just happens to be my favourite pastime in the world, one that many music fans enjoy, so why not?  I'll write about hard-to-find pieces that pop up for a paltry sum.

This little number is a live disc from the latter-day Kinks, a 1988 tour souvenir.  By this point, they were pretty much the Davies brothers with hired hands, still doing well on the road, but struggling to remain relevant after 25 years.  It's a basic tour document, plus the addition of one studio track, The Road, which tells the tale of the band playing live, from the start of their career until then.  It's Ray Davies-by-numbers biography, and if he hadn't written similar songs a number of times before, it would be justifiably famous as a career statement.  By this time though, we were used to Ray looking back with irony. 

The other 11 tracks present a unique view of the Hall of Fame band, as the set list is taken almost completely from the 80's.  There's no Lola, You Really Got Me, Victoria, none of the classics aside from the lesser Apeman.  Instead, the recent hit Come Dancing is featured along with some popular album cuts, including Art Lover and Destroyer.  The set was taped on tour in the U.S., where The Kinks were still filling hockey rinks with their MTV hits, and many of those folks were more familiar with this version of the group than the eloquent British songwriter of The Village Green Preservation Society.  Some of the new material here is basic arena rock, some of the worst music of their career, such as Think Visual.  But Ray still had some later gems, including the hilarious Give The People What They Want.  Listening to him describe the murder-porn excitement of people viewing the tape of President Kennedy's assassination over and over again, and singing that to cheering American audiences is a classic Kinks moment:  "Hey ma, there goes a piece of the President's brain!".

This disc has been deleted for several years now, and was a horrible seller at the time.  It's not exactly a highly-sought treasure either, but it's not bad, especially as a look at that decade of touring.  It's relatively easy to score second-hand with a little digging, and I just picked my copy up for $8.57.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011



Just reissued, this disc from 2000 was Healey's last real stab at mainstream success in the rock and blues world.  It was done after a five-year break from recording, during which time Healey was becoming more and more disenchanted with chasing chart numbers.  His story was similar to so many blues players, who have stated their careers with buzz and some love from radio and retail, but quickly found out blues only goes so far competing with the ever-changing pop world.  Think of Colin James and Johnny Lang, for instance.  Healey's See The Light had been a smash, but he had peaked with the first album, and was by that time looking at a career on the treadmill.  A switch to hot jazz and playing for personal satisfaction made him, one must hope, a happier man.

I can recall Get Me Some smelling of desperation when it came out.  It's never a good sign when a Dianne Warren song gets recorded, and I Tried was certainly an attempt to get back on the charts, for radio stations looking for another Angel Eyes.  There's a Marc Jordan song too, and three of the cuts were punched up in Los Angeles, with Heartbreaker Benmont Tench adding keyboards.  But the added slickness can't obscure the fact that Healey could play guitar really well (duh), and when you go back and pay attention, the guy really could sing well, especially on the ballads.  He had a soft and tender spot in his vocals, and an ability to hit that one blue note spot on.

Get Me Some failed to connect, but it's not a bad album, there are several high-quality songs here, and some very fluid guitar solos, plus lots of different styles to keep it lively.  However, I'll argue its lack of success paved the way for more important music and shows, including the jazz albums Healey made in his last decade, plus the rewarding live shows at his Toronto clubs and on the road.  Watching the former guitar hero master the trumpet was one of the great transitions in Canadian music.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011



It took me a couple of listens to get into the charms of this album, Robertson's first in 13 years. It's surprisingly guitar-heavy, given his famous reticence to riff.  But one look at the guest list explains why, given all the finger-power on hand.  There's everyone from Trent Reznor to Tom Morello to Robert Randolph, plus Eric Clapton collaborated on much of the disc from the start, playing on several and co-writing three tracks.  It's easily Robertson's most satisfying disc musically since his self-titled first solo disc in 1987, one he's never come close to matching. 

Lyrically, many of the songs here are bound to cause lots of discussion, since Robertson's chosen to address his past on several of the tracks.  That certainly makes for some interesting listening, especially to lines such as "Walking out on the boys/Was never the plan/We just drifted off course/Couldn’t strike up the band."  Just his use of the phrase "Walking out on the boys" is fascinating, since it's an admission that his departure from The Band in 1976 was, in effect, an abandonment, in retrospect.  It's as close as he's come (as far as I can recall) to being publicly sorry for the way it went down.

Elsewhere he drops dollops of interesting history, right from the opening line "From the Chitlin’ Circuit to the Peppermint Lounge", early sixties tour dates for The Hawks, and "On highway 61  through the delta night/We shared the backroads with cardsharks and grifters/Tent show evangelists and Luke the Drifter".  Andy Warhol makes an appearance in a true story involving Robertson and Edie Sedgwick, and there are references to the literal high life Robbie enjoyed with running pal Martin Scorsese in the post-Band days.  Again, it's all engrossing and  certainly modes well for Robertson's memoir due next year (and it's a damn smart marketing tool for it, too).

Trouble is, after a few listens you'll have taken in all the history bites, so what are you left with?  Thankfully, there's quite a few decent tunes, for the most part in the distinct style Robertson develop when he started his solo career, a funky, slightly laconic groove.  There are a couple of clunkers too, depending on your tastes.  I find the full duet with Clapton, Fear Of Falling, one of those wimpy numbers Clapton rolls out ad nauseum.   And Axman is one of those name the guitar player songs, where he pays tribute to everyone from Stevie Ray to Django Reinhardt.

Being a lyric guy, it's hard for me to turn off my thoughts about Robertson's writing on this disc.  Even the title cut presents difficulties, the whole conceit of someone wanting to learn to be clairvoyant is awfully hard to shoehorn into a song lyric.  But there are lots of other albums out there with words that just plain suck, and this thing is easy on the ears, as far as the playing goes.



We assume that people who play in the same band feel the same way about music, and like the same sounds.  This is an assumption that is easily disproved time and again, and often, it's the drummer who does it.  Take Charlie Watts, a known jazz fiend.  Keith Moon was a die-hard Beach Boys fan, and not the later, cool Pet Sounds stuff, he loved the old surf music.  Mr. Glenn Milchem of Blue Rodeo creates music under The Swallows name, four albums now, and you sure can't hear any Blue Rodeo in this album.  I'm just as big a sucker for Keelor and Cuddy as the next Canadian music fan, but I'm also more than open to Milchem's brand of rock.

Rock it is, jagged, noisy, indie, cool rock.  Milchem works on these discs from the ground up, writing and then playing and recording each part, usually with minimal guest artists.  This time though, there's
quite a bit of help, from his live show pals in The Swallows, and a couple of guests, Julie Fader and Bob Packwood on keys.  As more folks got involved, and more tracks added, the sound Milchem thought he was going for changed substantially.  The result was loud, and powerful. The title cut features searing guitar, and a pulsing, driving drum track.  Milchem is a fine writer, with non-typical words and phrases:  "If the earth starts to pitch and sway/I know a place to get away" comes from Secret City, a mysterious little number that opens with some oscillating noise that mimics a spy searching for a hidden frequency.  There are lots of rewards like that throughout.

Lead track Shoot Out Sparks is a love song well-disguised.  Written for his wife, the track features Television-like raging and mathematical intersecting guitar lines, dueling with Milchem's vocals, telling us about the electrical impulses shooting out sparks.  It may not be a Hallmark valentine, but I'd be proud of that one if I was Mrs. Milchem.  He's a cool singer too.  This is brainy and energetic music, but just don't expect the Blue Rodeo sound.

Sunday, March 27, 2011



This is a big boxed set of tracks from the venerable jazz label Bluenote, and as advertised, it features 50 of them, stretched over five discs.  Mammoth you say?  Well, it ain't as big as the other one the label has just issued, 100 Best, which features, you guessed it, a hundred tracks on ten CD's.  It actually doesn't come from the label's U.S. home, but rather has arrived in Canada as a Dutch import, put together there as a handy sampler set for those needing an introduction to some of Blue Note's most famous cuts and artists over the years.  It's available at an introductory price, between $30 and $35 at various on-line sites I checked, a great value.  However, it includes absolutely no liner notes or information other than the tracks and composers, so what you gain in savings you lose in information, and I'm someone who wants that in packaging.

If you do know your jazz history, you'll know Blue Note is best known for its bebop, and more importantly, hard bop roster of artists.  They are all featured here with one track, including Thelonious Monk, Art Blakey, Horace Silver and Freddie Hubbard.  But the long-term signings could be overshadowed by the Blue Note policy of signing the biggest names in jazz to one-album deals, which means on first glance you can be starstruck by this set.  It includes Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Charles Mingus, and on and on.  While it's all high-quality, it's also not usually the best-loved material by these stars.  The compilers are luring you in, at the expense of leaving lesser names off the set, with more important performances.

Could you make a better Blue Note box?  For sure, and the company has done it a few times before, but at the same time, this is a highly enjoyable listen, stretched over a couple of nights.  Many key tracks are here, including Herbie Hancock's Watermelon Man, Monk's Nice Work If You Can Get It, Lou Donaldson's Blues Walk, an alternate take of Coltrane's Blue Train, and from the modern era, cuts from Cassandra Wilson, Dianne Reeves, and Norah Jones.  Jones' arrival has brought the old label into fame again, at the expense of its legacy, as it now focuses on moneymaking songwriters such as Amos Lee, but this does give you the picture since 1939.  As for the ten-disc set, it's all different tracks, which shows you the depth of the catalogue.  You'll have to give me a few more days to get through all of those 100 songs.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011



Now here's a great description of my home province of New Brunswick: "The hardest placeon earth to leave".  I wish I'd said that.  It was actually a musician who said but he probably stole it, knowing musicians.  That's okay, it's a good one.  It's from the mouth of A.G. Olmstead, a guy who knows a lot about leaving New Brunswick, as he's had to do it several times in his life and career, but he keeps coming back to his St. Stephen home.  He first left in high school for a New England boarding school, and spent a lot of his early career in music in the States, in places such as Austin and Nashville.  A.G. is one of the country's finest old-time and bluegrass musicians, but he's better-known and even better-appreciated down in the Nashville bluegrass scene.  That's okay, he goes there when he needs to, and he still calls his childhood home the right place for him.

I first discovered A.G. back in 2006 when he popped out his first album of bluegrass, and I thought, wow, this sounds like the real thing.  Of course, that's because it WAS the real thing.  A.G. is the real thing.  He's a hugely talented multi-instrumentalist and songwriter, and has bowled them over in Nashville.  He makes his music with some of the genre's best players and producers.  I hear a lot of bluegrass discs over the course of a year, and I get to recognize the names of the preferred players, so to me, Olmstead's credits read like an all-star team roster.  His new disc, called A.G. Olmstead II, has just arrived, and it's a killer, packed with ace playing and wonderful writing. 

If it's true you can judge the measure of a man by the company he keeps, A.G. has pedigree.  The Grascals are one of the very top bluegrass groups going, and singer Terry Eldredge is here just to lend harmonies to A.G.'s lead.  Rob Ickes is generally considered the best dobro player in the genre, he is almost always voted player of the year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.  Stuart Duncan has been called America's favourite fiddle player, thanks to his years of work as the top session man in Nashville, gracing hits by Patti Loveless, Alan Jackson, George Strait, and that Alison Krauss/Robert Plant hit album.  He's been the IBMA fiddler of the year 8 times.  Alan O'Bryant is Stuart Duncan's partner in the Nashville Bluegrass Band, plays banjo on this disc, and is the producer.  He's the main guy for A..G. Olmstead, the respected Nashville man who believes in him, and his songwriting, and rallies this great group of performers around him.

Okay, I'm not going to belabour the point anymore, the playing on this disc is the absolute epitome of bluegrass ensemble music.  So, the only question mark is A.G. himself.  Can his singing, writing and playing match up?  You betcha.  I love his voice, it is real old-school, he sounds like he's straight out of Bill Monroe's band, and sounds that old too!  He has a fun, granddaddy way about him, but in fact he's 37 this year.  As for songwriting, again it is the fun old-time, 40's and 50's era stuff, not Newgrass, or slicker ballad material, no jazz or pop influences (not that there's anything wrong with that of course).  It's also not hokey or cornpone.  Even though A.G. wasn't born in Kentucky, he has respect and he knows that old time music was hugely important in these parts too.  We forget it sometimes, thanks to all the attention the U.S. gets, but New Brunswick's music scene was just as active as any southern state back in the 40's and 50's.  Think Don Messer and Hank Snow, and so many others.

Anyway, A.G. is here, lives here, and bless him, he has some shows coming up where he's showing off some of his slick--playing pals.  They are coming from Nashville to the Maritimes to launch the new disc, as A.G. Olmstead and the Nashville String Band, with Gammy-award winning banjo player Alan O'Bryant, mandolin master Chris Henry and more.

Launch dates: 
Mar 26:  Bearly's House of Blues & Ribs, Halifax
Mar 27: Plan B Lounge, Moncton
Mar 29: Arena Complex Theatre, St. Andrews, N.B.
Mar 30: Eastport Arts Center, Eastport, Maine

Tuesday, March 22, 2011



Del Junco is a freaking amazing harmonica player, and I don't mean in the sense of the lead singer in the local blues band who blows really loud and bobs his head up and down.  Those guys are a dime a dozen in blues, and I'm pretty much sick of them all.  Look, let's face it, it's a dull, limited instrument in most people's hands (and mouths).  Del Junco is an actual ace who composes intricate parts and solos, and knows several techniques that allow him to play all the notes in whatever key, instead of the few usually available on the tiny instrument.  Umm, it's complicated, but he does it, and it works, and not many can.  His material is far more instrumental than vocal, and the fact it's always exciting and interesting says it all.

The plans were to make a live album of his energetic stage show, but the technical limitations were bugging him, so instead he took the Mongrels into the studio, and simply played the live show there.  But if he hadn't said so in the liner notes, I wouldn't have had a clue, since it's so perfect.  That's a tribute to him and the band, all fine players.  Now normally, I'd get a little sick of a disc that featured so much solo work, especially on the harp, but that's not the case at all.  Plus, of the country's best guitar players is here as well, Kevin Breit, our own Ry Cooder, so there's the excitement of hearing him leap in.

I should state that this isn't wall-to-wall soloing, but rather ensemble playing, with subtleties and clever arrangements.  The interplay between del Junco and Breit is lots of fun to single out in your listening, as the two harmonize their parts.  There's also a cool mix of song styles, with the usual 12-bar blues nowhere to be found.  Err, well, there is one, the classic Got My Mojo Workin', simply called Mojo here, where the group shows you and every blasted blues band in the world how to make it new again.  But it's the perky, fun, jazzy Hedden Tadpolly Spook instrumental, with its Merry Melodies harmonica line that goes pretty much the entire song that makes me the happiest, and makes me respect the harmonica again.

Monday, March 21, 2011



We know they can sing.  That's the whole point.  It's the vocal blend, the harmonies, the mood.  But sometimes I think they should be called the Whisperin' Jennys because they never do really wail.  The group's first studio disc since 2006 sees the trio fail to rise above a slow boil.  This can't really be considered a criticism, it's more a suggestion that they mix it up a bit, since what they do is top notch and perfect.  It's just I'd like to hear them take it out of second gear and show us what's under the hood.

This is the first studio album with Heather Masse as a member, and she does add a mellow, lower voice to the proceedings, and the closest numbers to actual bluegrass.  But again, it's so pure and earnest, it's hard to get worked up and excited.  Even Ruth Moody's Storm Comin', which should be a big, raunchy gospel number, just saunters along.  The number is subservient to the harmonies, and although there's a nasty guitar back there, and the chance to wake us all up, the storm is just a breeze.

Having now griped about the same point five different ways, I will again admit the Jennys have the best voices and harmonies around, and if you like your folk-slash-bluegrass slow and steady and pure, this is the stuff.  Some people display passion in different ways.

Sunday, March 20, 2011



Or, Oasis without Noel.  And which one was he?  The one with the eyebrows?  The one who fought all the time?  The one with the Beatles fixation?  Okay, that isn't helping.  He was the one with the guitar and supposedly, the talent.  I guess he must have been the most difficult one as well, since the rest of the band sided with Liam and has hung around to quickly stick out this new disc. 

Noel was the writer, so now that task falls to Liam along with Gem Archer and Andy Bell.  The trio's task was to come up with songs as good as the ones on the last few Oasis albums.  AHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!  Well, that wasn't too difficult.  Actually, one hopes they could do a better job, and in fact, they seem to have, or at least this is a lot more interesting than... ah, what was the name of any of the last few Oasis albums?

While there's no Wonderwall, this is a pretty good rock band album, with it's influences obvious, as they always have been with Oasis, Noel-led or not.  There are Beatle moments galore, mostly middle-period psychedelic ones.  The cut Wigwam is Rain-soaked, for instance.  There's just as many moments that suggest Wings though, and the more poppy Stones, and basically the heyday of British studio rock.  What's new here is some fresh ideas from the new writing trio, and perhaps they are now a group more willing to dabble in fun.  There's no overriding attempt at heaviness here. 

It's a decent disc from a group most North Americans never really cared about, and certainly didn't expect much else from.  We didn't live through the great Britpop wars of the mid-90's, and have little residual respect for the bloodied veterans.  For us, the Fighting Gallaghers were simply Charlie Sheen with accents.  For me, the thing that has stood out about the group has always been Liam's voice.  Noel's been unable to lead the group into anything but nostalgia for a decade, so with the relative quality of this album, his departure must be considered positive.  Beady Eye - the name sucks, but the band surprisingly does not.

Saturday, March 19, 2011



I don't know if Jay Aymar knows where he's from anymore.  While Toronto may be a home base, most of his work and time is on the road, and he's getting to know the country really well.  He's part of a solid new folk scene that's crisscrossing the country, trading in a little blues or roots, whatever will get them on the bill of whatever club, festival or house concert is happening.  As much as these genres are interchangeable now, what's remained true is the idea of the songwriter picking up bits and pieces of people's lives, and passing them on like seeds, wherever they land next.

I think I'll repeat that, because I like the sound of it:  Jay Aymar writes people's lives.  You get the actress who wanted to play the big-time roles, but had to settle for bit parts.  There's the guy who just wants to find a normal girl.  Or the white guy who's learned a lot more than most about First Nations people in the country by hanging out and being a friend.  There are big stories, but it's the little details he puts in that paint the real picture for us, like the bus passenger who tells us, "As the weight of my wallet goes, I'm a Greyhound kind of guy."  Then there's "the beautiful girl in vintage clothes".  These people pop right into your head with one listen.

Aymar's folk is the kind with country leanings, and features strong fiddle, mandolin and ensemble playing.  Aymer's part of a larger scene of like-minded folk folk, such as David Gavin Baxter, Tim Des Islets (who handles rhythm guitar on all tracks here) and young Jadea Kelly, an exceptional singer who shows up for an excellent old-timey duet on "Worthless String Of Pearls".  There's honesty and raw talent flowing through all these people, so go out and see them next time they're in town.  Especially Jay Aymar, since he's probably driving into yours right now.

Friday, March 18, 2011



What a wonderful set of contradictions we find in Carll's work.  With his Hank Williams Jr. twang and semi-spoken vocals, he comes across all redneck, and while he's certainly comfortable in that club, there's an awful lot of thinking going on.  Holy crap, this guy's coming up with some actual art here, both poetic and political, and presenting it wrapped in outlaw country.  Even his party tunes have some sneaky smarts in the words:  "I'm out here in the filth and squalor/All I wanna do is stomp and holler."

He's not the first thinking country guy, but usually they come out as singer-songwriters, hanging out with Lyle Lovett and Jimmie Dale Gilmore in the Austin City Limits audience.  Carll is more of a band guy, his stuff can really rock, or it can have a big sad sound too.  He does share Lovett's irony and Gilmore's word skills, but he's equal parts Kid Rock.  Its when Carll smashes the cliche of the country-listening good old boy that he does his best work, if only because it's so different that the safe hat music still being manufactured.  The title track borrows the military abbreviation for Kiss My Ass Guys, You're On Your Own, and sees the hero in a crazy tale going from fighting the Taliban to getting involved in some Pentagon drug scheme that may or may not include space travel.  That tall tale is a laugher, but Grateful For Christmas sees a spin on the typical childhood mom and pop-and cousins and aunts and old dogs small town family holiday song, where as everybody grows older, there's actual sadness and death and change and melancholy, but still love between the singer and his now older and widowed mother.

Hayes Carll pretty much is the real deal, the singer you want all the country guys to be, the one telling truths, writing great lyrics and playing the music co-opted by Nashville 40 years ago.  If that's not enough, it's quite possible he's (gasp) a democrat.

Thursday, March 17, 2011



No Special Sauce on this one.  G. Love goes it alone, or rather goes it without his usual backing band, trading them for the hot hot sounds of the Avett Brothers.  Scott and Seth are the producers, and much of their folkie-rootsy sound is picked up with the disc.  That's nothing new for G., who has switched gears a number of times in his now quite-lengthy career, almost 20 years and 17 albums.

I've been quite disappointed with G. Love's past decade, and his genre-hopping.  Originally he was one of the best white hip-hop artists, one of the first to show how there was an artistic future for the form, as opposed to the cartoonish Vanilla Ice, for instance.  Plus, he was out there doing it for his home town on the landmark Philadelphonic album in 1999.  But that's also when he met Jack Johnson, who was then unknown.  When Johnson got famous, G. Love became part of his label and scene, and the music changed.  Now G. Love albums were more jam-based, acoustic, all Jack Johnson-y.  There's been some country there, blues, but it's been watered-down, and hardly original.

With the Avetts on board, G. Love is still dealing in other people's music.  There are some old blues numbers, and this watered-down roots sound the Avett Brothers deal in.  You get the feeling none of these guys grew up with any of these influences, but instead discovered them on-line, and do an approximation rather than connecting with the sound in their soul.  Oddly, Love and the Avetts have little to add to the covers they've chosen.  Paul Simon's 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover and The Velvet Underground's Pale Blue Eyes given very basic readings, almost as if the group has just discovered these songs, and thinks that most of us won't have heard them before, like we're 16 years old.  Actually, that may be the main audience here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011


I have a weekly column on CBC Radio 1 here in New Brunswick where I focus on East Coast music.  I've been doing a version of it pretty steadily since 1985.  It's each Wednesday on the Shift program, at around 4:45 Atlantic time.  As a firm believer in recycling, I shall also present it here.  You'll notice a bit of a difference in the writing style, as it's meant to be performed on radio, but you'll get the idea.
When I hear the name Lutes around here, I'd say that person is probably from the Moncton area.  It's one of the great old Moncton names, going way back to 1766.  A German fella, one of the original settlers of the area, came out of Pennsylvania actually, along with some other Germans of that region.  They had made a land deal down there to go settle some land in this area, all British colonies of course.  You had Lutes (then spelled the German way, Lutz), and Trites, and Stief, which became Steeves, a family that took over Albert County and owns it to this day. They came on Captain Hall's ship, and where they landed, they called that Hall's Creek, and still do.  That's a primer on how Lutes got to Moncton, and why you still find lots of them there.

Including one Jared Lutes.  A great many of you have probably seen Jared in action over the past decade, as he's been one of the most in-demand and active players on the East Coast.  Sometimes he's solo, sometimes he's with his band In Tandem, or with his significant other, and long-time music partner Marie-Josee Poitras.  Lutes does well over a hundred shows a year, which means every weekend, probably twice a weekend.  Ask any Maritime musician, that right there is pretty much of the peak of live performing around here.

So, while he's a veteran player, Lutes hasn't really been that active on the recording scene, although he's long featured originals in his shows, and has been working hard to hone that craft.  He did do an album back in 2007, but describes it as an amateur effort, something to learn from.  However, he did like a lot of the songs he'd written for it.  And those became the foundation of his most recent project.

This time, for his disc Waiting On You, Lutes decided to make it the professional project he'd wanted.  Working with his touring band and Los Angeles producer Howard England, it was decided to concentrate on the best songs they had, all killer, no filler, and use the results as a showcase of his talent.  That means there are just six tracks here, but Lutes is one of many recording artists who have realized the old idea of having 10 or 12 songs isn't necessary anymore in the digital age.  Most people only want to buy the tracks they like now as downloads, so why not just cater to that idea, and keep the price low on the physical CD as well.

Playing for so long, in so many different places, to so many different crowds, Lutes has had to be a musical chameleon.  He's had to learn most popular styles, and be ready to adapt to any crowd he faces, whether they want old rock or new country.  You can hear how that has informed his songwriting, and within six songs he does give us a lot of styles, from ballads to pop would-be hits to East Coast singer-songwriter to modern nashville.  Often Saturday night dance crowds don't want you to be yourself, they want you to be their favourite singers.  It's no surprise to me that All I have To Say would be a perfect Lennie Gallant song, or Waiting On You could be from Blue Rodeo, one of Cuddy's ballads.  That's another way of saying this guy writes and signs very well.  I'd call it adult pop, from somebody who has made it his business to know what you like when you go out.  The trick is to add your own spin on the style.  Lutes' main assets are his voice, determination and professionalism.  And the strongest songs on this disc sound like radio hits waiting to be discovered.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011



Geez, it's been almost twenty years since Sloan got going, and spearheaded what became known as the Halifax Pop Explosion. While the semi-Fab Four ready a new disc for this spring, the whole Haligonian hubbub continues unchecked, even though Jay, Chris, Andrew and Patrick blew that pop stand for Toronto back in the '90's. The group's legacy has been a constant flow of power pop, as the boys and girls following in their wake have been inspired by the beauty of the three minute miracle. Without Sloan, we wouldn't have had Thrush Hermit, Plaskett, The Guthries, Matt Mays, Jenn Grant, Wintersleep, I could go on for about 15 paragraphs here. Suffice to say, us Maritimers have been enjoying a lot of beautiful pop for two decades.

Jay Smith is just one of the latest, and he's a hot man in the HMA these days. Ex-Rock Ranger, Kato to May's Green Hornet in El Torpedo, he's even written hits with Gordie Sampson. One of those invaluable sidemen, for the past months he's been slowly moving out on his own, playing lots of gigs and getting his tunes out. Although this self-titled set of ten tracks has been available on-line for a bit, it's now disc-shaped, and ready for consumption as word gets out.

I'm loving this set of guitar-driven heartbreak. Smith's a classic rocker, with electric and acoustic guitars layered up, pretty chords and changes lined up on each tracks, a great band groove, and everything sounding fresh and bright. All the tracks are built from the ground up, with harmonies and guitar lines fattening up the cheery, feel-great melodies. They are never sappy, 'cause the guitars rock, the drummer rolls, and the energy could make a pasty, overweight music reviewer dance (blush). Nominal single Romantic Fool sets the template, with our man admitting his heart-breaking ways, which in the end only hurt himself, over a wash of ringing chords. Have a listen pop-rock fans, you will happily add Smith to your Halifax favourites playlist.


The Paragon, Halifax NS   Wednesday, March 16th

The Mason Jar, Sussex NB  Friday, March 18th

Hunter's Ale House ,Charlottetown PEI  Saturday, March 19th

Monday, March 14, 2011



Ottawa's Kirk Ramsey, a/k/a Giant Hand, obviously has never met a chord he didn't like.  He must love them, because when he finds one, he plays it over and over again.  That's not quite fair, because I think his songs have three or four in there, but it's hard to tell since his monotonous voice barely changes pitch at any point.  That's a plus really, since when he does go past his two-note vocal range, the results are pitch-painful.   The repetitive nature of his singing and playing does have a hypnotic drone quality to it, but I found that to be quite dangerous, as I was driving while previewing the disc, and I nearly found myself in a New Brunswick highway ditch full of snow.

Obsessed with death, Ramsey tells us about the man who dug his own grave, and hiding from the monsters as a kid.  Guess what?  That monster at the door?  It was just his Dad coming to tell him to turn off the light and get to sleep!  Awesome.  In the central opus of this mini-disc, Another Step Down, which is a song about death, he's like a child hiding in his bed under the sheets, a familiar theme in the Giant Hand ouevre.  The big statement we are offered here is "...when I die, where will I go?/That's a question that God only knows".  Stunning.

Ramsey's first Giant Hand album came out in 2009, and this is a mini-album, with six tracks.  Well, five actually, since one of them is 40 seconds of someone walking along, finally opening a door with a key.  It's called From The Garden To The Cave.  Rather than feeling ripped off, this is actually my favourite track on the disc.  Look, I get this is indie and outsider, and anti-big production, fun for Ramsey and whatever friends and listeners want to get into it, but Christ it's dumb.

Friday, March 11, 2011



How long have we been waiting for a truly great R.E.M. record?  Since New Adventures In Hi-Fi perhaps?  Since Bill Berry quit?  As the Monster/Up/Around The Sun releases have blended into each other, the group has seemed almost desperate to recapture the public's interest, trying too hard, putting out too many discs.  Yet with each album of the past couple anyway, it has seemed that something was up, a possible fire in the belly that could or should lead somewhere.

Which leads me to say I've pretty well convinced myself this is a great R.E.M. album.  There's some barn-burners on here that have me thrilled, real rockers that make me happy, as if it's the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.  There's also some classic quiet, obscure and quite beautiful numbers, that place where Stipe gets haunting and Buck gets moody, and it all works.  One fine example is Me, Marlon Brando, Marlon Brando and I, which references Neil Young's Brando tune, Pocahontas.  Buck digs out the old mandolin, and we're in Stipe's dreamland.

There are two cuts that leap out as gems to add to the next Greatest Hits collection.  The wonderfully-named Mine Smell Like Honey is a guitar rocker with a great sing-along chorus.  Then there's Alligator_Aviator_Autopilot_Antimatter, which is much less weird than its name suggests.  It's a big, pounding number, featuring Peaches on harmonies, this album's Shiny Happy People.  Eddie Vedder is featured, and old pal Patti Smith is on board as well, joining Stipe in a poetry slam on the final cut, Blue, giving us pretty much everything you want from an R.E.M. album.

Producer Jacknife Lee will get some of the applause for this comeback, but the band also deserves a lot of credit for sticking it out for the past decade, and enduring a lot of frustration.   Hopefully, there are still enough fans ready to embrace them again.

Thursday, March 10, 2011



Back in the 80's, The Pogues revitalized traditional Irish music by adding the abandon of punk. Now it's hard to imagine modern Irish without a bit of rock in it at least. Much the same has happened to klezmer music, thanks to folks like Vancouver's Geoff Berner. It's not a revival of this Eastern European Jewish music now, it's the way it is.

Berner teams up with hip-hop/klezmer artist Socalled for his latest, which is also his most radical. With Socalled as producer, the pair are loudly saying this music isn't a novelty, it's representative of a strong voice in Jewish culture. It's in-your-face, not with old school Fiddler On The Roof-isms, but today's young, loud and snotty crowd. The music is for drinkers, the stories are rowdy and sometimes violent, even controversial. Laughing Jackie The Pimp is a thug, who gets paid back for his violence to women by the Russian mob. And in Daloy Polizei, well, wait until the NYPD get ahold of these lyrics. Remember the big stink about NWA's 1988 song Fuck Tha Police? Geez, they even turned against Springsteen for his American Skin (41 Shots). I wonder how they'll feel about "Out of your house, Into the streets/Everybody say, Fuck The Police"?

Accordian, violin, and clarinet meets sampled beats, electric guitar and shouting. Yet it remains distinctive, there's no hint of Berner's music being pushed into today for some trendy world music fans. Nor does seem old fashioned. A few more artists and albums like this, and you're going to be starting up a klezmer playlist on your iPod.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011



She's one of the biggest female stars in francophone Canada, and has made pretty good inroads into the market in France.  The Moncton artist has recorded and performed a lot in English, but for the French market.  As a bilingual New Brunswicker, sometimes the songs have called for it, and she's even sung in Chiac, that unique blend of French and English that is particular to the Moncton area.  But now, we get her first full-length album sung in English.

The first edition of the set came out a week before the download and CD, as a two-L.P. set.  That was part of the whole concept.  It's an album about a person from the early to mid-20th century, so that's the appropriate medium.  Chasing Lydie is about a relation of Therio's, a great-aunt named Lydia Leblanc, who lived in Massachusetts and was also a singer, back in the 1930's and 1940's.  Therio had always heard lots of stories about her, but never met her.  Lydie was apparently quite the brave person, to choose this career in the States, at a time when Al Jolson and Ruby Keelor and the like were the models.  Therio wanted to know more about her, so she bought a van, and headed to Massachusetts to, in fact, chase after Lydie.  At least she could find the stories, and get a feeling for what it must have been like. 

Lots of Acadians moves to New England for work in those days, and there were lots of relatives there she had never met.  She got some real stories, but also did a little crafting, embellished a bit because, as she says, she is a story-teller.  This didn't turn out to be complete biography, it's more about the art than the person.

You're not going to find another English album like this, and really, not many in any language.  Chasing Lydie is meant to be listened to in one sitting, straight through, as you would watch a movie.  It is a story, it is a performance, it is a sound collage.  It's full of sound effects, captured conversations, refurbished 78 rpm records, the scratching and popping of old vinyl.  The first sound you hear is wiper blades, no doubt the start of the journey to chase Lydie, from the front seat of Therio's batttered-up van.  Characters come and go, and it's not something you're going to get in one listen.  It's like a Robert Altman film, with it's layered dialogue and sounds.

Why English, since she's an Acadian, singing about another Acadian, and largely for her regular Francophone audience?  Therio says she didn't set out to make an English album, it's that English imposed itself on the project.  She was dealing with family members who no longer spoke French in Massachusetts.  As most of the events she heard about were in English, it because the working language of the project, and therefore she wrote the songs that way.

Look, this is no pop album, it's very theatrical, very much a Francophone style of performance and recording, so it won't be an easy transition for Anglophones, even though it's in English.  But, it's really interesting and fun, and you'll have to get your head around the idea you're watching this as much as you're listening, as use your imagination.  Then you can have a lot of fun with it.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011



Thirty albums in, you know you're going to get high quality from Cockburn, so that means the real question is what's different? It would be churlish to look at what's the same, and it's easy to be bitchy after so long. Yes, there's an instrumental every three or four songs. Yes, he went somewhere war-torn (Afghanistan) and wrote about it. Yes, his songs have that jazzy, fast plucking with the droning bass note first, his usual style. Same old, same old then?

See, just turn all that around. That same old style is certainly one of the unique, individual examples of excellence in the guitar world. There's few artists that can mix in such fluidity while maintaining the structure of a well-crafted song, and fewer still that fuse world, jazz, folk and rock into something new. There's few that boil down the world's complexities into something easy to digest in four minutes, and still have something important to say. Few that would dare do it, too, few that have the conviction and the willingness to set themselves up as a target. And how many today know how to put priority on the instrumental track, can come up with different sounds for up to five of the fourteen cuts, where you don't feel ripped off?

So, back to what's new: He's co-writing, a couple of cuts with Annabelle Chvostek, ex-Wailin' Jenny. There's violin all over the disc, even on the instrumentals. Cockburn says much of the music came from being in urban apartments and going on long-distance drives, which resulted in more acoustic folk cuts, and yes, this is a gentler album, no rocket launchers, more coldest night of the year. The co-writes are two of the sweeter numbers, aided by Chvostek's harmonies. Placed in the middle of the disc, they break things up nicely, and the acoustic guitar and mandolin take us back to the mid-70's Cockburn a little, never a bad thing. The most interesting cut has to be Call Me Rose, which Cockburn says came to him in a dream. In short, Richard Nixon is reincarnated as a low-income single mom, but knows who he is, and hopes to rehabilitate his image. I may be going out on a limb here, but I think that may be a new songwriting topic.

There's not much flash on this album, but there's style and flair and class. Ya, same old-same old.

LOOK! A Canadian tour!

Monday, March 7, 2011



Methinks you're going to see more of this type of release in the near future. This mini-album collects six live and three studio tracks, and has just come out to tie in with a major tour for Ryder. Starting tonight (March 07/11) in Charlottetown, she begins a Canadian jaunt with Melissa Etheridge. It's the kind of profile gig, including a Massey Hall show, that will get reviews, and new fans, and this could/should get some sales and help promote the shows and overall career. There's even a new duet single with Etheridge which Ryder wrote, Broken Heart Sun, which lets the similar-lunged singers duke it out.

Tour tie-ins aren't a new idea, and over the years have become staples especially in European and Far East countries. You'll often see editions of, say, a Bruce Springsteen album available as an import with extra cuts, as a tour edition, or a specific Greatest Hits title, with bonus this and that. I'm happy as a clam if they're offering up new stuff, and don't make me re-buy too many tracks. There's only a touch of that here, two cuts are from her previous albums, including her cover of Cohen's Sisters Of Mercy. But with seven of nine tracks new-to-you, and a lower price, it's a decent value. Today's desperate music market needs all the gimmicks it can find, including recycling, different formats than the traditional album, and the use of every tie-in trick in the book. This is old-style promotion where you fight for every dollar available.

The core of the disc is the six-track set recording in South Carolina, a bar show for the Canadian trying to build a broader fan base. Junos back home don't mean squat here, and she has to wow 'em from the start. With Ryder, it's all about the voice, and starting with a stunning a capella version of her Melancholy Blue surely must win over audience members immediately. With a voice that powerful, we often forget she's a strong writer as well, and three of her best are here with the full band, Little Bit Of Red, Weak In The Knees and All For Love. The mini-set closes with another of unaccompanied gems, her Sing Sing, which always fools me, I'm sure it's an old big band classic she's revived. Hearing the audience whoop and clap through it, you'd do well to put her on the list of singers you have to see one of these day.

Sunday, March 6, 2011


Jessica Lea Mayfield - Tell Me

Mining the same kind of Southern Gothic/dark romance territory, and with a similar drawl, Mayfield is going to appeal to those looking for a young Lucinda.   There's some Tammy Wynette and some trailer trash, too.  But, as this is produced by Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys, as was her first album, there's lots of toughness and punk that ain't gonna go over too well on the right-wing side of the radio dial. 

The girlish qualities of her voice are appealing, since it gives all the songs the feel of old mountain music, like she's about to break into a chorus of "the cuckoo she's a pretty bird".  Even the most straight-ahead pretty song, Blues Skies Again, with it's oo-la-la vocals, has a sloppiness that's endearing, like this group of musicians couldn't hit the Top 10 even if they wrote a Rihanna song.  Mayfield could sing murder ballads that would scare Johnny Cash. 

On the fifth cut, Grown Man, and then sprinkled throughout, we are introduced to another quirk in the mix, a cheesy old synth.  It turns out it's a big part of her live group, as her brother David contributes the Casio to that song, and such keyed appliances as the Moog, Mellotron and Waterphone.  Along with Auerbach, he is the only other constant player, providing everything from bass (upright and electric), lead guitar and drums.  There's some downright wacky things going on with loops and vocal whooshes on Nervous Lonely Night, to accompany Jessica Lea's question of "Will you still be my friend when I go crazy?"  Somewhere in Ohio, there's a former boyfriend still looking behind him as he runs away.

Appearing at the ever-trendy Drake Hotel in Toronto on April 4th.

Friday, March 4, 2011



T.T. may be the younger member of the warbling Thompson clan (spawn of Linda and Richard that he is), but he's an equally-old soul.  He's already put out an album of 50's and 60's-styled country ballads, and he's certainly a lot closer to Eddie Arnold than Eddie Vedder in his delivery and writing.

This time out, he's playing it more safe, and giving us a couple of directions.  The disc starts off with a trio of pop-rockers, something he can also handle.  Looking For A Girl is a good romp, where he's searching for one "who drinks and smokes" and "turns my bread into buttered toast".  It's basic, but well-done and would certainly make for a good radio rocker if anyone's looking.

But by mid-album, the real meat is on the table.  It turns out Thompson had a string section just waiting to get to work.  Now the songs are big and rich ballads, with the strings soaring along.  He digs out his old-school crooner voice, and at one point I could've been convinced Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb were involved.  There are some lovely chord changes, and Thompson's proving himself quite the vocalist, following along with the mighty melodies, and dancing with the strings.

So, it's a bit of a schizophrenic outing, and you can almost tell Thompson and producer David Kahne were worried about only having these orchestrated numbers out there, so in came the electric pop.  I'm good with it all, the guy makes some sweet tracks no matter what he's into at the moment.

Thursday, March 3, 2011



Williams say she is blessed, and she's certainly a might happier of late, not torn up about love now that she's settled into a solid relationship. Of course, some might long for the torment she could pour out in the old days, about three-day love affairs, and how they rip her up. The good news is that happier times don't dull her nasty sounds, or her ability to lay out the blues. Instead she simply sees it in other people. Plus, on the new disc, she tries to pass on some soothing words, telling all those down-and-out that they too are blessed.

If you want that Lucinda heartbreak, you can find it in a tune such as Born To Be Loved, where she couches the abused, the suffering, the forsaken and abandoned, telling them all they were born to be loved. In lesser hands, this is Dr. Phil advice, but when you here it from somebody who has felt that sorrow, it's empathy. In Seeing Black, she's speaking to someone carrying a lot of pain and hate, who can't see the good for all the bad in their eyes. This dramatic shift in William's life hasn't dulled her pencil one bit, and she's still studying the darkness in the soul and sadness in this sweet old world. It's just that her position is a better one.

The disc has a good mix of loud and soft, and Williams does both well, with her dirty southern funk always able to hit you in the guts. Nobody sings more true, with every word seemingly coming direct from her heart and soul. And when she moves to ballads, if you listen too close, you're in danger of an intense emotional experience.

Blessed is one of those few sets where you'll want to get the deluxe edition instead of the regular single-disc version. It's going to cost you a couple of extra bucks, but disc two is every track, in order, but this time just Lucinda and her acoustic, playing the songs at the kitchen table. With every song stripped to the bone, you are fully exposed to the white-hot intensity of her lyrics, and it's almost scary being that close to her. In some ways I like it better than the produced versions, but I'd hate to have to choose between one or the other.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011



Fact 1:  Nova Scotia = New Scotland.  Fact 2:  Joel Plaskett is from Nova Scotia.  Fact 3:  Joel Plaskett likes vinyl records.  Put it all together, and you have Plaskett's boutique label, New Scotland Records.  Yes, they put out CD's and downloads too, but around the office, vinyl is king.  And over at Plaskett's home studio, where much of the label's music is created, don't look for the latest gear.  Tunes are put to tape only, and that goes for all the outside artists Joel is producing, such as Sarah Slean and Andy Maize.

I know I'm a little late on the vinyl bandwagon, but hey, I was knee-deep in it way back when, and still have all my old albums and singles.  Thousands of singles.  I tried the trusty 30-year old Dual the other day, and I'm afraid it finally bought the farm.  So off I went for a new table, as I'm sitting on some sweet 180-gram pressings.  Geez, I'm actually pretty impressed with what you can get for $125 at The Future Shop, a brand-new Sony turntable which sounds just great.

I needed the table because the ever-friendly and smiley David Myles laid his new 45 on me the other day.  Myles, one of my Fredericton homies, now lives in the HFX, and Plaskett did the honours on his five-time East Coast Music Award-nominated Turn Time Off album.  It seems that wasn't all the music they had ready.  Myles' single features one of those album cuts, Out Of Love on the A side, but the flip is the out-take Wrong So Wrong, a kicking little rock 'n' bluegrass number, perfect for the all-important non-LP b-side just like they used to do it back in '78. 

It's just one of eight recent singles on New Scotland.  Plaskett has one of them, a three-song affair that features demo/alternative versions of tracks from his recent Three LP.  Oh, I should also mention New Scotland features that beloved, Polaris-nominated set on triple vinyl.  The other six 45's belong to local artists in the Plaskett clubhouse.  They are Ana Egge, Myles Deck & the Fuzz, Matthew Grimson, Tyler Messick, Yellow Jacket Avenger and Peter Elkas.  Cool, you can tell it's one of those 'if you like one, you'll like 'em all' labels.  It reminds me how we used to buy singles just because it was on Sub Pop or Stiff or even Motown way back when.  Hopefully your local indie shop is carrying them, but if not just head to to order.

Upcoming, there's a split singles with the king of Sackville, N.B., Shotgun Jimmie, with Plaskett on the other side.  Joel does "Jimmie's Still Jimmie" and the double-barreled one counters with "That's Not Joel".  That should arrive in April followed by vinyl from Jeremy Fisher and Ben Gunning.  And the label boss tells me his new album will be ready in the fall, and he'll release a single a week of the tracks for ten weeks leading up to the whole disc arriving, or at least that's his current thinking.  I like that thinking.

The only beef I have with any of this is the generic picture sleeves the label is using.  One of the great things about 45's and vinyl in general is the artwork, and the greatest labels always had art directors high up on staff, knowing that the cover sold copies.  Surely some smart NSCAD art student wants to pick up some valuable experience.  In the meantime, I look forward to returning to the days of stacks of wax, and I'm glad I saved my 45 adapter. 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011



Aerosmith, Bon Jovi, Metallica, Mötley Crüe, Ron Sexsmith.  One of these things is not like the other.  Yet, that is a list of artists that have all used veteran hit-maker Bob Rock as producer.  The idea is clear here.  Sexsmith is regarded, hell, revered as one of the cosmos' most brilliant songwriters.  Artists line up to sing his praises and products, but somehow over his career that breakthrough hit has never come his way.  Some critics have been sniping about all his albums sounding the same.  So, who better to push him out of a perceived rut than a man with a golden touch, and a sympathetic countryman as well?

Here's the problem I have with the above scenario:  It is a perceived rut.  Sexsmith's only artistic problem is that his first album was so strong he set the bar very high.  He's consistently reached that height since, and excuse me if continued excellence is some sort of music crime.  In a just world, benevolent patrons would shower him with commissions and Polaris prizes, but this is a biz where, if a Chris Martin tips his hat, wags expect Coldplay-level sales.  Art and hype don't always come together, and Sexsmith, with his hang-dog looks and 70's pop perfection, is only going to appeal to a select audience in all probability.

However, I don't have a big problem with bringing Rock on board, since he's obviously a smart guy, and has his own pop credentials, a Payola$ member for gosh sake's.  And it's not like he's going to have Sexsmith doing Love In An Elevator.  I'll go as far to say Rock pushed him in just the right directions on this disc.  It is, on the Rock-Bon Jovi-Crüe scale, the softest thing the producer's ever worked on.  But on the Sexsmith side, it's the punchiest, power pop he's attempted.  Yes, the drums are bigger.  So are the vocals, the strings, the overdubs.  There are female vocalists doing some doo-be-doo's at one point, surely a first for Ron.  Yet, it's never drastic.  The arrangements and add-ons only ever serve the songs.  The bigger sounds seem to bracket the typical Sexsmith bon mots, and make them stand out as that much more witty.

I had a different introduction to the album, hearing the new songs first on a TV concert on CMT the other day.  Even though it was a full band show, I was quite worried about the new material, which seemed flat and sub-par.  But then, two days later, I hit play on the actual cuts, and found the album full of life, the same songs now raising the hairs on my neck, with the most beautiful melodies in the current recording world.    TV's often a crappy place to watch a concert, especially when there's no audience, plus it also speaks to how Bob Rock has added to the bare bones brought his way.

In the end, Ron Sexsmith will always be exactly what he is, a songwriter striving for perfection in under three minutes.  He combines McCartney's melodic sense, Lightfoot's lyrical directness, and Squeeze's playfulness. I myself would love it if he sold a million some day, but I'm not going to criticize my favourite Canadian musician just because he doesn't, and act like I know why.  I do know why I love this album even a bit more than some of his others, it's precisely because the production is more commercial and bigger, and if that brings some new fans into the club, I think that's just great.