Thursday, March 29, 2012


The Bahamas album is like a buffet with some of the best food around, where you grab a little of this, a little of that, and it all mixes great on the plate.  Afie Jurvanen has been a guitar player for hire, with Feist, Great Lake Swimmers and others, and you can hear lots of influences.  There's Feist in her softer, sparer, love song mode.  There's Ron Sexsmith's laconic vocal style, and precise lyrics.  There's Lanois's echo and atmosphere.  There's even latter-period Beatles dramatic simplicity (think Don't Bring Me Down).

All good stuff.  Best though, is how smooth it goes down, how simple and elegant it is, and how strong the songs are.  Each one has an easy gentleness, along with moments that soar, plus grand and soothing melodies.  I wouldn't call these numbers stripped-down, as they all feature guitar, bass, drums and lots of vocals, but there is lots of space, and nothing unnecessary.  The three instruments, especially Jurvanen's guitar, give us everything we need.  This certainly lets the glow of his voice come through, and the notes ring out.  Just the right amount of knob-twiddling gives so much punch and presence.  OK Alright I'm Alive features plunked bass, cymbals taps and guitar chunks in the sparest way possible, but still stays bouncy and funky.

He even manages to make noise sounds pretty.  On the track Never Again, a one-note guitar line becomes fast, distorted, and loud, but still seems to be coming from a wispy cloud rather than a thunder storm.  All this sonic ability serves the words so well, as hushed intimacies and admissions become monumental.  Plus, Jurvanen is a super crooner.  I'd call it ear candy, but the compositions and lyrics are so strong, that's too flippant for this quality disc.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


Osborne proved herself a strong interpreter of classics on the soundtrack to Standing In The Shadows Of Motown, and most of her past decade has been spent on R'n'B in its many guises.  So this album is a bit of a no-brainer, but it's done the right way.  Osborne covers a variety of tracks by the masters, but, thank God, not the usual ones.  In fact, she's tried hard to pick relatively obscure ones.

Many of the writers' names are well-known, including Willie Dixon, Al Green, Otis Redding, Allen Toussaint, and Bill Withers.  The original performers, for the most part, are famous as well:  Ray Charles, Sonny Boy Williamson, Ike and Tina Turner.  But I can't tell you off the top of my head which album you'll find Green doing Rhymes, or Redding singing Champagne And Wine.  Kudos, Ms. Osborne, because in your hands, these sound like they must have been hits.  Equally adept at big, blustery ballads, and hard-driving numbers, she mixes up the tempos and styles to give a solid overview of everything from Deep South blues and New Orleans boogie, to Chicago electric and Memphis funk.

There are two that stand out however, and oddly they are the best-known.  Dixon's I Want To Be Loved, as done by Muddy Waters, is dark and dirty and sexy, with cooing backing vocals, nasty harp and a killer groove, topped off by her smouldering singing.  And she steals Slim Harpo's Shake Your Hips right back from Mick Jagger, barely changing a lick from the original, but again singing like a powerhouse.  This, lordy mama, is R'n'B like it's supposed to be, all muscle.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012


One of Canada's favourite bluesmen gets soulful on his latest.  From Stax to jump blues tempo, this is uptempo stuff for the large part, with JW and his band in upbeat mode.  Are blues albums supposed to be this much fun?  Screw it, why not?

Jones is flying all over this one, with every song a natural for soloing.  Lead cut Ain't Gonna Beg sees him in crisp and clean Steve Cropper territory, with slashing rhythm chords and driving Hammond organ from Jesse Whitely.  It's a take-no-prisoners cut, two verses, and then wow!  What a lead break.  This could have been an Eddie Floyd single in 1967.  Let It Go, one of the eight out of ten Jones' originals here, stomps along with a good-time beat, and a great big riff, kinda what T. Rex might've sounded like if Bolan had gone with the blues instead of boogie.  In A Song is another potential Stax hit, if we wind the way-back machine to the '60's and 70's, maybe when Albert King signed with the label.  Again, like almost all the songs here, JW hits a major, eyebrow-raising solo. 

Vocally, Jones is also getting into the soul crooner mode, and doing it well.  He doesn't have the deep growl or pure tone of others, but he's certainly capturing the energy, and commitment.  With a live-in-the-studio sound, and just the core four-piece grooving away, there's a great energy all the way through.  You can single out every player on every song for excellence, and this one's a winner for sure.

Monday, March 26, 2012


Wow, where did eleven years go?  That's how long it's been between albums for The Cranberries, a band that had almost given up any thoughts of reforming.  But it turns out they weren't sick of themselves, they were very, very tired of superstar culture, and who can blame them.  Lead singer Dolores O'Riordan settled into relative calm, living north of Toronto with her Canadian husband, raising three kids and two solo albums.

An invitation to the band to work with her on gigs after the 2nd solo led to a full-blown reunion tour a couple of years back, and now, after figuring out how to deal with it all, the band is completely back with this new album.  The Cranberries always stand out, and that's mostly due to O'Riordan's voice.  Her thick Irish accent is always there, her breathy vocals, often in double-tracked harmony, bring a huge amount of intimacy, and since many of the songs are about romantic tension, well, it's all a potent mix.  Original producer of the early big hits, Stephen Street (The Smiths, Blur) is also back, to give it that ringing, rich Britpop shine.

All that ear candy hides some relatively mundane lyrics, and too many melodramatic love songs.  For instance:  "Life is no garden of roses/More like a thistle in time."  Huh?  A cliche and a conundrum.  And in the same song, we get "Life IS a garden of roses/Roses just whither and die."  So which is it, Ms. Metaphor?  And everything is so serious.  Here are some random words from the O'Riordan lyric sheets:  Fire, grave, broken glass, asunder, empty, lonely, cold, die.  Geez, just add vampires, and you've got a hit movie for teens.  But..and it's a big but...  when they come out of that singer, with that voice, and those arrangements, with that gravitas. everyone of those words sounds important.  Throw the booklet away, listen to the sounds and not the words, and you have what makes The Cranberries different.

Sunday, March 25, 2012


A celebratory hometown gig in Athens, Georgia, for the venerable party band, at 34 years of age.  Sure, they aren't the carefree kids of Planet Claire any more, but they can still party out of bounds.  It's remarkable how well their music has stood the test of time, and how well they continue to make those good vibes.  Always oddball outcasts, it must be gratifying to see how much influence and goodwill still comes from their music.

The packed crowd is almost as much fun as the band on the DVD, with aging original fans mixed in with kids that know the legacy, and many of them decked out in outrageous finery, silly sunglasses and whatever colourful contraband they can muster.  They have no problem embracing the newer songs, and in fact those tunes fit in well with the classics, so much so that Love Shack can be left to the end of the set, and Planet Claire and Rock Lobster saved for encores.  Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson prove much better vocalists and performers than you'd think, given the casual atmosphere that's always surrounded the group.  When they sing together, which is often, their voices blend well, the harmonies are strong, and their smiles light up the room and your heart.

Fred Schneider admittedly speaks more than sings his leads, but that's the style that made the group unique.  He's a goodwill ambassador, letting us all know it's a-okay to laugh as well as sing along, and better still, dance. 

There's history in the air through the whole concert, with old Athens haunts in the lyrics getting big whoops, and the fact the group is going strong worthy of a great party.  52 Girls, with its shout-out to the Athens women who were friends in the old days, takes on new importance in this party, and Deadbeat Club, what they used to call each other before they were a band, must feel extra-special to them so many years later.  The accompanying interview with the group has them going through the history, a great story of fun and friendship that proved even freaks and geeks can become the popular kids.

Saturday, March 24, 2012


We all know about One Hit Wonders.  Those are the smash hits that come out of nowhere, become a huge seller and chart-topper, and then the artist in question disappears, never to bother the airwaves and music collections again.  Yet that one hit, and the name behind it, live on.  Debbie Boone, and You Light Up My Life.  Starland Vocal Band's Afternoon Delight.  Carl Douglas with Kung Fu Fighting.  Who Let The Dogs Out.  Whoever did The Macarena.  Norman Greenbaum's Spirit In The Sky.  There are dozens of examples.

Has anyone ever come up with the concept of the One Album Wonder?  Maybe, but I can't recall it.  So wahoo, I get to coin the term (I think) and make up the rules.  So here goes:  A One Album Wonder should be by someone who records one great big hit album, something that was a bona fide smash, so huge that seemingly everyone had it, but then never comes close to matching that success.  I don't care if they had a follow-up that charted well; that's bound to happen, no matter how crappy the album was, because if you sold five million copies, you know that at least one million would have bought the follow-up, hoping for more of the same.  That's okay by my rules, I'm looking for that band with only one album they are remembered for.  Perhaps some examples would best explain my criteria:  Peter Frampton is the most obvious one.  He had a long career before and after Frampton Comes Alive, in The Herd first, then Humble Pie, plus a few solo albums, but really, all he will ever be remembered for is that big double-live disc.  The horrid I'm In You killed his career immediately after.

How about Boston?  Nothing following lived up to that debut, featuring More Than A Feeling.  Christopher Cross makes the list, Ride Like The Wind and Sailing off his self-titled debut becoming huge hits, the album gaining five Grammy Awards, and then ..mostly crickets.  Feel free to make your own lists of One Album Wonders, but be warned I'm rushing to the copywrite office first thing Monday.

Here's another:  Meatloaf.  Sure, he's continued his career from the 70's until today, but he'll always be that Bat Out Of Hell guy.  Oh, and doesn't he know it?  Even though Mr. Marvin Aday has had an enviable sales record since, with multi-platinum releases and epic concert tours, he's always really been trading in on that initial success.  It's no surprise his biggest hit since the first Bat took flight in 1977 has been Bat Out Of Hell 2:  Back Into Hell, from 1993.  Remember that?  Perhaps hazily.  Yet it was a number one album around the world.  Even Bat Out Of Hell III:  The Monster Is Loose, from 2006, went platinum in this country.  Its follow-up, Hang Cool Teddy Bear?  Not a trace of that one around.

It seems the key to Meat's success is to remind us of his One Album Wonder status.  That means he has to stick the word Bat Or Hell in the title somewhere, but he can't go back to that well too often.  Which leads us to a new ploy for this album, with a more subtle reference here, calling it Hell In A Handbasket.  Sounds an awful lot like  Oh, and there are skulls all over the album graphics.  I'm not really sure why, as the album is largely a bunch of love ballads, done up in typical bombastic Meat Loaf music.

Don't be fooled by any of this, even if you are a huge Bat Out Of Hell fan.  There's no storyline or theatrical concept going on.  It's a collection of substandard old-style rock songs, which for the most part sound like nostalgia for a time when music sucked.  The production is to blame as much as the poor writing.  The guitars sound like they are being played by old bar-band veterans who never upgraded and are still using the same pedals.  The backing vocals are a homage to the work of Patti Smyth and Scandal (speaking of one hit wonders).  To blame is someone named Paul Crook, who seems to have spent a lifetime studying the studio mastery of Journey, and still getting it wrong.  For those who loved corporate rock, we salute you.

Meat sounds exactly the same, so it can't be him that's wrong here, unless he's completely calling the shots.  Certainly bad choices abound, including the ridiculous inclusion of Chuck D, on a song that couldn't be less suited to rap.  Oh, I'm wrong, because they do the same trick later, only this time it's the unholy trinity of Lil Jon, Mark McGrath and Trace Atkins.  Hell, indeed.  It's called Stand In the Storm, and wow, they used thunderstorm sound effects.  As for covers, Tom Cochrane might wish he hadn't written a number called Mad Mad World, because the title caught their attention.  It's no worse than anything else here.  But surely someone must be held accountable for the inexplicable and inexcusable murder of California Dreamin'.  The poor thing barely had a pulse as it is, having been beaten senseless by The Beach Boys and dozens of others over the years.  This is the worst ever.  It also has nothing to do with hell, bats, or skulls, so I'm really not sure why it was sacrificed.  Hell, Meat could've done Ride Like The Wind, which would have, given my theories and inventions, totally just.

Thursday, March 22, 2012


Gord Bamford couldn't look less like a country star this morning, as he drops by to promote his new disc, Is It Friday Yet?  No cowboy hat, no boots, and certainly no star threads; he's wearing a hoodie, and one that's seen its share of wear.  But that fits Bamford to a T.  Hard-working, humble and level-headed, he does what he does, and you get what you see, and hear.  And what Bamford does is make country hits.

Just how seriously does he take the job?  Well, he shouldn't be on the road right now, or on the stage.  Or even out of bed, really.  Two weeks before I talked to him, Bamford was in hospital, having emergency gall bladder surgery.  I've had that operation, it's not huge, but you don't bounce out of bed the next day, it was three weeks recovery for me.

Umm, Gord Bamford bounced out of bed the next day.  He had to be on-stage, promoting the new album.  "There's nothing you can do in that situation," he laughs.  "You just have to do it.  And it was okay, that first night was a little tough but the album was coming out, and there was no way to cancel things."  Well, I beg to differ.  Performers cancel whole tours due to throat problems, or take a week off to deal with laryngitis or whatever.  I'm just saying, the guy has some work ethic.

Bamford likes to make songs that could be hits, and his new album is full of them.  Of the thirteen cuts, I tell him twelve of them could be singles.  "I'm glad you feel that way," he beams.  "That's what I set out to do.  It's the kind of music I want to make, and the kind I always liked."  Now, that doesn't mean he writes cookie-cutter material, mimicking what's on radio already, or re-writing the same Gord Bamford song over and over.  In fact, he takes more chances than not.  Farm Girl Strong does a gender-reversal on the typical macho rural theme.  You Make It Better is steeped in old-school Western sounds, like something that could have been recorded in the 50's.  There's always a thread of legitimate, Western sound to this Alberta boy's music, and you just aren't going to hear him try to crossover to slicker stuff.

The chances continue with Now That You're Gone, a song that imagines what it would be like if a wife, mother and partner dies.  "I was just thinking how that would be, and how someone could go on," he explains.  "It was tough to write, but maybe somebody will be affected by it.  I thought it was important to write."  Of course, it grabs you by the heart.  That's another big part of what Bamford does.

The title cut is the first single, lots of fun and working its magic for him already.  It may hit home with most of his fans, out there waiting for the weekend.  But Friday holds no magic for Bamford.  He's going 24-7 right now, and I really don't think he ever stops.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


Canadian folk favourite Bonnie Ste-Croix has a new video out for her most recent effort, Canadian Girl.  Released last year, the disc is a cycle of songs inspired by her move across the country, from B.C. to Nova Scotia.  While making the trip, she recorded songs in each province and territory, with local guests.  It's part road trip and travelogue, part reflections on this country.

Now she has a new video for the title track, which documents the journey.  Check it out here, and following that, I've re-posted my review of the disc from last August.

Major moves can trigger lots of changes.  When you're pulling up stakes and changing homes, cities, even coasts, other life changes tend to get tossed in the mix as well.  And, some big ideas can pop into your head as well.  That's what happened to Bonnie Ste-Croix last year when she found herself moving from Vancouver all the way to Halifax.  She decided to be closer to her mother, who was not well.  Ste-Croix had grown up in Gaspe, so it was sort of a homecoming, the right ocean anyway.  Thinking about all the provinces she'd cross to get there inspired a unique idea.

Ste-Croix decided to make a trip cross-country and do what she does best:  Make music at every stop.  To this end, she planned a tour that took her to each province and territory, to play shows, but also to record.  In 13 stops, she recorded 13 tracks, with special guest from each location, friends from the folk music community.  You'll know lots of the names;  Catherine MacLellan was there in PEI, Natalie MacMaster for Nova Scotia, The Once in Newfoundland, etc.  Here in N.B., it was a bilingual date, with Jessica Rhaye joining on vocals, Dominque Dupuis on fiddle, as well as Aaron Currie on guitar.  They recorded a track called Theo, a good one, and like all the tracks, composed by Ste-Croix.  The songs weren't specifically about each area, thank goodness, that's too difficult and would have resulted in bad travelogue ads no doubt.  The highlight of this number is the fine vocal blend between Rhaye and Ste-Croix.

Ste-Croix calls the process the adventure of a lifetime, and I think she's actually hit on something here.  Concept discs, whether they are tributes or charity efforts or thematic adventures, tend to fall flat in the hype, or the forced performances between disparate colleagues.  Here Ste-Croix hasn't tried to write-to-order per province, or record with the biggest names.  Instead, she's taken the songs she already had, and played with people she liked and wanted to, who properly fit the roles and material.  Plus, the songs are of strong quality throughout.  In the end, it turns out to be a high-quality celebration of the folk-and-roots community of the country.

Okay, there's one song that was written-to-order about Canada and home and such, but since it's also the best on the album, it deserves singular praise.  Canadian Girl gives the album its title, and here represents her new Nova Scotia home, also gives us the great statement of the project.  Ste-Croix now sees the whole country as her home, having gone from small towns to big cities, to all three coasts, and become familiar with just about every stop between.  That's a thought right up there with "Something to sing about, this land of ours."

Tuesday, March 20, 2012


A little west coast jazz for ya, from a group bringing its cool to the east this month, along with a brand-new album.  The October Trio is from Vancouver, and have been working separately and apart since 2004.  Made of sax and clarinet player Evan Arntzen, drummer Dan Gaucher, and bassist Josh Cole, the trio specializes in wide-open songs that incorporate a lot of rhythm changes, and plenty of movement from all three.  Gaucher is not afraid to speed up in one section, then mellow out in another, as Cole and Arntzen follow suit.

For this new disc, the group has moved into more positive, "bright" sounds, with lots of soprano sax and clarinet providing colour.  There's also lots of dialogue between the players, each with their ears open to the others.  Do Your Thing, with its Arabian melody, sees Cole following Arntzen's soloing closely, and Cole playing accents to it all, rather than setting down a beat.  The title cut is bass-driven, with the sax finding the spaces around the bass line rather than on top of it.  It's rewarding playing, not difficult to follow at all, ear-pleasing and, yea, positive and bright.

The arrangements are well-structured, but leave room for free play as each song progresses through its signposts.  Like all good young jazz players, they want to experiment, and another way here is a couple of surprising covers, of The Dirty Projectors' Imagine It, and Bjork's You've Been Flirting Again.  The latter piece retains a bit of her melody, and it's not hard to imagine her voice on top of this, or at least gliding along with the horn part.  It's like a mirror image of the song, only Bjork's invisible.  Again, there's excellent interplay between all three, bass and horn winding around each other, percussion filling gaps delicately.  I'm betting this a fine group live, and ... oh, look!  You can see for yourself:

March 23d - Clinic at The University of Toronto - Toronto
March 24th - The Rex - Toronto
March 25th - The Tranzac (CD RELEASE CONCERT) - Toronto
March 28th - Casa Del Popolo - Montreal
March 29th - Largo - Quebec City
March 30th - Wilser's - Fredericton, NB
March 31st - Out Like a LION Festival (2:30pm workshop) - Halifax
March 31st - Out Like a LION Festival (8:30pm concert) - Halifax
April 3d - Raw Sugar, Ottawa

Monday, March 19, 2012


Lovett is never especially prolific, this being his first release since 2009, but he is consistent.  His discs are always of the highest quality, especially the musicianship, with the cuts usually featuring the members of his crack Large Band.  Check and check on those points for Release Me.  What's a bit different is the large amount of covers on the disc, 12 of 14.  Lovett explains that he hasn't dried up, he just didn't particularly care too much for many of the songs he'd written recently, and wanted this disc to be top-drawer.

One reason is that he's left the only record company he'd called home in his 25-year career, Curb.  The album title was chosen for that very reason (although he does cover the country classic of the same name), as he moves into the brave new world of self-control.  Sensing he needed a bit of a hit, he went for a batch of his favourites, mostly songs he's covered in concert over his career.

Of  course, Lovett doesn't just cover songs, he makes them his own.  Chuck Berry's Brown-Eyed Handsome Man is a chestnut and cornerstone track, but somehow it becomes a whole new tune here, slowed down and riding on loping bass line.  Lovett sings it like a gunfighter ballad.  Over his career he's had a great way with classic blues, and here the Large Band, anchored by the brilliant Matt Rollings on piano, do a crossed-up barrelhouse boogie/Texas Swing take on Keep It Clean, the 1930's track associated with Charley Jordan.

There are more vocal guests than normal on a Lovett disc, but true to form, it's for quality reasons, not star power.  Sure, k.d. lang's a big name, and that's her on Release Me, but Kat Edmonson gets the nod on the shopworn Baby It's Cold Outside, and manages to make this too-familiar number stand out from the pack.  Old hands and fan favourites Sweet Pea Atkinson and Harry Bowens show up for rich, soulful backing on Jesse Winchester's Isn't That So, and Sarah Watkins of Nickel Creek provides perfect harmony for the heartbreaking Dress Of Laces. 

Watkins is also on board for on the originals, the beautiful Night's Lullaby.  Maybe Lovett felt there was no way he could match this track with his own pen, it's such a marvelous and touching number to a child, and ultimately a love song for the family.  It's as touching a number as Lovett's ever done. 

The disc is a bit of a roller-coaster, as we move from tragedy to comedy to spiritual, but Lovett is one artist who can handle it all.  It takes a brave man to end an album with a Methodist hymn from the pen of Martin Luther himself, especially coming off the heals of a smoking version of Townes Van Zandt's White Freightliner Blues.  Lovett may be the only artist who could do it.

Sunday, March 18, 2012


Listening to the annual Juno Awards compilation is always a frustrating experience.  It usually involves hearing a bunch of pop songs I've become tired with over the past year, or hated from the first listen, and expressing disbelief that these are the best tracks Canada has to offer for those months.  There's the same old acts that seem to get nominated, no matter the merits, and a complete lack of the most inventive, challenging and original music that deserves at least some acknowledgement.  And yes, that's pretty much what's here this year. 

Looking at the 20 tracks that did make the album, apparently all Canada recorded in 2011 was commercial pop, or alt-rock, with the tiniest hint of hip-hop (Drake, arguably pop anyway) and country (Johnny Reid, arguably pop anyway).  The pop stuff stinks across the board, but at least the rock side holds up well.  There's no need to pile on Bieber ("children are crying, soldiers are dying, some people don't have a home"), but Avril Lavigne and Hedley are yesterday's news, and this stuff certainly doesn't match their earlier efforts.  And Nickelback?  When We Stand Together doesn't match Rockstar, even if you like the band.  Buble needs to take a holiday too, at least from awards shows.  The debate over the merits of Lights and Deadmau5 are for another time, but both deserve to be here.

Rock makes a comeback with old hands (Matthew Good, Sam Roberts Band), and new heroes (Arkells, The Sheepdogs).  Sloan, Good, and Roberts have all made better music, however, and it seems they came through on their names as well.  However, the rise of City And Colour continues with good reason, and Dan Mangan is perhaps the breakthrough artist here, from the hipster side of the tracks.  Feist's polarizing new album gets a nod with its tamest track, How Come You Never Go There, but its good to see her get nominated for five-star reviews rather than hit singles.

I guess what feels so wrong about this set is that there are no great single songs here, nothing that stands out as song of the year, album of the year, artist of the year.  That's not really the Junos' problem though.  It has a lot more to do with the dire state of pop music, and the fact that most of the excellent Canadian music is made by people who aren't part of the pop culture machinery.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012


I'm actually surprised how generic I find the sound of this double-live disc.  All the traditional instruments are here, the fiddle, bouzouki, mandolin, and the Americana ones too, with pedal steel, Hammond B3, 12-string.  The traditional-sounding songs too, with antique words like bonnet, jasmine, panoply.  But it's all so clean.  And they seem so happy, "listen to us making this lovely folk music for you young people", like they discovered the damn sound or something.  It's twee, I tell ya, and makes me long for some real modern folk, anything that's come out of England since Fairport Convention.

This collection comes from last summer's celebratory tour, on the heels of the successful The King Is Dead album, a disc I liked precisely one song from.  That was Down By The Water, which had some guts to it.  It's here, plus over two hours of tracks recorded in Amphitheaters and Auditoriums and Centers all over the mid-west, places such as Louisville, Redmond, and Madison.  I guess they wanted to show how they were connected to the real people.  Why they didn't just pick one show instead of eleven different venues is puzzling, since they didn't really care about editing, at least for the home listener's sake.  There are several sing-along points on the disc, surely the most boring thing to have going on in your living room.  We must suffer through several minutes of Colin Meloy exhorting the crowd to sing, and then splitting them into parts, which might be fun if you are actually in the crowd, but not sitting alone on your sofa.  The cats didn't want to sing with me.  Luckily, the white one is deaf.

Oh god, here's some more.  The first 90 seconds of The Mariner's Revenge Song is taken up with Meloy's instructions on how to scream when the audience get the proper signal, and then a practice scream.  Yes, 90 seconds, I timed it.  The Ramones made classics in 90 seconds.  10,000 people at McMenamins Edgefield Amphitheater in Troutdale, Oregon (you can't make this stuff up folks) got taught how to scream, which they then proceed to do in this ghastly 12-minute, 15 seconds song (okay, 10 and three-quarters, if you take off the scream lessons).  Now you can learn how to scream, too, thanks to this valuable inclusion.  You might want to move to Troutdale if you enjoy the experience.  Okay, now the main scream comes on cue, and it lasts a good 25 seconds.  Boy, that was enlightening.

There is a fine version of The Crane Wife, which runs 16 minutes but is well worth it.  This rather wacky tale actually does live up to the fame The Decemberists have gained, and I'd hoped the band would travel down those roads further.  Instead, they have backed off into blandness, pandering to these amphitheaters rather than challenging themselves and the audience.

Monday, March 12, 2012


Here we have the final part of Cowboy Junkies' brave, inspired set of discs called The Nomad Series.  Freed from normal music company restrictions, and ignoring the usual market place rules, the C.J's chose to put out four discs over the space of 18 months, on their own label.  To recap, Disc 1 was Renmin Park, inspired by Michael Timmins' trip to China.  The second album, Demons, was a full release of covers of their friend Vic Chestnut's songs.  Part 3 was Sing In My Meadow, some quickly-recorded psychedelic blues, certainly the most out-of-character and toughest release of the group.  That one had me doubting the concept, as it felt like they were following a muse that didn't fit well with their core, especially Margo Timmins' distinctive slow burn.

Since that disc just came out last fall, it was with some trepidation that I cracked the plastic on The Wilderness.  Well, whaddya know?  Not only did I find the gem of the four-disc series, but one of my favourites from the group, ever.  It seems these tracks have been percolating since 2007-2008, before the China trip, a set that Michael put aside for the other works.  Eventually he found the theme he was missing in them, being lost in the wilderness of life, from age to parenthood to happiness.  Glad he found the connectivity; what we get is a set of largely calm and beautiful numbers, gently and slowly played, hanging on Margo's every note.  As in the past, placing her voice up front, all warm and echoed, brings an amazing sound.  Everything else is spare and subtle, even the drums, with Peter Timmins sitting out entire verses at times.  Whole numbers will go by where you have only the occasional and slightest cymbal tap, and the gentlest snare brushing.  Less is more, for sure.

You don't have to go searching for the wilderness in the songs, you know it's there from one or two words, delivered perfectly by Margo:  "damaged", "selfish", "angels", all mood-setters.  Over and over, it's pretty much Michael's acoustic, Margo's voice, the atmosphere, and just bare mentions of other players.  There are the rare occurrences of increased volume, such as The Confession Of Georgie E, where everybody gets to play at a normal level, but still with restraint and beauty.  But it's the magic of the calmness and clarity that makes this such a fine disc, a set that takes over your being in a most relaxing and spiritual way.

And then there's the last, great joke.  They finally rock out on closing cut.  Twangy distorted guitars, fat bass, and a story about too many years skating on rinks in Montreal, too many days on road in bands, "maybe I'm just getting old, 'cause fuck, I hate the cold."  That's the name of the song, Fuck, I Hate The Cold.  On an album of such quiet beauty, it closes with that unlikely voice, dropping F-bombs all over the place.  And they know what a great joke it is; the song ends with all the music being dropped off the track, leaving Margo to sing alone, "Ya, I fuckin' hate it," the last sounds on the album.  It would be a great single, if, well, you know.  As always, with the Nomad Series, and their whole career, Cowboy Junkies want to show they are not all about subdued songs and rich atmosphere.  But they do it so well.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


I hate it when I don't get something.  Here we have the hottest new group on the continent, burning up the charts with both album and single (We Are Young featuring Janelle Monae), and they aren't some pop-tart over-singing diva or kid hip-hop wannabe.  Surely there must be something there to grab onto, as millions of legal downloaders are doing.

To my ears, all I can fathom is that people really miss Queen.  Here we have great, grandious productions, with lots of piano and drama, great pounding drums, and massed vocals reaching for the stars.  I mean, Freddie did We Are Young about 20 different times, just not with these particular lyrics or quite so much bottom-end distortion.  I'm also perplexed by the whole concept, which seems to be some sort of pounding electro dance floor hybrid filled with toy tricks such as auto-tune (because it's somehow cool, not because the singer needs it, he has a fine voice displayed on most of the tracks).  Then you have these tender passages about break-ups and parents potentially dying, the hurt of which is all washed away by the twin saviors of epic falsetto harmonies and the realization that everything can be great because We. Are. Young.

I suppose 20-somethings will be dancing away their cares to such chorus-messages as "Tonight we are young/so let's set the world on fire/we can burn brighter than the sun."  No you can't.  You're binge-drinking another weekend away, and will crawl back to your crap job on Monday thinking you had a great time, but you're fooling yourself.  Just like you're fooling yourself thinking this is a good song and album.  Ooh, harsh.  I hope they're actually trying to be ironic.

Thursday, March 8, 2012


There's a ton of joy in this album.  The joy of music-making;  they obviously love to create it, to play and sing it, and the bigger the better.  Full of intricate arrangements, lots of dynamics, plenty of massed vocals and harmonies, different textures, and cool instrument choices, no two songs sound similar, except in their bountiful fun.

You want proof?  How about the track Lucky, with its marvelous chorus, "We are lucky and we know it/we clap our hands to show it," and of course, cue the clapping.  It's destined to be the song of the night at their shows for the next two years, at least.

This is the third album for the Vancouver group, coming off plenty of successes, including last year's Juno for New Group of the Year.  It all adds up to huge studio and recording confidence.  O Alexandra is fully embellished with pomp and circumstance, right down to the Brian May-styled anthem guitar solo.  Big, big and bigger follow, including Big Wave Goodbye, an epic, with multiple sections, a homage to Van City, " city, my lover, and my friend."

Wonderfully produced by the group and Tom Dobrzanski, and mixed by Jack Joseph Puig (a big-name California guy), the album is a thrill-ride of a listen, an ear-feast.  There's an excitement to them, in everything their doing, from the driving first single Heavy Ceiling, with its New Wave touches, to the fan-friendly 'net site featuring videos for all 15 tracks from the album.  Check 'em out as they head to your town this spring:

Mar 27     Saint John, NB     Peppers Pub
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse
Mar 28     Halifax, NS Reflections Cabaret
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse
Mar 30     Corner Brook, NL  Grenfell College
w/ Chains of Love
Mar 31     St. John's, NL The Rock House
w/ Chains of Love

Apr 05     Charlottetown, PEI  UPEI
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse
Apr 06     Moncton, NB  The Manhattan
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 07     Fredericton, NB  Charlotte St. Arts Centre
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 08     Quebec City, QC  Le Cercle
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 10     Montreal, QC  Le Divan Orange
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 11     Ottawa, ON  Ritual
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 12     Hamilton, ON This Ain't Hollywood
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Apr 13     Toronto, ON The Great Hall
w/ Chains of Love & Boxer The Horse

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Help Support Breast Cancer Patients!

Dear Music Fans and Friends:

Normally we talk tunes here, but let me take a day to plug something important.  My sister Dorothy (below with me and the middle boy) had stage 3 breast cancer last year (she's doing great now, thanks) and this year her husband is riding his bike from Calgary to Maine to raise money for Wellspring, a wonderful organization that provides support services for free to patients in Calgary and Toronto.  If you're looking for a unique way to support breast cancer patients, you might consider sponsoring Dave on his lengthy trek.  He has to raise a minimum $10,000 to participate.  It's in a peloton relay formation, so he doesn't have to pedal every kilometer and mile, but still...woah!
Wellspring provides free support programs for cancer patients and their families. The services, yoga, healing touch massage, support groups for the various types of cancer, library, etc., etc. are all provided for free.

I am including some links below which provide more information.  Of course, any financial help at all (via the first link below) would be most appreciated.  We're all very proud of Dave for taking on this challenge, but a little envious of the obvious bragging points he'll gain afterward. 

Here is a link to Wellspring's homepage:
And here is a link to a 7 minute video telling the Wellspring story:

Tuesday, March 6, 2012


It's Springsteen-by-the-numbers, with a little bit of this and a bit of that, almost like a sampler of his last couple of decades worth of music.  There's a touch of Devils and Dust, a lot of Seeger Sessions, a smattering of latter-day E Street, and lots of borrowing, from gospel, hip-hop, Mexicali and even Morricone.  The themes are the awfully familiar, too.  He's singing from a recession-era country, with broken and beaten people struggling to beat the forces pitted unfairly against them.

It's all getting a little weary, actually.   The early hype (Springsteen is one of the few that still gets big hype, such as TV commercials and well-circulated quotes about the album) is that this is his vision of today, from a land struggling.  Somebody's spreading the line that it's a return to Born In The U.S.A. anger and anthems.  I can't get behind that one.  If it is his idea of raising the nation in down times, he's doing it by repeating old tricks, platitudes and cliches.

Much of the album is written in a style reminiscent of the Seeger Sessions lyrics, the album of classic folk Springsteen made last decade.  While those songs were covers, here he's written his own, cobbling together shop-worn lines and themes.  Shackled And Drawn uses old language, and old themes:  "What's a poor boy to do but keep carrying on?"  Jack Of All Trades imagines the old displaced Depression-era worker recurring today.  Land Of Hopes And Dreams is a complete and acknowledged lift of both This Train Is Bound For Glory and People Get Ready.

That last song was a surprise;  It's a decade old, used to close the encore during the 1999-2000 E Street Band reunion tour, and found in a live version on the CD/DVD Live In New York City.  The title cut is no spring chicken either, having been written and performed for the final shows at Giants Stadium in 2009 before it was torn down.  They do fit thematically, and as both feature the final blows of Clarence Clemons on a Springsteen disc, there's some sentimental value too.  They also happen to be the best cuts on the disc, anthemic and good examples of what he does best.

What he doesn't do well is move out of his zone.  Good lord, I'm all for artists moving forward, expanding their horizons, doing what they want to, but Springsteen always tries too hard to re-imagine himself.  His dust bowl persona of The Ghost Of Tom Joad and Devils And Dirt has wrecked most of his non-E Street work, with the affected Okie voice showing up again here.  His love of Irish mayhem is fine when warranted, but is completely out of place here, turning Death To My Hometown into a party, when what he really wants to do is skewer the corporate greed-heads shutting down "our factories". 

On and on come the non-Bruce moments;  sampled preachers, a hip-hop guest spot, buddy Tom Morello's guitar solos, gospel choirs.  It's all too much.  It's like he's afraid to be himself.  Worst of all, if this is in answer to the Occupy Movement, the political world of 2011, and his own anger, he, for once has little to say once you get down to it.  In the past, from Thunder Road to The Rising, he's at least offered hope and strength in family and friends.  And in chronicling darker times, such as The River and Darkness On The Edge Of Town, he gave a voice to others' pain.  All you get here is "There's a new day comin'", and "Banker man grows fat, working man grows thin."  In 2012, Springsteen seems as lost as the rest of us.

Monday, March 5, 2012

New Edgar Breau Video

Simply Sauce honcho Edgar Breau has a new video out, from his solo disc Patches Of Blue.  My review of the whole disc appeared back in January:

It's for the closing track on the album, Dandelion Kingdom.  Edgar writes:  "David Byers, once again filmed and created this colour washed  hymn to nature, childhood and the dandelion king.  The young man in the video is yours truly, the writer of the song."

Here's the link:

Sunday, March 4, 2012


Separated from his brethren in The Weakerthans, Samson gets a touch softer and more acoustic, although not a whole lot.  The focus is therefore a bit more on the words, and since he's been anointed the poet of his alt-generation, Canuck-wise, it all fits.  I'm down with that  There are some beauties here, whole songs and individual lines.

More so than most, Samson's songs read like poems, especially following the lyric sheet.  However, they also fit firmly as songs.  One never gets the feeling the words are being forced into the music, and he has a strong ability to find a melody, meter, and arrangement that works for each.

Samson can still rock it too.  Cruise Night bops along on a good groove and Doug MacGregor's big beat, and I think that's a Shotgun Jimmy scorching lead break.  When I Write My Master's Thesis is a nerd version of School's Out, and sure to put a smile on anyone's mug who went post-secondary.  And Longitudinal Centre couldn't get any louder, so don't worry about this being a calm solo outing, it's a good mix.

Wit abounds as well, with my favourite being his song, which is a look at the efforts to get Riverton, Maniitoba's Reggie Leach inducted into the NHL Hall Of Fame.  Could anyone else turn THAT into a song?  It's another great addition to the growing canon of hockey-rock tunes.  Well played, JKS.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


Quit reading my heart, Rose Cousins!  Didja ever feel that way, when you listen to a song or album?  That the songwriter has captured your situation, your feelings, exactly?  And that you want to steal those lines, send them to the one you truly love, because you know they'll completely understand how you think, and hopefully they won't have heard, or will ever hear that album and know you didn't write them.

Of course, such verses usually don't stand up to much scrutiny, and it's often just a couple of lines here and there that hit close to home.  More than likely it's the mood the singer has tapped into that has you on the same wavelength.  Whatever, Ms. Cousins has hit a nerve, and if you have a romantic bone in your body, or have felt the tiniest hurt, or unrequited love, watch out.

This is the disc Cousins made down in "The Boston States" (as we used to call them here in the Maritimes), calling on her many musical friends she's made over the past decade appearing and collaborating in the New England songwriter community.  Nothing against her Halifax peeps and scene, of course, and Cousins has made some fine music out of there, but this collection certainly has some added professional polish and gravitas.  We are talking about an area that knows how to make modern-sounding singer-songwriter albums of course, and hearing Cousins backed by great players in a great studio sounding great, well, it makes the material shine more.  The subtle harmonies, the choice of instruments that are just right, adding the best amount of shading, these are the tricks that make the difference.  There's a short film on the interweb called If I Should Fall Behind, a documentary on the scene she's fallen in with, that will help explain all this.

All good, but you have to have the songs, and this is Cousins' strongest collection of them to date.  I dare say all of them could be stripped down to piano ballads and still leave me in a puddle, but then again I wouldn't want to miss, say, the soaring and mournful strings that are added to One Way, for instance, which is a solo piano piece until they arrive.  Also, the tight playing perks several of the numbers up, such as the drum-led What I See.  There's lots of tempo change, don't worry, those of you concerned about too much sensitivity.

However, if you, like me, are inclined to wallow in it, I direct you to cut 6, Go First, where our narrator asks a lover and partner to be the first to break things up:  "I need you to leave/I'm not the one to make you happy/No, there's no room to breath".  See, our singer knows it will be a lot better off for the other person to figure it out and bail, or else there's just gonna be a ball of hurtin'.  Rose, Rose, you're singing chunks of my soul here.  Why, she even knew to cover If I Should Fall Behind, one of my favourite songs by one of my long-time collector-obsessions, B. Springsteen.  I swear, I don't even know the woman.  I love it when that happens.