Friday, August 31, 2012


Marks is being modest here.  I'd say he's more a best friend of the blues, with over four decades of performing, broadcasting, and living the blues in Toronto.  He's also one of those that simply loves it all, and with his great talent on guitar, can play it all too.  He can be found on the Jazz-FM channel every Saturday night, and next year starts hosting the TV show Cities In Blue for Hi Fi TV.

With all that playing and yacking, he hasn't recorded his own stuff that often, with this just his fourth solo disc.  No surprise that he had a few songs stored up then, the album featuring 12 originals.  And while he may be a friend of the blues, he's also more than a passing acquaintance of country, gospel, and folk.  That Lonesome Valley sounds like something The Statler Brothers might have worked up.  Mostly Marks takes his cues from 40's, 50's, and 60's sounds.  Blues Party Tonight is a jump blues with swagger, and Blues For Lonnie Johnson is his tribute to the slinger he saw as a teen in Toronto.

There's no showing off here, no "look at me, I'm Stevie Ray" moments, in fact none of that kind of modern electric stuff.  This is about the song first, and the expertise is in playing it well as a group.  Marks may not be the best vocalist, but it's a player's album really.  The sound is tremendously clean on all the instruments, and Marks sounds the best in the folk-blues style, as a story-teller.

He's also going to be one of the guests performing in Toronto's annual Patsy Cline tribute concert, now in its seventh year.  Organized by singer and Patsy fan Heather Morgan, the show brings together all sorts of artists inspired by the woman some consider the greatest of all country singers.  This year features Mary Margaret O'Hara, Lori Yates, Russell deCarle of Prairie Oyster, Paul Reddick and a host of others, at the Lula Lounge on Thursday, Sept. 6th.  Hey, I'm finally going to see it, after years of wishing and promising.  Gee, I wonder if anyone will sing Crazy?

Wednesday, August 29, 2012


Twenty years ago, Los Lobos dropped a bomb on their fans, and folks who thought they had the band pegged.  Known for Mexicali sounds, roots-rockers and for covering La Bamba in The Buddy Holly Story, it was a restrictive view, the group pigeon-holed by their race.  Yes, I'm going to play the race card, because the reaction to Kiko was often disbelieve that these Angelinos could bring in so much art and whimsy to their sound.  Like they were supposed to play Richie Valens the rest of their career?

Kiko was, and is still, a masterpiece, sixteen cuts that defy simple descriptions such as blues and folk.  On paper, and perhaps at first, the bare songs were somewhat straightforward, albeit excellent pieces of writing.  Numbers such as That Train Don't Stop Here, Angels With Dirty Faces, Two Janes and When The Circus Comes are Grade-A examples of roots songwriting.  Then, the magic of those songs grew exponentially in the studio.  Working with the renowned producer Mitchell Froom and his co-conspirator, engineer Tchad Blake, the normal instrumentation of the band, or any band, was abandoned in favour of sonic experiments.  The group was wide open to whatever tricks and atmospheres the Blake/Froom duo came up with, and responded with exceptional playing.  There were backwards recordings, strange mellotron parts, and unique groupings of percussion instruments. The very sound of the album was perhaps its crowning achievement, although it wouldn't be the same if the songs hadn't been there in the first place.

The lyrics had much to do with the mood as well.  There were the observations, such as the Angels With Dirty Faces of the impoverished areas of East L.A.  Then there were the tales of imagination, none more striking than Kiko and the Lavender Moon, with all the power of a brilliant and poignant children's story, a kid who plays with the moon.  It has a poetic magic unlike any other song in the rock canon I can think of.  Place all of these elements together:  the great songs, the lyrics, expert players, studio wizardry, the mix of genres, and you have a true classic.

For the 20th anniversary, there's a trio of releases in celebration.  The original album gets an upgrade, with new liner notes, and five worthwhile bonus cuts:  two demos, and three live songs from a radio station gig at the time.  Then there's a live concert of the entire album from 2006, from start to finish.  It comes as either a DVD or a CD.  I recommend the DVD, because it also includes interview footage with the group, talking about how the songs were written and recorded.  The show itself is again excellent, and the band member admit they were nervous going in recreating the whole album, since it would be so tough.  They do an excellent job though, right down to fade-outs and delicate touches.  Best of all, after 20 years, it's been proven that Kiko sounds as fresh today as the day it came out.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012


Ry Cooder has spent great parts of his career being silent, or at least not saying much, taking years between albums, and doing instrumental soundtrack work.  Now, you can't shut him up.  Cooder got upset a few years back with the state of the States, and started this current run of finger-pointing albums he's on.  Cooder's been looking around, singling out injustices, and calling out the villains.  At first, he was telling smaller stories from his California youth, describing the damage done to the Mexican community of Los Angeles when Dodger Stadium was built in their old neighbourhood of Chavez Ravine.  Then he tried on a little political discourse, although coached in a child's tale, in My Name Is Buddy.  But with last year's Pull Up Some Dust And Sit Down, and now Election Special, the gloves are off.

Cooder's ripping into the Republicans during this election year, in the same way he attacked bankers and big business on Pull Up Some Dust.  He's not mincing words; Cooder accuses them of racism, of wishing they could bring back the days of Jim Crow laws.  In opener Mutt Romney Blues, he refers to Boss Mitt Romney, that old title from slavery days for the white overseer, and talks about "the mean things you tryin' to do."  In Brother Gone, Satan appears, as power-brokers do a deal with the devil, and commence to become powerful using oil spills, cancer towns, and foreclosures.  Cold Cold Feeling could also be called Obama's Blues, Cooder cast as the President's voice, singing "If you never been President, then you don't know how it feels/Those stray dog Republicans always snappin' at my heels."  And it's pretty obvious that Cooder picked up some of his flame from the Occupy movement.  The cut The 90 and the 9 is a call to action:  "If
we don't raise some sand then our votes might slip away/and our civil rights and our equal pay."

As usual, the music on this release is brilliant, Cooder choosing to use depression-era melodies and instruments for much of the material.  When there's a Republican singing, he's cast as a redneck, and Cooder whips up some banjo tunes and sing-along,  hillbilly music.  Make no mistake, he's calling this bunch bigoted, and ignorant, being led down the same old path by the manipulators behind the scenes who stand to win millions and billions by keeping the U.S. divided by race.  And it comes with a direct warning to those very rich people:  Take Your Hands Off It opens with the line "Get your dirty hands off my constitution now", and goes on to advise the same about voter rights, unions, reproductive rights, and foreign policy.  Like much folk music of the past centuries, the stories are exaggerated, and obviously not all Republicans are bad people, or bigoted.  But Cooder is using stereotypes because of what he thinks is a dangerous situation.   He doesn't care who he offends, he just wants the greedy people gone.

Monday, August 27, 2012


Now here's a worthy cause, and it comes with a chance to win a huge music prize.  A tax receipt, too.  It's win-win for your charity donation.  A fellow blogger, and good guy, Bryan Acker, has joined up with the Ride To Conquer Cancer group, essentially a great big bike ride to raise funds.  It's a personal challenge for Acker, as his father is currently battling brain cancer.

William Acker is a doctor in Halifax, and his son Bryan runs the very popular and influential Herohill site.  He's been taking donations for his ride for the cancer group, but now the ante has been raised with a great prize package for one lucky donor.  Who knows, your donation could be the winner, and you know the money is going to the right place.  Acker's pals in the music biz have come through, specifically homeboy Joel Plaskett.  Since Plaskett runs his own label, New Scotland, the boss said "open the vaults", and they did.  Some lucky donor is going to win the complete New Scotland catalog of CD's, LP's, DVD's, and 45's.  And when Joel is involved in the discs, he's going to autograph them all to the winner.

This includes the mighty 8-disc Thrush Hermit box set, all of Joel's CD's and vinyl releases (yes, you get a copy of both), albums from Steve Poltz, Dave Marsh, Al Tuck, Peter Elkas and Big Sugar, plus the entire run of 45's the label recently put out, non-LP cuts by Plaskett, Jeremy Fisher, David Myles, Shotgun Jimmy and more.  Wow.

For all the info on getting involved and  giving, go to:

Saturday, August 25, 2012


Remember the US Festival?  Is was Apple Computer co-founder Steve Wozniak's big idea to combine music with a tech expo.  He spent giant amounts to put on a star-filled event in both '82 and '83, quite nicely promoting the Apple name at the dawn of the PC era.  It was also a time when  music festivals were rare, so over a million souls made their way to California for the likes of Bowie, U2, Fleetwood Mac, The Police and The Clash.  Oh, and The English Beat, so flash they were invited to play both shows.  It was right at the moment the group was enjoying some American success, around the time of their 3rd and final album, Special Beat Service.

This CD/DVD includes both concerts, with the DVD holding both shows, and the CD trimmed down to omit several duplicate songs.  The DVD would be complete except two cuts from '82 were damaged and unusable.  The CD suffers from a weak, bass empty recording, all vocals and sax, just bootleg quality.  But it's a throw-in anyway, you'll want to see the action, to experience the band.  It's too bad more didn't at the time, because they were a dynamic and hard-working group, with energetic, festival-ready tunes.

Looking over the ocean of people, most of whom wouldn't have had much knowledge of the group, it's interesting to see how well the Beat's punky version of ska goes over with the California kids.  Twist & Crawl, Mirror In The Bathroom, Tears Of A Clown and I Confess have them moving and grooving.  It wouldn't be many years until the sound solidified with Rancid, No Doubt an others.  But The Beat were much better, more melodic and inventive, and had surprisingly positive lyrics.  It's always seemed a shame they lasted so short a time, and this DVD seems like a surprise visit from an old friend you thought you'd lost.

Thursday, August 23, 2012


I'm so proud to live in a country where the new Corb Lund album can go to #1 on iTunes the first week out of the digital box.  Watching the West rise strong and proud through Lund's modern take on cowboy music has been a joy, and to see him embraced by more and more shows just how interested Canadians are in real, roots music.  Lund is certainly his own musician, mixing styles and attitudes, cultural references, time periods, whatever he wants to throw in the mix.  Although he'll always be identified with Alberta, he doesn't lean on any cliches, musically or lyrically.  You're just as liable to run into Goth girls here as rednecks, motorcycle riders as cowboys, New York City as the Prairies.  And while there's a C&W base, there's just as much rock 'n' roll (the real, original kind), and a host of hybrids, including Western Swing and actual, authentic cowboy music.

Cabin Fever is full of Lund's playful side, with several of the 12 tracks lighthearted and clever.  Cows Around is supposedly a "Western blessing", as he sings, "May you always have cows around", ending on a very good imitation of Bossy.  Bible On The Dashboard tells the tale of a band, maybe the Hurtin' Albertans, maybe not, who learned a good trick driving recklessly through the U.S.  They stick a Bible on the dashboard, for when the cops pull them over, hoping to catch a break from the law-abiding, God-fearing patrolmen.  The Gothest Girl I Know, features the drum intro from Sing Sing Sing (sorta), turning into a rockabilly rave-up, and a pledge from Corb he's "going to lose these country boy blues/for the Gothest girl I can."

While he's having a bunch of fun here, Lund doesn't let us forget he can do heartbreak too, and the cut September is about a man from the Rockies who looses his love to the allure of New York City.  In the midst of the sadness comes a high-lonesome moan that tears at your heart as much as the reverb-laced twang of his guitar.  Lund could just be doing straight retro music, appealing to those who find the cowboy genre authentic and appealing, and I'm certainly one of them.  But that he updates and advances it as well is the mark of a true artist.  And the album is full of great, great fun.

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The Canadian Country Music Awards are coming up Sunday, Sept. 9 in Saskatoon, and one act I'm hoping for is up for Roots Artist of the Year.  Sean Hogan put out a killer album this year called Phoenix, which I'm currently loving.  It's a great example of how to work in the usually conservative country genre, and still stay true to your own style.  Hogan specifically gave up trying to fit into the country format, and made the music he wanted to for this album, and it worked out to be a gem.

You'll find a bunch of different styles on the disc, and certainly some music that was able to find a niche in radio.  Lead single Travel Plans is a nifty one, with good lyrics far away from the cliches, and just the title alone is smart.  But fitting in mariachi-style horns was a deft touch, it fit with the vacation topic, and stood out from anything else on the playlist.  Elsewhere you'll hear R'n'B stylings on Ain't You Got Better Things, complete with more horns, bluesy slide licks, and soul singers behind.  It drips of Lyle Lovett, and that's a grand thing.  We Never Had To Say Goodbye is in a mellow groove, a grand duet with former Fleetwood Mac singer Bekka Bramlett, sleek soul, the singers in tight harmony.  The title cut is a slide guitar-driven medium tempo rocker, Tennessee for sure, but Memphis, not Nashville.

Oh, if only all the country music was like this.  When he gets to more commercial tracks, they are still smart and different, and you don't feel like you've heard it all before.  Kudos.  There's also another reason I'm pulling for him.  Hogan was diagnosed with oral pharyngeal cancer last year, after the album was completed.  He endured months of chemo and radiation, and thankfully got a clean bill of health around the same time the album came out.  A phoenix, indeed.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Yes, young Padawan, I was there during the BritPop Wars.  Great Jedi rock stars roamed Britain, battling to rule the charts and hearts of the young.  Huge battles were fought, huge egos were made, and like great Imperial Walkers, they were tripped up and came crashing to the ground before the Millenium ended.  No, it had little effect on this far-away ice planet of Canada, but the repercussions are still being felt, now that we are under the spell of the evil Empress Adele.

So, who won?  Oasis or Blur?  Of course, it doesn't matter and never did, but the tabloid battle did make it across the pond, where we knew more about the supposed feud than the music.  I suppose one could argue Blur came out a bit better, without the internal splits and brotherly bickering, and without a trail of disappointing albums that trickled on for another decade.  Blur only did seven discs in their career, and Damon Albarn has certainly had the most interesting and fulfilling career, at least in terms of art, as opposed to the same old same old for the Gallagher Brothers. 

I couldn't begin to swallow the idea of a massive, career-spanning Oasis box, such was the spottiness of most of their albums.  And initially, I was highly skeptical of this big block of Blur.  But now that I've made it through, I've got to say there's an interesting career here, most of which passed the bulk of us by.  Can you take 21 discs though?  Huh?  Huh?  That's what you find inside, somehow the seven original discs being tripled.  Each proper album has a full, and longer disc of b-sides and live tracks accompanying it.  That's 14.  Then there are four CD's, or a full normal boxed set, of demos, alternates and early versions from their career.  Finally, there are 3 DVD's as well, live concerts from various eras.  That makes 21.  Not to be chintzy, they also throw in a 45 RPM disc, with one more live cut.  And then it gets ridiculous, because there's also a code to unlock more material on-line.  Ah, I think I've reached my Blur limit, but thanks.

What makes this group so interesting, especially in retrospect, is how different each album is, and how restless they were.  At the start of the '90's, and their debut Leisure, they were a typically noisy and brash pop band, fast and fun and furious, but with lots of brains.  By the next one, Modern Life Is Rubbish, a sound had emerged, and it was something that had been missing in England since the end of New Wave, a proud British release.  They were emerging as heirs to The Kinks, albeit crossed with The Jam, proudly reviving that tradition.  At the same time, Oasis arrived with its blatant Beatles influence, and BritPop was born.  By the next one, Parklife, the band hit #1, and they would repeat that through the rest of the decade with each subsequent release.  But already they were experimenting.  The title cut featured spoken-word ramblings about living around the park, an older, fading look at British life.  There were moments of music hall, and blasts of noise, editing and silliness.  Albarn's tongue was in his cheek much of the time, and the English in-jokes were much of the fun.

The Great Escape followed, and this was the very height of the chart battles with Oasis.  Although Blur won the race to #1, it put an image in the public's view, that of Oasis being the rock band with street toughs, Blur the artsy ones, middle class.  It wasn't quite like that, but made a good story.  And The Great Escape was certainly full of fancy, with horns and strings and complications.  It was a disc of British characters, with a new cast each tune.  But the price of fame was taking its toll on the group, especially guitar player Graham Coxon, who hated the fuss and rebelled at the success.  The next recordings saw him wanting to return to the roots of the group, be loud and cranky and obstinate.  It would just be called Blur, in 1997.  And of all things, the very loud and back-to-basics big guitar sound of Song 2 became an even bigger hit than the rest, actually cracking the North American market.  The stripped-down but still gorgeous Beetlebum wasn't far behind.  They had thumbed their noses at BritPop, and still were the kings of it.

There was nothing to do then, but go further.  The next disc, 13, was full of contradictions, with the aching Tender giving way to wildness at other points.  Anything was fair game in the tracks, and it is almost impossible to categorize.  If anything, the group was showing all their sides at once.  There was just too much going on.  Coxon was a mess, and would remain a problem until entering rehab, and being forced to leave the sessions for the group's final effort, Think Tank in 2003.  By this time, Albarn was onto other things, including Gorillaz, and Blur's days were numbered anyway.  Think Tank seems now to be a denouement, with the mellow material in Coxon's absence a relief after the chaos.

Why, there's even a happy ending, with a full reunion for gigs starting in 2009, a couple of new singles, threats of an album, and a jolly old showing at The Olympics.  At $200, this is actually quite a good deal, what with the 21 discs, the hard-bound book and the masses of stuff unavailable elsewhere.  Usually these things are for hard-core fans, already so invested in the group that another $200 isn't that outrageous.  But it's also a very good way to start listening to them seriously, if you only own Parklife and Blur and a hits set.  Like The Kinks before them, once you break past the Anglo-centric invisible barrier, there are plenty of riches.  Better than Oasis, too.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012


The late, great Etta James had a tumultuous career, but when she was on, which was most of the time, she was awesome.  And she remained so until the end of her days, as witnessed by surprisingly strong solo outings and a rigorous touring schedule at times.  That's made obvious by this strong live collection which captures performances from 1975 to 1993, at the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival, where she was a regular.

Best of all, and another surprise, is the set of songs that comes from '93.  Well past her 60's and 70's hits, she's in great voice here, with tons of energy.  And, she's busy plugging a new album.  I remember really liking the How Strong Is A Woman disc when it came out then, and here she brings full passion to the title cut.  That it sits so well beside classics like I'd Rather Go Blind says lots.

The three songs from '75 have classic and tough soul though, rough and ready for a tougher time for Etta.  Her take on The Staple Singers Respect Yourself if more of an order than advice, and it doesn't feel churchy at all.  And if you want deep blues, she hits you with Dust My Broom.  The only downside to the set is the inclusion of the dreaded medley.  Here, it's a waste of the wonderful At Last, over too soon as it goes into Trust In Me and A Sunday Kind Of Love.  How 1977.  But everything else on this 75-minute disc is top drawer.

Monday, August 13, 2012


Cicadas are bugs that return in cycles, as long as 17 years, and Titcomb took inspiration from that idea for this, his third disc.  He sees it as a return of sorts, or at least a new cycle.  Now, most 25-year old singers would see themselves at the start of a journey, but Titcomb's been at it 10 years, his first disc coming back then, spied as a talent-in-the-making.   So he's already seen some highs and lows, and this disc saw him step back, start over and take some serious time thinking and writing.

It does feel like a re-invention, or least a serious upgrade in the songwriting.  These are moody and mysterious love songs, tight and focused, with memorable melodies, sing-along choruses, but nothing light-weight.  You get the feeling the tunes were worked on, but in the right way, stripping away anything unnecessary until the core was reached.  That goes for the music too, as the production uses just the right amount of instruments, built on acoustic guitar, bass and drums, with flourishes dropped in as strong touches, such as banjo licks, organ lines and lots of layered vocals.  Titcomb's an excellent singer, with a voice that's full of emotion, and he has both a low and high range, making for great doubled vocals and harmony lines.  This is particularly strong on the cut Landslide, the one that started this turn of writing, about the end of a serious relationship, and it's certainly powerful.

It's not all heavy though.  First single Love Don't Let Me Down is affirmative and up, and Games has a big groove, so the guy isn't hurting.  This isn't James Blunt territory, it's serious study of love, and filled with hooks.  Blunt would make it sappy, Cicada is more in line with Neil Finn or Jakob Dylan.

Thursday, August 9, 2012


No matter how the times change, there's always been a romantic notion to crossing America, even for those who have to do it for a living.  Touring musicians, once they reach a certain level, are faced with the prospect of yet another slog by van, bus, or if they are rich enough, plane.  There's not too much romance in that, but the train, well, now that's something cool.  Hopping on board for that idea were a trio of neo-folk acts, Old Crow Medicine Show, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and England's Mumford & Sons.  They got a vintage train, a movie crew, and went on a trek from Oakland to New Orleans, stopping off at several cities for concerts.  All told, it took 160 people, from crew to family to train workers, but what the hell, it was as close to living the old dream as they could get.

This is the result, a film debuted at SXSW this past spring, winning the Audience Award.  We get to see all three bands in concert settings, playing stages set up by the train stations.  But much of the film is devoted to the interaction on board, as the bands speak about how well they mesh on this voyage, musically and personally.  Well, duh, they are all big old-time fans, thrilled as heck to dig out the fiddles and accordians and jam until late morning.  As much as the crowds no doubt loved their stops, the real party was happening while the wheels were rolling underneath.

When I say party, I just mean musically.  Unlike the legendary Festival Express train tour of Canada in 1970, with The Band, The Dead, Janis Joplin and others, there's no sign of booze and drugs, and the joy is all in the experience.  Surprisingly, it doesn't feel contrived, either.  Your mom might find them all nice young hippie kids, especially those clean-cut Brits in Mumford.  Musically they come out on top, followed closely by Old Crow.  I still haven't figured out the appeal of Sharpe and the Zeros, other than its music you can jump around to.  He can't sing, and is just kind of freaky. I think the 10-piece group and followers are some kind of feel-good cult.  No matter, Mumford's coming back on.

One of the best moments comes when the Mumford guys stop by a high school, to check in with a marching band that's set to join them on stage that night.  That's always cute, but in this case, the big band treats them to something extra, playing them one of their set pieces, complete with swinging trombone choreography.  The Mumford members then proceed to join the band in the gymnasium, tapping on the big drums, and grooving to these kids.  It's a behind-the-scenes moment you usually don't know about.

Yes, some of the on-train folk jams are a little precious, but since there are so many talented folk players there, and they are obviously having a grand time, you can forgive it.  Then, seeing the footage of the groups joining each other on stage each show, dumping the old showbiz hierarchy of opening and closing acts, and instead enjoying their new bond, you realize that maybe their is something magic about the train.  The whole trip looked like a ball.  Although, I'm glad you can't smell those Zeros, I don't think they bathed.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012


It's always fascinating watching the machine work.  And nobody works it better than Nashville.  And let's not kid ourselves, there's been a machine in place since the 60's, when Countrypolitan came online with its Billy Sherrill-produced strings and heartbreak.  Nashville, despite all the singers and songwriters clamoring to be heard, is a small industry town, and when it moves in one direction, you either follow or get left behind. 

Here's how it works these days:  It's not the singer, or the song, it's the package.  After all, there's a surplus of talent, so the key is to put together all the pieces around a person with personality, and make a fresh new face.  After all, nobody's going to be buying Randy Travis records anymore, and they haven't been for a long, long time.  New is key.

Marlee Scott is new, and a talented singer.  She has that, and a lot more going for her, including a unique image.  She's been doing an internet cooking show for the past year, a funny series of webisodes with her own food and drink recipes.  She also has her own YouTube channel with a difference, where you can watch her cover other hits in a bit called "I Love This Song".  Pretty ingenious, creating a fan club before her own debut album comes out.  Instead of slogging it out over thousands of miles in a tour van like new rock bands, she's been playing guest sets at sporting events, courting the auto racing and baseball audiences.

For that debut album, called Beautiful Maybe, that small Nashville winner's club is here, the same credits you'll see on almost every hit album this year.  The songwriters include Troy Verges, Aimee Mayo, Desmond Child, and Blair Daly.  The studio players are Dan Dugmore, Michael Rhodes, Chad Cromwell, Jason Scheff, all A-listers.  This is no-fail stuff, the best you find on Music Row.

Wait, there's more.  There's a hit breaking, called Train Wreck.  It has that half-country, half-rock thing happening, with fiddle, steel, and banjo licks weaving around power chords.  There's even a, get this, country version of a rap in the middle, as Scott spits out a couple of versions at triple speed.  There's a video, and even a dance mix.  Country has, and will use everything these days.

Anyway, as I say, it's always fascinating to watch the machine make a star.  And I can't say as I argue with it too much, as Scott's an engaging presence, and all these songs have a good solid guitar groove to them, plus well-crafted lyrics.  Perhaps it's a prejudice I bring over from the rock world, that each artist should write the bulk of their stuff, have their own band, pay their dues touring, that somehow that makes them more legitimate.  I've come to think of it more as pop music, and in that context, I'll take it over most of what's happening on the regular top 40.

Monday, August 6, 2012


I may be opening myself up to serious sanctions from the Rock Critic Guild, but I don't buy into the usual line on Roxy Music.  It goes like this:  A bright and shocking debut, as the band fuses progressive and funk sounds, adds one part style and one of glam, and cynically rips into comfortable old England.  Then they do it even better on the second album.  But visionary Eno drops out after that, and slowly the group moves into comfortable and sleek Euro pop, as Brian Ferry takes control and makes the band radio friendly.  Style wins out over substance.

Okay, I'll accept most of that argument, except the, umm, music part.  Yes, the albums became progressively mainstream, culminating in the huge success of Avalon and the More Than This, but I'll take that over either of the first two albums, Roxy Music and For Your Pleasure.  The wild abandon they put into numbers Re-make/Re-Model and Do The Strand shook things up, and they looked a fright on Top Of The Pops, with dapper Ferry in front of spandex spacemen, and whatever Eno was supposed to be.  But over the course of these albums, there was a lot of humming and hawing over synth burbles, squalling sax, and guitar noise, with sound experimentation going really nowhere.  The influence was in its very existence, and certainly New Wave, Bowie, synth-pop and tons more took it and ran, but I can't really listen with pleasure these days.

This major box includes all eight of the group's studio albums, plus another two discs of non-album tracks, including b-sides, one-off singles, radio edits and remixes.  I devoted a day to it, chronologically, and the further I got, the more I liked it.  Post Eno, for Stranded and Country Life, the group seemed lost, as a transition was happening.  The songs were becoming more structured, and the willful perversity was lessoning, but the material was spotty.  By the fifth album, 1975's Siren (with Jerry Hall as a mermaid or something on the cover), a funny thing happened.  Ferry discovered his icy and ironic lyrics, if coupled with a tight sound, could be catchy.  Love Is The Drug was the result, a hit, and something respectable for the art crowd too.  Both Ends Burning showed the intensity could come along for the ride too, as the group moved into epic territory.

Manifesto is where the English critics accused the group of selling out, as the material moved more into pop fields, including the swaying Dance Away.  Harmonies and bright melodies were all over the disc.  This was far away from the first edition of the group, and its sophisticated groove polarized their audience, the old fans giving up, and a new batch joining in.  Flesh + Blood from 1980 took it even further, with the hit Over You.  At this point, the difference between Ferry's solo albums and group efforts was almost none, as for the first time Roxy was doing classic covers, here tackling The Midnight Hour and Eight Miles High.  Some predicted imminent death for the band, given Ferry's own hit-making solo career.

Turns out they had one last one in them, and for North America, the group's biggest.  Avalon in '82 was more than just tight hits, as the group brought back some length to the songs.  Now though, they were dealing in atmosphere rather than edge, as sweeping keyboards created lush dreamscapes.  It was smooth as all get out, catchy and sounded absolutely nothing like the same band ten years before.  Roxy Music's career was full of contradictions and controversy, and ended up polarizing opinions.  Usually you either like or hate a band; I don't know many that you can like and hate at the same time.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


I'm not quite sure why Duran Duran won't go away, but somehow the band manages to keep packing them into stadiums, and release (and sell) new albums.  This live collection comes from last December, and features the usual hits plus well-received new material.  Hearing the crowd sing along at full volume reminds you just how huge they were back in the MTV age, but there's also recognition for the newer songs, so at least in Manchester, U.K., they remain a vital entity.

Let's give respect where it's due:  The core group is still intact, missing just one Taylor from the originals.  The show they present is not performed by ringers, but by the group themselves, with only modest input from touring musicians, on guitar, percussion, vocals and sax.  New songs are mixed well throughout the set, and when the big ones role in (Hungry Like The Wolf, The Reflex, Rio), there's peak excitement.  Duran Duran, once the absolute kings of image from the video era, known for their jet-setting lifestyle and pictured at every glamorous gathering, are now a high-functioning Legacy Band, as or more legitimate than the rest of their contemporaries.  While the rest of their generation of groups now ply their trade on the casino circuit, the modern equivalent of the Cabaret tour, they still bring their show to arenas.

Oddly, this respectable and hard work makes the music a little more palatable.  Aside from an early interest in Hungry Like The Wolf, which fit well with the synth-pop of the time, Echo & the Bunnymen and the like, I've had no desire to re-examine their material for retro-thrills.  This set presents the better hits (Wild Boys, Notorious), leaving out the simply horrible (Union Of The Snake, anyone?), but as professional as they've become, and as slick as they've always been, I'm not mellowing on my overall opinion.  Also available on DVD and Blu-ray, with bonus songs and interviews.