Monday, December 22, 2014


The Moody Blues are considered a classic rock band for the hits made in the '60's, especially Nights In White Satin.  But they were just as successful in the '80's, with a string of albums that surprisingly kept giving them hits and selling in big numbers world-wide.  Even as a touring group, the band filled all the sheds of the day.  Much of that has been collected here in a big box called The Polydor Years.  The group made just three studio albums for that imprint from 1986 to 1992, but as with these all-inclusive sets, they've managed to stretch that to six CD's and two DVD's.  Although it should be noted that four of the discs are from live shows, and one is a DVD repeat of a concert featured in the CD's.

The band's '80's comeback started with the album Long Distance Voyageur, which reached #1 in both Canada and the U.S.  It featured the hits The Voice and Gemini Dream, and saw the group embrace a new, synth-heavy 80's sound.  Next came The Present in 1983, which failed to come anywhere close the success of its predecessor.  1986 saw them switch to Polydor, and retool once again.  The focus was now even stronger on the synth, with the group's orchestral past buried.  They were now closer to Simple Minds than the British prog groups of the '70's, or the R'n'B of the '60's.  It was quite a tale of perseverance and adaptability.

The first album featured here is The Other Side Of Life, which took them back to the Top Ten, and includes the hit Your Wildest Dreams.  The group was now doing better in North America than in Europe, and found themselves in an enviable position; they had status as a heritage band, with a collection of songs to win over concert crowds, but also lots of buzz for their recent albums.  They had a bit of ELO excitement to them on disc, and still offered up nice vocal numbers such as the title cut of the album.  But it there were clunkers in the running order as well, such as Rock 'n' Roll All Over You, with its KISS-worthy lyric on top of a lifeless attempt at a fist-pumper.

The second studio album was 1988's Sur La Mer, continuing the trick of offering up a smooth hit, somewhere between a power ballad and a synthpop dance track.  In this case it was I Know You're Out There Somewhere, again a good showing but there wasn't much to back it up on the rest of the album.  No More Lies, the follow-up, only scored on adult contemporary radio, and the album barely made the Top 40.  1991's Keys To The Kingdom saw the group lay off the synths for the most part, and flute player Ray Thomas even got to trot out one of his numbers, recalling the old days.  There were no hits, although Bless the Wings (That Bring You Back) was a nice mellow number, and the album barely made the Top 100. 

Efforts then switched to greatest hits albums and live concerts, which was pretty darn lucrative at least.  Officially released in 1993, A Night At Red Rocks was a special show made at the titular Colorado venue, with an orchestra among the rocks and fires, and a celebration of the iconic Days of Future Passed album.  There was an orchestral overture, lots of old faves such as Tuesday Afternoon and Question, the recent hits, and of course, Nights in White Satin.  We get an expanded version of the concert here, filling up a full two CD's, plus another DVD of an edited-for-broadcast set, with almost all the cuts.  If that isn't enough, another DVD has a full documentary on the show, a career highlight for the band, but perhaps more than enough of the same show, as half this box is centered around it, on the two CD's and two DVD's. 

A final CD here is a live show from 1986, on The Other Side Of Life tour, in the far less-impressive locale of Cleveland.  Really, it's much the same set list, with the old hits mixed around the new ones, but much less fussy without the orchestra.  I prefer this one, it's more meat-and-potatoes, less chat about Our Beloved Royal '60's Hit Album (okay, those are my words, but they are a bit British and pompous on stage). It's a never-before released show, although some of the cuts were included as B-sides of singles around then, and show up on the other CD's.  There are a few more odds and ends thrown in to make the discs last over an hour each, including live cuts, B-sides and BBC sessions, all of worth.  It's a strong package too, with a hard-bound book, lots of colour and strong visuals.  These sets work best for huge fans, especially given the price tag and the repeating tracks from albums to live discs, but they also have some value for any casual fan and collector, for the knowledge and history presented.

Friday, December 19, 2014


You may have caught the Oscar-winning documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom, about the lives and importance of back-up singers in the pop music world.   The film features such great talents as Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, The Waters Family and many others who make the difference between a good song and a hit.  Often the last bit added to a recording, these super pros come in and nail a part that raises the song to the next level.  Or, they provide the punch and perfection on stage that makes up for a lead singer who might not be the best.  And harmonies, that crucial and difficult role, good back-up singers do that at the drop of a hat, but try teaching them to your bass player.

Obsessive credit-readers will recognize the names of go-to singers over the years from England and the U.S.  I remember being fascinated by Lesley Duncan, who I learned about from early Elton John albums.  Sheryl Crow got her start as a back-up, for Michael Jackson most famously.  There are Canadians who have popped up often as well, one of them being Vancouver's Dawn Pemberton.  She's been the go-to singer for all West Coast soul, funk and jazz material, spending years helping others, while getting her own ideas and songs together.  New blues stars The Harpoonist and the Axemurderer and veteran singers The Sojourners and Dutch Robinson know who to call.  Pemberton also directs the choirs at the Sarah McLachlan School of Music.  Finally, her own name is on an album, her debut called Say Somethin'.  It's a soul album, with Pemberton writing the songs, mixing in moments of jazz and funk, putting the tunes part-way between classic and modern soul styles.

Jam-packed with grooves, Say Somethin' has more than just vocals going for it.  There are sharp horn parts, tight rhythm sections, chopping guitar chords, proof that Vancouver has the great soul players as well.  On Do It To It, Pemberton and the band hit a groove that goes on for the whole song, with a killer bass line and thick layers of electric piano and organ, plus Pemberton exhorting everybody on.  Wisely, she knows to hold back on the histrionics, and she wins us over with her flowing, rich lines instead of vocal calisthenics.  Pemberton has good taste in covers too, coming up with a more jazzy arrangement of Hall & Oates I Can't Go For That.  That last twenty feet to the lead singer's microphone might be the hardest part of the journey, but Pemberton sure was ready for it.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Now this is what an alternative Christmas collection should be:  Not the same old same old, but new, varied, often irreverent, listenable and with at least some tunes of higher grade.  Oh, and on vinyl is a nice bonus as well.  Put together by the fine folks at reissue specialists Rhino Records, it features a mixed bag of folks, from the twisted veterans Devo to Calgary hit makers Tegan and Sara to merry pranksters The Flaming Lips.

Some do play it straight, or at least give us a normal song.  Regina Spektor offers the somewhat dark December, no tree-trimming number, and The Spill Canvas do a nearly-normal It Came Upon A Midnight Clear.  The Flaming Lips, you'd think, would be vicious, but instead give us a hopeful, and upbeat A Change At Christmas (Say It Isn't So).  Devo, of course, do something to point out the de-evolution of society, with Merry Something To You, the irony of conflicting religious beliefs leaving us mired in political correctness.  It's Tegan and Sara who leave us laughing, with their take on The Chipmunk Song, speeding up their voices and playing the roles, Sara as Alvin.  Most bizarre award goes to Soul Coughing, for singing Suzy Snowflake.  For those of you sick of the Boney M Christmas album, and a little cynical about the whole thing, try this.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


How nice, a short but sweet bilingual Christmas card from everyone's favourite bilingual Winnipeg folk/pop group, Chic Gamine. Regulars on Stuart McLean's Vinyl Cafe, the five-member group mixes it up, with different lead singers, male and female, different styles and two in French, three in English.

Last Christmas slides along with a slinky disco bass, tinsel-like harmonies and a cautionary tale about holiday romance. Throw Another Log (On The Fire) is a new tune by the band, a relaxed country number that highlights the vocal blend of the group, what everyone loves about them. The Friendly Beasts is the beloved traditional tune, every singer getting to play one of the animals who witnessed the Christmas miracle. It's a nice way to get to know the vocal textures of each band member. At five cuts, this leaves us waiting for Vol.'s 2 and 3 and, well, let's just say Christmas comes once a year.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


1984 saw Toronto's Martha and the Muffins shake things up and become virtually a new band. The name was shortened to M+M, to reflect the new reality; Mark Gane and Martha Johnson were the founders and leaders, and had decided to cut the payroll, since they didn't play many gigs anyway. Also, the pair were expanding their sound, building on their New Wave past with more rhythm and grooves.

Along for the ride was producer Daniel Lanois, still building his reputation, but U2 was just around the corner for him. The trio headed to New York's famed Power Station for initial tracks, and grabbed some hotshot session pros, such as the funky Yogi Horton on drums. They then proceeded to make an album greatly different than anything previous, including their hit Echo Beach.

There were two big dance tracks, Black Stations/White Stations and Cooling The Medium, but they weren't disco-era hedonist stuff. This was partying with a message. Black Stations/White Stations was an outsider's shock at the continued segregation of music in the U.S., with playlists decided by ethnicity. The Canadians put it bluntly: "Stand up and face the music, this is 1984!" It actually worked on the dance stations at least, rising to #2 in the States, the duo's biggest U.S. hit (Echo Beach had inexplicably missed the charts there, despite being a hit in England, Australia, etc.)

There were more treasures inside, including Nation Of Followers, with Gane handling the vocals on this smack-down of the Canadian tendency to play it safe, and follow instead of lead. There were other bands that started using big rhythms in their music at the time, but M+M was a leader for sure, especially with its direct messages.

This 30th anniversary edition adds five cuts from the sessions; the instrumental B-side X0A 0H0, and two remixes each of Black Stations/White Stations and Cooling The Medium. There's also a good little essay that puts it all in perspective for this often overlooked Canadian gem.

Monday, December 15, 2014


In 1968, Lou Reed staged a coup in his own band, and ousted co-founder John Cale. The two had been the salt and pepper of the band, with Cale providing the unique drones from his cello, and important experimental music knowledge from his classical, avant-garde training. But Reed wanted to shake things up, and he explained to band mates Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker he felt the band would become stale if the sound remained the same.  It should be noted that all the forceful personalities from the start of the group had been removed, with the singer Nico and producer/supporter Andy Warhol preceding Cale. Reed now had full control.

The reinvention came fast. A band friend, Doug Yule from Boston came in, giving them more depth, especially with keyboard skills, but certainly less of Cale's caustic edge. Reed now had a harmony singer, and even handed Yule the lead vocals on his Candy Says, to kick off the band's new album, called just Velvet Underground. Yule's pretty voice and lighter touch would show up all over the record, which was, of all things, a pop album. Playing 12-string guitars and singing close harmonies, all of a sudden the Velvets weren't far away from The Byrds, especially on the jaunty Beginning To See The Light. Reed sounded happy, and remarkably, the overall feeling is positive.

I'm Set Free isn't far off from the San Francisco bands of the day, and That's The Story Of My Life has a jug band feel. For a band that had been singing about waiting for a dealer with $26 bucks in their hand, and NYC transvestites, this was quite a turnaround. But that was the a big part of Reed, who had started with a love of early rock and doo-wop. He knew how to flirt with the mainstream.

Thank goodness it didn't work, who knows what a hit single would have done to Reed and the band at that point. The album actually did worse than its predecessor, White Heat/White Light. It's quite strong though, with the lovesick Pale Blue Eyes a highlight, and Reed's oddly sincere Jesus, a kind of acceptance of a higher form. The cute, Mo Tucker-sung After Hours ends the album, a celebration song for those who prefer night over day. It's slyly subversive, which I suppose describes the whole album.

This anniversary edition (45th, not usually celebrated, but oh well) is beefed up to a remarkable six CD's, although not without significant repetition. The first three discs are the original album, just in three different mixes. The original is the first, then comes the so-called Closet mix, done by Reed with the vocals pushed forward, and the third disc is all in mono, only sent out in a promo version for radio back in 1968. You'll have to have good ears and a lot of familiarity with the album before you can notice the difference. It gets a lot more interesting on Disc Four though, which is a collection of all the cuts that were also recorded around that time, for a supposed fourth album. But that didn't happen, as label problems delayed another disc until 1970, when Loaded came out. There are fourteen full songs here, with only Rock & Roll re-recorded for Loaded. The rest eventually did get released on Reed albums or reissue albums such as the Velvet's box set, but it is great to get them all collected in one place, and in the correct historical setting.

The final two CD's capture club dates at The Matrix in San Francisco in 1969, again some of which has appeared before, but most is previously unreleased. I'm surprised how good it sounds, and how tight the band is. I guess I had the believe that V.U. were always confrontational and chaotic. Heck, they sound like they are enjoying it, and so does the crowd. Now, it does become pretty intense, especially when Lou sings Heroin, and it really does take you right inside a junkie's life. But this was a far different group than when Cale was involved. Forty-five years later, it's still a debate whether Reed made a good move, but certainly the music this band made is strong as well.

Sunday, December 14, 2014


MTV loved R.E.M., and for some reason, R.E.M. was okay with that.  The band that didn't want to play the game used the channel for the greater good of the group, and somehow managed to appear constantly on the channel without losing any dignity.  Mostly, they ignored the medium and spoke to the fans, by playing live shows.  Also, Stipe loved the film-making side, so the video channel was another part of the art to him, even if he had to endure the interviews.  Surprisingly, even those went down well, with the band members refusing to talk down to the medium, and always answering questions honestly.  They tried to be anti-rock stars, even as they continued to grow more and more famous.

With all those appearances over the years, this huge box has been compiled, a six-DVD set, each one running between two and three hours long.  The bulk of it is live performance, various concert specials aired by the network, and none of the previous R.E.M. concert material has been duplicated (save for the Unplugged sets, recently earlier this year on CD).  Sadly, not much of this comes from the '80's, when they were raw and growing, but there's no use crying over spilled milk, enjoy what you get.

Disc one captures the two Unplugged sessions, in 1991 and 2001, R.E.M. being the only band to be granted two complete shows on the influential series.  With these things huge sellers for Clapton, Nirvana, etc., it's surprising the band didn't put them out before, jewels that they are.  The 1991 set especially was important, as the group had refused to tour for the Out Of Time album, which then became their biggest ever.  They were simply burned out on the touring cycle, and Buck had wanted to make acoustic music, so TV was perfect for his mandolin, and the soft and pop songs that made up the album.  That mandolin opening to Losing My Religion was a crowd thriller, and the band went back into its catalogue for softer cuts that made a great impact in the acoustic format, including Fall On Me and Swan Swan H.  The 2001 appearance feels like a statement is being made to the MTV viewers, which would include much of the fan club.  The band had nearly broken up when Bill Berry had left and the recording of the album Up went poorly, but now they had a new album (Reveal) and were determined to show they were still a powerful unit.  Sitting alongside classic cuts So. Central Rain and The One I Love, new songs such as All The Way To Reno and Imitation Of Life did offer a new kind of energy, Stipe especially now no longer the reticent front man.  Nicely, both appearances include a bevy of outtakes, adding significantly to the show lengths.

Disc two is an interesting hodgepodge of appearances, including 1998's VH1 Storytellers, with a few choice Stipe comments, and again, a bunch of outtakes.  Then we do get to go back to the early days of the band, with a couple of (sadly) short appearances, a mini-documentary on The Cutting Edge, which includes some partial versions of tracks, and another song called Livewire which does have two full cuts, So. Central Rain and Carnival Of Sorts.  Then come some one-off live cuts, from various MTV award shows and such, all worthy.  The band's induction into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 2007 appears, with them doing three cuts for the crowd, with Bill Berry back in the drum stool for the night.

The next three discs feature live concerts broadcast between the years 1995 - 2008, either in the U.S. or in Europe.  During this time, the long slump that led to their ultimate demise started to take hold.  While the excitement over new R.E.M. albums dwindled, especially in North America, in Europe they continued to be a major concert draw, and its very interesting to watch how great these shows are.  In places such as Athens (Greece) and Milan, there was little of the snobbery that greated the new albums, not many calls for the old indie-80's songs.  This was a crowd still excited by Losing My Religion, still in love with Man On The Moon, and enjoying (quite excellent) later material such as Electrolite, What's The Frequency, Kenneth? and Supernatural Superserious.  There's a whole post-Berry career that will have to be reconsidered at some point, and this DVD set will be a valuable research tool, plus a darn fine viewing every so often.  Disc six is an interesting career documentary running over two hours that MTV put together, using the many interviews done over the years.  What strikes you most is how refreshingly decent they all seem, and I think they can hold their heads up and know they did it all as best they could.

Saturday, December 13, 2014


Here's a little-discussed fact. Crime Of The Century, Supertramp's breakthrough from 1974, and probably best-loved release, found its biggest success right here in Canada. While it was a big hit in England, and a decent one in the U.S., in Canada we went nuts for it. It sold over a million copies in Canada, twice as much as the U.S. I didn't even own the album, yet listening to this Deluxe Edition released forty years later, I know every note. Not just the hits, I mean the album tracks too, that's how often my friends played it.

The album came out of nowhere, the band having released two uninspired previously albums in 1970 and 1971. But somehow the songwriting clicked in Rick Davies and Roger Hodgson, and they came up with a new sound, somewhere between prog and pop. They used searching lyrics, and a keyboard sound that was different for radio, the Wurlitzer electric piano. The big tracks were School, Bloody Well Right and Dreamer, each moody and dramatic, and exciting. I don't think they ever wrote better, even though the hits kept coming, especially with the world-wide #1, Breakfast In America.

This deluxe edition isn't as packed as some others, offering up only a live concert on the second disc, from 1975. The entire album is played, along with some newly-written tunes that would come out on the follow-up, Crisis? What Crisis? Fans who have complained about the too-loud mix on the earlier compact discs will be pleased to know the audio has been restored to original levels, so that's a major plus. But the biggest bonus might possibly be rediscovering this gem, one of those albums that was so big (in Canada) that we couldn't enjoy the subtleties at the time.

Friday, December 12, 2014


In 1970, Gordon Lightfoot put out a record that was hopefully going to be a big deal for him.  It wasn't.  It was called Sit Down Young Stranger, after the album's centerpiece song, a mild anti-Viet Nam war number that really didn't catch on.  Lightfoot had just changed record companies to the hipper Reprise label, home of Neil Young and some savvy L.A. record people, but they still didn't know quite what to do with this folk singer from Canada.  So Sit Down Young Stranger died a slow death, creeping along to sales of under a 100,000 copies, pretty quiet for a supposed star songwriter.

Then, something lucky happened.  In one of those unpredictable twists, a station in Seattle started playing another track, If You Could Read My Mind.  It took off, and Reprise put Lightfoot on a plane from Toronto to L.A. for one reason:  to convince him to allow a name change for the album, to If You Could Read My Mind.  "They said, 'will you change the album title?' And I said no," explained Lightfoot, in The Top 100 Canadian Albums.  "I said, why do you want to do it, what difference will it make? And one of the guys said, it's the difference between X and 7X.  He was telling me we'd probably sell about seven times as many albums."  Lightfoot agreed, and it made his career.  Both the album and the single were big hits, and he went on to a decade more of Top Ten success, including the #1 smash, Sundown.

There's absolutely no difference between the albums, except the title change and cover lettering.  But it is nice to have it out on vinyl again.  It was given a wide release this month, after previously coming out as a Record Store Day exclusive last year.  Lightfoot was still a rule-abiding folk singer then, with no drummer in the group, the addition of strings on If You Could Read My Mind one of the few attempts to give him a modern touch.  But he was certainly a different breed than the Greenwich Village types, now out of fashion.  As If You Could Read My Mind (the song) showed, his stories of love's dark twists were razor-sharp, beautiful in their sadness.  And as his friend Dylan later said, "Every time I hear a song of his, it's like I wish it would last forever."

Highlights on the album include his take on Kris Kristofferson's Me and Bobby McGee, recorded before Janis Joplin's hit, after Lightfoot jammed with the author in Nashville, and The Pony Man, an understand, typical Lightfoot classic.  As with most Lightfoot albums, there are key tracks, some smaller ones, but he avoided big themes.  It was as if he was saying, "Here's what I do, and what I've done lately, hope you enjoy."  We have enjoyed ever since.  Having it on vinyl is the best, a format to match the warmth of his voice.

Thursday, December 11, 2014


In 1984-1985, Tears For Fears quietly set a record that has yet to be beat.  From an album with just eight songs, the #1 hit Songs From The Big Chair, the group managed to produce a staggering 52 different remixes of the same tracks, over and over.  Okay, I kid.  I haven't counted.  Yet.  But after going through this five-CD, one-DVD box set celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of its release, I can tell you that I have heard many, many slight variations on Everybody Wants To Rule The World.

That's the problem with an all-encompassing box set, especially from the '80's.  If you want to please the completists (and possibly the vanity of the band and organization behind it), you have to look at B-sides, stand-alone singles, remixes for dance, video, radio, short ones, shorter ones, extended ones, instrumental, dub, live tracks, rejected versions, lions and tigers and bears, oh my.  I'm all for tracking the evolution of an album, especially if it's a great one, but I'll argue the best place to do this is in demos, alternate takes, and post-release live tracks that offer variations.  Remixes don't add much to your insight, especially when they are not that different from the original, which is the case here.

There is a ton of repetition over the set.  It's broken up into five CD's, the first featuring the original album, plus all the B-sides from the singles.  This is the best of set, and where we really find out what was happening around the sessions.  The off-cuts show the importance in the process to the sidemen, keyboard player Ian Stanley, drummer Manny Elias, plus the production team of Chris Hughes and Dave Bascombe.  In other words, it wasn't all Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith.  Several of the nine extra tracks here are pretty much instrumental, showing that the team was in the lab each day, creating synth, sample and beat tracks, waiting for words of wisdom to come (or not, in those cases).  Another of the B-sides does show that it wasn't just '80's technology behind the success of the album.  A piano version of The Working Hour highlights both the lyrics and melody of what was coming to mind, along with the synth stuff.

Disc two features the edited versions, and here's where the repeats start flying.  You get single versions of Shout, Mothers Talk, Everybody Wants, plus a U.S. single version of Shout, a video version of Mothers Talk, and a radio-only edit for Head Over Heels.  Of note here is the inclusion of the non-L.P. The Way You Are, a single put out before the album in the U.K., (plus a short edit, natch), that was a complete flop for them.  It's okay, and it's good to have it available.  Also, there's one called Everybody Wants To Run The World (and another edit of it, natch), which is the same exact song, only the word Run replacing Rule, a subtle difference.  It was released for the Sport Aid charity effort.

As if we haven't had enough of these cuts already, Disc Three is remixes only.  Here's where you head if you want four more versions of Shout, three of Everybody, and three of Mothers Talk.  Disc four offers some relieve from remixes, but not of the same cuts.  BBC sessions offer takes on Head Over Heels, The Working Hour and Broken, and then there's a big chunk of a Massey Hall show in Toronto, but for some reason they stick to the cuts off this album, and don't include stuff from The Hurting except Memories Fade.  To fill out that disc, they include some, you guessed it, different, early mixes of five more of the tracks, including Shout.

Disc five is the obligatory 5.1 mix and a new stereo mix.  Blessedly, the sixth disc is the DVD, with a Making Of documentary, the videos, some BBC TV appearances and an interview with producer Chris Hughes.  To rap up the package, the inclusion of a replica 1985 tour book is a nice touch, although its pretty poppy and seems aimed at the teenage fans, but the booklet leaves something to be desired, more about the technical creation of the album rather than the themes that went into it, and the subsequent burn-out that caused them to lay low for four years after conquering the globe.  So revel, all you completists.  Stick with the two-disc Deluxe version, anyone else interested.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JETHRO TULL - WAR CHILD The 40th Anniversary Theatre Edition

Jethro Tull fans are being treated better than anyone else these days, with an on-going series of lavish reissues of the group's classic albums.  Each one comes housed in a mini-box featuring original discs, tons of other session recordings, and stunning new 5.1 audio versions, as remixed by the renowned Steven Wilson, the go-to guy for this task these days.  Interestingly, the band, especially Ian Anderson, doesn't try to sugarcoat each reissue.  If he thinks it was a failure, he'll say so, and often is less enthusiastic in the liner notes than critics or fans.  He likes to split up the band's big catalogue into three piles; the strongest, the middle bunch, and the weakest.  He ranks War Child near the top of the middle pile.

Released in 1974, it followed the somewhat disastrous A Passion Play.  Although it sold well coming in the wake of Thick As A Brick, it was trashed by most for its complicated storyline and lack of exciting moments.  At first, War Child threatened to go down that path as well.  When first announced, Anderson told the press it would be a feature film, along with a soundtrack score album, and another, rock-based album.  He'd done a big film treatment and attracted some interest, since they were hugely popular, especially in the U.S.  After several months, the plan fell through when no financial backers were found.  Finally it was decided just to release a standard album.  In the end, most of the songs had little to do with the movie plot, and just as well as its a confusing story.  Listeners weren't left trying to decipher the meaning as they were with A Passion Play, and could just enjoy.  While it wasn't as full of great melodies, humour, sharp playing and interesting lyrics as Thick As A Brick, this is certainly decent Tull, with three bona fide gems:  Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day, Bungle in the Jungle and Two Fingers.

Disc two is collector's heaven, featuring over an hour of finished tracks recorded at the same time as War Child.  There's an entire suite of instrumentals, nearly-classical compositions from Anderson that were supposed to be for the War Child soundtrack album.  Then there are eleven more cuts, not out-takes but finished studio pieces.  Anderson explains that these weren't intended for War Child, but rather as potential singles or B-sides, works in progress that got dropped for any number of reasons.  Maybe they didn't meet the requirements or they didn't scream "hit", but they are quality tracks nonetheless.

The book in the box features a lengthy history, lots of quotes from Anderson, a timeline of important dates, including all tour stops, anecdotes from the road from two of the women who were in the string quartet, and excerpts from the original film treatment Anderson wrote that inspired the whole War Child episode.  The entire tale of the album is even a good story, and reading about it helps increase your interest in the music.  Don't tell anyone, but I always like Bungle in the Jungle anyway.

Sunday, December 7, 2014


As usual, the Christmas season brings a flood of new music, either brand-new sets or repackages. There are soundtracks, themed collections, record companies try virtually every way to market these each year, so I can only assume there are decent profits in it. Okay, I have to stop being so cynical, lots of people do it for the right reasons, for charity or simply the fact they love Christmas music. Still, sometimes I have to shake my head.

You would think that a tie-in with the popular Grumpy Cat online sensation would be, umm, cheesy. And you would be absolutely right. Apparently there is a Christmas movie, on TV I think (I'm not about to do even the least bit of research on this), and this is the soundtrack, Grumpy Cat's Worst Christmas Ever. What a bad idea, what a bad collection. At least the cat doesn't sing, but there are a couple of themed songs with some kind of connection to a story line, one called It's Hard To Be A Cat At Christmas by some group called Cats Across America. You get the picture.

Well, with such a bad taste in my ears, the best plan is to wipe that memory out with some classics. I've always loved the great Christmas albums made from the Motown stable of stars back in the '60's, and have a few collections by them. The latest is here, called Motown Christmas. There's Smokey and the Miracles, The Temptations, Gregory Porter, Tasha Cobbs, Micah Stampley.. hey, wait a second, I've never heard of them! I've been duped, it turns out this set is made up of new Motown artists, not the good old stuff at all. The Smokey cut is from 1970, but they have grafted on a new vocal from one Kevin Ross, a hot prospect for the latter-day Motown. The Temptations cut is an old one at least, a "bonus" track stuck on to make it seem like this is one of the classic Motown collections. In fact, it is an hour of over-produce nu-soul and gospel, as performed by a group of chronic over-singers. Gah.

Not all new collections come out poorly. Here's one put together for the Francophone market, but is actually a bilingual set, with a French title. Tous Ensemble Pour Noel is an interesting mix of classics and some lesser-known tracks, not completely wonderful but not bad for your Christmas morning play or dinner party background. There's the old, original version of Band Aid's Do They Know It's Christmas, and even the Burl Ives classic, Have A Holly Jolly Christmas. On the interesting side, two of Quebec's beloved acts are included, one from Ginette Reno, and a cool cut from Beau Dommage, 23 Decembre. Roch Voisine chimes in with Promenade en Trianeau, and of course, Celine Dion is involved, but its actually an English track, The Christmas Song. The best cut on the whole disc is from Serena Ryder, Calling To Say. The worst? Well, Bieber is here. That makes me a grumpy cat.

Saturday, December 6, 2014


A satisfying collection from Faithfull, who has moved into a comfortable, mature career as a dark doyenne of song. With her weathered voice now the siren call of the worldly-wise, she looks back at the bad and (mostly) good, with a little regret but mostly appreciation and fondness.

This is a tight collection of originals and covers, eleven cuts and 40 minutes, just enough that we're left ready for another, soon. The title cut is her appreciation for London, the city she ruled back in the 60's as Jagger's missus and a presence at every opening and happening. Written with (surprisingly) Steve Earle, it's not an exercise in nostalgia, but rather a toast to the areas of the town that still inspire her. Deep Water, written with Nick Cave and a couple of his kids, is a mildly disturbing dream about trying to get to the person one loves, but being held back, walking in this deep water. Cave's influence is the strongest on this album, with a full cover of his Late Victorian Holocaust, his moody outlook, and the use of his trusted sidemen, including Warren Ellis on violin.

The covers are smart, including Leonard Cohen's Going Home, and a Hoagy Carmichael number, I Get Along Without You Very Well. I do like her version of the Everly Brothers' The Price Of Love, but she did lift the arrangement directly from Bryan Ferry's '70's remake, right down to the harmonica part. Ah well, she's the cooler one now, as a lovable British eccentric survivor rather than his conservative senior.

Thursday, December 4, 2014


How much do British fans love the late guitar hero? The original version of The Island Years was a whopping 18 CD's, including all his albums, and tons and tons of out-takes, demos and complete live concerts. This four disc collection is all taken from the previously-unreleased music included on that set, but still it doesn't come close to grabbing it all. If you are at all familiar with Martyn, is does provide a kind of alternative history to his career, as the tracks follow a chronological order.

Martyn was way too big a presence to fit into one category, although he started in folk. Soon he was adapting and adopting, working outside the rules in a fearless journey towards the next sound. He was surprisingly ahead of the curve, picking up effects pedals and units for his acoustic guitar, including the Echoplex, and playing against the returning notes both in concert and in recording sessions. We get to hear different takes of album sessions, sometimes wildly different. With Martyn, it was often like catching lightning in a bottle, his performances being one-time only events, the next one with a completely different approach.

He could be a writer of great depth, as anyone familiar with his Solid Air album from 1973 knows, But he also just liked the groove. His 1977 album One World was done with the infamous Jamaican producer Lee "Scratch" Perry, and an out-take of jam piece Big Muff is here. Some of the material doesn't quite work, no wonder other takes were done; the playing gets sloppy or Martyn loses his way. But there is always a spark, a moment of inspiration that sets him apart as a singular talent.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Short, sharp and successful, Settings Sons cemented The Jam's status as a hit band in England.  It was the group's fourth album in just a couple of years, and they had already outlasted all the criticism thrown at them by the usual picky English press.  Now, they didn't have to be a punk band, New Wave, Mod, whatever, they were accepted and popular, and the hit singles were adding up.  The album proper featured Eton Rifles, the group's first Top 10 release.  There was a vague concept in the tracks about three friends after the war, but it wasn't close to being a rock opera or theatre piece, even though it was pretty obvious Paul Weller owed a huge debt to both The Who and The Kinks.

This deluxe edition makes the record better, because of the add-ons.  The Jam was old-school, and liked the '60's idea of releasing separate singles from the albums, so the very good Strange Town and When You're Young, which prefaced the album, are added here.  But the big one was Going Underground, which came out just after Setting Sons, and followed the Eton Rifles single.  It went straight to #1 on the U.K. charts.  Plus, there are the corresponding fine B-sides here, including The Butterfly Children and Dreams of Children, so Disc One of this set is now value-added, with high-quality all the way.

Disc two is another good bonus, an hour-long live show from London in 1979.  Hearing the excitement build through the set, with the latest hits at the end, it sounds obvious now that The Jam were on the verge of English stardom.

Monday, December 1, 2014


The album opens with "Over under sideways down, paperback or leather-bound," ear-pleasing rhymes that slyly reference The Yardbirds and let you know this is for pop heads. Then it's a full-on treat for those who love intricate and melodic rock, with little bits of Beatles, Beach Boys, New Wave, Crowded House, Squeeze, etc., etc. Each song is filled with bright chords and colours, busy bass, textures and harmonies. But who the hell is Pugwash?

It turns out this is a compilation album, and Pugwash has been at it since 1999, releasing five discs along the way. Pugwash is Irish musician Thomas Walsh, and whoever he has sitting in at the time. That has included some pretty exceptional pop players, including Andy Partridge and Dave Gregory of XTC, American masters Jason Falkner and Eric Matthews, Brian Wilson percussionist Nelson Bragg, and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy. All were attracted to Walsh's ability to play on the same field as the masters. It's Nice To Be Nice channels Wilson crossed with McCartney, banjo plucking along with organ in a pure SMiLE moment. Two Wrongs shows tougher stuff, an ability to rock, and At The Sea is deliciously, a co-write with Partridge that could have come from his mid-period XTC days.

It turns out this is the first release for Pugwash on North American shores. It's great Walsh is finally getting heard here, it's too bad we haven't been able to enjoy him before. Now I have five albums to search out, to get caught up.

Sunday, November 30, 2014


You've heard of gold records, and platinum ones. That's pretty impressive. But there's a bigger one, the diamond award. That goes to albums that sold a million copies in Canada alone. Gold is just forty thousand (fifty thousand until a couple of years ago). When you look at the list of diamond-certified albums, you'll see all the familiar names; a bunch of Beatles, Thriller, Rumours, The Wall, Bat Out Of Hell. There are some Canadians that have managed the feat in our own country, including Alanis Morissette, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Celine Dion and Avril Lavigne. There are currently 99 discs on the list of either diamond or double-diamond (2 million copies) sold in Canada.

One stands out. Not because it was a big hit, but because it had to beat the odds. All the discs mentioned above were huge, world-wide hits. For instance, Bryan Adams sold 12 million copies of Reckless around the world. That means there was a ton of publicity about the record flooding into Canada from the U.S., millions of dollars of promotional money being spent by his record company, and Canadian radio and video stations had no second thoughts about adding the singles, since the Americans were already playing those songs. But that didn't happen to The Tragically Hip. Aside from a couple of markets in the U.S., the band was pretty much unknown outside the country. But a storm had been building in Canada, and Fully Completely exploded in 1992.

It showed there had been a sea change in listening habits for Canadians Through much of the '80's, the hit bands had been those who sounded the most American. But the '90's saw groups that were distinctly Canadian become favourites, including the Hip and Barenaked Ladies at the top of the sales charts, and others such as Sloan and Rheostatics in the college and alternative world. They sang about what was around them, from Canadian places to Canadian stories. It's not difficult stuff here; Fifty-Mission Cap was about Toronto Maple Leaf Bill Barilko, we heard about Jacques Cartier and the Paris of the Prairies. Meanwhile, The Tragically Hip roared across the country, with a terrific live show, and the hoards of fans made radio stations play their music, even though it wasn't on the U.S. Billboard charts.

It is a major accomplishment, and deserves this Deluxe Edition. From the original sessions come two previously-unreleased songs, including the current single, the fine Radio Show, certainly worthy of being issued before. Disc two is an exciting live show from a private party at Toronto's small Horseshoe Tavern, shortly after the album's release. If you want to shell out for the Super Deluxe, you get a DVD of a 1993 tour documentary and a collector's book, or you can go the reissue vinyl route, and get the two bonus tracks as a download. It's now 22 years old, but this thing still rocks today.

Saturday, November 29, 2014


Where it all came together for Adams, an album that took him to superstar status, at least in the First world. The rest of the globe would capitulate in the 90's. The mid-80's were all about MTV, and Adams came through with a set of solid hit singles back up by videos that played non-stop, a total of seven cuts from this album getting airplay. Surprisingly, the most loved song in his career, Summer of '69, was held back until the fifth single, but with Run To You, Heaven, Somebody and Kids Wanna Rock ahead of it, there was no shortage of firepower.

Heaven was the big one, that all-important power ballad that brought the girls on board and all the assorted radio formats that look for a softer cut. Yes, it was calculated, but Adams (and co-writer Jim Vallance) truly appreciate the craft of the business too, and worked harder at it than any other team. Sitting knee-to-knee and face-to-face, they would search for hours on a daily basis, looking for that little bit of magic that makes a hit. Clearly they had risen to a new peak with this round of cuts.

Pared down to ten in 1984, this Deluxe Edition adds another seven cuts from the time, Let Me Down Easy is the best, a minor solo hit for Roger Daltry, a strong finished version included here. .38 Special got Teacher, Teacher. The Boys Night Out was rewritten by Krokus when they got it, but the original demo is here. And what do you know, there was a song called Reckless too. The demo is here, before it was rewritten and became Dangerous, recorded by Loverboy.

Disc two is a full live show, 1985 in London, England, as broadcast on the BBC. It's a good example of the energy Adams was able to get in concert those days, and also shows just how much everyone loved the new Summer of '69. A Super Deluxe version adds stuff for the audiophile, a 5.1 mix, and also has a half-hour of his videos on another disc. Two discs is probably good enough for most.

Friday, November 28, 2014


Joni Mitchell didn't set out to create this new boxed set.  There was no request for a best of or rare tracks collection.  Instead, she was working on a dance score, for the Alberta Ballet.  The concept was to be about love, or the lack of it, and would feature selections of her material that spoke to it.  The trouble for Mitchell was, lots of her music from 1965 on spoke to it.  She went through it all, and found lots and lots, hours worth, much more than was needed.  Try as she might, she couldn't seem to make it flow as a piece when she chopped it down.  Eventually, she abandoned the ballet request, unable to satisfy her goals with the project.

That left the work she had already done, assembling roughly four hours of her songs into four acts.  As a painter, she always finds a visual element to her work (she calls herself a painter who writes songs), and she "sees" a connection in the chosen lyrics and music, one that runs through her whole career.  So what we get are these segments of her work, the ones that best describe four lines of thought on love.

Act 1 (the first disc) is subtitled Birth Of Rock 'N' Roll Days, something that has always been used as a joyous time in Mitchell's awakening days.  She loves to dance, and has often gone back to late 50's rock 'n' roll to find that spark of liberation.  Whether played on the radio or at record hops, it's lighthearted sometimes (You Turn Me On, I'm A Radio), nostalgic (Chinese Cafe/Unchained Melody), and in Mitchell's ballet, about young women encountering the forbidden.  River is here, Car On A Hill, Come In From The Cold.

Act 2 is her look at darkness in the world, in the story she is developing, called The Light Is Hard To Find. There is hope, and a light that cuts through, bringing the possibility of love.  Court And Spark starts the set, but the bulk of the tracks are from later albums, and not the best-known cuts at that.  That makes sense, as she has often focused on the woes of the world in more recent times.  Nothing Can Be Done comes from Night Ride Home, Not To Blame from Turbulent Indigo, The Wolf That Lives In Lindsey from Mingus.

Act 3 is Love Has Many Faces, where she looks at love from both sides now; well, from lots of sides, giddy to troubled.  Carey is here, and All I Want, both from Blue.  Two cuts from Taming The Tiger provides two topical numbers, The Crazy Cries Of Love and Love Puts On A New Face.  A Strange Boy is from Hejira.

Mitchell's final act is called If You Want Me I'll Be In The Bar, where her characters and all the facets of love wander through.   We hear God Must Be A Boogie Man, The Last Time I Saw Richard, Amelia, A Case Of You, and Raised On Robbery, lots of her best characters and scenes.

Much of the pleasure listening through to this set is hearing the links between the songs.  Some are seamless, like a great mixtape.  Others are in the lyrics, and the mood.  Several of the songs aren't the original versions, but rather the new versions created with an orchestra, featured on her Travelogue and Both Sides Now albums. It is not a simplistic collection, aimed at pleasing the average or casual fan, with most of her hits not included. This requires some thinking, but ultimately it is more rewarding than the usual four disc set.  However, I'd still like to see a normal one someday, with the unreleased stuff and all.

Thursday, November 27, 2014


The album begins with a special, weaving fiddle solo by guest Miranda Mulholland (Great Lake Swimmers/Belle Starr), and you can tell right away this is going to be an event as well as an album. The Mahones have created a punk-Irish musical, following the path of their ancestors and their music, from its rowdy roots to its rowdy present.

With wild versions of the classics, including The Auld Triangle and Paddy On The Railway, The Mahones show its all in the delivery when it comes to Irish folk. These numbers are just as vibrant and powerful as any modern punk number could ever claim to be. Meanwhile, the band has come up with some new numbers to weave the story along, which looks at the struggle of the Irish over the centuries, uprooted and abused, with music as one strength to count on. There's a fine tribute to Oscar Wilde called Stars, with a remarkably sensitive lyric. There are also two of the groups very best rockers in their 24-year career, Prisoner 1082, which is Clash-worthy, and St. Patrick's Day Irish Punk Song, which is, yes, self-explanatory. Throw in a cover of Them's I Can Only Give You Everything as one of the bonus cuts, and you have a great listen, concept album or not. It should be interesting to see what they have planned for Part Two.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014


A lot happened in the twenty years between Big Star's formation and this live concert. The previously-unheralded band had gone from unknowns to semi-knowns, at least, certainly cult status. The general public still didn't have a clue who they were, but there was at least a bunch of music heads who worshiped their legacy. But there was no indication a reformation could happen.

These days, somebody would throw a million-dollar tour offer at them, especially after the theme song success of In The Street from That 70's Show. But back in 1993, it was a faint-hope request from a University carnival organizer that got Alex Chilton to reform the group, with original drummer Jody Stephens, and super fans Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer (The Posies) deputizing for the late Chris Bell and Andy Hummel. That first reunion was released as a live CD at the time, and now comes this unseen video from a year later, out for the first time. It comes from a club show in Memphis, the band's home town, after the new version of Big Star had some further shows and a little more practice under their collective belt.

There are lots of smiles from Chilton and Stephens, playing before friends and family, now seeing that the band meant something after all. The Big Star experience had been one of frustration and heartbreak for them, with so much great music gone to waste. Now they returned as heroes. The Posies boys seem a little nervous, knowing how significant the show is, but their playing is stellar, and it's a great night for two guitar power pop.

Chilton is helped out in the vocal department with Stephens handling a couple, and Auer chiming in as well, taking the lead on the Chris Bell solo favourite I Am The Cosmos. But really, it's Chilton's night, shining on gems such as September Gurls, The Ballad Of El Goodo and Feel. It's a tight, 90-minute set, padded only a little with The Kinks number Till The End Of The Day and Todd Rundgren's Slut. There's no sloppiness though; Chilton took the night seriously for sure, even if he was, reportedly, not really in love with the songs. He said words to that effect often, but I have my doubts. He looks pretty pleased and maybe even proud here. And he allowed the show to go on. Big Star would record a new album in 2005 (In Space) and stay an active touring outfit until Chilton's death in 2010.

Monday, November 24, 2014


A smart idea, a smart collection too. This is a set made up of some of the biggest names in the Americana field, from their previous Christmas recordings, mixed with some new tracks, recorded by up-and-comers in the genre. For the most part, the stars aren't represented by well-known songs either. I've never seen Johnny Cash's The Gifts They Gave on any compilation, and Emmylou Harris's pretty The First Noel is hardly a staple either. I'm partial to The Band's Christmas Must Be Tonight, and always think that should be played more. Another cool one is the late Ben Keith's Les Trois Cloches, from twenty years back. As he wasn't a singer, he got his friends Neil and Peggy Young to do the vocals on the old country weeper by The Browns, better known as The Three Bells. It's one of the best examples of Young's country voice you'll hear. Only Bob Dylan's Must Be Santa is common, from his recent Christmas album, but it's such a hoot, why not?

As for the new cuts, Canada's own Corb Lund leads the pack with Just Me And These Ponies (For Christmas This Year). It's a classic Western, with the ranch owner all alone for the holidays, his children off in the city, leaving him serving oats to the horses and a bottle of Christmas cheer to himself. Luther Dickinson from the North Mississippi Allstars reinvents Hark! The Herald Angels Sing into something you won't hear in church. Valerie June's southern drawl somehow works well on Winter Wonderland, even though you can't imagine a flake of snow anywhere near her hometown. With so many Christmas compilations thrown together each year, it's a real treat to have one assembled with such care.

Saturday, November 22, 2014


If we are to believe the story, Bob Dylan or someone close to him recently discovered a stash of his old lyrics, written during the time he was knocking them off at lightning speed, recorded the famous Basement Tapes in 1967. I express some skepticism about this convenient story, as it magically timed up with the release of the full Basement Tapes this month, and this isn't the most honest industry in the world. Bob Dylan's been telling tales since he showed up in New York too. He's always liked embellishing the whole Bob Dylan character, the one he considers another person.

That's minor griping. Even if these have been sitting around for decades, or don't even belong to the Basement Tapes period, it doesn't matter. These are fun, old-fashioned and plain-spoken, certainly in the spirit of the Basement Tapes words. Instead of recording these himself (which would have been cool too), he gave them over to producer T Bone Burnett, who assembled a group to write music and record them over a two week period. Funny, that sounds exactly like what happened with Dylan's idol, Woody Guthrie, and the old lyrics he had left behind. That project turned out very well indeed with Wilco and Billy Bragg doing the duties, so maybe Dylan liked the thought of that too.

The musicians assembled to write and perform were long-time Burnett buddy and Dylan appreciator Elvis Costello, plus a group of relative newcomers from the Americana field. There's Jim James of My Morning Jacket, Marcus Mumford from you-know-who, Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes and Rhiannon Giddens of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. They worked either along or in small combos on the music, then backed each other up in the studio. Wisely, Burnett didn't try to recreate the lower-fidelity situation where Dylan and The Band worked. This wasn't about the interplay of incredible musicians working on the fly, but rather about the chance to bring to life twenty songs.

For the most part the songs have that Basement Tapes spirit though, celebrating the vintage American music, from 1850 to early rock, whatever worked. Instead of his beat poet wordplay, Dylan was using cliches and vernacular, such as "getting out while the getting's good", and making up stories based on phrases he liked. It's simple, he'd think about the Florida Keys for instance, and there would be a song called Florida Key. Or he'd take Cab Calloway's old chorus from Minnie The Moocher, and create a new song called Hidee Hidee Ho. Another is a fish tale, about the most dangerous one in the sea, the shark. In this case, he's writing about the Card Shark -- "get him on the nose!"

The music is certainly not Dylanesque, and that's fine as well, the performer has to bring something to the table. Costello handles the title cut, one of the best songs here, and brings a lovely gospel quality to it, but Dylan wouldn't have had so many nice notes in his melody. There probably would have been more blues as well. But there's not one song here that disappoints me, and quite a few that delight me. I don't know quite where to put this in the Dylan archives; I don't think you should look at it as a lost collection to place in his late 60's work. It's a novelty really, a very enjoyable one.

Friday, November 21, 2014


The big selling point is three previously-unreleased Queen songs, at least in these versions, the first "new" tracks since the posthumous album Made In Heaven in 1995.  And of course, you have the added excitement of a duet with Michael Jackson too.  Ah, don't get too excited though.  The track, There Must Be More Than Life Than This, is pretty uninspired.  The cut has already appeared on the Mercury solo album, Mr. Bad Guy, but this features a backing track the group did back in 1981, and vocal by Jackson that sounds like it was recorded during a different, quieter session.  It's underwhelming, a minor effort, and sounds like it took a lot of effort to match up the various parts into something not quite seamless.

The other two new ones are better.  Again they are both 80's songs, out-takes for the album The Works, with Let Me In Your Heart Again eventually being release by Brian May's wife Anita Dobson, and Love Kills seeing life on the Metropolis soundtrack.  Here we get the original foursome.  Let Me In Your Heart Again is a pretty good example of a bombastic Queen ballad, Mercury ascending, lots of group vocals, some big guitar from May.  Love Kills is this form is now a ballad.  There's probably a lot of contemporary work on this, but it doesn't really matter, May keeps things Queen-sounding.

The rest of Forever is collected from regular albums.  There are two versions available, a single disc with twenty cuts, and a double, that includes 36.  Since there's only a three dollar price difference, and both include the three new cuts, you might as well get the double.  That is, if there's enough to attract you.  There are some new remasters for better sound, and some intros omitted and fades changed, but these are mostly trainspotting details.  The catalogue songs include only a couple of the usual greatest hits (Crazy Little Think Called Love, Somebody To Love, You're My Best Friend).  Instead, the stated mission was to show the group's musical development.  That's a tough call.  I never think of any great improvement in Queen's albums over the years, but rather that they learned to do things differently.  If anything, they became more comfortable with emotion on the ballads, fun on the rockers, extravagance on the experiments.  This is mostly softer material, from A Night At The Opera's Love Of My Life in 1975 to Made In Heaven tracks such as Too Much Love Will Kill You.  It could just have easily been Queen - The Ballads, but that might turn off some buyers.  What I found is that it reminded me there are some very strong and unheralded songs past the hits on the regular albums.

Thursday, November 20, 2014


Wilco is a band that has always been great to the fans.  Member John Stirratt says leader Jeff Tweedy has an empathy for them, and his writing reflects that.  In the liner notes to this new rare cuts collection, he states what Tweedy knows best is "the listener's relationship with rock 'n' roll music."  In other words, the band tries to get us what we want.  As a fan, what I always want is more.  That can mean more new and exciting music, and more from a period that I love.  If I love an album, I want to hear what the songs sound like live, maybe early versions, maybe discarded songs from the same sessions.  Not everybody is like that, but there is a whole rabid fandom that is, and Wilco fans tend to be that passionate type.

Part two of the Wilco 20th birthday celebration is this new four-CD collection of rare cuts, to accompany the two-CD best-of set What's Your 20? reviewed earlier this week.  The group has been sneaking out this gems over the past two decades every chance they get.  When they released a single, it would get non-album B-sides.  Sometimes those would differ in Europe.  If a radio station wanted, they would play live, and that would come out, maybe on a local-only disc.  The group's label would send out special promotional items to stations and reviewers (thanks Warner!) that had obscure numbers.  Songs were remixed for airplay.  Movie soundtracks would get new stuff.  There were downloads for fans. Now, here it all is.  There's a lot of it, and it's grand.

There are plenty of versions here that differ from the originals, some for better, some worse, some that take on new forms live, some that are played for a lark, and are treated as such.  The nice thing is, Tweedy doesn't try to edit this too much.  For instance, he says he can't see why anyone would want to listen to the band do Steely Dan's Any Major Dude Will Tell You, which they contributed to the soundtrack of Me, Myself & Irene, but I love the thing, almost as much as I love the original.  A crazy, punked-up version of Passenger Side from a 1997 live show is nothing special to me, but I'm sure there will be some that appreciate it.  There's that connection with the listener again, Tweedy lets us decide.  He couldn't stand the radio remixes insisted on by the label in 1999, but played ball and let them be done.  And even though he thinks they still sound dated and desperate, they are here as well.

The biggest surprise is just how much there was once it was all brought into one spot; a dizzying 77 tracks.  I'm pretty interested in the group, but I had forgotten they did a tune for the SpongeBob SquarePants movie (Just A Kid), or the great version of One Hundred Years From Now, where they punk up a country tune for the Gram Parsons tribute disc.  And those were some of the few I already had.  There are so many terrific works-in-progress, like the demo for Monday, that are new to me.  This really is a present to fans, especially for those who never got to see all those delicious promo and B-side treats over the years.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014


Lord knows there is no shortage of live Rolling Stones material around, both visual and audio.  Each one, we are told, marks the pinnacle of something; Jagger as a front man or Keith as a human riff factory are the usual accolades.   It's pretty sad when the opening notes of You Can't Always Get What You Want, one of the very best songs by anyone, can make you roll your eyes and think, "not again."  Every tour, every show is sold as an incredible, exciting event when in truth, the job of appearing as The World's Greatest Rock Band means the shows are pretty predictable and conservative.

It wasn't always the case, and since most of the available video is from 1989 and on, any old stuff is welcome, to see the band close to prime.  A new series first available on the Stones website has become so popular it has now moved into stores and such.  Called From The Vault, it features vintage shows released officially for the first time.  These aren't just getting dumped into the market in a bare-bones way.  Tons of work has gone into the restoration of the tapes, both video and audio, with strong packaging and multi-format availability.  You can get Blu-ray, DVD, CD, download files, all with top professional expectations met.  The audio is especially well-treated, in new 5.1 mixes, including one from the hugely-respected ears of Bob Clearmountain (Hampton Coliseum 1981).

Two concerts are now available, the older coming from the L.A. Forum in 1975.  This was the first tour for Ron Wood, subbing for the recently-quit Mick Taylor, and not yet an official band member.  But he fits in perfectly, at ease with both Richards and Jagger, Mick able to use him as a foil, something Richards wouldn't go for.  He plays a ton of lead guitar, a compliment to the work of Dr. Riff.  Still youthful, Jagger's leaps and bounds are choreographed like figure skater's routine, and no less impressive for it.  It's actually fun to see them putting on some showbiz moves, such as Jagger flanked closely by Wood and Richards for the chorus vocals to Wild Horses, all of them posing with their heads back and hair flowing.  Maybe it's just because we haven't seen this kind of footage much before, but it does seem more impressive than Keith's "who gives a crap" attitude from the 90's on.  And as much as we all loved Ian Stewart and the bond of loyalty he shared with the band, the addition of Billy Preston to the show was a substantial improvement.  He not only added lots of fun elements such as the clavinet and siren sounds, he was a great showman, and his two-song set in the middle of the concert, along with a dance-off with Jagger is one of the highlights.

1975 saw the Stones concentrating on the latter side of their career, with only Get Off Of My Cloud representing the early hits, and that only in a medley with If You Can't Rock Me.  Even Satisfaction was ignored.  Of course, when you had a run of albums from 1968's Beggar's Banquet on to the most recent, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, two hours was not a problem.  It did allow for some side excursions, such as Star Star and Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), or the Exile On Main Street numbers All Down The Line, Rip This Joint and Keith's slippery-slope version of Happy.  But the guts and glory of the program was found in Honky Tonk Women, Tumbling Dice, You Can't Always Get What You Want, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Wild Horses, Brown Sugar, Midnight Rambler, Street Fighting Man, Jumpin' Jack Flash and Sympathy For The Devil.  It's no surprise that the Steel Wheels tour of '89 and every one since, has really concentrated on that material.

The other Vault set is from the Hampton, Virginia Coliseum in 1981.  This comes from one of the earliest Pay-TV events, with viewers in a handful of U.S. cities able to buy the show, and listen in stereo on a local radio station.  Believe me, it was a big deal back then.  The '81 tour was somewhat notorious, not for lewd and lascivious Stones behavior like the good old days, but for the exact opposite.  The Stones were now acting like, and in cahoots with the corporate world.  They accepted a sponsorship from the Jovan cosmetics group for a million bucks, a pittance these days, but still a no-no in rock circles then.  I can remember this clearly, and it did feel like the band had crossed a line, and was letting fans down.  In many ways, it still does, and perhaps that's why it's seemed they have been pretending all these years since.  Anyway, I liked the Hampton show better than I thought I would.  Some Girls was still high on everyone's list, and When The Whip Comes Down, Shattered, Beast of Burden and Miss You fit in nicely.  There was still some boldness, with a couple of surprising covers in the middle, Eddie Cochran's Twenty Flight Rock and Smokey Robinson's Going To A Go-Go.  The current album Tattoo You was a big hit, and Start Me Up was all over the airways, and that and another five made the show, including Waiting On A Friend.  What's most surprising is how much recent material did make up the first 90 minutes of the concert, and even She's So Cold and Hang Fire could show up in the latter stages.  Not the best and brightest, but still new, and you didn't get the impression half the crowd was heading to the concessions during them.

More of these shows are available as downloads only, including one as far back as 1973.  I'm all for this stuff, even as I criticize them.  You don't have to get them, but for big fans, the more the merrier when it comes to archive releases.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014


Jack de Keyzer has been the man for a long time. We don't need to embarrass anyone here, but I haven't lived in Toronto since the mid-80's, and that's when I first saw him. How come when I try not to embarrass someone, I always end up embarrassing myself? Anyway, along the way, de Keyzer has won himself plenty of awards, and one of those was the blues Juno for 2010, for his CD The Corktown Sessions. That was recorded live in Hamilton's legendary Corktown Tavern, the oldest bar in Canada or something like that. It's a grand place to see a blues band, I can say from experience.

For his new album, de Keyzer returns to the scene of the crime. It's not a matter of re-booking the Corktown; instead, he checked out the original tapes of that night back in 2009, and found another album's worth of material worth releasing. It's not out-takes or also-ran's either. The band was hot the whole night, and it must have been hard not putting most of these on the first album. His cover of Muddy Waters' You Shook Me features ferocious guitar solos. At one point he plays a run that takes him away from the key but back into it seconds later with an ingenious progression, something jazz pros would love. The guy can play; he is a monster.

This disc is a little more covers-heavy, six tracks to four originals, and three of them are a little too common, All Along The Watchtower, I Heard It Through The Grapevine and Shake Your Money Maker. But even those shopworn classics de Keyzer manages to spruce up with his flair. A working-class bar in a working-class city, this is where the real stuff goes down.

Monday, November 17, 2014


It's a year of looking back and wondering about the future for Wilco.  20 years in, few bands have gone through such major upheavals and kept growing.  There's few bands period that can say the best work wasn't during the first rush of excitement.  As this collection shows, there have been highlights throughout, no plunges and quite a substantial legacy.

What's Your 20? is advertised as essential tracks, 38 of them spread over two discs.  It would be pretty hard to argue with that title or the majority of the choices.  Each studio album is represented equally, including the Mermaid Avenue sessions, with three tracks, including the beloved California Stars.  The second album, Being There, includes the terrific one-two punch of Monday and Outtasite (Outta Mind), when Jay Bennett joined the group and helped steer the ship towards concise, and effective roots-rock.  But as was so openly documented in the break-up film I Am Trying To Break Your Heart, Jeff Tweedy needed to be in charge, and needed to make more left-field and artistic albums.  Bennett was out, free-ranging avant-guitarist Nels Cline came in, and against the odds, Wilco became more popular, not less.  Perhaps it was simply that there were lots of great roots-rock bands around, but none like this. 

Disc two sees a whole new band, with Tweedy's lyrics a fascinating combination of sentiment and nostalgia, crossed with occasional bursts of surrealism and the feeling it's all a dream.  And when things get too pretty, he can unleash Cline to blast some newly-invented sounds from his strings.  There's a philosophical depth to most of the songs, and a playfulness that suggests Tweedy is winking at all this.  How serious is he when he suggests in Wilco (The Song) that his band will be there to love the fans?  Well, yes and no, they are genuine in their connection with the audience, and they have one of the richest relationships with the hard-core, but Tweedy's a disconnected voice in the headphones, happier to be the presenter of music folks love, and he's not going to have dinner at your house.

It's a set that keeps throwing favourites at you, especially on disc two, when tracks such as Jesus, Etc., Heavy Metal Drummer, Theologians, Handshake Drugs and Walken see the band come into their own.  There is nothing new here, but don't fear fans.  Instead of throwing on a couple of rare cuts, you'll find them and much, much more on a new four-disc set of non-album material called Alpha Mike Foxtrot.  I'm now going to digest that, and get back to you.

Sunday, November 16, 2014


As anyone with more than a passing interest in Bob Dylan has known for years, the legendary Basement Tapes still had many secrets to reveal.  The source of the first rock and roll bootleg, the goldmine of demos that gave The Byrds You Ain't Goin' Nowhere and Manfred Mann Quinn The Eskimo, plus the place where The Hawks developed their signature sound, and became The Band. Tears Of Rage, I Shall Be Released, This Wheel's On Fire, they all came out of these lazy days in Upstate New York.

So did Johnny Todd, Get Your Rocks Off, Baby, Won't You Be My Baby, and many more you probably haven't heard of, unless you were one of those still taking part in the underground economy that is Dylan boots.  For years now, a few hours of tape has been circulating with loads and loads more takes of songs featuring Dylan and The Band-to-be in sloppy glory, from low-fi, two-channel recordings, the way Garth Hudson (Band organist and assigned engineer archivist) recorded them back in 1967.  The aim was to get down a bunch of new Dylan songs as demos he could sell to other artists.  He was making a fortune doing just that back in the 60's, and since he wasn't touring (motorcycle injury) and wasn't making an album (same), the cash flow certainly would have been driving this plan.  But also, he was remaking his music, digging back in the raw and wild sound of American (and Canadian) folk music, basically inventing the roots or Americana genre with the help of his Ontario confederates (and later, Levon Helm).

There is a six-CD set of every last worthy take Hudson has managed to save over the years, as the tapes were left in his possession.  I can assure you it is on my Christmas list, currently sitting at the $125 - $140 range in stores.  This version is two discs, the highlights we are told.  It should be noted and stressed that these are not the Basement Tapes as sold to us in 1975.  For that set, Robbie Robertson was put in charge, and he polished up the whole thing, adding lots of new overdubs, remixing, and even adding Band-only songs from other sessions.  This time, we get the originals, as is, as was.  All that's been done is the usual cleaning job on ancient tape, what they could salvage.  There are some interrupted takes, some laughing, some distortion and buried instruments, but that's all part of the glory.

There's a charm to the muffled recordings, and some even claim they find a certain brilliance in the job Hudson managed to do.  I won't go that far, as there are plenty of other examples of amazing recordings done in bootleg situations. This is for history's sake, and the work done was stellar.  Dylan was knocking off lyrics upstairs on the typewriter, and recording them without polish, so sometimes the results are stunning given the limits, other times you know they could (and occasionally would) be polished up.  The two versions of You Ain't Goin' Nowhere found here show that in spades, the first almost gibberish, and the second the template of the beloved classic it has become.  

There are plenty of interesting 'new' songs for us here, including a blues version of Blowin' In The Wind, recorded who knows why, probably just a lark.  900 Miles From Home seems to be a mis-remembered run-through of Bobby Bare's hit 500 Miles, and I'm Alright is a R&B number that shows all the participants were into Curtis Mayfield.  Then there is the important job of returning the Robertson-produced 1975 versions back into the original versions.  Of particular note is Tears Of Rage.  When it came out in 1975, Robertson had added more harmonies.  Here we find Richard Manuel alone, singing an incredible part alongside Dylan.  It's live, probably barely rehearsed and the single-best vocal take of Manuel's storied career.  

Elsewhere, it's Dylan and The Band being themselves, expert musicians, singers and writers with the pressure off, the creativity soaring.  It's usually not perfect, but the combination of near-perfection and spontaneous creation is a wonder to hear, in its original form.  Two CD, that's great, but its only whetted my appetite for all the rest.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


I thought I'd wait a bit for all the gnashing of teeth to end over the Apple giveaway controversy before reviewing this. I even waited to listen to it, ignoring the free version in my iTunes account, instead choosing the old-fashioned, play the CD route. I mean, if you went by the initial reaction to this, you'd think it was an affront to music, an Antichrist of an album, the work of people hoping to poison your taste. Gee, all they tried to do was give you their new album, free.

The irony is that most of the griping came from people who didn't listen to the record, didn't want it, and somehow got offended to find it in their files. Mostly, they just hate Bono, and find him smug. Hell, even Bono finds himself smug. He's a rich rock star, he's gonna seem smug to pretty much everybody. The worst crime this album makes is sounding basically like a U2 album, even though the group did try to shake things up. Folks, it is not that bad, and if you get by the controversy and rhetoric, you may find value in it.

The album finds the group looking back to their formative years, not an uncommon idea for those in middle age. It's in the lyrics, not the sound. Lead track The Miracle (of Joey Ramone) refers to a concert all the members of the then-unknown group saw, where The Ramones made it all clear to them what needed to be done. California (There is no End to Love) references the first trip to the state for the group, a fantasy visit for people from their upbringing in Ireland. Of course, the tension and the troubles of their country are the backdrop for lots here, but aren't played for too much emotion, instead it's just the way it was. It was probably a lot more dramatic a childhood than most of ours, so give them a few more legitimacy points.

Musically, U2 does try to break the mold for the collection. Gone are usual producers Eno and Lanois, replaced by Danger Mouse and a quarter of others, including Flood. Sadly, it's not a big difference, which might have helped. The biggest aural evidence is in moments such as backing vocals, and the sweet choral opening to California. But until The Edge is convinced to throw away his effects rig, U2 is always going to sound like U2,

This is an album that holds up well, even better, through repeated plays. That's especially true given all the negativity surrounding it. I was ready to hate it, pick it apart for minor flaws that seemed much greater the first time through. In truth, I've come to enjoy about half of the songs here, not a bad ratio for a gigantic, smug rock band. Hey, maybe you'll like the album more if you pay for it. The hard copy comes with a bonus disc, 46 minutes long, that includes a giant, 20-minute acoustic and strings medley of the main songs on the album, which is actually refreshing, and perhaps better than the produced versions. So please, stop complaining about getting an album for free, it's not like it was the reunion album for KC and the Sunshine Band. Oh wait, retro hipsters would probably applaud that.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014


A masterful blues collection, covering acoustic, gospel, ancient and modern, from jug band to funk. Mostly, there's a spiritual flow that connects it all. Bibb has set up the album with a series of roles for guest stars, including Guy Davis, Ruthie Foster, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Taj Mahal and Canadians Harrison Kennedy and Michael Jerome Browne on guitar.

Bibb explains that the theme is the path that his people, the blues people, took from slavery to citizenship, a journey that still continues. It's socially-aware music, looking backward to remember, forward to progress. Concepts can make for stuffy affairs, but Bibb has come up with a broad selection, and a lot of excellent material. Rosewood is story about a town in Florida where the homes of African-Americans were burned to the ground, with several people killed, seven officially, but the song suggests the true number was hidden. Dream Catchers, featuring Kennedy and Foster, looks at the hope of Civil Rights. There's room for classic, purely musical moments too, such as Guy Davis' tune Chocolate Man, written in the 20's acoustic style, when the blues was still bawdy and humourous. It's rare to have this much variety in any album, running through so many styles and emotions. It was a big concept and undertaking, and Bibb's project is a success in every way.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014


From Montreal, Officer did this album on a grant-funded sojourn to New York, where he did some playing and got back in touch with his blues roots. The respected guitar player is best known for his jazz work, as the right-hand man to Susie Arioli in her group, and on his one, but here he goes back to his days working in the Montreal blues scene. As usual, it's his slick and clean playing that is the highlight, plus he does cross back and forth in the closeness of the jazz-blues world.

It's a stripped down album, with just bass and drums joining in, but some heavy cats were involved. Charlie Drayton has drummed on lots of Keith Richards solo work, and Tony Mason has done the same for folks from Norah Jones to Bo Diddley. For the most part, everybody lays back to let the unadulterated sound come from Officer, who keeps it almost effect-free, just a little reverb. The drums are crisp, the bass right down at the bottom, it's a listener's record, and certainly one for guitar purists. Just to prove he can wail, right at the end of the disc, Officer includes a cover of the instrumental Hang 'Em High, the theme song from the Clint Eastwood western of the same name. He spits out the melody the whole way through, showing that he can be fast too, it's just that there's more to life than speed.