Wednesday, April 30, 2014


How many so-called roots albums start with a distorted guitar line, and deep Sabbath thud of drums and bass?  Such is the world of Sunparlour Players, the two-man operation intent on turning genres on their heads, plowing under any influence to create a kind of futuristic folk.  Andrew Penner and Michael Rosenthal ("Rosie") make a glorious racket out of everything from banjo to vibes, glockenspiel to bells, just as likely to slap some heavy drums on an acoustic guitar track (For This I Can't Be Sure) as they are banjo on some electronica.  And who else would write a song about the forecast in the Farmer's Almanac, with punk power trio sounds and spacey sound effects?  Take that, Mumfords.

Delightfully, the bare tunes have great lyrics, such as Old Fashioned Face, a hymn to lived-in spaces, familiar places and home sweet home:  "Tonight I want to look into that map that shows your age/You've got an old-fashioned face."  In less ambitious hands, this would just be a nice strumming number, but the Parlour Twins accent the spaces in the first verse with quick electric guitar and drum slashes.  By the chorus, they're adding ringing vibes to the acoustic, and then on the next verse, martial drumming joins in.  There's a ton of great singing throughout as well, lots of fine harmonies and echoed whoa-oh-oh's. It's the juxtaposition of folk sounds and rock bluster that makes this so different, and a fascinating take on the acoustic music renaissance.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014


Chart mainstays through the mid-80's and 90's in England, Everything But The Girl were known for sophisticated pop, straying into electronic touches towards the latter days. Their soft group didn't catch on as much this side of the pond, other than the big hit Missing, so Ben Watt's first solo album doesn't have as much baggage to get by here. Nor will it come as such a surprise. There's precious little on the modern side here, it's more of a pop-folk disc, a 70's sound. It's laid-back, soft, with keys, congas, and unadorned lead guitar lines.

Golden Ratio sounds like, of all things, a CSN song, Stills-like lines supplied by Suede guitarist Bernard Butler. Matthew Arnold's Field is sparer still, just a vocal over electric piano, edging into early Elton territory. It's actually refreshing to something without a producer's atmosphere and loops all over it, or yet another banjo-toting nu-folk album.

Watt takes the observer's role for the ten cuts, describing slices of life scenes. The Gun describes an accidental shooting in some gated community, the verses full of detail: "Patrol cars, but that's a joke, it's just two guys napping with diet Cokes." The Levels is another observational one, with a man post-breakup, who likes to head out to the country: "Some nights I drive out on the Levels, past the village with the church where we got married." David Gilmour adds his famous sound to this, but understated like the rest of the album. And in Young Man's Game, Watt goes clubbing like the old days, trying Jager-bombs but having to admit defeat. With no tricks or gimmicks, Watt has delivered what can only be considered a mature, and highly listenable album.

Monday, April 28, 2014


Old King Cole was a mellow old soul. I have no idea if anyone has coined that before, but I'll claim it. Who knows where his career would have taken him had he not died prematurely (lung cancer in 1965, age 43). He was not only a dominate hit maker, but also a TV and movie star, the first black performer with his own network show. A savvy businessman, he no doubt would have changed with the times, as he had earlier, moving from a more jazz-oriented piano player to smooth vocalist. Several of his biggest hits came in the years before his death, including Ramblin' Rose, Those Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days Of Summer and L-O-V-E.

The two-horse town I grew up in only had room for two radio stations as well, and Lord knows I wouldn't listen to CBC, so the lone private station (where I eventually ended up employed) had to make do. As the only game in town playing music, the programmers didn't want to offend the advertisers and housewives it imagined at home during the day, so most pop music was banned, at least until after supper, when the kids got the radio. So I heard a playlist made up of older, safe numbers, including the ones above, already a few years old but rotated like current hits. They weren't pre-rock and roll, but could have been. Cole wasn't for kids, this was cool, sophisticated and slick, catchy too. It felt like cosmopolitan music, and certainly for much hipper parents than mine. Heck, in those lazy, crazy summer days where he was, they had soda (we called it pop here), pretzels (don't think I'd ever seen one), and beer! None of that in my Baptist household.

All that is to point out that amid all the, for lack of a better term, crap that filled the adult-oriented daytime radio of my youth, Cole stood out as high quality. Sure, it was smooth, but that didn't hide his blues chops as a singer. His version of Stardust here is every bit as soulful as Willie Nelson's, and his St. Louis Blues stands alongside Bessie Smith's, even in the completely different approach.

The usual Gold format is followed here, a double-disc crammed with 40 songs. I would have liked some of his King Cole Trio tracks from the early, jazz piano days, but we do get all the evergreen hits, including Unforgettable, Nature Boy, Mona Lisa and Too Young. Perhaps his biggest hit though, after all these years, is his unbeatable version of the The Christmas Song, found here as the final track, which alone will ensure his name will be heard for generations to come.

Sunday, April 27, 2014


One of the greatest Motown groups, with one of the best lead singers in Levi Stubbs.  Unlike other Motown acts of the mid-60's, Stubbs didn't get the star treatment afforded Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and Martha Reeves, where Berry Gordy insisted that the main singer receive elevated status, changing the group name to highlight them (The Supremes became Diana Ross and The Supremes, etc.).   Despite a stellar record of hits, including Baby I Need Your Loving, Reach Out, I'll Be There, I Can't Help Myself, Bernadette and Standing In The Shadows Of Love, The Temp's got relegated to second tier in the late 60's once the beloved writer-producers Holland-Dozier-Holland left the fold.  But they weren't about to be kept down by Motown internal politics, and after foundering for a couple of years, re-emerged as a funkier presence with Still Water (Love) and Just Seven Numbers, plus a series of team-ups with the Ross-less Supremes.

This double-disc collection gathers all the important Motown hits, which is usually what you want, the big ones.  But the Temptations were one of the few Detroit groups that managed to score after leaving the family as well.  So we're missing out on mid-70's hits Keeper Of The Castle and Ain't No Woman (Like The One I Got), and the 80's comeback When She Was My Girl.  There is a better compilation to be made, but this is pretty generous.  The hits will always impress, but the relative failures can be just as exciting.  They aren't the overplayed ones, familiar from a hundred different movie soundtracks.  Late 60's gems Yesterday's Dreams, I'm In A Different World and Can't Seem To Get You Out Of My Mind have all the important elements of classic Motown, especially the great Funk Brothers backing, and that urgent vocal that set Stubbs apart from the others.  With his extra grit, on the right song he could best Stevie, Smokey and Marvin.

Friday, April 25, 2014


The latest sad news about Glen Campbell is that the singer has been moved into a special care home, his family no longer able to care for him in the later stages of Alzheimer's.  The courage and perseverance Campbell has shown in the last couple of years has been remarkable, as he continued touring and recording, plus speaking out and allowing documentary crews to record his life and struggles.  He's been honoured by the Alzheimer's Association with the new Glen Campbell Courage Award, which will carry on his legacy.

Of course, there are decades of hits too, and his music has been re-examined of late, as younger generations turn back to more melodic times, less inclined to dismiss pop, country and string-accompanied productions.  Even the glossier 70's hits, led by Rhinestone Cowboy, are better appreciated than they have been for years.  This new, budget collection is as bare-boned as it gets, but as good a place to start as any, containing the biggest songs of his career among its ten cuts.

The glory days will always be the Jimmy Webb-written cuts from the late 60's, represented here by Wichita Lineman, Galveston, and By The Time I Get To Phoenix, certainly three of the best pop songs written in the 60's.  But Campbell had a pretty good knack of hearing cuts that would suit his honeyed voice.  Gentle On My Mind was a John Hartford tune, just as successful and poignant as well, somewhere between folk and country.  Dreams Of The Everyday Housewife and Try A Little Kindness were huge hits as well.  Rhinestone Cowboy as a huge comeback for him in 1975, in fact it was a bigger hit than any of the 60's numbers.  Country Boy is a good inclusion here, a minor hit from then but another well-produced and sung number, and not found on all Campbell compilations.  With a nod to his last recordings, also very well received, the final cut here is These Days, the track from his 2008 comeback album, Meet Glen Campbell, a fine Jackson Browne number. 

Campbell was one of my early heroes, the first radio star I took a liking to after embracing pop music via The Monkees.  I moved on to The Beatles and others, but the beauty and mystery of those early cuts, especially Galveston, has stayed with me my entire life.  A soft spot?  For sure, but I'll argue his place in the pantheon anytime.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014


Wilko Johnson has been around long enough to become one of those quintessential British characters, beloved in his homeland because he's such an odd duck.  Back in the 70's he was the attack dog-guitarist for pub rock vets Dr. Feelgood, pre-punk meat and potatoes R'n'B bar band with an unlikely #1 album, Stupidity, in 1976.  Cut loose by the band the next year, he drifted with his own groups, then joined Ian Dury and the Blockheads in the early 80's.  Since then, albums and bands have come and gone, but Dr. Feelgood's reputation as increased in the last few years, as punk's hierarchy started paying their debt to the group that paved the way.  Meanwhile, Wilko appeared in the acclaimed Julian Temple documentary Oil City Confidential about the group in 2009, and the resurgence placed him back in the spotlight.  Bald, menacing but with a heart of gold, he was finally getting his due respect.

Then last year, it was announced Johnson had terminal cancer, and with a stiff upper lip and a mix of toughness and humour, he went about doing interviews, playing final shows, and living his last days to their fullest.  Roger Daltry felt some affinity, shared R'n'B roots and working class upbringing with Johnson, they'd talked about recording together in the past, but with the cancer news, Daltry stepped up to the mike to record this quickly with Johnson and his band.  It's eleven songs, under forty minutes, all written by Johnson over the course of his career, except a cover of Bob Dylan's Can You Please Crawl Out Your Window.  It landed in the Top Five in the British charts, so it's already the biggest hit for either in years.

All of this is fine, and good for both of them.  But I'm not going to hype the disc, it's a bit of a routine run-through of mostly basic and middling songs.  Even the numbers from Feelgood's glory days (Going Back Home, Keep It Out Of Sight) have little to raise them above the sound of a million blues bar bands.  It's all the same; Wilko's slashing chords up front, bass loud, piano, organ and harmonica chiming in.  Daltry has lost a bit of range in the last few years, and substitutes some growling for nuance.  Only the jovial boogie of All Through The City livens things up, and that is saved for the last track.  See, it has a memorable lyric and hook:  "I've been searching all through the city, see you in the morning down by the jetty."  Like most beloved British characters, Johnson is better known for being himself than for a great body of work.

Monday, April 21, 2014


It's interesting that there's a current vein of music in the Americana genre that's very...well, very American.  It's got energy, passion, roots, and most of all, it's got Springsteen.  There are a few folks moving in this direction, younger than the crop back in the 70's trading in the same stock as Bruce.  This bunch, which includes Dave Hause and Northcote for instance, have punk roots but when they went solo as singer-songwriters were looking for some intensity.  Chuck Ragan shares that pedigree, four albums and a decade into his solo career.  My theory goes like this:  Springsteen had all those hits back in the 80's, when this bunch was growing up, which sounded great back then amidst the rest of the junk on MTV and MuchMusic.  Then, over the last decade Springsteen has become more overtly political and angry on his albums, no longer worried about saying whatever he damn well wants about presidents, corporations and banks.  Angry Bruce attitude, post - 9/11, and classic, intense American sounds.

Ragan's new album has all those hallmarks, and an especially appealing sound.  It's righteous rock band, along with violin, harmonica, and pedal steel, fronted by his gruff but pleasing vocals, not unlike you-know-who.  He's clearly caught on to the need and belief that lyrics should be important, be direct from the heart, and can say something that will inspire others.  For the most part, it's uplifting.  But then there's Whistleblower's Song, dark and powerful, the corporate or government crime unspoken but the desperation fully spoken:  "Deliverance from damnation's got a way to let you do what you want."  The bulk though, have sing-along choruses, pounding drums and rally-cry words: "We can do some damage, before the hour's handy...something may catch fire" goes the opening cut, burning into your inner groove.  Non Typical is just as intense in its declaration of love:  "I need you like I need all of my blood and my breath."  Ragan has embraced the big sound, and it's the kind of album that will sweep you along from the opening notes.

Sunday, April 20, 2014


Very interesting move for Rutledge, following up the Juno-winning Valleyheart album (Best roots/traditional solo) with an all-covers album.  But what a project;  he's tackled the songbook of The Tragically Hip, ten cuts including big hits and small album cuts.  Can anyone else do the Hip?  They are a unique beast with Gord Downie's singular vocals and lyrics.

Rutledge's answer was to tone down the rock, and concentrate on the beauty and mystery.  That works perfectly for his amazing voice, always a sweet whisper.  The electric guitar is mostly relegated to the background, with piano, acoustics, and voices getting the promotion.  And harmonies!  Something you just don't associate with Downie is all over this album, as Rutledge is joined by an all-star selection of co-singers, including Jenn Grant, Andy Maize, Mary Margaret O'Hara, Brendan Canning and Julie Fader, offering a whole new angle on the songs.

Mostly, the tunes are opened up and given lots of air and room so you can concentrate on the words. Rutledge brings a storyteller style to them, the rich language somehow making more sense slowed down sung gently, and cushioned in studio effects rather than band explosions.  Courage and Grace, Too are the biggest revelations, probably because we're so used to them over the years, but lesser-known numbers such as Long Time Running are just as enjoyable, that one turned into a bare country number, with steel guitar.

The best way to describe it, I think, is to imagine Tragically Hip if they had been the Cowboy Junkies.  There aren't many of these truly successful covers albums, one singer tackling all songs from another act.  There's Danny Michel's Loving The Alien Bowie disc, Nillson Sings Newman, Jennifer Warnes' Famous Blue Raincoat, and now this.

Saturday, April 19, 2014


Byrnes is one of the finest Canuck blues singers, but he's actually from St. Louis originally.  This album is a tribute to the songs he grew up with, most associated with the city and its great players from jazz, blues and soul history.  He's also penned some originals inspired by that rich legacy, and the glory of the album is trying to spot the original versus the more obscure covers, such is the high quality.  A few you'll recognize, such as W.C. Handy's St. Louis Blues, included here in a more rootsy interpretation, and Chuck Berry's Nadine, a little less frantic, the better to hear the awesome wordplay of rock and roll's first poet.

Producer once again by Steve Dawson, the master acoustic musician is the perfect collaborator for this, recreating everything from early 1900's jazz to Lonnie Johnson blues to Fontella Bass soul.  Highlights include an old St. Louis brothel number from Stump Johnson, The Duck's Yas Yas Yas, risque back then, but just funny now, as Byrnes is joined by old pal John Hammond to trade verses.  Situated between Motown and Memphis, it's fitting that the Fontella Bass/Bobby McLure number, You'll Miss Me (When I'm Gone) sounds equal parts southern and northern soul.  It's another fine duet, this one with Colleen Rennison of the group No Sinner.  Cake Alley is a true gem, an old horn number about a real place on the very poor side of town.

As for Byrnes' own numbers, Somebody Lied could have come out in the 60's and been a hurtin' soul ballad, and the spoken-word The Journey Home is quite poignant, a series of memories from decades ago, the band laying back and Byrnes reminiscing about the Cardinals and the intersection of the Missouri and Mississippi.  St. Louis gets left out of most conversations about American music, but in the year of the 250th anniversary of its founding, an old homebody has come back to speak up for its history.

Thursday, April 17, 2014


Don't know why you'd need this double CD, as you can turn on any classic rock radio station and hear the same songs pretty much daily.  Sweet Home Alabama, Rebel Yell, Maggie May, Takin' Care Of Business, American Pie, Rocky Mountain Way, it's got to the point where I turn the station when they come on, I've heard them so much.  I hate the idea these stations have narrowed the 70's down to the same few songs on their identical playlists, instead of simply going to the third or fourth biggest hit by any of these artists, just for diversity.

There, my griping is done, and actually there are a few more inspired choices on this double-disc.  You don't hear Grand Funk Railroad's We're An American Band that much, or Rare Earth's I Just Want To Celebrate.  It looks like compilation-makers have put a moratorium on George Thorogood's One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer, and replaced it with Bad To The Bone, a good decision.  Joe Cocker's always welcome at the table, especially if we're talking older Joe, Feelin' Alright.  However, J.Geils Band should never be represented by Centerfold, no matter that it was their biggest hit.  That was their sell-out period.  In fact, all the 80's cuts here pale, including The Motels, Billy Squier, and especially Pat Benatar.  I'd rather hear Rocky Mountain Way again then anything by her.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014


Fresh off his successful reunion with Emmylou Harris, which produced the Grammy-winning Old Yellow Moon album and major tour, Crowell returned to another pet project. This album was actually started back in 2010, but had to wait for the Harris work to finish. Those with a hankering for Crowell's literary country will recognize the core players here, folks such as Steuart Smith and MIchael Rhodes, the players he made his biggest hits with back in the 1980's.

Country radio has moved on since then though, and you won't find these tight rockers and heartfelt ballads topping the charts like She's Crazy For Leaving and After All This Time did back in 1988. However, you will hear fine musicianship and Crowell's great phrases as always. After drifting around the turn of the century, his biographical The Houston Kid album put him back on course, and since then he's been mining tales from his own past for inspiration, usually to great effect.

This album isn't completely soaked in memories, but they do provide some of the best moments. The title refers to his poverty childhood home, Jesus Talk To Momma is a letter to his own mother through her savior, and various uncles, grandparents, and characters show up. It's not a full concept piece like Houston Kid, and some of the songs are just for fun, like his Cajun homage Fever On The Bayou, or the rocker tribute to a helluva woman, Frankie Please.

It's all stuff fans are by now used to, which is of course, good news, because the quality is right up there. It does feel a bit like business as usual for a bit, until Crowell drops a bombshell. He's always had a way with a sentimental love song, but God I'm Missing You is one of his very best yet. "Time stretches to shape you right out of thin air/But it can't hold the image, if I blink you're not there/God I'm missing you." You should own this album for this song alone.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014


It sure looks good on paper.  The combo of one of the country's greatest front men, and arguably the best band around immediately has the promise of something grand.  And so we've been waiting, seven years now this has been brewing.  Having heard them live 18 months ago, I still wasn't sure what to expect.  You know what?  It sounds just like Gord Downie fronting The Sadies.
What I mean by that is that neither party has changed much of how they sound.  Downie brings the drama, his gruff, tense story-telling in full flight.  The Sadies riff and smash through some tunes, turn up the psych machine on others, some alt-country here, full-out rock on others.  "It Didn't Start To Break My Heart Until This Afternoon" explodes with punk/Neil Young-Rust Never Sleeps intensity.  Budget Shoes has The Sadies Spaghetti Western style, and Downie's slightly surreal dream state lyrics, hard to understand but words that sound just grand.  Devil Enough has that great Sadies trick where they have three different music sections in a tune, slow, medium and fast, with some of that great country picking from Travis Good. Demand Destruction is kind of poppy, in a post-Byrds world, a lighter break from the fine flow of guitars, drums and words.

The group is touring this summer, and it feels much more like a real band than other similar projects, and certainly not like a Gord Downie solo album.  Sometimes these dream team projects don't yield good results, but in this case, what looked good on paper sounds pretty fine too.

Monday, April 14, 2014


It's been a long time since you could see this fine concert, originally broadcast back in 1992, 30 years after Dylan's debut hit the shelves.  Had they known he'd still be cranking them out 22 years later, they might have waited, but even then Dylan was the acknowledged king of them all, country, rock, folk, soul, everybody ready to pay homage.  The line-up is as impressive today as it was then:  Johnny and June Carter Cash, George Harrison, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Willie Nelson, Lou Reed, Roger McGuinn, Eric Clapton, Neil Young and on and on.  Surprisingly for such a mash-up, the performances themselves were top notch as well, ranging from professional to inspired.

Given the star power, it's interesting that some of the very best moments come from unexpected performers.  Johnny Winter rips into Highway 61 Revisited, giving the other guitar heroes a lesson in roadhouse blues.  Eddie Vedder and Mike McCready of Pearl Jam were new upstarts at the time, and showed how the already-old chestnut Masters Of War was still very much relevant.  Ron Wood won the Dylan sound-alike contest, and delivered a smashing Seven Days, a cast-off Bob had given him for a solo album.  The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem were there as old Greenwich Village comrades, and took Madison Square Garden down to coffee house size with a rousing When The Ship Comes In.

The stars did their part too, especially a boisterous Petty and company, already well-versed in Dylan rock after serving as his touring band in part of the 80's.  They rocked the place with Rainy Day Women #12 and 35 before joining Roger McGuinn for the required Mr. Tambourine Man, still sounding fresh and world-changing.  Neil Young was in great spirits, relishing playing All Along The Watchtower, with the mighty house band of Booker T. and the MG's cranked up.  The controversial appearance by Sinead O'Connor is here, nearly booed off stage for her recent Pope-slamming antics on Saturday Night Live, as she responds with an impromptu version of Bob Marley's War.  You'd feel sorry for her, except that during the encore she was still pouting, standing cross-armed and frowning, clearly trying to make her point at the expense of Bob's night.

As for the man himself, well, it was typical mumbling Dylan of those days, a little clearer than the awful Grammy appearance but less than riveting.  For this DVD, we finally get to see him do a solo Girl From The North Country, which had been done as a final encore after the broadcast ended.  There are also some interesting bonuses, including three songs cuts from the broadcast:  John Mellancamp doing Leopard-Skin Pillbox Hat (yawn), Nancy Griffith with Carolyn Hester, singing Boots Of Spanish Leather (subdued, okay), and Booker T and the gang with Gotta Serve Somebody (right on).  The 30-plus minute behind-the-scenes documentary is the best bonus, with rehearsal footage, interviews, Sinead singing I Believe In You, the song that was scheduled, and a good sense of the awe that was going around with all these luminaries in one place.  Pretty much a must-own if you like any of the above.

Saturday, April 12, 2014


If all the BTO hubbub at the recent Juno awards whetted your appetite, here's the group's biggest album, now in deluxe edition.  It isn't overly stuffed, just the original album on disc one, with eight live cuts on disc two, 33 minutes total.  Not Fragile is the album that took the band over the top, containing the hit You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, number one in various countries around the globe, and turned them into international stars.  Not bad for a scrappy, no-nonsense hard-rockin', hard-touring group from Canada.

There's no great art to BTO, just guitar, a band that rocks, and catchy tunes.  Randy Bachman had the knack for making basic songs memorable, and even the heaviest stuff here gets its fair share of hooks.  They get called a hard rock band, but given what has come since in the metal world, that phrase doesn't really fit anymore.  Sure, the power chords and plodding tempo of title cut Not Fragile gets closer to Black Sabbath, but there's far more melody on the rest of the stuff.  What it was then was perfect for the new touring world of hockey rinks, and that's where BTO cleaned up, hundreds of gigs each year.  Fred Turner, as always, handled the tougher songs, while Bachman took the handled the verse-chorus-verse things.  One of the best parts of their music was the fancy guitar Bachman could add, such as the delicate acoustic work on Rock Is My Life, This Is My Song.  There are nice jazzy moments, heard on the live cuts too, which help push the music above the many generic rock bands of the time. 

Roll On Down The Highway is another nice one, again with great guitar, another excellent single that doesn't get the props it deserves these days, relegated to second status after You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet.  Album cuts Freewheelin', Sledgehammer and Blue Moanin' all have their charms as well.  Now largely overlooked in the pantheon of rocks gods in the U.S., where they were multi-platinum huge in 1974, at least Canada continues to do right by them, Hall-of-Famer's from our fair land.

Friday, April 11, 2014


A 2013 nominees for Young Performer of the Year at the Canadian Folk Music Awards, 20-year old McLean is from Regina.  This is his first full album after an EP earned him all the attention last year, and brings a fresh, fun approach to his acoustic tunes.  The instruments are outside the norm, with unique combinations and arrangements.  Opener Slow-Mo-Ocean starts with keyboard mixed with bowed double bass, before acoustic guitar and percussion turns it upbeat.  On the break between verses, a fun horn section of trumpet, trombone and tuba joins in.  The next verse adds a toy piano, before some wordless vocals against the trumpet take it into the air.  That's a lot in a folk song.

Several of the songs have a lo-fi feel, slightly over-recorded vocals give them a demo feel, bedroom music rather than studio clean stuff.  It adds to the intimacy, even with all those various sounds coming at us.  Lyrically the playfulness continues, at times recalling the sillier side of Beatles White Album era, or McCartney's fragments from Ram.  The lovely melodies only add to that.  McLean has some chops on acoustic as well, lots of nice finger work fills in the space before yet another fascinating part drops in, whether its a clarinet line or trumpet solo.  The words come thick and fast and interesting, all in all a wonderful listen.

Thursday, April 10, 2014


A strange one, this.  After the big comeback fueled by longtime fan Elton John on 2010's The Union album, you would have thought Russell would go back to that winning sound.  Instead, he's done a record of orchestrated classics and odd covers, with little direction.  Russell's admitted to not having much of a plan as to how to proceed in his career, and this seems to prove that.  He meanders through old and weary numbers such as Georgia On My Mind and That Lucky Old Sun, tackles some Duke Ellington, and then out of nowhere thematically comes Billy Joel's New York State Of Mind.  It's a confusing listen.

The album was produced by Tommy LiPuma, who brings in his big orchestra for the classics, which sounds completely at odds with Russell's country boogie voice.  Sadly, that instrument is out of tune too, as Russell has now lost much of the (limited) range he once had, and most of the power.  He sounded much better on The Union.  The most enjoyable tracks here are without the orchestra, such as the uptempo combo take on Robert Johnson's Come On In My Kitchen, and some of the old spark on his own tune, Down In Dixieland.  Russell calls this a record of his musical journey through this life, but oddly, he's never taken the horns and strings path before.  There may be a point here, but I'm missing it.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014


The 80's: Good or bad for music, overall? Amid all the synths and bad hair, hair metal bands and cheesy videos, there were certainly some decent albums, albeit sometimes ruined by the glossy production and drum sounds of the time. Canada was a full player in the times, with superstars such as Bryan Adams and Rush leading the charge. Plus, we had our homegrown roster of stars filling up the airwaves, creating our own national memories.

This two-disc set does a pretty fair job arguing that the decade was decent. There are few big names here. Instead it's jammed with one, two or three-hit wonders, good bands that had a fair run at it, and remain pleasant memories in most cases. Yes, there are examples of all the above sins, especially the dated production, but as a collection it holds together as a strong listen.

The country's groups came out of punk and New Wave with a bunch of strong groups pushing boundaries. Martha & the Muffins had the big hit with Echo Beach, but there was also Spoons and Nova Heart, Blue Peter's Don't Walk Away, and Payola$ with Eyes Of A Stranger. Pop got an edge too, with The Northern Pikes' Teenland, The Pursuit Of Happiness' favourite I'm An Adult Now, and The Grapes Of Wrath All The Things I Wasn't. There was still rock and roll, and Kim Mitchell did that just fine, on Go For Soda, while Tom Cochrane & Red Rider were growing white hot with hits like Big League and Lunatic Fringe. Luba had her moment in the sun on the pop charts, represented here by Let It Go, while Colin James started a long career with Five Long Years.

Not to say it's all strong. I'll happily skip over the muted metal of Triumph, Helix and Prism, while Glass Tiger, Eight Seconds and Sheriff are still fluff. The ultimate Canadian moment comes at the end, with Bob & Doug McKenzie's Take Off, featuring Geddy Lee on vocals, a novelty but national treasures all the same. I don't have a lot of nostalgic feelings about the 80's, so this will do me just fine when they do crop up.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Another of the benefits of the Universal/EMI merger is that more artists can show up on the Gold series.  These 2-CD sets put out by Universal contain generous best-of sets from their catalogue, and they know own the rights to the original Crowded House albums, up until the time of their first break-up in 1996.  Yes, the band reformed for two more albums in 2007 and 2010, but for me they have been disappointing, and rarely played.  If I want to relive one of my favourite bands, it's the late 80's - 90's tracks I want, and this delivers it in spades, 35 cuts over the two discs.

My only complaint is the sequencing, which seems to just be a random shuffling, certainly not chronological or flowing.  Two of their most glorious ballads, Weather With You and Four Seasons In One Day, open and close the collection, entirely the wrong places for mellowness.  I want to re-sequence this in the worst way.  Nothing against any of the songs however; from the brilliant and thrilling debut of Don't Dream It's Over to the mad rocking of later tracks Locked Out and Not The Girl You Think You Are, the craft of pop songwriting was not bettered in that decade.  Unabashed Beatles fans, you got both beautiful melodies and surprising studio moves with every song.  It was the ballads where Neil Finn could truly devastate though.  Infidelity is an open wound on both Into Temptation and Better Be Home Soon, while Distant Sun and Love You 'Til The Day I Die the desire for total commitment.  The intensity of that love grows only stronger in I Feel Possessed. 

Few bands could have so much fun, so much pain, and so much love in the space of a few songs.  Maybe that's why it was so hard to sequence such a collection.

Monday, April 7, 2014


How can The Weber Brothers be better than the last time I heard them?  2011's Baddest Band In The Land was no mere brag, it was an explosion of roots rock that proved the Peterborough group to be the heirs to the great rock n' roll traditions, a modern-day equivalent of when The Hawks became The Band.  It was the most exciting album I'd heard that year, but that was then.  Now comes the new one, We, and The Weber Brothers have upped the stakes even further.
Bursting with ideas and influences, each of the ten songs here can barely contain the excitement and imagination of the group.  Solos fly, harmonies swell, and tracks take complete left-turns in the middle, with wonderful results.  Opener Long Days Done starts off as a piano boogie and ends with a surprise guest rap from guest PrufRock Shadowrunner.  Multi-part, dreamy harmonies drift through Before We Arrive, as if Neil Young joined the Everly Brothers.  Fuzzy psych-rock drives I Don't Need A Gun, as raw and loud as any punk track, while Early Or Late is straight doo-wop, right off the 50's street corner, complete with she-bop-she-bop answering vocals.  Simply put, is there anything this band can't do?  I want fifty copies to give to my music-loving friends.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014


Right now in a rehearsal studio in Los Angeles, a classic is being re-born.  One of the landmark albums of the 1990's, one that has made a deep impact on roots and Americana, and the way we appreciate country music, is being polished and reconfigured, readied for the road starting Thursday, April 3.  The Wrecking Ball is swinging again.

Emmylou Harris's Wrecking Ball was released in 1995 to great acclaim, and rewrote the rules on singer-songwriter and traditional folk music.  Produced by sonic wiz and spiritual musician Daniel Lanois, the collection went deep into the soul of both artists, brooding and beautiful, a sound that brought old values into new musical landscapes.  It certainly challenged and changed Harris, who went back to songwriting thanks to this collection, and opened up her own sound.  It's pretty much the album to hear if you want to know what Americana and passion is all about.

In the last few years, Harris has teamed up with Lanois at various benefits, performing some of the Wrecking Ball numbers.  That includes Lanois' annual Harvest Picnic festival near his home of Hamilton, Ontario, promoting local organic farmers.  It's seen Harris join with Lanois' band, casual but solid shows, as true professionals can deliver.  They have a natural chemistry, and the open-air venue only heightens the natural beauty of the sound and material.  Now, Wrecking Ball is getting a brand-new release, expanded to three discs, a second CD of out-takes and unreleased songs, and a DVD documentary called Building the Wrecking Ball, a making-of piece with lots of special guests including Neil Young (who provided the title track), the McGarrigle sisters and more.  There's always been a heavy Canadian content to the album, from Lanois right through.

To mark the re-release, Harris and Lanois are hitting the road for a series of select concerts in North America and Europe, including a Canadian date at Massey Hall in Toronto, April 15.  Rehearsals have been going on for a couple of weeks, under the band leadership of Jim Wilson.  He's been Lanois' go-to bass player for nearly a decade, and has a growing solo career of his own.  I reached him in Los Angeles, well into the rehearsals, and he's already familiar with all the songs.  "We've done Wrecking Ball six times now, as benefit shows, including Nashville, and anytime we've done shows were Emmylou plays with Daniel, we do some of it.  But this time we're going to get it down, we're really going to practice, get our harmonies tight. we're doing the whole album, plus six or eight from Emmy's catalogue, and even a tribute to Phil Everly on a duet.  Daniel's going to play pedal steel on some.  Dan's going to open the show, then play with the band, then after a half-hour Emmylou will come on."

In other words, a dream show for fans.  It's not the biggest-seller in either of those artist's careers.  Lanois can point to producing U2, Dylan and many others, and Harris has had number one hits all over country radio, solo and with the acclaimed Trio recordings with Dolly Parton and Linda Ronstadt.  Artistically though, Wilson says this is holy stuff for both of them.  "Dan is very proud of it, and so is Emmylou.  I asked her one time what her favourite album is, and she said Wrecking Ball is the most important."

Wilson's a big fan too of course, and describes his role as a dream gig.  "It's really cool, Daniel's given me the gift of being kind of a musical director, and when things work great, it's just so awesome, I'll get smiles from both of them.  They give me total freedom, I don't copy what's on the record, Daniel wants the right feel.  And before I met Emmylou, I didn't realized how great a rhythm guitar player she is.  I always feel like she's the real deal."  Plus, Harris and Lanois have no ego when it comes to the musicians.  Wilson gets full billing on all the posters and ads for the concerts, as does drummer Steven Nistor.

"That first happened in Nashville," says Wilson about the billing.  I got there, and there were posters everywhere, with my name on it.  It's really nice that she gives us all this opportunity.  It's so cool, and such a great opportunity.  It's in all the newspapers here in L.A.., I'm getting all these texts and congratulations, I'm really honoured.  My dad's thrilled, because he's a big country fan.  Every time I hear Emmylou say my name, 'good morning Jim,' it's such a thrill.  She's so nice, she had us over to dinner at her house, just sitting around, I got to see her pictures of Gram Parsons, so amazing."

Wilson's name is getting around these days.  The former record store clerk got a big break when he handed a disc of his band Mother Superior to customer Henry Rollins.  He loved it, bringing them in eventually as the new players in Rollins Band, plus using Mother Superior as an opening act.  "We gained a European audience," says Wilson, "a big fan base in Spain, and then Lanois saw the group play at LA's Troubadour, came back stage and said hi, and he really felt it.  I talked to him at the parking lot after, he was on his motorcycle, and we said to stay in touch.  A couple of weeks later we were invited to his house.  For awhile we doing both, playing with Daniel and Henry, and finally Henry just felt like he'd had enough."

Since then Wilson's made his own solo album, and been on-call for whatever Lanois has going. He's toured with the classic band Sparks, and does production work as well, his latest project the new album coming out soon for Pearl Aday, daughter of one Meatloaf (Marvin Lee Aday).  He also has his beloved on-line vinyl radio show, Deep Nuggets once a week.  But another major development just happened, and it's a blast from the past.  It seems Mother Superior still has lots of famous fans, including Scott Ian, the singer for Anthrax.  For his birthday, Superior freak Ian asked Wilson to come and play in an ad-hoc band featuring friends Joey Vera from Armored Saint and drummer John Tempesta of The Cult, all huge Mother Superior fans.  It turned out such a blast, they've been given a record deal from Metal Blade to bring back Mother Superior.

But for the next month, he's riding the Wrecking Ball, and paying tribute to an album he loves.  "It's going to be fun taking it around the world," Wilson says.  The re-issue of Wrecking Ball is out Tuesday, April 8 on Nonesuch Records.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


Lane pulled a strange one when he gave up on The Faces, at a time when Rod Stewart's rocketing stardom was dragging that band into the forefront as well. But the long-time bass player (he was in Small Faces as well) had too many songs of his own, and little patience for Rod's solo flights. He wanted a band he could control.

On his own, Lane went in a completely different direction from the party-hardy rock and blues of The Faces. Instead, he went rural, embracing his own kind of folk music, melodic fare accentuated with fiddle, mandolin and acoustic instruments of all sorts, even tuba bass at times. It would have fit in today in fact, with your Mumfords et al. It does actually, sounding fresher now than it has since first released.

This double disc set cherry-picks cuts from his rather poor-selling 70's sets, adding some alternate takes and unreleased numbers to spice it up, plus a lengthy set recorded for the BBC with his band Slim Chance. It's lovely stuff, Lane sounding a bit like George Harrison vocally, and bringing a warm, communal vibe to all the music. Perhaps it wasn't such an odd plan after all, just not celebrated much at the time. It's well worth checking out.