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.