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.

Monday, November 10, 2014


It's always great when somebody lives it, and Big Dave lives it. He's all about the blues, the road, it's pure commitment. His latest sees him teamed up with producer Steve Dawson, one of the great acoustic sound-shapers the country has produced, and more country blues than McLean has delivered before. With the rock-solid rhythm section of John Dymond and Gary Craig (Blackie & the Rodeo Kings), and guests such as Colin Linden and Colin James, everything here was set up for a career album for Big Dave.

With a mix of smart covers and originals, McLean had some serious subject matter to work with, some personal loss. Both his mother and brother had died, and he pays tribute to both. The Fallen is for his brother, a lament for sure, the weight of the loss on his shoulders. His mother gets a special tribute, a new arrangement of Amazing Grace placed in a song McLean calls Shades Of Grace, featuring top gospel singing from the renowned Regina and Ann McCrary.

There's plenty of fun though, with the covers and the originals. James plays a mean mandolin part on the Tampa Red number Dead Cat On The Line, a ragtime-influenced number dating back to the Depression. McLean's own I Best Choose To Pick The Blues features a typically spot-on Linden slide part, and pretty much sums up McLean's career path. This is McLean's A-game.

Sunday, November 9, 2014


This surprised me, I hadn't thought about Blue Rodeo doing a Christmas album, but the results are pretty darn good. They have a good vibe for a warm, chestnuts glowing kind of tune, and have come up with a homey set. It should please fans, and provide a Christmas album for folks that normally wouldn't put one on.

As usual, you get a song sung by Cuddy, followed by one by Keelor. Guess who gets the angelic ones? Actually, they stay away from carols for the most part, choosing to do modern numbers, and even a couple of originals. It's an eclectic list; Keelor sings the Big Star number Jesus Christ, the edgy but seemingly straight telling of the Christmas story. Then he does Merle Haggard's hurting If We Make It Through December, one of the first mainstream songs to address the tough times some have to endure during the holidays. Keelor oversteps his vocal abilities by doing O Come All Ye Faithful, an odd choice given the rest of the songs here. He redeems himself with Song For A Winter's Night, from the pen of Mr. Lightfoot, who was the original inspiration for the group's sound.

Jim Cuddy can make anything pretty, and might someday consider his own full Christmas album in his side, solo career. He shows his ability to handle a beloved classic with Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, and also tackles a tough, new song, Paul Simon's Getting Ready For Christmas Day. It's even bleaker than Haggard's number, with money woes and modern soldiers have Christmas dinner on a mountain in Pakistan. Cuddy's best moment is The Band's wonderful Christmas Must Be Tonight, a song that for my money should be much better known. His poor choice here is yet another in the endless line of covers of Joni Mitchell's River, which I know refer to as the "Hallelujah" of Christmas songs.

As for the two originals, Keelor's Glad To Be Alive is a winner, a good heart-warming roots number. Cuddy's Home To You This Christmas is a country one, saving up all his money to get back home to see his someone special, with some nice teardrop pedal steel licks. Watch for the special double-pack edition that includes the group's Greatest Hits Vol. 1 as well.

Thursday, November 6, 2014


One of my favourite albums of the past, oh, 20 years or so, this was a surprise hit for the former country singer. Lynne had been around a decade trying to fit into the Nashville structure. Then with the aid of producer Bill Bottrell, she made the album she really wanted, which was a truly Southern one. When it came out in 1999, it was such a radical departure from her decade of major label country albums, she won the Grammy Award for Best New Artist, even though she had made the Top 40 with previous work.

The big difference was Lynne being allowed to write songs that featured all her influences, coming from Alabama. There was soul, rock, country, swamp, that sultry mix that Elvis first popularized, and all the Mussel Shoals folks knew, Al Green too. There was a whole lot of Dusty In Memphis in it, and some deeply personal lyrics that only hinted at the dark side of her life.

Since it was the best soul album of the year from an unlikely source, Lynne's back story became part of the intrigue as well. She and her sister, the similar country singer Allison Moorer, had endured a horrible moment when their father murdered their mother. Once you knew that, moments in her songs suddenly became obvious and heart-breaking, and you had to question Lynne's tough exterior as well. It then seemed a survival instinct.

This anniversary edition of the CD has lots of great bonus material. The main album is fleshed out by six previously-unreleased cuts from the sessions, all of them equally deserving of space on the record. Two in particular spoke volumes, more than any on the album proper; Sky Is Purple is all about the shooting, and MIss You Sissy is about her relationship with Moorer. The second disc here is a fantastic 90 minute concert from Los Angeles's House of Blues, taped shortly after the album's release. There is not one reference to her previous country career. Instead, she and the band do the entire new album, some of the unreleased stuff, and covers of Wichita Lineman and John Lennon's Mother, the latter song going on to be included in her next release, Love Shelby. This is exactly what you want from a Deluxe edition, as it makes a great album even better.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014


Is it possible that after a life and career of defying expectations and pushing the boundaries of music (and his fans' tastes), that Neil Young is getting even further out there?  Let's look at recent musical examples; his personal and political life we shall leave out of the conversation for the time being.  There were two albums in 2012, both with Crazy Horse, one (Americana) being made up of old folk songs, some from the 1800's, done in garage band style.  The second album (Psychedelic Pill) was all-new material, purposefully spare and long, mostly made from extended jams, the lengthiest album of his career.  This year has also seen two albums, the first called A Letter Home, made solo in Jack White's antique self-recording booth, covers of songs by Young's heroes (Dylan, Lightfoot, Willie Nelson, etc.) 

Now comes Storytone, once again finding Young way out of his comfort zone, if he even has one now.  It seems he's only happy when he finds an idea that is completely different from anything he's done before.  The schtick here is that he's tossed all his props away, all his bands too, no guitar or piano even, no Horse.  Instead, there are very, very big orchestras on some cuts, or a big band (in the jazz sense) on the rest.  As many as 92 pieces filled the sound stage, massive string sections lifting his more tender melodies to the skies, with Young singing in front.  Of course, he's not doing Sinatra here, it's his usual croak, love it or not.  There was a full choir of 30-odd voices available too for the more rousing portions.  When the big horn band comes in, it has 13 members, plus a rock band section too, two guitar players including Waddy Wachtel, but not Neil.  Harps, bassoons, oboes and such flitter away on other cuts.

Overall, it's one of his more successful experiments.  Many of these songs, especially the ones with the string orchestra, are from his soft side, numbers that normally might find him at the piano, with little other accompaniment.  I've always like that side of Young, it brings out some of his best melodies and singing, and takes me back to early '70's numbers such as See The Sky About To Rain.  Others, such as Plastic Flowers and Tumbleweed, recall the gentler music of his Prairie Wind album of 2005, and even Harvest Moon cuts such as Unknown Legend, some of his more plaintive work.  The spunkier material here, with the horns, doesn't work quite as well, and its no surprise it harkens back to his time fronting another horn band, Neil Young and the Bluenotes.  The track Say Hello To Chicago is kind of interesting though, as he takes on a Sinatra-hipster persona.

Well, time to tackle the politics and personal now, as the lyrics must be examined.  For me, the true test of a Young album can be found in the words, and I've increasingly been disappointed the past couple of decades, as it seems he treats them as the least of his concerns.  Psychedelic Pill (his only non-covers album since 2010) was so thin on ideas it seemed he was tossing out random thoughts over Crazy Horse riffs.  Here, things are better, but there is plenty to cringe over too.  His topics are love, cars and the environment.  I Want To Drive My Car is one of the horn numbers, mostly repeating the title, with a small mention that we're running out of fossil fuel.   There may be a message, but not much of one.  More to the point is Who's Gonna Stand Up?, asking which of us will stop the big machine, save the rivers, end fracking and refuse more pipelines.  Simplistic, not really inspiring, but well-meant at least.  The personal numbers are the ones that really stand out though, given the recent change in his Facebook status.  Is he talking about Peggy, the woman who inspired Harvest Moon and dozens of other songs along the way, when he sings "Someday you're gonna need me/Like you used to do"?  Is When I Watch You Sleeping about new squeeze Daryl Hannah?  Can I stand to hear that song again, with the line, "When I hear you purrin'/Like a kitten and a lion"?  It's disappointing, and a little icky.  And if these words aren't about either, perhaps a disclaimer might have been in order, since that's exactly what everybody in the world is going to think.  Most fans are still reeling from the news, even if it is none of our business.

If you buy the deluxe version, you get the entire album all over again, only this time, there's no experiment.  It's Young solo, from piano to guitar to ukulele, doing the stripped-down acoustic album for those who want to hear what they would be like normally.  Funny, I thought I would like them better that way, but no.  The cringe-worthy words jump out more, the singing without the strings is less inspired.  Once again, I am left with the same question I've had for years and years with Young; he pours his heart into the music and the concepts and the concerns, so why won't he put as much work into the lyrics?  It's not all about the muse, there is the craft too, and hard work is part of it.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014


A disappointment here, and not because I was hoping for another Sweet Caroline.  Diamond has been on a creative role the last decade, with a couple of genuine quality releases produced by Rick Rubin, in the in the style of Johnny Cash's American Recordings.  Those albums took Diamond back to his classic songwriter days of the 60's, with just an acoustic and his iconic voice.  Mostly though, he wrote some good songs and did some good covers.

I don't think you can blame new producers Don Was and Jacknife Lee for the results here, other than they should have told him to go back to the drawing board.  Even if these songs are highly personal, which he explains in the liner notes, they are too cringe-worthy for anybody but the immediate family.  There's one about his son and daughter-in-law's meeting and romance, "she's from Korea, he's from Long Island."  Another is about writing and performing songs for the first time, called First Time, a mawkish description of the creative process that might turn would-be performers away from the craft.  Anyway, the less said the better in this case.  Damn!  Thought we had him back to Kentucky Woman, instead he's all You Don't Bring Me Flowers.

Monday, November 3, 2014


This ain't supposed to happen. These old-stars-with-guests albums are all usually crap, Look back at my review yesterday of Smokey Robinson's latest, for instance. And Lewis has made some of these before. 2006 saw Last Man Standing, with stars such as Springsteen and Jagger on hand, and 2010's Mean Old Man had Jagger again, with Keith and Ronnie and Slash and Clapton and Fogerty, etc, etc. This time though, the celebs take a back seat. They are here, for sure, with Richards and Wood, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Nils Lofgren, Daniel Lanois and lots of sterling players on hand. But they are playing, not singing for the most part, not doing manufactured duets.

That leaves Lewis to get at it, to get that still-effective drawl around some great rock and roll numbers, new and old. Kris Kristofferson contributed the title cut, co-written by Roger McGuinn and Bobby Neuworth, and it could have been The Killer's theme song if he had done it back in '58. Wood and Richards know Chuck Berry's Little Queenie inside out, a beloved Stones cover, and it's a natural for Lewis too. Then there's a real surprise, a rare, unreleased Bob Dylan track, a number called Stepchild that was played live on tour back in 1978. Here it comes alive, no guests needed, just Jerry Lee doing it southern style, probably much to Dylan's satisfaction.

There are a couple of duets, including a nice one with Shelby Lynne on another Kristofferson song, the sentimental country number Here Comes That Rainbow Again (kids, candy, truck drivers, waitresses). Neil Young's appearance is on the Jimmy Reed number Bright Lights, Big City, which he's recorded before, a bit too laid back for its own good, making it a throwaway.

Hats off to everybody's favourite drummer, session great Jim Keltner, who produced this gem. Instead of letting the sessions become star-sightings, we get a bunch of great players supporting one of the very best. Lewis plays and sings wonderfully, and a core group of Keltner session-pro buddies help make a very respectable album.

Sunday, November 2, 2014


An odd mix of former A-list celebs and virtually unknown new soul singers sign on for the ritualistic back-patting featured on these remake/duets discs. Smokey And Friends features his very best pals signing all the same old 60's and 70's hits Robinson wrote for others or recorded himself. Plus, the young ones get to give a spoken-word tribute to the master at the start of several tracks, about what a privilege it is to sing with him, etc. Awkward, if you are humble, but this set isn't about humility.

I'm having a hard time figuring out what its about actually. Surely there have been enough tributes over the years to Robinson's rich writing of decades past. And there is little artistic gain from rehashing You Really Got A Hold On Me with Steven Tyler or The Way You Do (The Things you Do) with CeeLo Green. Elton John and James Taylor will show up for anybody's album, or rather, record their vocals at the nearest local studio to their home and mail in their parts. Miguel, Jessie J and Ledisi are apparently up-and-comers who will benefit from this association, or maybe it's Smokey who is trying to grab some of their hotness, hard to say. Anyway, I have this Motown box set with all the originals on it, when I need to hear Tears Of A Clown, that's where I go.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


In these days of red-carpet culture and celebrity worship, I find myself drawn more and more to the opposite end, the singer-songwriter, doing it as simply as possible. Here we have the new-old songs of Steph Cameron, acoustic guitar and voice, and hard-truth folk music. Aside from the studio and microphones used to capture it, she can and does make this music wherever she wants, currently out of B.C. There's a bit of fun, some sadness, some tales, and some personal truths, all from her own experiences. Mostly, they sound like the songs average people wrote in the 20's and 30's, faced with depression and hardships, when they didn't know whether to cry or laugh about it. There are benefits to both.

Sometimes the hurts are temporary, a lover gone, in Cry Baby. Other times they are permanent and scarring, like the parent's shotgun suicide in Ellis Pine, the howling of wolves a painful reminder that follows the singer through life. There is no mention of the city and modern life here, it's all rural and natural imagery, but somehow seems all that more real for it. It's the type of music that always sounds better as spare as can be, and Cameron does it with a pure voice and hypnotic playing. There's no need for anything else.