Thursday, December 29, 2016


Here's a nifty little bonus disc from the recent breakout soul star. It's an eight-cut, half-hour long set of b-sides and bonus cuts from the Stax Records artist, following his label debut in 2015, which went gold in the U.S. and platinum in Canada. It's no mere jumble of leftovers though. Aside from one live cut (Wasting Time from the proper album, recorded at the Stax Museum in Memphis), the rest are solid studio cuts that easily could have fit on the album, or even made a good start on the next one.

For the most part, these are horn-fired, Southern-flavoured soul numbers, with a good bit of boogie in there as well. But Rateliff's folk past does pop up on the track Just To Talk To You, an acoustic slide guitar number. How To Make Friends, is more of a rock number, a laid-back groove with a George Harrison/All Things Must Pass vibe. I can see how these somewhat out-of-character cuts might not feel right for album cuts, but they certainly add to the appreciation of his skills. It's a good little stop-gap set while we wait to see what 2017 brings.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Melodic blues from the B.C.-based veteran, who brings a highly developed sense of songwriting to the multiples styles on his latest solo album. On the ten originals here, Crissinger and his band show off their versatility, adjacent songs often greatly different, such as Night Light's jazzy knack to Defeated's harder edge and smoking solo, on to One of These Days' lighthearted country-boogie.

Crissinger works hard on his lyrics, using modern themes and lines instead of getting stuck trying to use yesterday's blues writing. That helps lend an openness to the whole set, with quite different numbers such as Wild Wind Fever, which features dramatic slide guitar through much of the song, but also some easy-going verses, keeping the song catchy. And A Simple Truth is mellow, soulful ballad that again hits home with a winning melody. Add in Marty Howe's strong harp playing throughout, and it's a start-to-finish strong album.

Monday, December 26, 2016


Ah, the box set. How far it has come since the first heady days of Dylan's Biograph and Eric Clapton's Crossroads. Those sets and several others changed the game for veteran artists and collector fans. Previously unreleased music was now a priority, a gold mine for everybody from Springsteen to The Beatles, and as record sales dwindled, box sets got bigger, more elaborate, good money-makers for artists and record companies at a time when there was little else to count on. Fans have proven themselves willing to part with more and more money when you added more and more unreleased material, no matter what it was. Dylan's people have made it an art form with the Bootleg Series, releasing everything from raw studio sessions to the roughest recordings of the Basement Tapes to a whopping 36-disc set of every show on tape from 1966, despite the fact that almost every one has the same exact set list. Just call it a Super Deluxe Edition, and there are fans lining up to shell out.

The latest set from The Who explores one album, the group's debut from 1965, My Generation, or The Who Sings My Generation as it was called in North America. In typical repackaging efforts of today, this 12-track album has been exploded into a five-disc package, using most of the tricks of the trade these days. We get the album twice, first in mono, then in stereo. Then there are all the associated tracks from that year that were either released as non-album singles or simply rejected at the time. Then there are alternate mixes, or different takes of songs. Finally, there's a disc of demos for some of the songs by Pete Townshend, and even some songs that never made it past the drawing board. So a 12-song album becomes a 79-track box.

Sounds cool on paper, but before reaching for that gift certificate from Amazon your Aunt Dorothy sent from Calgary, examine it closely. Discs one and two, do you care if you have the album in stereo and mono? Will you listen closely over and over pick a favourite? If you're a passionate fan, perhaps. Now to discs 3 and 4. Maybe you bought the 2002 Deluxe reissue of the album already, in which case you would already have all the b-sides and singles and out-takes, like the hit Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere or the Motown covers Leaving Here and Heatwave. And do you care about having them in mono or stereo, or getting a variation of a cut with a more prominent french horn part, or an earlier vocal take from Roger?

I'm betting the majority of folks will now say no, and save their $142.34 for the new John Grisham thriller and Green Smoothies For Life, and such. But here's where I'll stand up proudly for these boxes, even though you do get the same songs, repackaged and repurposed, which you might already own. My reasons are thus:

1.) These sets are the new coffee table books.

It's a fabulous thing to hold. A beautiful, hard-cover book with tons of great photos, and an intelligent, informative essay over 80 pages, including notes on each track, lyrics, and special notes from Townshend on the new demos disc. As well, there are replica inserts of flyers, business cards, and posters from the time.

2.) You get to really know the album, and have a great listening experience.

I took Boxing Day to listen to this, a good investment of time given the cash investment. You pay attention, you hear the stereo/mono differences, you read the notes and find out the history of each track. It's pretty cool to hear a different take of the hit My Generation, and then an instrumental version too.

3.) The B-sides and out-takes tell a whole different story

Covers of James Brown, Garnet Mimms and Martha and the Vandellas show the group deep in their early mod phase, a hyper bar band playing soul tunes for rowdy fans, the equivalent of The Beatles at the Cavern Club. They had a whole repertoire to choose from, as well as the growing songwriting talent of Townshend.

4.) The demos are amazing

Townshend has been wowing us for years with his demos, many of them released on his series of double albums called Scoop, and on other box sets. Now, he's ready to unleash more. There are two glorious takes on My Generation, three songs never recorded by the band, some that didn't appear for a couple of years, 11 in total, plus a note saying he's going to release more on further, upcoming volumes of Scoop. Awesome. For me, this is the best disc in the set.

There's all sorts of nitpicky, trainspotter stuff going on as well that's not worth getting into, but you can read about it, and caught up in it if you're a purist. Most big fans agree these are better stereo mixes than the ones from 2002. Many of the alternate cuts are appearing in stereo for the first time on CD here. Townshend and Daltry did some minor overdubbing of missing parts for a handful of the stereo cuts recently, always a sore point for some.

But I don't care about any of that. I love The Who, and I love holding this thing in my hands, it's beautifully made, and a great document of an artistic statement from 1965. I had a great time with this set through the day, in what has become a holiday tradition for me, the "new box set for Christmas" listening party. I'll pull it out from time to time, to check on a fact, to maybe play the full album, and definitely to play the demo disc. I may do the whole box set over another time. You can be cynical and say it's a cash grab, but I wouldn't say that, there's a ton of work that went into this, hours and hours by many people, and they are using high-quality materials in the manufacturing. As I write this, I'm staring at the ever-growing collection of these sets, including the many Dylans, a couple of Claptons, The Beach Boys' Smile and Pet Sounds sets, The Rolling Stones Abkco singles, an Al Green box made to look like a Bible, and previous Who Super Deluxe boxes on Live At Leeds and Tommy. They all make me very happy. So does My Generation. Nothing matches the thrill of a well-made box set for this music collector.

Saturday, December 24, 2016


While the Stones have written and created some of the greatest songs in the rock and roll canon, it's always been true that if you want to hear the heart and soul of the band, it's when they play the blues. Formed as a strict blues group covering Chicago-style electric acts, they started out playing Little Red Rooster and the like, and returned many times to the well along the way. Even the group's debut had already seen them moving into more popular R'n'B sounds by Motown and Stax artists, as well as their own early writing attempts. Now, fifty-plus years later, they have finally done a full blues set.

It came about by accident, as the group was in the studio trying to work on new material, and had hit a roadblock. They decided to do a blues just to get back on track, playing Little Walter's 1959 cut, Blue and Lonesome, a group favourite. Wisely, taped was rolled, and an often-discussed but never attempted full blues album was suddenly on the way. Three days later, it was done, the core four joined by longtime auxiliary members Darryl Jones on bass, and Matt Clifford and Chuck Leavell on keys. Eric Clapton was working in the next studio, and came over to play on two cuts on the second day, and that was it. Instead of struggling to come up with something to interest the fickle modern music buyers, new cuts that could compete with the group's hallowed history, they did the one thing they could do with ease, better than anyone; just play the blues.

This isn't the same old Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters material that everyone has done to death. The Stones show just how deep their knowledge and love goes, able to call up obscure b-sides and non-hits by some of the best, largely forgotten but always great music. There are four Little Walter cuts, including the title track, a couple of Howlin' Wolf numbers, ones by Jimmy Reed, Magic Sam and the likes of Eddie Taylor and Little Johnny Taylor. The one cut that is well-known, Otis Rush's I Can't Quit You Baby, was probably picked to give Clapton something he knew to join in on. They were done quickly, without time to work out parts and overdubs, but to capture the real music, and that's been done with flying colours. There's nothing about this album that sounds contrived. These are not overfed, over-drugged rock stars, but rather incredibly hard-working musicians, huge fans of the songs and style, and players with invaluable experience, pouring all they have into the sessions.

You can easily imagine Charlie Watts shining here, with his great feel and huge sound, and of course Keith Richards and Ron Wood lock in provide excellent leads and rhythm. I'd argue the guitar work on Wolf's Just Like I Treat You is some of the best laid down on a Stones cut, ever. But the most surprising turn comes from Jagger, and not just his fully-engaged and strong vocals. It turns out to be a harmonica album, with the quartet of Little Walter cuts, and Jagger adding significant parts to all the others. His playing in recent years has been incendiary in concert, and now he gets to show just how much of a master he has become over the years. It dominates many of the songs, as the main solo instrument over the guitars, and producer Don Was lets the harp sound cut through louder and sharper than anything else. These are harmonica songs after all, or become them in this setting, and the rock star is replaced by the consummate bluesman, transforming the band.

Blues is all about experience, and perhaps The Rolling Stones, didn't want to, or couldn't have made this album until they got to this point, where they could stand with Wolf and Waters and Reed and Willie Dixon, and make it sound absolutely as good as the originators. It took them six or seven years to become the greatest rock and roll band in the world, but almost six decades to become the best blues band.

Thursday, December 22, 2016


American Idol, The Voice, whatever, the concept has been flogged a dozen different ways, and it still keeps resonating with a significant audience. So, why not an animated version? With singing animals? If you want to see an elephant, a pig, a mouse and a punk rock porcupine sing Jump, Kiss From A Rose, I'm Still Standing and Pennies From Heaven, more power to you.

That's the visual side; for the companion soundtrack album, you're dealing with voice actors getting to sing, always a risky adventure. I guess Reese Witherspoon doing a high-energy version of Venus is harmless, as Bananarama weren't exactly opera singers in the first place. Seth MacFarlane has been using his lounge-singing style in tons of his projects over his career, so he was a natural to play a mouse with a Sinatra voice, doing My Way. Scarlett Johansson is limited at best, but Tori Kelly makes her acting debut as the elephant, coming to film after being an actual Voice and Idol competitor. Of course, they have her sing Hallelujah, yet another unnecessary version, but accurate for such shows at least.

To flesh out the film, the actual original versions of Under Pressure and Gimme Some Lovin' are used, which are typical soundtrack fillers. At least there's a fine new cut from Stevie Wonder and Ariana Grande, Faith, and the final cut here is from real powerhouse singer Jennifer Hudson, who has a small role in the film, doing The Beatles' Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight. It's a killer performance, which leads me to wonder if big-name stars are really needed in such a film, with music such a main part of it.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016


Over the course of several albums, Neil Young has been attempting to drum up interest in his political protest music, from the anti-Bush collection Living With War to railing against corporations such as Monsanto and Starbucks. These sets have been tough sells, and tough to enjoy. It's not simply because he's being a downer; by and large his audience probably agrees with his views on the environment and big greed. It's just that for the most part, the lyrics have been awful, rushed and unpolished. His argument has been that these topics are so important, everybody has to listen now and act. But most of us know all these things and have our own opinions; how about some art and subtlety, Neil?

Well, this time, he's done it. Peace Trail is largely about the environmental protests being done by First Nations people across North America, something Young has long identified with and supported. Pipeline fights have increasingly grabbed his interest over the last few years, and the little guy protest against the big company and the state informs several of the 10 songs here. Finally, he's not beating us over the head with the lyrics. Instead, these are stories of people involved, like the decent farmer speaking up for his workers in John Oaks. The title cut, Peace Trail, instead of being negative is forward-looking and positive: "I see the same old signs, but something new is growing." And even the most obvious lyric, Indian Givers, about big industry trying to grab back land given in treaties, features stinging lines about corporations who run disinformation p.r. campaigns, trying to make themselves look like good guys: "Bring back the days when good was good/Lose these imposters in our neighborhood."

There's more exciting news in the music. There's a core sound here, a brand-new one for Young, for anyone. For most of the album, he's on acoustic, there's a young bass player named Paul Bushnell, solid and simple, and the great Jim Keltner on drums. Keltner's percussion is mixed way up, more of an equal than a rhythm holder. Young also drops in some electric guitar lines, but different than his normal proto-grunge. These are echoed, distorted single lines, layered on top. Plus he plays his nastiest harp ever, dirty and even more distorted than anything else. The melodies and acoustic work, plus the style of vocal delivery he's using remind me of the On The Beach album of 1974, one of his very best.

There are other songs than the protest material too, including the surreal Glass Accident, an intriguing number that seems to be about comparing a broken glass to a broken relationship. And the album ends with the hilarious My New Robot, which brings back the controversial robotic voice of the Trans album, only this time it makes much more sense, since his new robot has just been delivered by, and he's getting instructions on how to program it, and everything's just peachy. This is a fascinating, different, playful, well-crafted and complex set of songs, which is what I've been hoping for from this singular talent for a long time, and always thought he could still deliver.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016


It was a big idea with big stars, and looked like a sure-fire hit, but the Showtime series Roadies bombed this past summer, and was cancelled after one season. Despite having Cameron Crowe in charge (Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous) and J.J. Abrams overseeing, with Luke Wilson starring, and lots of famous musicians in each show, the plot about the lives of roadies turned out to be about as exciting as the lives of roadies actually are. Sure, they get to see cool moments backstage and awesome soundcheck performances, but that's all that was interesting on the shows as well.

What we're left with is the soundtrack featuring the guests from the 10 episodes, usually appearing truly live, without the normal backing track or lip-synch performances. Given Crowe's A-list contact list, and pretty good taste, he lined up a mix of A-listers to up-and-comers. Lindsey Buckingham does a mean solo version of his Big Love, always a highlight of Fleetwood Mac shows. Jim James appears twice over the 16 cuts, once with My Morning Jacket, and again solo with a surprising choice, a cover of the somewhat obscure Who song, They Are All In Love, a tender cut from the Who By Numbers album, a beautiful acoustic performance. Quirky Brit Robyn Hitchcock, always killer live, does his own Sayonara, Judge. Best of all, Jackson Browne pays tribute to his old pal Lowell George, with the classic Little Feat gem Willin', and Gary Clark Jr. wows with a passionate version of The Healing.

I'm sure Crowe and crew felt they'd have more opportunities to present bigger names, so several of the shows featured new acts, no doubt scouted and touted by music placement people. While there's no denying the quality of Best Coast and The Head and the Heart, the likes of Saskatoon's Reignwolf and Phantogram are the type of acts that you get told are great but don't actually ever prove it. Add in a performance by the past-his-due-date John Mellencamp, it means there are holes in this set. Like the show itself, it makes one wonder how they managed to make this less-than-excellent.

Monday, December 19, 2016


Lots of throaty, sassy blues from this excellent Houston singer. After a lifetime of hard work in the clubs and a dozen albums, she finally got top recognition with a #1 blues album in 2014, Royal Oaks Blues Cafe. This one sees her sifting through the classic writers for just the right tunes to match her grit, and she truly owns the songs she picked from Memphis Minnie, Big Mama Thornton and Lowell Fulsom. Every cut is sung like she means it, and that's the whole key right there, feeling the blues and passing it on.

Each of the ten cuts here also has a solid groove, with a Friday night, forget your troubles energy. Lynn's harp player, Steve Krase, leads his own band as well, with decades of experience too, and they make a perfect pair, as he follows her soulful lines with plenty of expert licks. This is a group I would rush to go see, and stay for each set.

Sunday, December 18, 2016


With his rugged voice and rural leanings, Lucky is channeling old-fashioned values and a country-folk classic style. From the kitchen, my son yelled, "Is that Lightfoot?" and that's a big influence for sure, in sound and spirit. Lucky is looking for values out there in the big world, hitting the road and trying to find the right way, to help and love, to appreciate the country and everybody living in it. After his many trips across the country, the Saskatchewan-raised singer-songwriter is coming to grips with his own traveling Jones, and turning into fodder for his tunes.

There's no question travel dominates the record, with a couple of songs filled with descriptions of the beauty of each province, "Prince Edward (Island)'s copper sand" and the like. But it's no mere "This land is your land" travelogue; Lucky's songs are all soaked in sadness, with pedal steel, fiddle and banjo setting the mood. If he rolls into Jasper after an all-night drive, despite the local beauty, he plays the legion for two or three. Freedom's just another word for loneliness at times, and that's here in spades as well. In other words, what could be gung-ho songs of "Isn't it great outside with all the trees and mountains?" are instead tales of looking everywhere to find yourself.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


The last we heard from this north shore of Nova Scotia singer-songwriter, he'd recruited his two kids into a band called Fresia for a 2012 album. That was just the latest twist in a three decade-long music career, and now he's found another. After spending half of 2015 traveling the globe, from London to Morocco, and time spent living in France and Spain, he returned with inspirations and a stripped-down technique. This album's as simple as can be: One voice, one guitar, one microphone.

There's nothing new in that trick, but when it works, it's very effective; think Springsteen's Nebraska album. Or, that acoustic guitar player at an open mic night who manages to hush the crowd. Fresia has that lonesome blues sound, in a small basement coffee house or bar, and all that's missing is the scattered applause at the end, and the tinkle of ice in the glasses. He's picked up some of the music styles from his travels for sure; African Skies is set under the strange stars he encountered, and includes some lovely work on the high notes of his guitar. Beaujolais Nouveau comes to us in French of course, with Euro jazz.flair. It's an impressive multi-cultural tour, even more so considering the whole one player, one mic approach. To order a ridiculously cheap copy, head to

Friday, December 16, 2016


Out of Ottawa comes this tight, groove-oriented blues-rock combo, with a modern sound focused on songcraft. Haneman has a particularly smooth voice, used to great effect on the easy ballad Waiting At Your Door. He can get gritty too, and with Jeff Asselin on drums and Martin Newman on bass, they prove themselves a powerful trio as well, plus Megan Laurence provides some strong backing vocals throughout, plus takes a stand-out turn as lead singer on Firestorm.

Haneman proves himself more than capable as a lyricist as well, and I don't think I heard a single blues cliche in the batch. Instead, we get interesting flows of words, such as "Does she ever wonder about the repercussions of those games she plays," in Storybook Love, more like a Jeff Buckley lyric. Plus, the band-written music is filled with imaginative parts, the songs going off in non-standard sections and interesting asides, places for the group to stretch out. As well, they win the prize for most imaginative cover versions, doing a full-up blues reinterpretation of Bryan Adams' Run To You (hey, it works, really) and an upgrade on Steppenwolf's Magic Carpet Ride that turns it into a cool boogie. This is an inspired set.

Thursday, December 15, 2016


Here's the last of the Christmas releases to come my way this year, and I did have some hopes for it. I thought, Neil Diamond, acoustic guitar, kind of an unplugged Christmas vibe, there might be something there. Unfortunately, that's not exactly what they meant by acoustic. Instead, it's very produced, with strings and horns and Irish instruments, and tons of keyboards. It's not far removed from a Michael Buble or Rod Stewart Christmas album. That's probably what they are hoping for, too. After all, those were huge, multi-million-selling releases, and when you do have a breakthrough Christmas album, it's the gift that keeps on giving for record companies and superstars. That's probably why not one, but two huge "name" producers made this set, Don Was and Jacknife Lee.

On some songs, the acoustic thing does work for Diamond, such as Children Go Where I Send Thee, with its gospel arrangement, backing choir, and Neil getting his groove on. Also, he did some writing too, three originals that aren't too bad at all, including the fun #1 Record For Christmas. But the overwrought carols suffer from the same-old, same-old syndrome, too many instruments, and Diamond in his You Don't Bring Me Flowers-style of dramatic singing. And he's risking the wrath of a nation with his faux-Irish accent on Christmas In Killarney. If there is a Santa Claus, this won't be a #1 record.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016


Musgraves has the right idea, playing it light and fun with her Christmas choices, cheeky but cool too. The sound is bright and poppy, with lots of handclaps and jingle bells, lap steel for that touch of Hawaii on Mele Kalikimaka, and plenty of happy vibes. Plus, she has the personality and peppy voice to pull it off.

The cuts range from familiar ones done up with kicky new production (Let It Snow, Feliz Navidad) to brand-new originals, Musgraves proving she has the knack for novelty writing. A Willie Nice Christmas is a pardonable pun, as Willie Nelson stops by for a guest duet, and Musgraves and Leon Bridges team up to write and sing a cool soul number, Present Without A Bow. And while it sounds impossible, Musgraves does a straight version of The Chipmunk Song, under its parenthetical title, Christmas Don't Be Late, and makes it a pretty decent tune, without Alvin and the boys' sped up voices. This wins the most fun Christmas disc of the year honours, hands down.

Monday, December 12, 2016


The venerable jazz label Verve weighs in with two collections of holiday material from same of the great masters, as well as newer lights on the scene. The discs are split into two categories, instrumentals and vocals. For the most part, these are the usual, well-known tunes, but as with the best of jazz, reinterpreted by the artists to make them all seem fresh and surprising.

While I understand the desire to put the newer names on these sets, promoting today's players, it's a bit unfair to them, as they have to go up against giants. This is very apparent on the instrumental disc, as a middleweight fusion guy such as Tom Scott does a cloying take on Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas, after we've just heard the Ramsay Lewis Trio rework Here Comes Santa Claus with lots of cool phrasing and different paths. Organ great Jimmy Smith goes funky on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, but poor Kevin Eubanks has nothing new to say in Silver Bells. But old outweighs new on the disc, and the Lionel Hampton Sextet's Swingle Jingle will liven up any tree trimming.

The vocals album is better with the modern/classic mix, largely because Verve has had a bunch of great modern singers in the last couple of decades, notably Diana Krall, Patti Austin and Norah Jones. Jones and Willie Nelson do a fine job on Baby, It's Cold Outside, Willie phrasing so well you almost don't notice the heavy coercion going on. The pair stack up nicely against such venerable names as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Billie Holiday. Betty Carter really steals the show though, with Home For The Holidays. This is everything you want from a Christmas album.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


It's two, two, two albums in one. You get the brand-new Unplugged version of the group's favourites, and then as a bonus, there's a generous, 20-track best of the originals, for you to compare them all. It's worth buying just as a greatest hits.

The unplugged versions are certainly stripped back. It's pretty much keyboards, acoustic guitars, bass, light percussion and hand-claps. That's particularly striking on the group's cover of Many Rivers To Cross, with the desired campfire feel in full effect. Lead singer Ali Campbell still has the exact same voice we've known since the 80's, so these versions sound strong and confident. Included for the first time on a UB40 album is a reggae version of Prince's Purple Rain, which Ali Campbell originally sang on a collection by Radio Riddler from 2014, called Purple Reggae, and it works really well with that beat. Chrissie Hynde's famous part on I Got You Babe is handled by Ali's daughter, Kay Campbell, and she's almost a dead ringer for the Pretenders star. With the ease and warmth of these versions, I'm having a hard time choosing between the originals and this set.

Saturday, December 10, 2016


Man, I love this ongoing series, one that presents old classics, but often with very surprising and rarely-heard choices. There are so many oldies collections that stick with the same top hits, it's great when somebody curates them with the idea of giving you something you might not know, or at least something you haven't heard in ages. This is volume six in the set, and this time the focus is on instrumentals.

There haven't been many instrumental hits over the years, barely any since the 60's, and that means the big ones are very familiar (Green Onions, Telstar, etc.). There are just two somewhat familiar ones on this set, The Marketts' Out Of Limits, a #3 hit in 1964, and Jack Nitzsche's awesome The Lonely Surfer, #39 from 1963. The rest fall into a couple of categories; there are several jazz numbers by top-flight film composers and such, plus numbers by several of the famous Wrecking Crew, the L.A. session players best known for working with Phil Spector, Brian Wilson and on hundreds of other hits.

Since they were the best players in town in the 60's, the Wrecking Crew people were all asked to do instrumental albums, with the hopes of a break-out hit, or maybe some good sales in the hi-fi adult market. The names are now a bit more familiar now, thanks to recent documentaries and belated acknowledgement from collectors. So you get numbers by guiter greats Billy Strange, and Tommy Tedesco, bassist Lyle Ritz, keyboard player Al Delory, sax player Plas Johnson, and the guy the most hit records, drummer Hal Blaine.

Lots of these cuts are fun, but for the first time, the compilers come up a little short. Instead of choosing good songs, they go for names; Michel Rubini played piano for Sinatra, and worked with folks from Sonny & Cher to Ray Charles to Frank Zappa, but his Blues Cha Cha ain't much to write home about. Chuck Berghofer played that great bass line in These Boots Are Made For Walkin', but he's way too jazz to fit well here. And Mike Deasy played for Richie Valens and Eddie Cochran, but his Christian rock cut Lost In The Shuffle is quite awful, and it's not even an instrumental. Some more work was needed pulling good cuts, but still it's worth it for the Wrecking Crew novelties, and that sublime Nitzsche cut.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016


Toronto's multi-talented Kaleb Hikele won't stand still long enough to pin a label on him. Last year, with his outfit known as The Sun Harmonic, he moved from the folk world to lush, orchestrated piano pop music. All the soothing quality found there has been tossed away in this fiery rock band collection. A five-track E.P., Hikele covers the lead vocals on top of a vicious quartet including Alex Walls on lead guitar.

With plenty of slash and thrash, the band falls somewhere between punk and metal, finding a groove and beating the crap out of it. There are no soft moments or breaks for the listener, and certainly no instruments other than guitar, drums and voice - okay, maybe a harmonica, I think that's it. Lead single We Are Not Alone is all about aliens, so it's kind of like if Blue Oyster Cult had been the biggest punk band of all time. And somehow in all that powerhouse explosion Hikele, who produced and engineered the cuts, managed to keep some very catchy tunes at the core. You can find the E.P. and lots of other projects from this arts collective at

Tuesday, December 6, 2016


Guilty. There, I've admitted it. The first part of tackling a problem is acknowledging it, or whatever. My problem is sheer laziness, refusing to deal with the living room. Boxes, piles, papers, projects, magazines. And of course, CD's. I have no good filing system for the newer review copies coming in, and that led to the following problem: I'm really, really late reviewing this album, because I just found it at the bottom of a pile, underneath a magazine from July I haven't read yet. Darn thing came out five months ago, but I love it so much, I must right this wrong, by writing.

CD in question comes from the fertile mind of Chris Collingwood, heretofore the lead singer of the beloved New England pop group Fountains of Wayne. Although ostensibly a solo album, Collingwood didn't want people to consider this a side project, so he stuck a band name on it, also acknowledging the efforts of top players such as Davey Faragher (bass, Elvis Costello, Cracker) and producer Mitchell Froom. F.O.W. were always known for witty and wonderfully catchy pop tracks such as Stacy's Mom, and that hasn't changed here for Collingwood. The biggest difference is the blatant hit-single sound from the 70's has been toned down, in favour of a little more laid-back, songwriter feel.

Certainly there's a classic feel to the songs, and both Froom and Collingwood have cited The Moody Blues as a sonic influence, a particularly cleanly produced bunch, with the rich use of mellotron string effects and keyboards. It's always refreshing to hear so much piano, and I'm one who falls for the light-lush touch. But the key is the crisp writing, Collingwood's ear candy-coated lyrics: "They walk among us, the stars of New York." Breezy is certainly the tone of that particular song, a little summertime ditty that continues Collingwood's position as heir to the Nick Lowe-Squeeze style. As always, he proves a keen proponent of writing songs about songwriting, MInor Is The Lonely Key a melancholy McCartney number. And he loves to turn a cliche upside-down: "The bird in the tree won't shut the hell up," he tells us in You Can Come Round If You Want To.

Anyway, let's pretend I'm not really late, I'm just doing up my "Best albums of the year" list. There, now I'm early. And I don't have to clean up.

Monday, December 5, 2016


Here's a new partnership, at least on disc. Cassie Josephine and Gabe Minnikin both hail from Nova Scotia, met each other on a shared bill, and now share everything, on and off stage. Minnikin's career goes back to the seminal turn-of-the-millennium group The Guthries, which gave us Matt Mays, Gabe's sister Ruth Minnikin, Dale Murray and pretty much everybody who went through the group has been a major contributor to the East Coast music community. He was in England for his last solo album, but back home this pairing is now prevailing, and the duo is the deal now.

In an interesting format, the album is split down the middle, the first half featuring Josephine's songs, the second all coming from Minnikin, although they play and sing on each other's tracks as well. It points to their independence as singer-songwriters, as there are no co-writes, they each have their own material, and aid rather than collaborate for the most part. It does help that they have similar styles, storytellers with a bit of western (as in country and ...) influence, Josephine with more of a voice, Minnikin with more of a twang. They blend well, especially on his songs, a low-high, boy-girl, rough-polished mix that's easy-going and happy.

While Minnikin's numbers fall more into the alt-country world, with pedal steel, desire and bad decisions, Josephine has a sunnier disposition. Her songs are more light-hearted, little celebrations of life, such as I Don't Want To Go Anywhere, or August Man, which announces "I want to hold on to this like a Nova Scotia summer. I know just what she means.

Josephine and Minnikin are launching the album in Halifax, coming up this Saturday, Dec. 10. Featuring the Flower Country Band, the show is at 8 p.m. at the Bus Stop Theatre.

Sunday, December 4, 2016


Has everybody finally done a Christmas album? The flood of annual yuletide releases has eased to a trickle, and some of the biggest names are onto their second holiday collection. McLachlan has long been a seasonal favourite, thanks to her million-selling 2006 album Wintersong, including her much-loved version of Joni Mitchell's River. 10 years on, she's back at it with more carols, classics and silver bells.

Along with old hands producer Pierre Marchand and drummer Ashwin Sood, McLachlan is joined by guests including the Montreal-based group Half Moon Run, singers Emmylou Harris and Martha Wainwright, and the Bulgarian Symphony Orchestra. But despite quite a few folks involved, the power of the record comes from the quietness and simplicity of several of the tracks, which let McLachlan wow us with her familiar, and yes, angelic voice. I always think of empathy when she sings, and her soothing quality is perfect for these songs of healing and rejuvenation.

That's not to downplay the playing, of course. There's a jazz magic to The Christmas Song, the most prominent instrument an acoustic bass. The subdued White Christmas features just a simple electric guitar and a trumpet for the lead. The team isn't afraid to mess with the traditions either, bringing in a brand-new melody for Let It Snow. This isn't the festive, tree trimming or egg nog gathering album, this is the one you play when the snow is falling outside, and you're under a blanket.

Friday, December 2, 2016


This Ontario folk ensemble might be the ultimate melting pot of musical styles, and delights in mixing elements in surprising and fun new concoctions. There's lots of trad folk, but it's turned on its head, with lots of drums and percussion, obvious jazz bass or a rock guitar, a whistle playing a blues, a bouzouki doing whatever it is bouzoukis do. The band keeps bringing in more and more instruments to the mix: fiddle, recorder, accordion, harmonica, mandolin, tabla, a shifting ensemble of core members and guests, and even they lose count; the group photos are of six main musicians, but the credits list seven.

No matter, these are all special players, giving new life and different twists to originals and classic folk covers. Opening medley Hold The Candle starts with lots of effective beats and a near-reggae bass on an Irish number, which then blows up into a fiddle/drum workout. Then they keep heading east: Mi'kmaq Enigma sees them cover two Arsenault writers from P.E.I., An Dro is a visit to Brittany, France, and then Cocktails in the Cabana finds them in Galicia, Spain, The lovely Paper Boats is perhaps the best example of their first-tier ensemble at work, starting as an acoustic guitar/percussion number, before recorder, fiddle and more join, doubling and tripling the lilting melody line, touches of Africa gliding in.

It's three-quarters instrumental, although when there are vocals, again, it's a wonderful sound, especially the crazy folk-scatting on Cocktails in the Cabana. The singers in the group are aided by guests Katherine Wheatley, and Danya Manning and Emm Gryner of Trent Severn. Perhaps the one area the group doesn't excel in is lyric writing, with The Ballad of Old Jack McGraw a bit clumsy, but A Good Western Wind is a soothing way to end, a sailor's tale done well. There's no shortage of new ideas from this forward-thinking band.

Thursday, December 1, 2016


I made a rule this year that I wouldn't review a Christmas release until Dec. 1, and I made it. And after two winter storms the last two days, plus a stupid tree in my backyard crashing down and taking out the phone and cable and power and clothesline, I need a little cheering up. So, it's a fun little holiday EP from my favourite fog-rock band from Halifax, Quiet Parade.

The group does three covers of wildly different tracks, and adds one original to the Christmas hymnbook, the number Heavy Winter, borrowed from the group's last album. Christmas (Baby Please Come Home) is of course the Darlene Love/Phil Spector classic, stood on its head here, with the Parade bypassing the wall of sound and going for a quiet and introspective approach, which actually fits the lyrics really well. Then comes the ancient hymn O Come O Come Emanuel, but now it has a fuzzy punch in the choruses, and dream-world vocals. The third cut comes from The Raveonettes, a duet with Dance Movie's Tara Thorne, a lovely little winter's night tune, like when it's not too cold at all, and it feels great to be out late in December. Heavy Winter fits the mood just fine, with its references to snowstorms, and its easing tone, if just a bit more produced than the other tracks, coming as it is from the group's sessions with Daniel Ledwell.

The group will be celebrating the release of the EP, plus their recent win at Music Nova Scotia for Alternative Recording of the Year, with a launch show Saturday, Dec. 3 in Halifax. It's at Timber Lounge, and the supercool Norma MacDonald is playing too!