Sunday, April 23, 2017
After years of using big-name producers (Mitchell Froom, Steve Earle, Bob Rock) and their studio crews, for his 14th album, Sexsmith does the most obvious thing, and goes with the familiar. For the first time, he's used his long-serving and loyal road band (the "Eh Team"), and co-produced along side drummer Don Kerr, who has plenty of credits in that field on his own. Works for me; it's saying that there's nothing wrong with what Sexsmith does with his music, no magic formula that needs to be added to break through to more ears. He writes tight, sophisticated pop songs, always with wonderful melodies, with the cleverness of the great '60's and '70's hitmakers. I don't know why there aren't more of us mad fans out there, but c'est la vie. These musicians already know how to make this type of music well, so just let them go ahead and make more.
Sure enough, The Last Rider is full of those delicious moments, Sexsmith never satisfied with an easy melody. Over 15 tracks (and a worthy bonus cut on the double vinyl set), he runs the gamut, from wistful ballads to the surprising energy of first single, "Radio". That one explains so much; "Back when my whole world was the radio." We know where he got his taste for hooks, and the whole band piles them on in more and more inventive ways. Meantime, he continues to give us new ways to look at the normal; "Upward Dog" personifies the yoga position ("Upward dog, always taking the high road"). What's new for this album is a little bit more synthesizer which does tend to sweeten things a bit. I might like a little more guts, as the album is top-heavy with love songs, but I'll trade that for the pop glory he puts in each song.
Saturday, April 22, 2017
Two albums in one from Leger, Nonsense the first and Heartache the other. They really are different approaches, the first being an electric wild blues set, the second a singer/songwriter album with an acoustic core, the two sides of Leger.
Produced by Michael Timmins (Cowboy Junkies), the gang went for the rough-and-ready approach, recording everybody playing together as a live unit in the studio. The Nonsense album has a real Highway 61 Revisited feel, bookended with a couple of epic tracks, "Coat On The Rack" and "She's The Best Writer You've Never Heard Of." The groove is loose, the guitars raunchy, and Leger lets his voice get raw when needed. I actually don't think it's nonsense though, there are some powerful and unique images here, as heard in the above two titles, and others such as "Baby's Got A Rare Gun" and "The Big Smoke Blues."
Heartache features acoustic guitar and piano, lap steel, fiddle, upright bass and brushes on drums, plus more harmonies. These aren't all ballads, but more country-flavoured numbers with an Everly Brothers/Buddy Holly feel on some, Western mystery on others ("Another Dead Radio Star"). When he does get quiet, as on "It Don't Make The Wrong Go Away," he employs powerful language that intensifies the impact. The only problem with these albums is trying to decide which to play first.
Wednesday, April 19, 2017
I guess I can't fault Crow too much for making a country album last time out in 2013. She's lived in Nashville for several years, so when in Rome...and, she is from Missouri. Plus, I'm sure she was told by pretty much everybody that the only way to sell actual albums was to do standards, Christmas carols or go country. She quickly found out that it also involved selling your soul to the devil, or in this case, country radio programmers, and that experiment is over.
When you look at it, what do we know her for? Big pop-rock hits with catchy chorus, and a bit of ironic wit. She did have a fine streak of those hits from 1993 to 2005, starting with Tuesday Night Music Club and including later smashes such as "Soak Up The Sun" and "My Favorite Mistake." The thinking is a return to those days, and she's brought in a couple of the collaborators from those times, including sound-shaping engineer Tchad Blake, and co-producer and co-writer Jeff Trott. Those aren't the Tuesday Night Music Club people, but the ones from the next couple of albums, the folks that helped with "If It Makes You Happy," "Everyday Is A Winding Road," etc.
And I'm all for it. I think she's always done well with those smart rockers, she knows how to make them groove, and it's fun stuff. She'll throw in a ballad to break things up every few songs, but the core stuff here is songs made of wry observations that you can dance to. Now, she's added a little maturity to the mix too, stuck between still feeling young, but not quite connecting with that age group: "Hangin' with the hipsters/is a lot of hard work/How many selfies can you take/before you look like a jerk." Crow has a few things to point out about cellphones and self-absorption, and in general is getting a little cranky about young people and the Age of Kardashian. I like that too. We need more cranky parents.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
Ribera's third album is a stunning combination of her enchanting vocals and captivating melodies, all packaged in timeless, fresh productions. Her songs defy easy description, skirting the fine lines of jazz, pop and Latin, each one an adventure as they unfold. Each song on This Island is subtle but intense, the dynamics being the key, whether from her soft, controlled singing, acoustic arrangements or the colouring of marvellous strings and horns.
It's a collection that's hard to pin down as well, as it seems to exist in the cracks and spaces rather than obvious forms and planes. It's mostly in English, although there are verses in French and Spanish. There's no time stamp anywhere, or an obvious place (other than a mention of Montreal and snow, where she is based). There are no blacks or whites, the songs are never bright or dark, It's not even dreamy really, there's no hazy feeling, all the vocals and instruments have clarity. It's just simply gorgeous, intriguing, unique.
Monday, April 17, 2017
No, he won't be doing readings before the rowdy crowds waiting for July Talk. He'll be blasting his normal loud rock with a taste of smarter punk. But the Edmonton native will point out that Berlin-Warszawa Express is being released in May, and that it will tell you about the other side of being a touring musician, life on the road. In this case, it's the road through Europe, largely by train, through Paris, Germany, across the old Iron Curtain and into Poland, plus lots of other stops on the continent.
It gets pretty down and dirty into the realities of touring. The endless travel, the grind of being stuck in small vehicles with bandmates, lugging gear up flights of stairs, sleeping in disgusting band quarters, and the downward spiral of night after night of overindulging. And it's all in the name of creating art.
"That was kind of the whole thematic thread that's been woven through the book," said McGrath, home in Toronto, getting ready for yet another long tour. "This depiction of what it's like to put yourself through hell for the sake of something you're passionate about."
Don't look for scandalous stories about Canadian musicians behaving badly in Europe though. Well, that does happen, but the names are made up and it's not a biography. Rather, it's a fictionalized account, but that allowed him to be much more truthful, because no-one, including himself had to be protected.
"There's a lot of things that are under-exaggerated, and a lot of things that are over-exaggerated, and there's a lot of things that are really true to how it happened, and there's a lot of things that are completely fictionalized," said McGrath. "I make no attempt to hide that, that's the truth of the book, that some of these stories really did happen to me, and some of them happened to someone else. Using fictionalized names is what gives you the license to do that. The minute that you remove that journalistic element from what you're writing, that's when it opens it up for you as a writer to be a little more flexible."
McGrath has toured in Europe several times, and is obviously captivated with it. The book takes place in the mid-2000's, a time when countries in the old Soviet block especially were feeling the full flush of capitalism. McGrath's narrator is taking it in, through train windows, in small bars, from music fans and bartenders, punks and anarchists, all through increasingly blurry eyes as the boozing gets worse. It's Europe on five Euros a drink, and a view tourists never see.
"It was this really optimistic time," McGrath said. "Berliners, people started to have money there, which was this really new thing. Poland wasn't this poor country anymore. Even as a very left wing person, being a Canadian, at that time it would be very difficult to criticize the European Union. Because no matter how left wing you are, from the outside, it seemed to be working."
He tries to tour Europe every year, and has seen dramatic changes since then, especially a rise in nationalism and intolerance, and a loss of some of those freedoms of 10 years ago. Usually this is the stuff that goes into the songs from an articulate, knowledgeable rocker, what informs the music. With Berlin-Warszawa Express, McGrath lets us see everything that happens before and after the show, on a particularly wild stretch of the road.
Here's where you can see Eamon McGrath and July Talk:
April 18 - Fredericton, NB @ Farmer’s Market
April 19 - Charlottetown, NB @ PEI Brewing Company
April 20 - Moncton, NB @ Tide & Boar
April 21 - Halifax, NS @ Marquee Club
April 22 - Halifax, NS @ Marquee Club
Friday, April 14, 2017
Our pal Dave has sneaked this one into the market without fanfare, largely because it's not new per se. Instead, it's a collection of some of his fan-favourite tracks from his career, rerecorded with his live band in a relaxed studio session, to do them much the same way you'd hear them in concert. Also, this was first made a couple of years ago to have a sort of best-of for U.S. audiences as he toured there, to give them something to pick up at the shows that included all the songs they'd heard that night.
It's actually a great pick-up for us regular fans too, as it gives the stripped-down feel to many tracks that received a bigger studio production. Now we get them as easy-going, largely acoustic tracks, highlighted by Myles with his core trio members Kyle Cunjak (acoustic bass) and Alan Jeffries (lead acoustic guitar), which is the way we see him most often. There is a bit more embellishment, notably subtle drums from pal/producer Joshua Van Tassel, and occasional keys and pedal steel. While we miss the more experimental side Myles incorporates on his regular albums, the flights into hip-hop or travels to Latin areas, horn lines and such, it's just as enjoyable to have him record in this form. He truly would make an excellent bluegrass James Taylor for today.
Due to the obvious restrictions, it's not a true best-of, as the acoustic style doesn't lend itself to the Classified collaborations such as "Inner Ninja" or "So Blind." But "Turn Time Off" and "When It Comes My Turn" sure feel good, and Jeffries gets to excel at his guitar lines as he does on stage. "Change My Mind" gets a great '50s arrangement, complete with some fun doo-wop backing from the gang. And "Need A Break" proves you don't need amps to rock. It's a must-add to your Myles collection.
Tuesday, April 11, 2017
Everybody's favourite blues duo (well, mine) gets bigger on this set, a full electric album with lots of high energy moments. They've beefed up the sound with drums and keyboards throughout, plus there's a flock of singers on board to give each song more body, plus a gospel vibe, especially on the rave "Pretty Please."
The songs are filled with big grooves, particularly "Promises, Promises," with big vocals on the chorus, and ample distortion. On the richest cuts, there's a bit of the Black Keys-style of thick production, especially on the closer "Fragile," with layers of sound coming in and out, including the gospel voices, dynamic drums and cool effects on Shawn Hall's vocals. Meanwhile there's a theme of barely-controlled panic thanks to everything going on these days, countered by an almost desperate need to have good-time music save us. If anybody can do that, I'll bet it's these two blues superheroes.
Monday, April 10, 2017
No Matter, Newman's more than capable and firing on all cylinders these days. His celebratory pop is positively exploding here, with both good vibes and all those wonderful melodies. Synths burble away in a combination of '80s new wave and modern artistic triumph. And of course, there's the ultimate drawing card, the best co-vocalist in the game, Neko Case. She seems to be even more present on this set, taking the lead more often than not, and always there to join in on the chorus or go call-and-response on a verse. She takes part with great enthusiasm in Newman's pop dreams, ready to chime in with any needed ooh-ooh, driving the songs with her own mystery. When all is said and done, The New Pornographers always have these great strengths: Fantastic songs and Neko Case.
Sunday, April 9, 2017
A welcome return to recording from Laviolette, who hasn't been heard from since 2010. Old country music is still his game, acoustic and true, with pedal steel and fiddle for sweetening. It's an album about family and roots, mortality and connections, with the simple but profound truths the best old country music employs.
In fact, one of the strongest cuts here is called "Old Country Music," about a father's love for it, and the physical pleasure of the needle on the dusty grooves. The title cut has an outlaw twang, and the same warmth that Neil Young found back in the Harvest days. Jessy Bell Smith from the Skydiggers does classic harmonies here and throughout the album, and "The Rock and the Moss" they match Gram and Emmylou for sadness. In a completely unironic shot at people who don't know better, Laviolette declares "My Grandma's More Punk (Than Most Punks I Know)." The album is filled with honest words and music, from an artist who a genuine affection, and skill for this sound.
Saturday, April 8, 2017
This film, loosely based on the Bre-X mining stock scandal, got mixed reviews despite an appreciated performance but Matthew McConaughey. But the music supervisor should get rave notices. Whoever put it together has both good taste and good ideas, and stayed away from all the usual soundtrack pitfalls and over-used songs.
The big new track for the movie was a collaboration between Iggy Pop and Danger Mouse, and it's really the only disappointment. Not that the song "Gold" is poor, it's just not much of anything, with Iggy in deep voice croon on an unmemorable melody. After that though, it's a fine mix tape for the '80s/'90s alternative fan. Both Joy Division and New Order are here, with "Atmosphere" and "Temptation." Pixies' cut "Hey" is inspired, a regal strut from Black Francis. Scottish cult favourites Orange Juice are always welcome, with "Rip It Up."
There was some deeper crate digging on a couple of other tracks, which are nice surprises. Instead of the Eric Burdon & War version of "Spill the Wine", a cover by The Isley Brothers makes it more fresh. And I was won over by Kishi Bashi (Jupiter One/Of Montreal) doing Talking Heads' "This Must Be The Place" with just strings. When Television wrap up the disc with "1880 Or So," you can tell that a lot of thought went into programming a strong 45 minutes of music.
Friday, April 7, 2017
In the past, Diamond collections have been hampered by rights issues. Since he recorded for several companies, from Bang to UNI to MCA to Columbia to Capitol, you'd get the frustrating situation where a set such as The Essential Neil Diamond from 2001 would have several live cuts, in that case featuring concert records of the UNI tracks including "Play Me" and "Brother Love's Travelling Salvation Show." Others, like the confusingly titled Neil Diamond Collection, would be just the 1968-1972 UNI era. Well, finally, this set seems to have covered all the bases, and very well. Almost every hit song is here, and the ones that aren't are from later, dodgy years, only enough to create a minor squabble among completists. There are a handful of important album cuts thrown in, including "Crunchy Granola Suite" and his versions of "I'm A Believer" and "Red Red Wine", much bigger hits for others. There are even minor hits that have rarely shown up on collections or reissues, such as the 1968 fizzle "Sunday Sun", quite a good song that tanked at #68 on release.
Disc three does get shaky, but not as dire as it could be, as the set races through the late '70s to today. I always felt that the cheese and bluster was hard to take in those years, with "America" from The Jazz Singer and Vegas material like "Heartlight". Like so many others, Diamond enlisted Rick Rubin in the new century to give him the Johnny Cash makeover, without as much success, but the three tracks from those albums do bring him back down to Earth at least. Still, it's disc one that will get my repeat play.
Wednesday, April 5, 2017
Bibb tackles the very topical issue of forced migration on this set, whether it be due to war, poverty or enslavement. His goal is to challenge us to be more tolerant and welcoming, as history always shows us welcoming immigrants is humane and right. Opening cut Refugee Moan is a prayer, and it could be from migrant worker in the depression heading west, or a Syrian refugee arriving in Canada, scarred and scared for the future. We hear about the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when the children and grandchildren of former slaves left the Jim Crow-infested South for work in the northern cities. and soon after, "Prayin' For Shore" is about the drownings of thousands of refugees trying to reach Europe in recent years.
Bibb's acoustic blues are powerful, dark, and with just the right amount of tension. Like the Delta bluesmen, he's singing, but there's a bit of speaking in there as well, which reinforces the story-telling feel. The accompaniment is subtle, mostly Bibb with his two frequent touring collaborators, Canadian Michael Jerome Browne on guitar, mandolin and banjo, and the atmospheric harmonica of France's J.J. Milteau. For a final stamp on the theme, Bibb covers Dylan's "Masters of War," and Guthrie's "The Land Is Your Land," making the strong connection between blues and social justice.
Bronx-raised of Puerto Rican descent, Alynda Segarra made this one personal, a concept album about a street kid lost in America, trying to find her culture in all this mashed-up mess. It's presented as a two-act play, looking back and looking forward, and it has layers upon layers of interest, from the story she's trying to tell to the Puerto Rican musical elements she's incorporated to the literary/cultural references added. As rich as that makes the concept, it's simply a fantastic collection of songs.
Segarra has a tremendous alto voice (reminds me of Feist, am I alone in this?), and her vocals hold you throughout, full of drama as the songs unfold. She's still working in the folk idiom, but it's enhanced by the melting pot of influences Segarra has collected, as production techniques and a wide assortment of instruments are used across the album. There are piano ballads with power ("Pa'lante") and uptempo guitar pop tunes ("Life To Save"), before closing on a Puerto Rican percussive groove. Segarra is making a bold statement about culture and identity for sure, and it the fact it comes rapped in such dynamic music makes it that much more important.
Tuesday, April 4, 2017
There's some fun going on certainly. The tribute song called "Black Francis," goes about it in a roundabout way, including a conversation in the second verse: "Have you heard that band? Yeah I think they're shit." It's off-kilter, like Bowie's "Andy Warhol." There's great sha-lala's in "Hippie Soldier," a good contrast to the distorted bits to come. Even some very, very dark lyrics are treated with goofball irony: "So take me to the desert and chop off my heavy, heavy head. Put it in an Easter basket and place it down upon my mama's bed." I guess jaded never gets old.
Monday, April 3, 2017
"I thought, okay, I've hit my dinger, I don't know if I've got another album in me," said McLauchlan of his 19th album, Love Can't Tell Time. "So along came this project, and I went, well I guess that wasn't the case. I'm totally overjoyed with it, I really really love it."
The album was more of an accident, and never a plan. He had several new songs he'd done for another project that hadn't worked out, but he had picked up a new guitar technique. He thought the songs sounded great with that playing style, so he decided to record them to try it out. Sitting with his friend, acoustic bass player Victor Bateman, McLauchlan laid down the songs in the simplest of ways.
"We just did what I really like to do, which is a kind of retro recording," he said. "Although I think it may be also the recording of the future. The idea was, let's make a recording here that just sounds like what people used to do in the 1940s or early 1950s, just set up with a great big old U-47 tube mic, I'm going to sit in front of it with my 1938 guitar, and I'm going to just sing the songs, I won't even put a microphone on the guitar because I believe the performance will kind of mix itself as we move in and out dynamically. And it did. Victor was certainly on mic, but everything leaked into everything else. So you can't really adjust anything while you're mixing, if you change the equalization on the voice you're going to do it on the guitar, so you can't. The result is, you get something very honest and very natural right off the floor."
It's not all about being retro though, it's also about sounding, to McLauchlan's ears, and plenty of others, better. "I'm a big fan of this idea of recording," he said. "You put people in a room that can play, and you record it. Somewhere along the line, I think the technology took over the music. I guess I'm sort of a bit of a bloody-minded person, as I tend to kind of go the opposite way from what is the current flavour of the month, and right now the current flavour of the month is electronically manufactured soundscapes with tones of auto-tuning on them."
The only parts that were added later were the glorious string arrangements on each track, done by Drew Jurecka. Each is elegant, and quite different from the next, working with the vocal rather than providing a lush background. Again, a modern use of a classic technique.
Old but new is theme throughout Love Can't Tell Time. Seven of the cuts are new McLauchlan pieces he either wrote or co-wrote, while three of the numbers are favourites of his from the 1940s and '50s. "They were songs that when I'm up at the cottage playing music for the loons, that I play for my own enjoyment, it's the kind of music that I play when I'm just relaxing by myself," he said. They are "Come Fly With Me," "Hey There," a Rosemary Clooney number from the movie Pyjama Game, and the Jerome Kern tune "Pick Yourself Up".
McLauchlan, a fan of the classics, has found himself moving toward that style of songwriting as well.
"The songs are deceptively simple when you look at them casually, but they are layered like an onion, and you don't really get the songs unless you've been around the block a little bit," he said of the '40s - '50s hits. "So that's what I was shooting for, in a co-write with my brother, who is the original Don Draper, there's a song called 'My Martini.' I actually went back to the well, to how Sammy Cahn wrote lyrics, because he was the master of ethnic inversion. The best example is, 'My kind of town, Chicago is.' It's like how an old Jewish guy would talk. So I did the same thing with 'My Martini,' when my brother wrote the lyric originally, it was 'Don't mess with my martini, I like it on the rocks.' So I went to the Sammy Cahn well, and went 'My martini, not a thing you should mess with.'"
Other songs are light-hearted as well, but not without a message. For the most part, they pass on a little wisdom from experience, such as "I'm Not Going To Waste A Minute Of My Life". McLauchlan has been out road-testing the material. "I just had an eight-concert run myself, and the whole second half of the show on stage is actually this record, these songs," he said. "You think off the top of your head it's a lot to ask people to accept a lot of new material they haven't necessarily heard before, but the really interesting thing is, they go nuts."
There are lots of opportunities for most of the country to go nuts for the Love Can't Tell Time album. He says he has 29 concerts on his books before the end of November, 19 with Lunch At Allen's in both the west and east, and a 10-concert tour in central Canada in November.
Sunday, April 2, 2017
It always takes me a bit to get used to Dylan's, um, croon on these classic songwriter collections. It doesn't help that he hits a couple of clunkers on the very first song, "I Guess I'll Have To Change My Plans," but eventually I warm up to it, and start appreciating the phrasing and the charm. When you listen closely to, say, "P.S. I Love You" (NOT The Beatles' song), he is bang-on the melody. He does better on the ballads than on livelier numbers; he's all over the place on "The Best Is Yet To Come," which has a tricky tempo, but he survives.
Even if he's not the greatest singer, he does a lot of other things very, very well on these collections. Dylan is, as he has always been, an excellent curator. His taste is impeccable, and if at this time in his life he has chosen to perform the work of the great American songwriters, it's that guy who wanted us to know about Woody Guthrie back in 1962. That touring band of his has developed a whole new sound for this material, different than anybody else has ever played it. The key is Donnie Herron's pedal steel, lush and eerie, that replaces the strings that are usually found on these songs. The guitars, brushed percussion and acoustic bass settle in, and create a dreamy, jazzy world.
Dylan had said he'd recorded a bunch of this material when he released the first such album, Shadows in the Night, back in 2015. Since he's never stood still for long, it wouldn't surprise me if, with this triple album, he'll be done with this career phase. It sure doesn't feel like a last act.