Monday, June 26, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RODNEY DECROO - OLD TENEMENT MAN



Poet and playwrite as well, Vancouver's DeCroo knows lots about creating vivid characters with complex stories, and getting them out in dramatic fashion. On his latest album, those songs burn with added intensity thanks to tightly wound but very catchy melodies. He and producer Lorrie Matheson have turned these into compelling tales no matter the darkness inside.


Inner demons are featured throughout, some more desperate than others, but all the characters and narrators have something tormenting them. When he sings "I'm thinking of you" in Like Jacob When He Felt The Angel's Touch, that's not a good thing, it's more like "a cold-blooded assassin with names on a list." Even the closest thing to a love song, In The Backrooms of the Romance, with it's chipper backing vocals and happy organ is negative, the bookstore where they met not there anymore, and there are hardly any bookstores anymore.


The track When It's Everything explains there's something deep down that's the root cause for all this unease, "The darkness in the corner of your eyes." DeCroo isn't trafficking in bad things people have inside them, he's trying to name them and expose them, for the better. The haunting and memorable tunes make us want to see that too.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HEADSTONES - LITTLE ARMY



Hugh Dillon has a fine career going on in acting, even a brief moment in the new Twin Peaks series, so he doesn't need to be doing the Headstones revival. That's probably why it's working so good, especially in the songwriting department. After doing some shows in 2011, the reunion has seen the full album Love + Fury in 2013, the enjoyable set of acoustic versions of their hits, One in the Chamber Music, in 2014, and now lots more shows and this new full-length. Dillon, along with originals Trent Carr and Tim White are clearly enjoying the second life.


And what's not to love back? They still sound like the toughest band on the block, backed with street smarts. Opener Devil's On Fire is all aggression, and more follows, with the occasional break for something moody and dark, such as Done The Math. Gruff and intense, Dillon can handle the full punk of Don't Think At All, the easy-going melody in The View Here, and the power pop of Kingston. Intense guitar from Carr and Rickferd Van Dyk comes up on virtually every track as well. I think I like 'em better now than I did in their '90's heyday. Is that allowed?

Friday, June 23, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: PRINCE & the REVOLUTION - PURPLE RAIN Deluxe Edition



Prince had already signed a big deal to start reissuing his back catalog before he died, so this isn't posthumous vault raiding. He had effectively guarded this material for years, both the original albums and the copious piles of unreleased material, so fans have been waiting with great anticipation to hear what would happen with his greatest album.


There's no scrimping on the bonus tracks. On the deluxe version, there's a full second disc with 11 previously-unreleased cuts, clocking in at over 70 minutes thanks to a couple of 10-plus minute jams. These aren't extended mixes or demos either, these are pretty much complete cuts which remained under lock. A couple of them surfaced in versions by other artists, including The Dance Electric by Andre Cymone, and We Can Fuck became We Can Funk for George Clinton. The rest came from the vibrant lab Prince was running, some cuts done completely be himself, others featuring his new band called The Revolution. Since he was producing others at the time, it's possible some of the cuts were meant for artists such as Apollonia. A couple more were recorded after the Purple Rain sessions, so weren't for that, but the remaining ones were for possible inclusion before the final selections were made.


Listening again to the genius album that turned Prince into a superstar, it's a fun game to figure out if any of these extra tracks could have improved the original album. I think not, as each one has its merits, and there is certainly nothing from the discarded batch that comes close to the excitement of Let's Go Crazy, When Doves Cry or I Would Die 4 U. A couple are the kind of funk numbers he could turn out in his sleep, such as Love And Sex. I like the poppier numbers Velvet Kitty Cat and Katrina's Paper Dolls, probably not of enough substance for serious album consideration, but good examples of Prince's new interest then for crafting pop numbers, which would flower on songs such as Raspberry Beret and Manic Monday in the next couple of years. Prince made all the right moves choosing the final cuts for Purple Rain, but this is a very strong set of material to hear right after.


Those with deep pockets and a Prince fixation can also shell out for a 3-CD, plus DVD version of the reissue, although everything on that has been available before. The third CD collects the edited singles and non-LP b-sides from the album, including the holiday b-side, Another Lonely Christmas. The DVD features a long-unavailable live concert, a 19-cut Prince and the Revolution show from March 30, 1985 in Syracuse, N.Y.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GUY BÉLANGER - TRACES & SCARS



There's no more tortured or abused instrument than the harmonica. To paraphrase Steve Earle, I'll stand on a table in my cowboy boots and loudly proclaim that Bob Dylan ruined the instrument with his bleating through his early career, as everyone thought he was good at all the other stuff, he must know what he's doing with that, too. And over in the blues genre, countless more hopped around stage, sucking and blowing. They also attempted to play harmonica.


That's why it's such a pleasure to hear an actual master such as Bélanger, who knows how to make it a melodic treat rather than a percussion instrument at best. This Quebec veteran has decided to make his latest album almost entirely instrumental, a brave choice perhaps, but certainly a winning one. And if you think that means pumped-up electric blues, it's the opposite. These are for the most part moody pieces that highlight the haunting beauty you can get from the harp. There are folk numbers, some jazzy tunes, Louisiana influences, and of course blues, but for the most part, the songs allow Bélanger to do lots of subtle work. There's room for other instruments that compliment the harmonica too, such as pedal steel, and on Les Mauvaises Herbes, piano. One of the vocals features guest Luce Dufault, who turns Who's Left Standing into a Mavis Staples-like triumph. Bélanger is smart to play it cool with the harp.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE DOORS - 50th ANNIVERSARY REMASTER



It's hard to remember what The Doors were like before Jim Morrison was turned into a caricature, a drunken, raving, tortured dead poet. But that's how persuasive the biographies, and of course Oliver Stone's movie have been. The image is everything, the music there to back up the stories.


There was a time though when The Doors were the powerful equivalent of, say, Nick Cave, only with really big hit songs. Fifty years ago the L.A. group was leading the charge to make rock and roll not only dangerous again, but with university-level thinking as well. It was a heady mix of blues, radicalism, and English lit. Sure, Morrison was a rebel and self-destructive, but he and his pals had a great idea too, and it was at its best on their self-titled debut.


There's still a touch of pop music here, with I Looked At The Night holding onto a bit of British Invasion, and Light My Fire a resounding hit. But imagine the kid who bought this album based on the latter tune, a number one hit, and getting blasted with Break On Through as cut one. And by the time the album finished, with Morrison yelling about wanting to kill his father and suggesting something worse for mom, the teenyboppers had grown up a whole lot. It was a tricky intensity to keep up, and Morrison would cross into self-parody several times in future albums, but at this point, it was the scary alternative to the Summer Of Love. The Beatles were pretty happy doing Sgt. Pepper, the Stones had no concept of hippydom, failing with Their Satanic Majesty's Request, all the San Francisco bands were stoned, and Dylan was hiding in the basement with The Band. The Doors owned a lot more of 1967 than they are remembered for these days.


You have a couple of options for this 50th anniversary. There's a box with three CD's, the first a remastered stereo version of the album, the second mono, and the third an eight-song live set from early '67, plus there's a vinyl copy of the album, and a big old book for $70. You can buy the vinyl, always nice, or get the remastered stereo CD, which does sound very solid, big drums and that famous organ cutting through all the time. What impressed me most though was realizing how strong their first disc remains.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: GLEN CAMPBELL - ADIOS



This is billed as the final album by Campbell, pieced together from a batch of final sessions for which he mustered the strength about five years back, before his dementia took over. From the liner notes, we find that each vocal was hard work for the singer, but that he did want to be in the studio. The sessions were run by his longtime friend and former banjo player, Carl Jackson, who had to do the lion's work of putting together the bits and pieces, but obviously with affection and a desire to make it a strong collection, songs that he knew Campbell loved.


Although guitar playing was past his powers by this point, Campbell sings as great as ever, which alone makes this a worthwhile effort. At its heart are four songs by long-time collaborator Jimmy Webb, each one sounding as if it was written to be sung by Campbell. Truly, it was always, and remains a thing of magic, pairing his voice when Webb's great ballads of male romantic pain. Each of the four here deserves to be heard alongside the earlier hits, with the same touches of sadness as By The Time I Get To Phoenix and Galveston.


There are several other good choices, taken from songs Campbell often performed live, including the old Nillson hit Everybody's Talkin', which always sounded like a Glen song anyway. Dylan's Don't Think Twice, It's Alright was a parlour trick Campbell would do on guitar, and while Jackson had to handle those licks for this, the singer still sounds like he's having fun making Bob country. There are some that don't quite click, including Funny How Time Slips Away, writer and guest Willie Nelson sounding tacked on (as he was), and She Thinks I Still Care is serviceable, but it's still George Jones' song. But there's nothing maudlin, and the Webb cuts make this a valuable collection. For added enticement, there's a second disc of Campbell's greatest, in case you don't have Wichita Lineman nearby.

Monday, June 19, 2017

MUSIC NEWS: P.E.I. house concert venue The Dunk hosting special Canada 150 concerts this summer

The Dunk, on P.E.I.'s Dixon Road

I don't know how I was convinced to drive over three hours on my weekend just to wash windows, but I guess that's how much I love house concerts. The occasion was an all-points bulletin put out by Friends of The Dunk, the board of directors of the rural P.E.I. house concert venue known as the Dunk. They needed lots of helping hands to get the place sparkling for a special series of shows this summer, part of the national Canada 150 celebrations. And when your place is a cabin in the woods, cobwebs and dirty windows are par for the course.

The Dunk (named after the Dunk River, going through the backyard) started hosting house concerts in 2005, built by music fan Hal Mills on the Dixon Road near Breadalbane, P.E.I. It started out as something for fun, but soon became almost a weekly event, and pretty famous too. Upwards of 2,000 people have attending some of the longer, weekend soirees.
Hal Mills hosting a Dunk event

When Mills died unexpectedly two years ago, his daughter Melanie made the decision to move in and keep the Dunk going, holding house concerts about once a month. The Dunk was already well-known and well-loved by national touring musicians, its reputation has only grown of late. In the last couple of months, it has hosted concerts by Great Lake Swimmers, Roxanne Potvin and Megan Bonnell. The hospitality and the rural serenity is legendary. The Swimmers stayed around for a couple of days, to hang out and do their laundry.

The reason for the big clean-up is something called Ebb and Flow, an artist residency series happening at the Dunk this summer and into the fall. It will see musicians from across the country stay for up to a week at a time, using the tranquil setting to write new music, and then perform a concert at the end of their time. The concerts are free to the public, thanks to a grant from Canada 150.

"One of our board members suggested we apply for a Canada 150 project," said Melanie Mills. When they got approved for the project they put the word out across the country via a press release and social media, not really knowing how much interest there would be. It turned out to be an avalanche, with "dozens and dozens" of applications, thanks to the Dunk's national reputation with musicians.

"A lot of people, a surprising amount of people who had stayed and played here before, in the cabin and in the house," said Mills. That included everyone from young up-and-comers to Juno winners.

Bob cleans up well

"Because we got so many amazing applications, it was incredibly difficult to choose," said Mills. "So that's how we wound up having two artists at a time, we weren't going to do that. Ideally they will collaborate with each other, and hopefully be inspired by the beauty of the Dunk, the surrounding area, to create new music, or to perhaps further develop that they've had already."

The musicians chosen for the week long residencies are Lindy Vopnfjörð, Ahi, Aaron Goldstein, Ambre McLean, Paul Reddick and Tanya Davis. July will see a full-blown carnival, Le Carnavale de Promenade, presented in collaboration with la Fédération culturelle de l’ÎPÉ. It's called a fusion of dance, music and circus arts from the various cultural communities that make up Canada.

There's also going to be a special, one-off concert held on Wednesday, June 21 to kick things off, to celebrate both the summer solstice, and National Aboriginal Day. It will feature Hey Cuzzins Drum Group, Dana Sipos, Owen Steel and Tian Wigmore with Warhorses.

"I'm Mohawk, my mom's side of the family, and it's important to me to honour that aspect of it, and it felt like a perfect time to get things started, and the focus will be Indigenous performers," said Mills. "The Dunk has always been about inclusiveness and community and acceptance and encouragement."

A big part of the residency is having the musicians pick up some of the local colour of the Dixon Road, a well-known artist's enclave. One week will see the musicians visit local organic farms, another residency will look back at what we can learn from history and our elders, another will be about looking forward, all with the idea of having those aspects of the Island inform the songwriting.

"This community is an anomaly," said Mills. "It has one of the largest collections of people who identify as artists in the country. We have visual artists, potters, weavers, Juno Award-winning musicians, all in the area."

It's certainly a sweet deal for the visiting artists, who have their travel paid, and get cabin accommodations, an honorarium and all the glories of a P.E.I. summer to work on their art. It's a great deal for anyone visiting P.E.I. this summer too, with those free concerts. Sign up to the Ebb & Flow Facebook page for updates and concert information: https://www.facebook.com/TheDunkEbbAndFlow/



Sunday, June 18, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: TARA MACLEAN - ATLANTIC BLUE: A CELEBRATION OF EAST COAST SONGWRITERS



MacLean left music work for a full nine years to raise her three kids on Salt Spring Island in B.C. But when her grandmother back in P.E.I. became ill two years ago, she started missing the Island, and music too. So she came up with a plan to get herself back in, and back home. This album is a companion piece to a show she has developed, playing all summer in Charlottetown. It features the work of several of MacLean's favourite East Coast songwriters, a celebration of their talents, and an introduction for some of her fans who might not be familiar with the depth of talent in the region.


The show will feature MacLean and her band singing these numbers, plus telling the stories of the creators, with spoken word and film elements. Local fans are going to know many of the songs of course; there's Gene MacLellan's Snowbird, Rita MacNeil's Flying On Your Own and Ron Hynes gets two cuts, the title one and Sonny's Dream. Others are less familiar, including Stompin' Tom's Coal Boat Song, Stan Rogers' Turnaround, and Fear by Sarah McLachlan. The album is aimed a little more at the many tourists who flock to the Island, plus those who can't, introducing them to these top tunesmiths. Plus, there is a big wide audience of basic East Coast fans who will enjoy MacLean's interpretations, particularly her always warm voice.


For those who have heard most of these songs more than a few times, there's new life in all of them. Snowbird features a duet with fellow Islander Lennie Gallant (also featured here with the songs La Tempête), a more mellow version than Anne Murray's chipper hit. Coal Boat Song now sounds like a Little Feat number, and Flying On Your Own has beautiful fiddle parts from Richard Wood, and harmonies from MacLean's lifelong friend Catherine MacLellan. Produced on the Island by Chris Gauthier, the album has the sound and authenticity of Atlantic roots music all the way through.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RAY DAVIES - AMERICANA



It's been ten years since the last album of new songs by Davies, with most of the news being that oft-rumoured but never-fulfilled Kinks reunion. The good news is there is some solid Kinks-like music on this new set, Davies showing he's still quite capable of pulling off a guitar rock anthem, with that familiar London charm undiminished since the '60's.


Anyone familiar with the Kinks mainman knows he's not about to just throw out a few fun cuts and call it an album. He's the king of the concept piece, and has been doing them since The Kings Are The Village Green Preservation Society in 1968. He spent much of the '70's putting out these high-concept albums such as Schoolboys in Disgrace and Preservation Acts 1 and 2, with stories that were pretty hard to follow. This one is much easier. It's about his lifelong fascination with America, and what it has, and still represents to him. One must remember growing up in postwar Britain, the U.S. seemed unbelievably rich and huge and full of heroes, the images these kids still living with rationing would pick up in the '50's. Then Davies became enchanted by the rock and roll coming over, and soon he became part of the British Invasion, bringing it back. The '70's and '80's saw The Kinks become big stars in the hockey rinks, and by the '90's, Davies was spending more and more time, eventually moving to the States. Then he got shot, so he's had the full American experience.


There's a loosely connected story here, and a lot easier to take in than many of his previous albums. Davies' writing is more straight-forward these days than, say, on the Muswell Hillbillies album, where he transposed the idea of rural America white trash into suburban London, for some reason. There's a lot of actual autobiography here. We get his childhood dream of wanting to move to the wild West on the title cut (his "baby brother" even gets a mention). The Invaders refers to that old title they got in '64: "They called us the Invaders, as though we came from another world/And a man from immigration shouted out 'Hey punk, are you a boy or a girl?'" There are a couple of brief spoken word segments, including a cool story about sitting with Alex Chilton, talking about how the old songs never age. As far as concepts go, there really isn't a huge point to end on or take away, but it's not really hugely confusing either, which is a relief.


The good thing is that songs are quite strong throughout, not overburdened by the storytelling. Davies did something really interesting, hiring an actual Americana band to work with him on the whole set, and a great one, The Jayhawks. They bring an authenticity, especially on the acoustic guitar rockers such as Poetry, which sounds like the old Kinks number Starstruck with a twist of twang. Keyboard player Karen Grotberg even gets to take lead vocals on a couple of cuts.


This isn't a brilliant album, but it's a good one, one that grows better with successive plays, as favourites start to sink in. There's a lull in the middle. starting with Message From The Road, a duet with Grotberg that sounds like a Disney ballad with clunky lines about partying on the road with the boys. Davies' usual music hall-style gets a different twist on A Place In Your Heart, now more saloon-styled with The Jayhawks involved, and not really inspired. But things get back on track soon enough, with two of the best rockers, The Great Highway and Wings Of Fantasy helping end things with energy. This one certainly grows on you, and is very welcome return.

Friday, June 16, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHUCK BERRY - CHUCK



I suppose it's fitting the notorious Berry didn't live to see his victory lap, dying weeks before this album was issued, his first of new material in over three decades. While he no doubt felt he deserved the praise, he wasn't one to accept it graciously. And we are talking about the only person who ever unnerved Keith Richards.


It's been interesting to watch the subdued reaction to his death, surely not celebrated nearly as much as other trailblazers, even though he is more influential than perhaps anyone else. He was rock and roll's first poet, and the inventor of half the guitar licks and tricks still being used today. But he was also a creep and a criminal, his treatment of women particularly awful. However, that and worse has been forgiven or hushed up by a long list of white artists with deep pockets, who have been allowed to pass away with their accolades intact. I'll watch closely when Jagger and Richards leave this mortal coil, and see if they get treated with the "boys will be boys" lines.


As for this last album, this took around a decade to make, but so much the better for it. Berry came up with several original songs that didn't just capture the spirit of his famous '50's and '60's hits, they actually stand up with them. The cut Big Boys features all the hallmarks of a Berry classic. There's a well-relayed story about a kid who wants to hang around with the big kids, join the party, and of course at the end we realize he's talking about joining a rock 'n' roll band. It starts off with one of his classic riffs, and keeps the guitar up all the way. Wonderful Woman is in the same vein as Little Queenie, with those extended lines that always end up in a great rhyme: "You was rocking me baby with your rhythm in the second row/Just thinking about it breaks my heart I had to let you go."


On the surface, it might seem like a bad idea to update Johnny B. Goode, but surprisingly Lady B. Goode works out okay. They story is fine, about the woman our hero left behind when he went off to find fame, but he doesn't quite live up to his obligations once he finds out there's a Johnny Jr. At least he put her in the movie about his life. Less successful is the remake of the old Havana Moon cut from the '50's, now Jamaica Moon, with a painful patois. What was okay back in the day can be cringe-worthy now.


Another big accomplishment here is the sound of the album. Berry is listed as producer, and I'm sure the engineers helped lots, and what they came up with was a mix of the old-style, guitar-and-vocals up front sound of old, but a much cleaner version of all those old Chess sides. It's like 60 years passed, and nothing changed except the technology. Aside from a couple of awkward moments, this is quite a triumph.

Friday, June 9, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: LINDSEY BUCKINGHAM CHRISTINE MCVIE



How delightful is this? Of all things, a relaxed, happy, almost-Fleetwood Mac album in the vein of Tango In The Night. It's filled with bright, bouncy tracks, first a Lindsey one, then a Christine. That classic rhythm section of John McVie and Mick Fleetwood provides their tight, soft backing as well. All that's missing is, well you know who.


That's the real story here of course, as this was supposed to be the big comeback album for the group, after Christine McVie rejoined for the 2014 On With The Show tour. Heck, that's even one of the tracks here. But while everybody else started working on the album, Stevie Nicks backed out, focusing on her own career as well. So once again, the world's most dysfunctional band proves they still can't really get along, despite their best efforts.


It was eventually decided to get on with it, but instead of calling it a Mac album and having to explain why no Stevie (oddly, she continues to tour with them), they took this different route to highlight the songwriting and singing efforts of Buckingham//McVie. This time, there's none of Buckingham's studio shenanigans, as he tempers the wacky and provides tight, glossy and gorgeous pop numbers such as Love Is Here To Stay. It's a hypnotic thing floating along on a cushion of lovely voices from the two of them, and his jangly acoustic guitar. He can do this stuff in his sleep, but so what, it's great music-making, and I'm always glad when he doesn't sabotage his pop with sharp left turns.


The big news though is the return of Christine McVie to songwriting after her long hiatus. She sounds great, like she hasn't missed a beat, and first single Feel About You is a welcome return to those classic numbers that radiate with warmth. The first few songs (side one for your vinylists) are the best, and her Too Far Gone sounds like some generic 70's number, but as always, Buckingham makes every number sound great at least. They'll probably lose out on about two million copies in sales by not calling it Fleetwood Mac, but it was probably worth it instead of going through the soap opera and added Nicks to the mix.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: U2 - THE JOSHUA TREE 30th Anniversary Edition super deluxe box



Everybody that knows me knows I love a great big ol' box set. I dig into those suckers with gusto, have a ball spotting all the slight differences in out-takes, revel in the previously unreleased cuts, enjoy a period live concert, and of course, enjoy reading along in a sumptuous, well-researched, lengthy book. I'm willing to advice you consumer/fans to part with large amounts of money when the value is there, and usually, the people that make them come through with the goods.


Having said that, I'm disappointed that a major band such as U2 has offered up a lot of smoke and mirrors with this Super Deluxe box to celebrate their biggest album, The Joshua Tree, on its 30th. Maybe their heart wasn't in it. These things are all the rage now, obviously profit-generating for labels, and it was probably loudly suggested it would be a good move for all. But they picked a very bad time to put it out, a week after the Sgt. Pepper set, and by comparison, there's a whole lot to love and study with that, and not much new here at all.


What we get is four CD's, yes, but three of them will be familiar to fans. Disc one is the album proper, fair enough. Disc two is a very excellent live show at Madison Square Garden back in the day, the album fresh and exciting for fans, and the band at a performing peak. But CD 3, where they have put the remixes from the album, is just six cuts long, a little over 30 minutes. Yes, there are new and significant versions here, but nothing monumental. For those hoping for excitement in the b-sides and out-takes of Disc 4, guess what? It's the same disc, almost identical to the bonus featured in the 20th anniversary issue of the album back in 2007. Hmm. So is the album mix. Hey, so is the only historical note, from Bill Flanagan, a one-page thing, 10 years old.


So what the hell is filling up this very heavy box, bigger than the Beatles' one? Photos, two sets of them. You might recall the band has a long relationship with the artists Anton Corbijn, and it was their trip to the California desert that gave the album its name. So is that the bulky book? Nope, there's some prints of his in a nice envelope, eight of them, roughly album-cover size. The real space-filler here, and costly item is a hardbound book of shots by that world-famous photographer, umm, The Edge. For your $140, half the size of this thing is a coffee table-sized collection called The Joshua Tree: Photographs by The Edge, featuring his black-and-white shots of the desert, the mountains, and his bandmates looking cool.


Hey, here's another thing. That live show is only 75 minutes, and I checked the setlist from Sept. 28, 1987, and it's been edited down by four songs to fit on one CD. Why not include those on that 30-minute one? And was there really nothing left to say about this album for new liner notes? Those Beatle people certainly found lots of interesting stuff to put in their 144-page book.


U2 are doing what their fans want this year, they are touring The Joshua Tree album, playing the whole thing at their shows. It might be a bit of a comedown for them, but that's the business these days. If they are spending all that energy life each night, you'd think they could have made sure their fans got a bunch more in that expensive box set they are offering as well.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MARTIN HARLEY & DANIEL KIMBRO - STATIC IN THE WIRES



Here's one of those albums where you reach for the credits to see who wrote this or that classic, only to discover they are all brand new. Harley is the songwriter, and a slide guitar wiz. Then you check to see what tiny southern hamlet he's from, where he no doubt soaked up classic roots and blues inspiration from original masters. That's when you find out he's actually from Cardiff, Wales. Harley's been building his North American fan base over the past few years, first with his self-named Trio, and now in this duo setting with acoustic double bassist Kimbro. Add drummer Derek Mixon, and that's pretty much the whole record, except for a killer dobro part by the undisputed king, Jerry Douglas, on the cut Feet Don't Fail Me.


You have two choices here for your listening pleasure: You can go all the way through checking out Harley masterful slide playing or his acoustic guitar work, the interplay with Kimbro and the drums and occasional piano, and relax in his smooth, plaintive vocals. Or, you can pay closer attention to the choice songwriting in a variety of roots styles. Dancing On The Rocks is a moody acoustic piece with room for some lengthy instrumental parts, Harley dazzling on several lead breaks in lower notes. Trouble has its roots in New Orleans jazz, his slide doing the cornet breaks, Kimbro pumping through with a tuba-like bass line, and then taking a solo on bowed bass. Postcard From Hamburg is a sad reflection from the road, with Harley spends most of his time. This was a new pair for me, and I'm very pleased to get to know them.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JEFFERY STRAKER - DIRT ROAD CONFESSIONAL



Saskatchewan's Straker is on the road so much, he's become more of a child of Canada, which partially explains why his latest was made with different producers in studios all over the country. Such individual talents as Daniel Ledwell and Royal Wood had their hands in, from Halifax to Toronto to Winnipeg To Regina. But there's no lack of cohesion to the album, which speaks to the strength of vision here.


Straker's that rare performer these days, a singer-songwriter behind a piano. Before you can say Billy Joel, there's lots of full band material here, the keys more responsible for all the rich melodies rather than always dominating. Having said that, Thousand Miles Away is a gorgeous piano ballad, so yeah, he can do that when he wants as well.


Some of the songs, including that one, speak about the constant travel, missing those at home, but finding solace in the best views and the new friends. Beauty In The Grey is directly about the musician's life as a solo performer, "Another view of the country from here behind the wheel." But as the tour through the album progresses, things get rocking, with the lighthearted Boom Boom ("You're like Ringo Starr just tapping on my chest"), and the early '60s of Sweet Sweet Nothings. With his warm voice, Straker does get in an Elton John-styled number, called Queen of Broken Souls, and it's a grand one, one of those women-in-pain numbers that Bernie Taupin used to write in the '70's. There's even a yellow brick road in it. As a piano man, Straker can do lots, and do that too.

Monday, June 5, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE BEATLES - SGT. PEPPER'S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND Anniversary Editions



If you're one of these people who hum and haw about how foolish these reissues are, filled with early takes and slightly different mixes, just do me a favour and listen to the tracking session for She's Leaving Home here. No Beatles, no vocals, just the string section playing their part. It's beautiful, incredible really. Or listen to the first Pepper-era work, the single Strawberry Fields Forever, and hear how this relatively simple song became complex over the course of a weekend, Lennon lowering the key, starting with the chorus instead of the verse, and added the famous mellotron opening. It was, in the words of George Martin, the birth of the psychedelic music era.


Yes, we've celebrated this album a million times. I'm old enough to remember both its release, and the first big anniversary in '87, when everybody was pointing out "It was 20 years ago today." Bits and pieces of session material has come out, but this is the real windfall, with Apple finally cluing into the fact that we want to hear these archaeological takes. Frigs sake folks, it's probably the most popular album of all time, we know every sound inside and out, so its a blast hearing the variations and how the band and Martin did their magic, one brilliant idea at a time.


Here are your options. There's a two-disc set at 28 bucks that gives you the main album with the brand-new Giles Martin remix on one, and the entire album plus the Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane single in different takes on disc two. You can do that on double vinyl for forty bucks, minus the Strawberry/Penny cuts. You can get a single disc with just the new mix, that's $21 right now. Or, you can shell out about $200 (tax in) to get four CD's, a blu-ray and a DVD, and hear things like Paul, John and George trying to work out harmonies and handclaps in the studio to Penny Lane. It's actually pretty riveting, if you like The Beatles.


There's a lot more in the Super Deluxe box. In addition to the two CDs of alternate material, the fourth disc is the fan-favourite original mono mix of the album, arguably the version you need the most, as that's where the most time was spent in the first place, as stereo still hadn't made it to most teenager's bedrooms. The blu-ray/DVD (they have the same content) includes a very good TV documentary done on the album on its 25th anniversary, featuring McCartney, Starr and Harrison, plus George Martin in the studio with the original tapes, doing that great thing where they pull down some of the tracks to reveal single parts you may not have noticed before. It's Ringo on maracas! You also get some promo videos (nothing new) and the brand-new Giles Martin mix for 5.1 and hi-res stereo.


All these different mixes will have you spinning, but the younger Martin has done a great job of highlighting some moments that offer a slightly different experience. It's not necessarily better, but it is a bit clearer I'd say, and its fun to hear Ringo's drums boom out of the speakers now on With A Little Help From My Friends, or hear Lennon's somewhat basic guitar as part of the magic final mix of Strawberry Fields Forever. Oh, and you know the end of Good Morning, Good Morning, with all those crazy animal noises? Well when the cat shrieked, my beloved companion Mr. Peaches snapped out of his respite here on the couch beside me, startling us both.


Then there's this crazy big, hard-cover 144-page beast of a book that I tried reading in bed the other night, and which smacked me hard on the nose when I drifted off. It hurt. It's that big. I can't tell you if these are going to come down in price or not over the next few months, maybe at Christmas I suppose, but look, they really have done it up right, and I think you'd have to be a curmudgeon to complain too much, there's a ton of new stuff here, and it's Sgt. Bleeding Pepper, it's amazing there's anything new. And I am a notorious curmudgeon, just ask Mr. Peaches. But I truly think the box is worth your $200 if you can swing it. Perhaps sell your own, inferior pet, suggests Mr. Peaches.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SERENA RYDER - UTOPIA



Stompa was certainly a game-changer for Ryder. She'd already been a favourite, with Junos and solid reviews, but after the success of that single, and the Harmony album from 2012, she could add platinum to her resume. That's the trifecta right there; sales, awards, critical praise.


Ryder has apparently been working feverishly since then, with over 100 songs at the ready, and it sounds like all the big, catchy ones where chosen for her new collection, with Stompa energy all over it. Electric Love has that infectious beat, and finds her embracing techno and dance. It's pretty obvious stuff, especially in the lyric department, but fun still, and made glorious with her gutsy pipes. Got Your Number is another crazy, catchy track, this time with a little more soul to it, a cut that Amy Winehouse would have loved. Even her ballads, such as Sanctuary, are now bigger and brighter productions. Ryder has fully moved from singer-songwriter to pop now, but it's certainly pop with substance, and lots of dynamic performance skills.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: STEWART LEGERE - QUIET THE STATION



From the beautiful Halifax collective The Heavy Blinkers comes Stewart Legere with his first-ever solo project. The album was long in fruition (four years) but it's heavy on rewards, with 14 cuts, each as gorgeous as the next. The Blinkers are known for their richness, and while Legere follows that path in melodies, words and arrangements, it's more of an acoustic approach, lots of guitar songs rather than piles of sounds. What there is lots of is vocals, with plenty of Legere's friends showing up on each cut. He takes the lead and a second voice joins. There are a couple of full guest appearances, from Jenn Grant and Rose Cousins, and full support throughout from Kim Harris, Melanie Stone and Don Brownrigg. Blinkers mainman Jason MacIsaac produces along with Legere, and they keep it gorgeous throughout, absolutely ear-pleasing.


If one is inclined, there's a story to find in the emotional songs, or at least a heart to observe. Without bitterness, a great love ends, and Legere puts it all out there in a series of reflective songs. He's searching too, not so much for answers, but more for kindred souls who think about love and friendship and goodness and how to appreciate it and give it back. There are sad moments for sure ('I should have left you before I met you' is one sentiment) but it's done with grace, and made with elegance. Legere is a fine singer as well, and the listening experience is completely rewarding.