Thursday, December 14, 2017


In case you hadn't noticed, Promise of the Real is turning into a first-rate backing group for Neil Young, now that the beloved Crazy Horse seems no more. That's sacrilege I suppose for classic Neil fans, and I've bemoaned many of his weaker albums of the past couple of decades. But so far, the albums with the group, The Monsanto Years and the doctored live release Earth, plus this latest, have a different and inspired approach, which actually helps Young present his often-awkward political and protest songs in a much more enjoyable way.

When Young is trying to write topical material, it's often so simplistic and obvious, even the choir he's preaching to rolls their eyes. Think about the cringe-worthy rants on the environmental fable Greendale, or the feeble fist-shaking of the Living With War album, railing against Bush Jr.

Or maybe it's just us that have changed, now that it's so freaking obvious there's a psycho in the White House and a whole bunch of vicious men pulling all the strings. Anyway, the songs here are going down much easier, and I give a lot of credit to the less-dogmatic sounds Promise of the Real bring to the table, it seems much more of a collaborative effort, and not the rigid "This is Neil's Sound" presentation. They are a looser bunch, Tato Melgar's percussion adds a Latin feel, and they move easily from rock to blues to acoustic tunes, while never repeating classic Neil approaches.

Opener Already Great proves a few of my above points, and it's also a better-written song than anything on Living With War, reminding Americans "You're already great, you're the promised land," while capping it off with "No wall, no hate, no fascist USA." He even remembers to deflate the obvious criticism by starting the song "I'm Canadian, by the way/And I love the USA." The cut Almost Always is even subtle and thoughtful, Young singing "I'm livin' with a game show host who has to brag and has to boast/'Bout tearin' down the things that I hold dear." That's actual good lyric writing, something that can be the least of Young's concerns at times. When Bad Got Good is brief, and to the point, and kind of funny: "No belief in the Liar-in-Chief/Lock him up." Only when he gets one of his ideas about bringing in a big choir and orchestra, on Children of Destiny, does Young return to the overblown and bland protest, the dozens of people joining him for cliches such as "Stand up for what you believe/Resist the powers that be."

Another smart move is that the protest and political work is spread out, separated by several regular tunes, so we're not feeling beaten over the head. Again, there is lots of variety, from the mystical dream trip Carnival, Sugar Mountain all grown up and voodoo-trippy. Diggin' A Hole is a good, old rockin' blues by the group, down and dirty and mindless. Closer Forever is going to need some studying. It's a lovely semi-acoustic work, lengthy, with lots of references to previous Young works, including the galleons of war from Cortez the Killer. The big line is "Earth is like a church without a preacher," and I think it may hold a clue to Young's philosophy. I'll get back to you on that. Meantime, I'm pretty positive about this album, and in general the last few years of Young's production.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017


Because we focus so much on the rock and roll heroes, or the great jazz players of earlier in the 20th century, Merle Travis has been neglected, quite unfairly. Not only was he a guitar innovator and master player in the country/Western Swing world, he was a tremendous songwriter as well. Take his classics, 16 Tons and Dark As A Dungeon, certainly two of the masterpieces of the recording era, and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

B.C. band Cousin Harley does a fantastic job celebrating the master on this 12-song set. Lead by a guitar whiz themselves, Paul Pigat, the group edges the Travis songs a bit further into the rockabilly territory, but there's nothing wrong with that, for sure, as folks such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins sure admired Travis. In fact, his fingerpicking style certainly inspired the rockabilly pace. The band keeps lots of the humour Travis was known for as well, doing justice to the tongue-in-cheek numbers Divorce Me C.O.D., So Round, So Firm, So Fully Packed, and Smoke Smoke Smoke That Cigarette.

Pigat has a friendly, old-timey voice that's perfect for this material, and transports us back to the '40's and '50's with ease. Wisely the group is happy to show just how fun and solid the songs are without resorting to anything modern and fancy, just great playing does the trick. Pigat's guitar certainly stands out throughout, handling Travis' singular mix of country, Western Swing, jazz, blues and boogie-woogie. He tops it off with his own tribute to the Travis style, an instrumental called Rosewood, that the master himself would no doubt admire.


A mix of newcomers and veterans is featured on this set, which is made up of new or very recent recordings, and none of them the same old Christmas tunes you'll find on half the other albums you have in your collection. At least half the songs I've never heard of in any version, and the more familiar ones are done in quite different versions. In short, this will be a new take of Christmas tunes for any of your gatherings.

The biggest winners are from a trio of women in the middle of the disc. Norah Jones offers up a suitably jazzy live version of a Horace Silver song, Peace, which sits nicely as a holiday number, or for any time really. Grace Potter, of all people, does one of those old-fashioned luxurious ballads with clouds full of strings and choirs of angels, which she wrote herself, called Christmas Moon. And Rosanne Cash has finger-snapping fun with an old Louis Jordan number, Make Ev'ry Day Be Christmas.

Other fun ones include Lake Street Dive doing a novelty song, I Want A Hippopotamus For Christmas, an old '50's tune that they do a charming job with. The Decemberists offer up Alex Chilton's surprisingly unironic Jesus Christ, with just a touch of rebellion in a nasty guitar line at the end. And Judah & the Lion do their updated folk on The Christmas Song (that's the "chestnuts roasting" one).

Overall there are nice sounds across the whole set, with some well-chosen new artists, including Flor De Toloache, Vera Blue and Muna, doing Paul McCartney's Pipes of Peace. McCartney himself shows up on that remake of his Wonderful Christmastime, with Jimmy Fallon and The Roots, with The Roots remix welcome, Fallon's pointless inclusion not.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


The return of the ultimate East Coast Celtic rockers, and I'll argue the ultimate East Coast band, with members from all four provinces, plus a ton of musical influences in the mix. Every so often the band heads back out for a few dates, and this time had some new material to pass on as well, resulting in this six-track E.P.

The title cut has the group's classic uptempo sound, in the Reel 'n' Roll style, the big driving beat, and Joey Kitson's booming bass vocals, which feels just like your favourite pub on a Saturday night. They slow it down for Long Have We Travelled, and the bagpipes appear, stirring in this big ballad. There's a departure on the tune Can't Get You Out Of Mind, a deep funky blues with, get this, a solo on the pipes thrown in. Find that anywhere else. Accordion, mandolin and tin whistle combine for the warm closing number, Waltzing The Time Away. When you hear a Rawlins Cross song, you can be in no other place than Atlantic Canada.

Monday, December 11, 2017


Such is the goodwill Squeeze earned in the New Wave days, they continue to be welcomed warmly with each new tour and album these days. Called the Lennon and McCartney of their generation, it's really just Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook and whatever band they put together these days, but they do always surround themselves with strong players and contributors, notably keyboard player Stephen Large, who adds lots of colourful parts to Tilbrook's flights of pop fancy.

The most endearing and enduring Squeeze songs remain the big, hook-filled hits, from Tempted to Hourglass to Annie Get Your Gun, but the duo has stretched over the years into more eclectic compositions, from their "solo" disc Difford and Tilbrook in the mid-'80's on. It's almost like Difford especially (the music guy) finds it a little dull to go for insanely catchy songs each time, and instead gets whimsical. He thinks nothing of a doing a disco tune with an opera singer's part and a children's chorus, as we hear on Rough Ride. These tunes are still melodically wonderful and complex, captivating productions though, so we have no choice but to follow him down the rabbit hole on each one.

Almost as an aside, the group throws in some more easily digested numbers, such as Please Be Upstanding, where the title becomes this epic singalong, and Albatross, with its sly reference to Peter Green's Fleetwood Mac at the end. As a recent live streaming concert revealed, the band still performs all the hits, but they mix in lots of the new material too, as always daring us to dig a little deeper into the more sophisticated numbers, and it's a rewarding challenge when you do.

Sunday, December 10, 2017


Fans of quality country have been drooling over Stapleton, from his hit debut album Traveller, and from the first volume of this back-to-basics set released this past spring. Basics here means no fancy-ass programming or auto-fixing or whatever, just a small group making outlaw country in an old school studio. Nashville's RCA Studio A was founded by Chet Atkins and Owen Bradley, and Stapleton has the stuff to do the room justice.

Volume one was the eye-opener, nine cuts that recalled Waylon and Willie at their '70's finest, coming in under 40 minutes. That's the same program here, the same length, but a little more variety in tempo at least. Stapleton moves from raging rock (Midnight Train To Memphis) to introspective ballad (A Simple Song), all delivered with hardcore troubadour twang, in both vocals and lead guitar. He hurts and he rages, but there's no bullshit let's party music, aimed at entertaining the shooters-in-the-bar crowd. Here, liquor is treated realistically, like it was in the '60's: "I wish that I could go to church but I'm too ashamed of me/I hate the fact it takes a bottle to get me on my knees," he sings in Drunkard's Prayer. There are an awful lot of songwriters in Nashville that need to sit down and have a long talk with this guy.

Saturday, December 9, 2017


Ottawa's Cooper Brothers have always been about more than the Southern Rock tag they got, having been signed by the famous Capricorn label (Allman Bros, Marshall Tucker Band, etc.) in the '70's. Even though you can still hear a little of that classic twang, the group have all sorts of catchy hooks and choruses through their songs, as well as lots of other surprises. The title cut for instance far more of a soul cut, complete with a sweet and full horn section.

Dick Cooper has been full of new songs ever since the band got active again in 2006, and here fills the whole collection with brand-new material, everything from ballads to blues to rockers. I like the shot at their hometown, kind of a Jack and Diane theme set in the city, called Government Town: "They roll up the sidewalks at sunset/Put up a sign saying 'No fun allowed!'" It's also a really adept band these days, with lots of hands to call on for a big sound, plus specialty licks on pedal steel, banjo, the horns and cello. There's also a Grade-A East Coast guest, the fabulous fiddler and mandolin player Ray Legere, who adds a big presence on several songs, helping give a little more country feel to those cuts. It's old school, but The Cooper Brothers went to the right one.

Thursday, December 7, 2017


The final part of the Doors 50th anniversary celebration features the group's second album of the crucial year of 1967. The band's debut had established them as one of the biggest new American bands, thanks to the huge hit single Light My Fire. Already kings of the Sunset Strip club scene, they had graduated to national touring, but also had to find time to get into the studio for that important follow-up album.

Most groups put all their best songs on their debut disc, and then are stuck for material for the next one, but in The Doors case, they had more than enough stockpiled, thanks to months on the club scene playing their originals, and the fact Jim Morrison was somewhat prolific. Also, Robbie Krieger had written Light My Fire, and the rest of the band came up with the music, so he wasn't on his own in the writing department. Moonlight Drive was left over from the first album sessions, and other tracks, including the epic When The Music's Over, were staples of the club shows. The other big tracks here are People Are Strange and Love Me Two Times, so it's one of the group's stronger discs. It also reflects the flip side of the peace and love scene of San Francisco that was popular that year. Morrison had picked up on the darkness that fed on naivety, and the whole album had that vibe. Sometimes it was an act, but most times, especially early on in the group's career, he was trying for art.

There's no bonus tracks for this, but instead we get the album in both mono and stereo, on two separate discs. There are some noteworthy differences, with the stereo allowing for instrument separation, but the mono is clean and powerful, thanks to a great remastering by original engineer Bruce Botnick. Sometimes the original is enough.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017


The Ramones' third album, and second of 1977, is my favourite, where everything peaked, from song writing to ideas to production. After the modest success of the group's first two albums, and seeing they took recording seriously, the budget was increased for this album, and it sounds like it. There's nothing messy about it, the guitars have guts, the drums pound, there's a distinct bottom end and the vocals and harmonies stand out. This was The Ramones' response to British punk, that their music was good, not a joke.

That said, there was humour, either goofy or black, the latter found in We're A Happy Family. And when it was silly it was edgy, as in Teenage Lobotomy, which includes the immortal line, "Now I guess I'll have to tell 'em/That I got no cerebellum." The group was celebrating its growing fan club too, with songs like Sheena Is A Punk Rocker and Cretin Hop, creating a mythology that would stay with the scene throughout the group's long career.

Rocket To Russia features a non-stop run of great songs, 14 of them, all under three minutes. You get the brilliant East Coast Beach Boys number, Rockaway Beach, as well as covers of Surfin' Bird and Do You Wanna Dance? that show that punk had been around in the '60's too. The band's best-ever ballad was included, Here Today, Gone Tomorrow, as well as underrated cuts such as Ramona and I Don't Care. All other Ramones albums have at least a couple of filler cuts, but this one doesn't let up.

The reissue series for the 40th anniversary editions include single-disc original versions, as well as bigger boxes for bigger fans. The deluxe version has 3 discs as well as a vinyl copy of the original, including a couple of dozen outtakes and such, and a concert recording from Glasgow in 1977.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017


At the beginning of 1967, The Moody Blues had a problem. They sucked. After an initial 1965 hit in England and North America, Go Now, the British R'n'B group had failed to follow it up, and plainly weren't that good. They didn't have the tough stuff that the Stones, Animals and Yardbirds did to seem legitimate in the bluesy world, or even the pop scene. The only one who did, Denny Laine, had fled, not to be heard of until he resurfaced in Wings in the '70's.

The remaining members drafted in a couple of fellows who could write and sing, Justin Hayward and John Lodge on guitar and bass, and started searching for a new direction. A couple of important things happened. Keyboard geek Mike Pinder got a fancy Mellotron, a synth precursor that played tape loops to spacey effect, emulating strings and such (think Strawberry Fields Forever). And their record label asked them if they could do a rock version of a classical piece, with actual strings, to help promote the growing interest in stereo sound. Hayward and Lodge had been coming up with some possibilities, and since it was the Summer of Love and psychedelia and Sgt. Pepper and all that, experimentation was in the air.

Days Of Future Passed is often credited as a blueprint for prog, but on closer inspection, it's actually more of a very well-conceived mix of orchestra and pop group. The orchestral sections were recorded separately, with no group members playing (except on one song), and were used to open and close and link, as well as backing for a couple of poems. Then the rock songs would come in, and the Mellotron handled the string-like parts. For the most part the arrangements were quite interesting, and the opening The Day Begins foreshadows Nights In White Satin to great effect. Sometimes the strings do sound a little too faux-dramatic, but there are also some seamless transitions from orchestra to band that make this such a successful work.

The concept was even pretty good, given the flaky times. The title was made up by some record company person, but even it sounds okay, as the idea here is a set of songs that follow a day. It starts at sunrise, hits afternoon with the hit Tuesday Afternoon, and ends at night with Nights In White Satin. It was such a hit that it stayed on the charts from late '67 until 1972, when a reissue of Nights in the U.S., spurred on by constant FM radio play, made it all the way to #2 (#1 in Canada).

The remaining Moodies (Hayward, Lodge, drummer Graeme Edge) have been touring the album this year for its 50th, with a PBS special, and here we get the deluxe CD/DVD audio version of the original album. They've really done the set up well. Disc one features the original mix of the album on CD for the first time. In the '70's it had been remixed due to some damage on the original master, and all subsequent pressings used that. Now the technology is available to fix that old problem, so we get the 1967 version again, which has quite a few differences. Disc two features the '70's remix, and it's actually fun to spot the differences, including missing backing vocals and alternated orchestral fades and such. There are a plethora of bonus cuts, including some singles and b-sides issued around that time, but never on albums, and definitely not hits. They show the group changing as Hayward and Lodge start to put in their contributions. The always-welcome BBC sessions feature some of the album cuts, including Nights In White Satin, on their own without orchestra, and they do hold up well. Clearly the band was on to something good with this new lineup and direction. There are alternate versions of several album cuts, including The Sun Set, without its orchestra. On the accompanying DVD, we get 5.1 surround and superior stereo mixes, plus some rare footage from French television of the group doing live performances of Peak Hour, Tuesday Afternoon and Nights In White Satin.

Monday, December 4, 2017


A recent trip to Toronto led to an introduction to the music of Lacey Hill, from Six Nations. Falling somewhere in the singer-songwriter/folk school, Hill is a rich, emotional singer and writer, with an intensity that only gets stronger the more stripped-down her material is.

This 9-song set starts and ends with songs featuring just Hill playing on ukulele, which sounds deceptively simple. But opener All I See Is You is lighthearted and the playing up and happy, while closer Had Me @Hello is gentle and sentimental, a lovely memory of a first encounter. Hill has a strong, lower voice, so the contrast with the light, sweet notes of the ukulele is effective. When she switches to acoustic guitar, she adds some spare lead guitar and bass at times, but still the songs are pretty much focused on her voice and lyrics, which draw you in with ease.

A big part of the emotional punch comes from the inspiration for the songs, the loss of a partner far too young. The songs reflect the good and the tough, memories of first meetings and times together, and the pain of the loss. There's hope too, the acknowledgment of better days ahead, even with a broken heart. Wind-n-Feathers is a masterful soul ballad, her voice completely in control. It's quite a stirring collection.

Sunday, December 3, 2017


Wilco fans are justifiably excited by the reissue of the group's first two albums, from the mid-'90's. First off, there are beautiful 180-gram vinyl versions, long out-of-print in that format, and hard as hen's teeth to track down. Second, there are lots of bonus tracks now included, all previously unreleased. The vinyl sounds especially great, although it's a tough choice because not all the bonus cuts for Being There are included, even though it's four albums long. The CD deluxe set is five discs, and includes a full concert from the Troubadour club, previously only found on a promo cassette.

A.M. was the group's first album, although they were barely a band at that point. They were the remnants of Uncle Tupelo after Jay Farrar left to form Son Volt. Jeff Tweedy, at that point the bass player and second-string singer and writer, gathered the others together to support him as he moved to leading on his own, having enough songs squirreled away. Most of them were still in the alt-country vein of Uncle Tupelo, the quartet joined by session pro Lloyd Maines (Dixie Chicks) on pedal steel and Brian Henneman (Bottle Rockets) on lead guitar. But Tweedy's songs were often filled with pop hooks, instead of being pure No Depression style. I Must Be High and Pick Up The Change are glorious tracks that showed how easily he could write in that style.

There was something new brewing however, and that's heard in the bonus cuts found here. Present is an early version of a crucial song he was crafting, Outtasite (Outta Mind), which would show up as a centerpiece of the next album, 1996's Being There. It was a much different band and sound a year later, with an important new member in Jay Bennett, now handling guitar, keyboards, lap steel and more. Mostly though, the alt-country tag was often not applicable on the sprawling double-CD. Opener Misunderstand had a bit of cacophony and weirdness, and there was a whole lot of stuff going on in both the music and the theme of the album. Rock and roll and youthful confusion and rebellion were being examined for their pros and cons by someone a little older but no more wiser. While there were still blasts of feel-good rock like Monday, there was certainly more introspection, and the end result was a major album that confirmed Wilco would be an important band, Tweedy a risk-taker as much as a hitmaker.

There were upwards of a dozen more songs recorded for the album, and several of those are found in the generous 15 bonus studio cuts included on the reissue. There are also a few alternative versions of songs that did make the album, including Monday with more horns, I Got You with a dobro part, and yet another version of Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind, the fourth now available. All versions (CD, vinyl and digital) also include a short set taken from radio station KCRW, where the group performed quiet versions of Sunken Treasure, Red-Eyed and Blue, Far, Far Away, and a surprise of Carole King's Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. One thing about Wilco, they always treat their fans with the highest-quality packages, and go out of their way to provide lots of bonuses and liner notes on these reissues. These appeal to all the senses.

Saturday, December 2, 2017


Although lots of current artists make new Christmas albums this and every year, something old and familiar always feels better. Here are a couple of collections that go back to the '50's and '60's, featuring some well-known voices, although with mostly different versions than the best-known, so there's a freshness to the sets as well.

The second of the Capitol Christmas sets collects many of the best-known acts on that label, which was certainly one of the most important of the era. Instead of taking the usual hit Christmas songs, this set focuses on tracks that aren't overheard. There are also a few we don't normally associate with the holiday classics, but did their own albums back in the day. There are several of the label's jazz and popular vocalists of the day, including Nancy Wilson, Al Martino and Dinah Shore. There are a few surprises, such as country greats The Louvin Brothers, and two cuts from Glen Campbell's 1968 Christmas album. Wayne Newton is a little cheesy to take, but he always is. The closest the set gets to rock is a couple of cuts from the annual classic Beach Boys Christmas Album, but instead of the usual Little Saint Nick, it's Frosty the Snowman and Christmas Day.

The king of Capitol in the '50's was Sinatra, and he recorded the holiday staple, A Jolly Christmas from Frank Sinatra, later renamed The Sinatra Christmas Album, in 1957. A platinum-selling album, much of it is included here, as well as a 1954 single of White Christmas, his second time recording the song, after first doing it in the 1940's. Even though Frank left Capitol in 1962, his estate now controls all his later work, so this set features a further 12 songs from various '60's and '70's projects. There was an album in 1964 with fellow legends Bing Crosby and Frank Waring, still old-fashioned crooner fare. In 1967 Frank was a lot more hip however, with hits in the Top 10 (Somethin' Stupid) and that time his clan got involved in an album called The Sinatra Family Wish You A Merry Christmas. Nancy, Tina and Frank Jr. are all on board, and Frank was now singing material such as Jimmy Webb's Whatever Happened To Christmas. A 1975 single, Christmas Memories, rounds things out, presenting what could just as well be called The Best of Sinatra Christmas.

Friday, December 1, 2017


While The Beatles and other have fully mined their many appearances on the BBC, The Stones have been remiss until now, no doubt part of their complicated relationship with their late former manager Allen Klein, whose ABKCO controls much of their '60's material. At last that's been worked out for this set, with exciting results. The big news is a new process at Abbey Road Studio called de-mixing, which basically lets the engineer isolate each instrument, acting like the songs were recorded on modern multi-track equipment, rather than basic mono.

The results are startling, and while The Beatles' BBC tracks often sound flat, especially those sources from transcription discs or home tapes, these tracks are vibrant and in most cases, sound like recent work, rather than songs from 1963-1965. Even the worst-sourced tracks, such as a February 1964 version of I Wanna Be Your Man, have been saved from bootleg status into a decent listen, probably found in some collection taped off the radio over 50 years ago.

That's a great thing, because that track in particular is quite different from the group's released version, and Brian Jones shines on slide guitar with a lick not heard in the original. There are lots of quite different takes, whether live in front of teen studio audiences or re-recordings at the BBC studios. In addition to favourites from the group's early repertoire and the latest singles, there are instances of songs never recorded by the band, such as Beautiful Delilah by Chuck Berry, and Crackin' Up, which was resurrected in 1976 for the Love You Live album. There's also a wealth of obscurities from b-sides, EP's and buried on early albums, including Down The Road Apiece, Mona and 2120 South Michigan Avenue. This is the Stones at their earliest, bluesiest for the most part, but does hit that crucial time when the writing started to flow, and features a somewhat different take of Satisfaction as well as The Last Time.

At 32 tracks spread over two discs, not everything recorded for the BBC is here, as bootleggers have found about 50 cuts, but there's no repetition of songs, and of course, the quality is off-the-scale better. It's funny that more effort seemingly goes into promoting the newest concert DVD or best-of set, largely same-old, same-old, yet here's the goldmine. All you have to do is check out the sizzling version of I Just Want To Make Love To You, in front of a screaming audience at Saturday Club on April 18, 1964. The Beatles were still singing I Want To Hold Your Hand, by comparison.