Saturday, December 30, 2017


I am unduly attracted to the failed single releases of once-popular artists. When a performer has a big hit, and then quickly falls off the charts, I like to get those singles and hear if they are actually any good, and it was just a case of a fickle public or bad promotion. This may be why you will find 45 RPM copies of Edison Lighthouse's It's Up To You Petula and Find Mr. Zebedee, alongside Love Grows (Where My Rosemary Goes). FYI: They weren't good.

Now, for about three months in 1975/76, you couldn't get much bigger than Gary Wright. Dream Weaver and it's follow-up, Love Is Alive, were both huge hits for the keyboard king, featuring his synth talents (oh that synth bass) and space-y sound effects. Dream Weaver even had a second life as a kitsch classic, featured prominently in the Wayne's World movie. But then, crickets. So I analytically approached this set to find out if the next batch of singles were to blame.

Wright was no spring chicken, and some fans knew him from his days with the British band Spooky Tooth, or his session work, most prominently on his friend George Harrison's All Things Must Pass. Then he bought all this fancy new keyboard tech and came up with a sound. A lot of it sounds dated now, especially that bass, and the swoops, and probably people got pretty sick of it after his '76 burst of fame. The first single of his next album in '76, Phantom Writer, couldn't even find the Top 40, and I can't even remember hearing it on radio, something I paid pretty close attention to back then. That began a run of releases and a couple of disappointing albums that must have baffled all involved. The songs couldn't even get into the Top 100.

Then, a shift happened, mostly thanks to some better songwriting. You can hear it on cuts such as Starry Eyed, which had a much better funky keyboard, in the Stevie Wonder style. Finally in 1981, the gods of radio let him have one last gasp at the charts, a good song called Really Wanna Know You which hit #16. That was it though, Wright's album-selling power was gone. To cap this collection, there's the remake Wright dead for the Wayne's World soundtrack, a pretty close copy with the main difference being a change in the opening line from "I've just closed my eyes again," to "I HAVE just closed...," contractions apparently no longer available.

So, the collection starts big, then drops really quickly, then picks back up at the end for a respectable conclusion. You're not missing a whole lot after the Big Two hits, but if you need 'em, there's a few okay tracks here to add to the collection.

Friday, December 29, 2017


The Association are best known for a string of late '60's hits that barely qualify for soft rock, including Cherish, Windy, Along Comes Mary and Never My Love, the last one the second-most played record on radio in the 20th century. They probably deserve a little better legacy, and the group does have fans from the Sunshine Pop genre. They were an excellent vocal group, and the production was always tremendous, if lightweight. It turns out the members had tons of chops as well, as this live set from 1970 shows, just reissued for the first time on CD.

They were a self-contained touring band, all seven members instrumentalists as well as singers, providing their own horns and wind instruments, lots of percussion, as well as a solid keys-bass-drums-guitar core. While the hits provided the highlights, and set pieces such as the chorale-with-trumpets Requiem For The Masses showed off the seven singers, the rest of the 70-plus minute show had more r'n'b-styled numbers written by the band. This set came from a time when the group was dropping off the charts, but still big live, and they were looking for a way to get across the wider range they offered, there were precious few double live albums being released in those days. But alas, the group's choir boy image proved too hard to shake, and even though you could hear them trying to be hip (which they probably were), rock and roll audiences now going to Zeppelin shows weren't buying it.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017


This bluesy band with a difference comes out of the Hamilton, ON. scene, named after a local conservation area. Several differences actually, as the group is loaded with lots of local indie talent with multiple skills and styles. There are three lead singers sharing the tracks, four of the band write, there are three men and three women in the group and tons of experience. Lily Sazz, keyboard player, singer and songwriter, started the group looking for like-minded folks rather than those rooted in one style, and the result is a set that goes from soulful ballads to rockin' and funky R'n'B.

Sue Leonard handles the gutsiest of the tunes, with a bold, strong voice. No surprise she delivers, as she's a veteran of tours with k.d. lang, her go-to backup singer for a few years, now living back in her hometown. That means the rest of the group had to have chops to match, and guitar player Krawchuk certainly matches up on his tracks, Leonard sounding great on the backing vocal there as well. Sazz's piano is a big part throughout, along with a tight rhythm section and surprising colouring by Mark Volkov, adding violin, flute and sax. The songwriting is upper-level throughout, Krawchuk's When You Come Around delivering a fine New Orleans groove, and Sazz's closer Wake Up a call to all of us bothered and bewildered at the Twitter-news each night.

The disc is out and available at the group's website, and those in the area can check out the big launch show coming up at Hamilton's venerable Corktown Pub, on Jan. 14, in the year 2018. Wow, first time I've had to write that, feels weird.

Sunday, December 24, 2017


One of my own Christmas traditions is taking the break time to go through a new boxed set, as it's often hard to find the time to enjoy a three, four or more multi-disc collection in one sitting. That means I put it on, and don't stop until it's done, reading the liner notes as I go. This year, the latest Who collection filled that bill admirably.

This five-disc set goes chronologically through the group's British singles, from their 1964 debut as The High Numbers, and the non-hit I'm The Face/Zoot Suit, until the last handful of stand-alone new singles that have been added to best-of compilations, the final one being Be Lucky from the 2015 set The Who Hits Fifty! Each b-side is also included, which means several of these very obscure tracks are being issued on CD for the first time, which makes the box pretty interesting for Who fans.

Focusing only on the singles means the box looks at the journey of the band in a much different way. Usually Who collections concentrate on the biggest hits and the four crucial albums, Tommy, Live At Leeds, Who's Next and Quadrophenia. But the 45's tell a much different story, especially during the first phase of the group's career, pre-Tommy, and then during the early '70's, when a string of stand-alone singles were released from abandoned projects. Then in later years, various live cuts came out from reunion tours or the need for b-sides, tempting bonuses for collectors.

The '60's Who were first an R'n'B band, then a pop one, and the 45 market was hugely important. In England, before Sgt. Pepper, it was the ring in which all the best bands competed for both chart sales and recognition, Pete Townshend matching wits with The Beatles, Stones, and Brian Wilson for pop supremacy. The Who's run of I Can't Explain, Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere, My Generation, Substitute, I'm A Boy, Happy Jack, Pictures Of Lily and I Can See For Miles matches them all, and is as fruitful a period as the group's more-recognized early '70's heyday. A batch of rare b-sides from this period yields less important but often fun tracks, including several written by John Entwistle, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, his thinly veiled description of Keith Moon. Unless you own the original singles or the various rarities collections used several years ago such as Who's Missing/Two's Missing, you'll be missing several of these minor gems, and now you can get them in glossy remastered audio.

The early '70's saw Townshend trying to come up with a way to release his concept album Lifehouse, which was eventually scrapped, and the best of the songs salvaged for Who's Next. That left a surplus of tracks, several of which emerged as singles, with varying quality and success. Let's See Action, Join Together and Relay were decent-sized British hits but didn't do much in North America, and there were even more b-sides that show different sides to the group's sound at the time. Entwistle had become a better writer, and his Heaven and Hell, often used as a live show opener, is found here in its rarer studio version.

After Quadrophenia, album tracks such as Squeeze Box, You Better You Bet and Don't Let Go The Coat were selected as singles, so the more interesting finds here come from best-of's and compilations, such as the beloved 1979 documentary The Kids Are Alright, which featured the brilliant Long Live Rock. Another song written for an abandoned project, and found on the catch-all set Odds and Sods, it's clearly one of the great anthems of rock, and should have been a huge hit, oddly rarely considered in the lists of great Who tracks. A 1990 live album saw the release of Join Together/I Can See For Miles/Behind Blue Eyes, and helps show that the band really did continue to make magic on stage in that long stretch of "final" tours and reunion charity concerts.

As usual for Who reissue box, the accompanying book holds copious and informative notes, which is a must for my traditional Christmas binge-listening. This time however, there are none of the ravings of Chairman Pete, often a favourite inclusion for Who fans. Has he said all he has to say? I doubt it.

Thursday, December 21, 2017


Airy, dramatic Europop from the daughter of Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, her first new music since 2010's IRM, a compelling release inspired by her cerebral hemorrhage. Clearly she likes a big subject in her lyrics, as this one tackles topics such as the legacy of her controversial father, alcoholism, and the death of her sister Kate Barry, who also had a tumultuous life.

Sung equally in French and English, often both in a track, and it's a surprisingly seamless mix, although part of that is because with all the processing on her voice, it's hard to make out which language she's using. Not auto-tuning, mind you, this is production stuff, an overall electro sound by producer SebastiAn, with a little '90's retro (think Madonna) mixed with tomorrow's sound today. No doubt that appealed to Paul McCartney, known to like some electronic stuff himself, who shows up as writer and player on Songbird In A Cage, where he contributes guitar, bass and drums to the slinky track.

There's another effective song called Sylvia Says, where Gainsbourg mixes in some lines of Sylvia Plath's poetry. While Plath's no stranger to pop star tributes, this one's a novel approach, bringing Plath into a contemporary world. Canada's Owen Pallett shows up in his usual role of string and horn arranger and conductor, another element that gives the album a much broader sound than the usual programmed pop work.

Wednesday, December 20, 2017


U2's plans for continued world domination were rudely disrupted with the backlash over the band's gift of its 2014 album Songs of Innocence directly to everybody's iTunes account. After years of planning a two-album concept, starting and stopping various iterations of the music with various producers, and finally getting the plan solidified, the one gesture they probably thought was a brilliant coup turned into a marketing disaster, at least in p.r. terms. They are still stuck with talking about it, three years later with the release of this new set.

This is the second part of the plan, which initially would have followed Songs of Innocence much sooner. That first album was about looking back to the start of the band's career in Ireland, and featured lots of big, arena-sized songs, whereas this one focuses on the present, a mature band more reflective. Bono has stated most of the songs are letters to various people in his life, either individuals such as family and friends, to groups such as fans. In typical U2 fashion one delay, trying to get the iTunes backlash behind them, turned into several, as the songs were rewritten, the production changed, decisions questioned, and the band worried that it wasn't the best they could do. This seems to go on with every U2 album, and it can't be healthy. Anyway, apparently the biggest issue was the right-wing turn the world took with Brexit and Trump, etc., and Bono feeling the need to address it in some way.

The political situation does not figure large here, there are some broader lines that address the general distress, and the cut American Soul is certainly directed at the U.S. in a loving way. But more so these are largely personal statements with admissions and fondness, one assuming a song such as You're The Best Thing About Me would be about his spouse with lines like "I'm the kind of trouble that you enjoy." It's interesting to hear Bono address his public persona and personality flaws, which were partly behind the backlash: "I have everything but I feel like nothing at all/There's no risky thing for a man determined to fall." I'm not sure I believe that sentiment, given his determination to succeed and become bigger, better and more important in the world, but at least that's his own interpretation.

So that's what it's about and what lead to the album. As for the end result, it's certainly a less bombastic affair than the last, and the usual U2 music. I like the reflective tone, yet it does that by limiting the power the group can conjure. With eight different producers involved, and as many as five on one track, these songs have been beaten into submission rather than finely crafted. At one point the band went back in to rework everything to get a unified sound, and again, that seems like trying to add a plot after the book's been written. It's just all too similar in the end. It's U2 in With or Without You mode, over the entire album. For an album about life's experiences, we need a little more life.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Driving home from P.E.I. today had me thinking about how much I admire the Island's music scene, which then reminded me I was due to talk about one of the bright lights of the scene there. The Amanda Jackson Band released its first studio album this year, but the group has a rich history thanks to its members. Both Jackson and guitar player Dale McKie came out of the blues group Bad Habits. Todd MacLean is one of the Island's most sought-after instrumentalists, on piano, sax and guitar. Both Jon Rehder and Reg Ballagh have decades of experience on bass and drums respectively, playing with many of P.E.I.'s best.

Jackson's rich and emotive voice is going to stand out in any setting, and wisely the band lets her shine. But it's not without surprises. A natural at belting blues, all those talented players behind her instead turn the music into something more subtle and jazzy, and very effective. There's an acoustic/organic feel to the original songs, with acoustic guitar. electric piano, guest violin from Sean Kemp, and harmonica from McKie among the colours. Mind you, when they do the blues, the power is unleashed. MacLean plays a masterful solo on Human Zoo, and there's a mighty groove worked up in Before The Night Is Through. The lone cover, Tower of Song by one L. Cohen, is a dramatically rearranged version, Jackson in full vocal flight.

Social concerns are a big part of the band's lyrics and obviously they put their talents to use that way as well. Islanders can find them Friday night, Dec. 22, in Charlottetown at the Florence Simmons Performance Hall, as part of the Food and Warmth Show 2017, proceeds going to The Upper Room, P.E.I.'s central food bank and soup kitchen.

Saturday, December 16, 2017


Sing with me: "The First Noel, I've actually liked...". Everybody's more preferred brother in rock music's Kardashian family, the saner one puts together a strong album that sounds progressive and doesn't dip too much into other people's cliches. That said, you can certainly hear the influences, but they aren't overwhelming and show quite a bit of imagination on Gallagher's part. Holy Mountain is a T.Rex stomper, with a sly reference to Bowie's Diamond Dogs thrown in for good measure but it sure does rock, with a great chorus. Keep On Reaching is his take on Motown, with both Stevie Wonder's Higher Ground and Marvin's Can I Get A Witness supplying lines in the lyrics, and the horns borrowed from the Snakepit.

It's much more than borrowing though. The melodies aren't stolen, and the production and rhythm are thoroughly modern. If anything it's homage, and a little help in coming up with song ideas, nothing more nefarious. Once the songs are in flight, they are big, bold and catchy, and a lot more fired up than the last few Oasis albums, and the first couple of High Flying Birds albums. New single It's A Beautiful World is too much U2 for my liking, so don't judge the album on that basis, it's much more fun than that cut, and I think that is the key, this is a good time record.

Friday, December 15, 2017


Big league album #3 for the now-confirmed Canadian country star (don't forget he also recorded as a young teen back in Alberta starting out). He's already grabbed gold records, a #1 single, top ten albums, a Juno, a bunch of CCMA's, pals around with the likes of Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Charley Pride and Dave Mustaine(!), so it feels like at some point soon, all this adulation will spill over into the U.S. as well.

It's pretty much a wall-to-wall party on We Were That Song, almost everything high on the BPM meter. Damn!, with Mustaine cranking out on guitar, has that big pounding drum beat and wild banjo groove, almost a frenzy really. The title cut, already a hit, has the same big sound, impossible to ignore. Kissel's writing some more on this release, Cecilia a good one, a bit more on the melodic side, but still another potential hit. The main body of the album, the first 10 cuts, are all aimed at the modern country world.

The last three cuts, called Encores, are old-school country, something Kissel grew up with and recorded lots of when he first started. That's where Pride shows up, doing a duet on his old 1978 hit Burgers and Fries, kind of a last waltz for the album. Drink, Cuss or Fish is one of those old "make mine country" numbers, another that would've sounded right at home in the '70's, and God Made Daughters is Kissel's own sentimental number for his two baby girls. So you have all this heavily produced stuff up front, and then the throwback songs from simpler times at the very end. Guess which I like more?

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.