Tuesday, February 20, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KRISTA MUIR - THE TIDES

A completely one-woman effort from Muir, except for a couple of horn parts (and a chainsaw), including the production and engineering. That's lots of keyboards, bass, percussion, synth, violin, and her main axe, the ukulele. While her personality, choice of instruments and cheery melodies make for a bright, easy listen, and she's certainly done lots of charming art in the past, this set has tougher stuff at its core. Several of the songs address her battle with endometriosis, a painful condition that kept her from life performances for a time.

She wrote though, and then did a whirlwind recording session over two weeks, with lots of vibrant electro-pop, the kind that took six members of Martha and the Muffins to make back in '80. Well, just a little more ukulele. Meanwhile, listen closer and you'll hear hints of her trials, such as "What doesn't kill you could make you invincible" and "Like a girl possessed - crumbles to the floor in a bloody mess" in Girl Possessed. Equal parts fun and fearless.

Monday, February 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROBERT PLANT & THE SENSATIONAL SPACE SHIFTERS - LIVE AT DAVID LYNCH'S FESTIVAL OF DISRUPTION (Blu-ray)

Here's Plant and his fabulous band doing their shape shifting of his music, blending together African, folk, rock and blues to create a sound really not found in any other group around. This set from 2016 predates his latest, last fall's Carry Fire, so the tracks mostly come from 2014's Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, so it's a little dated but still pretty fascinating, with all sorts of odd stringed and percussive instruments, such as the bendir drum and the lute-like tehardant from Mali. It's quite literally all over the map.

Plant's been all over the internet of late as well, telling all why a Zeppelin reunion is pointless, why look back when he has this great band and new sound with which to move forward? Good point, and certainly the albums are worthy of that confidence. However, there's still a life audience to appease, and on this there's a bit too much dabbling in the old Zep cuts. The cheers come up with the recognition of songs such as "Black Dog", "Going To California", and "Whole Lotta Love", the last in a blues medley. He has radically altered them, messing with the time signature, leaving out bits and parts, and no sign of Page-like guitar heroics, or his own classic wails. Yet it still has the feel of a retro show at times, and hopefully he's cutting more ties as he goes.

This show was a benefit for filmmaker/music fan David Lynch's foundation, which is something to do with meditation saving the world. Fair enough, except that means the bonus material here is all Lynch talking about the healing powers of transcendental meditation. Maybe he's right, but I'm here for the tunes, and Lynch being Lynch, most of the interview bites come out kinda kooky. Don't ask about the fish story. Concert yay, extra features blah.

Friday, February 16, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VAN MORRISON - IN CONCERT (Blu-ray)

Hello, what's this? Not one, but two Van Morrison concerts grace this Blu-ray? I love you, BBC Music. The first was filmed in 2016 for the Beeb's In Concert series, in front of a small studio audience, Morrison's small, five-piece combo, with the Man himself blowing lots and lots of sax. That set's 76 minutes, while a second, contemporary show called Up On Cyprus Avenue is also included. It features the same-sized group, but a very different set list, with only five songs repeated out of 15 in that hour-long concert.

These shows have a little of everything for fans, which is hard to do when you're talking about a career going back to the early '60's. But Morrison makes it work, sampling his earliest, blues days with "Baby Please Don't Go", with a fine harp solo, throwing in a hit or favourite every little bit ("Wild Night", "Brown-Eyed Girl", "Jackie Wilson Said") and playing six cuts off the recent Keep Me Singing album of that year. Never one to sit still, Morrison has released two full albums since then.

The band needs to be sharp and adaptable with all these styles on parade, and there's some pretty sharp players up there, young (keyboardist Paul Moran) and older (Dave Keary on guitar, one of Ireland's most respected players). Singer Dana Masters gets to duet with Van on a couple of numbers, and her work on "Sometimes We Cry" lifts her boss to an energized performance. Most fun though is watching Morrison these days, enjoying all his sax and harmonica solos, and belting out true blues, his favourite, like "Going Down To Bangor".

The second concert is a special outdoor concert in Belfast, celebrating Morrison's return to the city as a newly-knighted citizen, especially for his services for tourism and charity in Northern Ireland. It was remarked at the time how jovial he seemed about the honour and the hometown appearance, and he does seem to be having more fun, without a bit of the grumpy old Van around. He throws off some asides to the band and front rows, smiles a little and puts everyone, including the viewer, at ease. For this show, he seems keen on concentrating on his vocals, being the jazz man, and "It's All In The Game" is a special highlight. He was 70 for these shows, and performing with lots of passion.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE RU-JAC RECORDS STORY, VOL.s 1, 2 & 3

I'm not really a music reviewer, I just fake it so I can get more records and stuff. See, I'm more of a record collector really. I collect a whole bunch of different genres, soul being one of the main ones. I guess I'm not much of a collector either, because I had never heard of Ru-Jac Records before, until this series of compilations out now on the Omnivore label. It turns out the company was one of those regional labels that existed all over the U.S. until major labels put most of them out of business in the '70's. But back in the '60's, it was still possible to have regional hits that sold enough to keep the small players going, calling on a pool of local talent and those hopeful of breaking outside their market.

Ru-Jac was a small fish on the east coast, set up in the Baltimore area. In the fascinating back story in the liner notes, we find out the owner had been set up in the club business by the local numbers racket king. Through his entertainment business, one Rufus Mitchell became the Berry Gordy-wanna be of Baltimore, and the acts that he met through the clubs provided the label talent.

There were no Ru-Jac stars of note, not one artist broke the national charts, and none of the names are familiar on these compilations, save one. Arthur Conley recorded the smash "Sweet Soul Music", but only after he left the label. Mitchell was a big enough player in the club world that stars such as Otis Redding knew of him, and Mitchell was able to convince Redding to take Conley with him to bigger fame. This set features a couple of demos done before Conley left. Other than that, you get single tracks from such non-notables as Rita Doryse, Leon Gibson, Sir Joe, Little Sonny Daye, and Tiny Tim. Not that Tiny Tim, the other one, without the tulips. Of course, there are going to be people in Baltimore and environs that remember these artists fondly, but not that many.

However, soul fans will find lots to love. Plenty of these singers and groups were pretty darn good. Brenda Jones could easily have been a Motown star, and some of her material is really quite well-written and performed. Same goes for Winfield Parker, another dynamic singer. There were some pretty good studio players involved as well, The Shyndells Band used on many sides here. There weren't any albums though, it was all 45's for the label, they never got close to the point were they could afford to take a chance on that much cash outlay. Often these sessions were scraped-together affairs, paid for by other business interests Mitchell could tap, including partnerships with other local players who wanted in on his club business.

Each volume is jammed with cuts, 22 and more, and they don't dwell on any one artist too long. There are real gems, including the only 45 issued by the classic Gospel group The Fruitland Harmonizers, a wonderful vocal blend with some interesting, unusual harmonies. Some simply are from unknown artists, recorded but never released, names and players lost to time. In some cases, this is probably for the best, as there are a few weaker efforts and lots of bum notes, especially from horn players still learning their craft, if they ever did. One Charles Johnson had been hired to be the Ru-Jac office manager, and got a chance to record. It turned out so poorly, he even lost his office manager job.

It addition to these three compilations, there's a fourth that covers later label efforts in the late '60's and '70's, plus individual sets by the most prolific artists, Winfield Parker and Gene and Eddie, and another that will cover the demo recordings of Conley before he left with Redding is coming in May. Much of the material here comes from unreleased session tapes, or taken from insanely rare and valuable 45's, prized by collectors better informed than me, until now.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: 54.40 - KEEP ON WALKING



The incredibly long-lived band (formed 1981) returns with their first album of new material since 2011, although there was a fine acoustic hits album, La Difference, in 2016. What hasn't changed, and what will never change for them, is the quality songwriting, and attention to production detail. Founding member Neil Osborne writes the words, everybody writes the music, and as usual, it's tight, fun rock, catchy and clever.

Osborne is one of the better observers with his lyrics, reflecting life back at us, with a message or two, nothing preachy but enough to make you think a little. "How's Your Day Goin'" is simple enough, standing in line at Starbucks (Vancouver band, natch), realizing everybody's on their phone in line, and the only person it's okay to talk to is the barista. There was a time we'd all ask the titular question, as a matter of politeness. With lots of experience behind him, Osborne has some advice throughout the album for those having a bad day, week, or year: "I can tell you are walking through hell/if you want to find peace, keep on walking," he sings in the title cut. Meanwhile, the group makes lovely little earworms out of all these sentiments. And that's why they've been around so long.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: COLLETTE SAVARD AND THE SAVANTS

A smooth jazz-folk sound is featured across this set from indie Toronto singer/songwriter Savard, a change from previous albums. Putting together a band of high quality vets including Rebecca Campbell (Jane Siberry), the album features a smart playing matched with introspective, thoughtful lyrics. The vibe is Steely Dan-meets-Christine McVie, emotion plus chops.

Savard's lyrics detail the end of a long-term relationship, and determination to move forward. "Give myself very good advice," she sings on "My Last Cigarette", and "I take a leap of faith." Meanwhile, the Savants live up to their name, Megan Worthy dropping in funky piano chords, while Tim Posgate drops in tasty guitar, whether it's an easy jazz feel ("Top Of The Trees") or the cool pop of "In Over My Head". This is what happens when the right band meets the right songs.

Monday, February 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: KENNY JAMES - GHOST TOWN

Album number two for Sackville, N.B.'s Kenny James, and he turns further down the roots-rock-country road. He has a natural twang, and that deceptively lyric simplicity that's always a feature of the best country music. There are little lines of wisdom, such as "There's a flower poking up from the crack in the sidewalk/It spoke to me sayin' don't you ever give up." They are honest observations that pack a punch, and make the songs real and meaningful.

Meanwhile, if you like country with a boogie beat, he's the man to meet (stealing a line from Little Feat). "Soul Gambler" features a Farfisa-like organ on top and some killer soloing from guest Dave Rahmer. For more support, James didn't have to look far down the road. Over in Moncton he found The Divorcees' Alex Madsen, always a devotee of Outlaw country. Just across the border in Amherst, N.S. there was Ray Legere, the best bluegrass fiddler and mandolin player about, and a little further along the Northumberland Strait he called on Dale Murray and Christina Martin, on pedal steel and vocals respectively. But James handles all the other instruments and writing himself, from the touching lost-love song "Victoria" to the rockier "One Hit Wonders." There's all kinds of roots in the Eastern soil.

Friday, February 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: CHRIS HILLMAN - THE ASYLUM YEARS

Always the most underrated Byrd, by the mid-70's Chris Hillman had been an integral member of that group, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Stephen Stills' Manassas, and the Souther-Hillman-Furay group. The only thing he hadn't proved was whether he was a frontman. So that became his next chapter, with two albums in '76 and '77, Slippin' Away and Clear Sailin'. This new collection simply slaps the two of them onto one CD, nothing added or subtracted, and a new essay/interview with the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer. There's been great praise for his most recent solo album from last year, produced by Tom Petty, which is probably why this has come out.

Hillman was always reluctant to lead the show, but over the years had added songwriting and vocals to his skillful rock, country and bluegrass playing. The big surprise was what a pleasing voice he brought to these albums. Slippin' Away fits well into the California country-rock school that was still thriving in those Eagles/Poco days, and of course Hillman had been instrumental in that whole scene in his previous groups, standing tall with Gram Parsons in both the Byrds and Burritos. That whole first album is a smooth-sounding and easy-on-the-ears standout, Hillman joined by pals such as Timothy B. Schmit, Rick Roberts of Firefall, another ex-Burrito in pedal steel wiz Al Perkins, and even Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn. He wrote most of the songs, and the potential was there for a standout solo career.

When the album failed to hit, a poor decision led to a much glossier, produced sound on the follow-up, Clear Sailin'. Most of the strong players were gone, the material was weaker and the result was a real drop-off. It feels like a generic '70's record, way too thin and polished. Hillman's own songs didn't match up, and a lifeless cover of Marvin Gaye's "Ain't That Peculiar" added nothing. So it was back to the drawing board, with Hillman going through a partial Byrds reunion before ending up leading the very successful Desert Rose Band in the '80's, always happiest when he was doing country/bluegrass. I recommend this collection, but I also recommend you stop it halfway through.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EDGAR BREAU - (s/t)

If you know Breau's name, it's most likely as leader of Hamilton's cult punk-prog pioneers Simply Saucer, resurrected from the '70's and more powerful than ever these days. If you really know Breau, you'll know his solo work leans to the acoustic folk side, but with lots of grand washes of instruments and dreamy soundscapes. This is his most musically ambitious set, filled to the brim with rich textures, all in a purple haze. It's Syd Barrett if he was an acid champion instead of an acid casualty.

Joining Breau in this lush mix of instruments and voices are Blue Rodeo vets Glenn Milchem (drums) and Kim Deschamps (pedal steel), Saucer stalwart Kevin Christoff (bass), Hamilton fave Mike Trebilcock (vocals), lots of strings, sitar, glockenspiel and the multi-instrumental talents of Adam Bentley and Jordan Mitchell on lots of electronics, synth, kalimba, autoharp, field recordings, and on and on. It's a marvelous, laid-back sound, trippy and rewarding, all those rich and interesting tones mixing and combining in wonderful ways. Breau has a literary way of writing, placing us in short stories with developed characters. Plus, he does the often-dangerous, but here very rewarding trick of adapting known poetry to music, bravely and successfully using one work by Yeats ("He Wishes His Beloved Were Dead") and two by eccentric 20th century British poet Edith Sitwell. These sit pretty much seamlessly with his own compositions, and it's an engrossing and rewarded album throughout.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE GOOD LOVELIES - SHAPESHIFTERS

Glorious folk singers and writers The Good Lovelies have expanded their sound this time out with a trip to the East Coast. Nope, they haven't added a fiddler or gone Celtic. Instead they've enlisted producer Daniel Ledwell from Halifax to weave his magic into the material. Known for his studio wizardry in adding layers and juicing up arrangements for the likes of David Myles, The Fortunate Ones and Gabrielle Papillon, Ledwell's an inspired choice for the trio, helping craft a lively and luxurious album.

It's the most pop the group has sounded, with lots of shimmering instruments and harmony vocals, and percussive grooves pushing the tunes along. But the heart of the music remains in the emotional stories told by the trio, always life-affirming, reflecting the positive nature of the performers. Lead single "I See Gold" reminds listeners that they can make it through, no matter what: "We are the heavy lifters, we are the shapeshifters." And just to remind us they can break our hearts with only their voices, the final track, "This Little Heart", starts out a capella, surely one of the finest blends the country has known.

Monday, February 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE SHEEPDOGS - CHANGING COLOURS

The Sheepdogs have always had a reputation as a throwback guitar bunch, and the group's latest certainly starts out like that. Lead cut "Nobody" is a fun groove with the usual great Southern brotherly harmonies, and lots of guitar lines between each verse and chorus. That's followed by "I've Got A Hole Where My Heart Should Be", the most Skynyrd-like song here, and it looks like business as usual.

But they start mixing things up as the album progresses. "Saturday Night" is more reflective of '70's pop, with its big chorus and stuttered "Sss-sss--sss-Saturday Night" hook. "Let It Roll" is a breezy acoustic ballad sweetened with pedal steel and a mellow electric piano solo, while "The Big Nowhere" is a big Latin number, full of percussion, right out of the Santana playbook.

Things get really interesting for "I Ain't Cool" as the group moves quite a bit outside their comfort zone, with a bright brass line heralding this soulful track with touches of Little Feat. "Cool Down" is another soulful one, but now doubling back with some of the Latin feel and smoothness dropped in. Then without a pause between the tracks comes the twin guitar soloing of "Kiss The Brass Ring", which then leads into a more groovy jam, and a brief return to the "Cool Down" theme.

Sometimes all this switching about can be jarring, and some of the parts and sounds seem to come out of nowhere, but I'll trade those forced moments for The Sheepdogs' freedom. The experimenting comes to a fascinating conclusion with a grand medley of six cuts that's the most country rock thing here, and a chance for all the players and singers to shine one last extended time. The group tried really hard to stretch, and make a solid, start-to-finish album, and succeeded beautifully.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: A-SIDES CLUB - CREEDENCE

I don't know about Australia, where this bunch is from, but to these ears, Creedence is one of the most over-played groups ever, in bars, on radio, in commercials, you name it. So while it seems like an unnecessary effort to do a full covers album of CCR tunes in celebration of the group's 50th anniversary, surprisingly it's a complete different take than the usual.

The "club" is actually a semi-super group of members of four bands from Sydney, Australia, representing Boy & Bear, All Our Exes Live In Texas, Hot Spoke and The Whitlams. The first thing you'll notice is that it's no John Fogerty imitator handling vocals, but instead two women, Katie Wighton from All Our Exes... and Ness Quinn of Hot Spoke. Next difference is the slightly hazy, woozie takes, giving the set a Cowboy Junkies feel. Then there are the non-traditional choices, such as starting with the relatively lesser performed "Long As I Can See The Light", and then a very laid back version of "I Put A Spell On You", the Screaming Jay Hawkins tune CCR also covered. "Midnight Special" gets returned to a country blues song, the way Leadbelly did it.

When they do get to more standard fare, again they put a very different spin on it. "Lodi" is quiet and acoustic, while "Bad Moon Rising" is a spooky dirge. These aren't tarted up with modern tradecraft either; "Fortunate Son" gets a slinky groove thanks to good old guitars, drums and keyboards, just like Creedence used to make 'em, only wonderfully fresh and re-imagined. There's life in those classics still.

Friday, February 2, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROXY MUSIC - 45th ANNIVERSARY 2 CD DELUXE EDITION

Roxy Music's 1972 debut stood out as weirder and wilder than most everything else being done then, certainly way further out than any of the glam in England, Bowie's Ziggy included. Here were squawks and honks and howls, and we're not just talking Eno's synth and tape contributions. Andy Mackay's oboe and sax bordered on free jazz. Phil Manzanera wasn't playing like all those blues guitarists and Bryan Ferry was an unconventional singer who seemed to be fighting against the music at times.

The closest comparison was King Crimson, but those guys were more muso and petulant. Roxy Music was an accidental result of various ideas and discoveries, from Eno's introduction to a cheap synth and plugging it into his tape deck, to Ferry's art school friends and fashion sense, to nobody thinking it odd that they had a lead oboe player. It all worked out fine, and it was intriguing to say the least.

The group's debut featured a much different sound than the polished, sexy grooves of Avalon or the funky allure of "Love Is The Drug", much more successful in North America. But in England, this gave them big early success, a huge single in "Virginia Plain" and a fan base that included lots of tastemakers and critics. They became appalled at the slick sound of the latter-day Roxy, and Ferry's commercial ambitions. This remains the favourite of the group's albums for them, and a few like-minded souls in the colonies as well.

Roxy Music are one of the last big bands to raid the vaults for deluxe editions, so this is most welcome by those fans. The two-disc version is well worth it, with the second CD consisting of 70-plus minutes of BBC recordings from the time, both before and after the making and release of the record. Luckily, legendary BBC host John Peel was an early convert to the band, so there are three different Peel Sessions featured, as well as a live set of five cuts. The band was very much in flux in those days, with both the lead guitar and bass player changing over the year. Davy O'List, ex of The Nice. appears on the first Peel Session, and while his playing is solid pro, it lacks the out there vibe Manzanera brought. But the whole band was developing quickly, and you can hear the playing improve and the songs becoming more focused through this year of radio sessions.

There's also a super deluxe version available, which features another CD full of demos and out-takes, including their famous 1971 tape with a completely different guitarist and drummer. Plus there's a DVD of nine live and TV performances, and a 5.1 mix of the album. However, that will run you a whopping $142 bucks, and there's grumbling in fan land about that price. The two-disc version features a very strong historical essay, and unless you're a fanatic, it will probably do just fine.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: THE LYNNeS - HEARTBREAK SONG FOR THE RADIO

Usually when two established artists team up, one or the other dominates each song, with their particular style. It's a rare combination that results in something that sounds new, and that's what The LYNNeS have managed. Of course, Lynn Miles and Lynne Hanson have a lot in common. They are two of the very best in their area (Ottawa) and their genre (folk), they (sorta) share a first name, and they have worked together over the past few years, writing songs, plus Miles produced a couple of albums for Hanson.


Here, with close harmonies and closer songwriting ideas, you can't really compare this to their solo work. So smoothly do they blend, it's hard to figure which voice is which on the catchy choruses that fill the album. Only when there's a solo start to a song, say with Hanson on "Don't Look Down" or Miles with her trademark sad edge on "Dark Waltz", do we think of them as individuals for a moment. The rest of the time, they're the Siamese twins of folk.

Each song is a co-write, so there's no claim on the lyrics as yet, but there's lots of great ones to fight over. Among the best are the little truths in catchy lines, such as "It's not far to fall if you don't look down", "I wouldn't have gone and paid my dues if I knew it cost so much", and "I took your love and wrote a heartbreak song for the radio." Another smart move was bringing in the fantastic Kevin Breit for guitar work (Norah Jones, Rosanne Cash, etc.), who as usual breitens every song he's on. Word is they are sharp, funny and just as winning live as they are on this album, so hopefully when they get back from Europe in March there will be opportunities to catch them in your neck of the woods.