Friday, April 20, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ELISE BESLER -TRUTH

Well, this is embarrassing. Here I was, going to plug Elise Besler's album launch show for the Carleton in Halifax May 20, but it turns out it's already sold out. No surprise, really. People there know that she's one of the finest vocalists in the region, a true singer with range, emotion and spectacular tone. Plus, word is out that this is an artistic leap for her, with an increased focus on songwriting and soulful sounds, so, you know, sorry I didn't tell you earlier.

Truth is produced by no less than Erin Costelo, the Halifax songwriter/producer currently making waves in the U.S. The pair met up to try a little co-writing, and that took off to this album partnership, with Costelo also handling the keyboards and guiding the way to that gentle groove and big-hearted sound at which she excels. Besler meanwhile had a set of lyrics coming from that same source, all truth and heart. A little bit jazzy, another part Bill Withers, and some nice modern touches like the drums-forward verses and high harmonies on first single Never Learn, this is pure class. Hey, there will be more shows, and meanwhile just get the album.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: MUD MORGANFIELD - THEY CALL ME MUD

Although he didn't know a whole lot about his father Muddy Waters (Mud was one of several children born out of wedlock to the blues master), he nonetheless felt the blues calling through his life. Still, he was in his fifties before giving in, and now Morganfield is making up for lost time, with a fourth album since his emergence in 2008. With his deep, rich voice, he's a natural, and when he sings "The blues is my birthright" on opener They Call Me Mud, it's hard to argue.

The blues, and a bit more actually. His last album, the award-winning For Pops, was a straight tribute to his father, but this has more of the soul feel that he grew up admiring in the '70's on several tracks. Cheatin' Is Cheatin' is smooth as silk, a fine ballad with horn accents, and Who's Fooling Who? is funky stuff. But Howling Wolf is definitely gritty Chess stuff, of course, and Mud has no problem looking back. He's the main writer on most of the cuts, and makes sure we know he's keen on moving the music forward. There's lots of fine playing throughout, especially from harp ace Studebaker John, and if you took away the famous name, there's no question this would still be a strong new blues album, from an especially fine singer and writer.

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: DAVID BOWIE - ALADDIN SANE (45th Anniversary Vinyl Edition)

Oh coloured vinyl, how I love you. Of course, it means nothing to the quality of the music or the pressing, but nothing spruces up an old favourite like a little splash of colour. Bowie's 1973 hit has been reissued several times, most recently in 2015 on vinyl, so it's hardly rare now, so something had to be added for this 45th anniversary version, and that would be the silver vinyl to match the mercury shade of Bowie's skin on the cover.

While Aladdin Sane never gets the acclaim given to its predecessor Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, it really has to be considered part two of those heady days, coming just 10 months after. The album is just as consistent, is better produced, and has more tremendous performances from the Spiders. The only thing that keeps this set a notch below is the sequencing, with too many of the very best cuts on side two, and less than satisfying opener in Watch That Man. Along the way, it includes the immortal The Jean Genie, the claustrophobic Panic In Detroit, and his inspired cover of Let's Spend The Night Together, which led to the next record, the all-covers Pin Ups.

Audio-wise, this uses the same brilliant remaster as the 2015 vinyl version, which is a revelation for any fan more used to the old '70's album. During the quick pauses in Time, there's a rich echo unheard before. The delightful horns on The Prettiest Star now stand out, and the mandolin and piano on Lady Grinning Soul have a shinning quality. It's a great album that doesn't always get its due, and now it's silver.

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: BETTYE LAVETTE - THINGS HAVE CHANGED

There's no question Bob Dylan has had the blues for a long time, and that's certainly influenced his writing. There have been a few collections of Dylan songs done in blues, soul and gospel styles, and most turn out quite well. This one, from the veteran soul singer LaVette, is cool as can be, her rich, rough voice a fine match for these warnings and weary life lessons from Dylan's catalogue. The songs chosen come from all phases of his career, from the well-known (It Ain't Me Babe) to buried album cuts (Going, Going, Gone), but all of course of the highest calibre. Of the many, many singers who tackle Dylan, soul/blues/gospel singers, especially women, arguably do the best versions.

Sometimes they do a better version in fact. Listen to LaVette dig into Don't Fall Apart On Me Tonight, not the most inspired Dylan performance, but she finds an emotional reading the composer only hinted at. And what LaVette does for the vocals, producer Steve Jordan does for the arrangements. A song that's a real clunker from the '80's, Seeing The Real You At Last, is now slinky and funky. Lavette gives it an update too, with new lyrics. Instead of referring to Annie Oakley and Belle Starr, she's rewrites it as "You could sing like Otis Redding/You Could Dance like Bruno Mars." And it works great, you purists.

Sometimes it's pretty much just awesome singing from LaVette. Mama, You Been On My Mind has spare backing, and a heartfelt and sentimental treatment that will have you reaching for the Kleenex box. Where Dylan was singing about a lover, LaVette sings it to her own mother. Ain't Talkin', one that Dylan himself does a mighty job singing, here gets an eerie and subtle arrangement with a string quartet. Others have a grade-A cast to catch a great groove. Jordan handles drums and some guitar, long-time Dylan guitar player Larry Campbell is all over the record, Leon Pendarvis (James Brown, SNL Band, etc.) handles keys and Pino Palladino (The Who) covers bass. Guests include Trombone Shorty, Ivan Neville, and one Keith Richards on a couple of tracks. Honestly, the arrangements and playing are so fresh, it would be worth hearing these reinterpretations of the Dylan material with almost any vocalist, they are that good. But it's all sublime with LaVette's passion leading the way.

Saturday, April 14, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: RICK AND GAILLIE - THE LOST ALBUM

I love getting around the country, at the very least via the audio route, and this time we stop by Peterborough, Ontario. We'll drop by the Black Horse Pub, well-known for live music seven night (and some matinees) a week. If you go Monday nights, you can get half-price wings (yay) and catch the Crash And Burn show, with Rick & Gailie (double yay). They have a long-standing residency at the pub, also doing matinees Friday and Saturdays, honing a sound that's a little bit prog (think Moody Blues) and a lot pop (think British Invasion). That's resulted in their latest disc, which collects a solid 16 originals with classic songwriting and warm vocals and harmonies.

From the lighter, happy style of the '64 era (Thank You, Be My Baby), which echo early Beatles/Dave Clark Five singles, to the more mature pop for Falling For You, to the adventurous opener Deity, echoing those Procol Harum/Moodies productions, everything on this album is familiar, fun and fresh at the same time. Rick and Gailie don't recreate, instead they are inspired by this beloved era, and create new works that sit perfectly in that style. Don't Take Time is a great piece of early rock 'n' roll, but as heard through British ears and then sent back to North America, the same way those '60's bands were interpreting Buddy Holly, Eddie Cochran, etc.

When Rick and Gailie do get a bit more modern, such as on Faster, it's the same way it happened in the early '70's, when pop bands heavily influenced by The Beatles et al, like Badfinger, sharpened up the sound. The production here is crisp and new as well, there's nothing screaming 'vintage' but rather it's all refreshing, for folks with an ear to those proven qualities. Worth a trip to Peterborough, huh? Well, that and the wings.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JORDAN OFFICER - THREE RIVERS

A stunning album from Montreal's Officer, who makes the brilliant sound so casual. This is subtle blues/jazz/roots, his vocals so easy-going and comfortable you're lulled into a pleasant listening spot. Then, just when you're taking the music for granted, he blows you away with an awesome, short guitar line or a raw riff or two on his violin.

Produced by the drummer here Charlie Drayton, who Keith Richards uses for his solo work, this is multi-genre, all-class. There's a bit of country-shuffle (Dream Of You And Me), some gospel, and the lovely, indescribable sound of Driving Back From Three Rivers, a late-night drive at a slow pace, Officer caressing each low note. Where Has This Come From reminds me a bit of J.J. Cale, a little more uptempo, but that same ease, at least until he knocks off a twangy solo. Meanwhile Drayton is equally subtle, lots of snare, stick work on the rims, no big booms, and bassist Zev Katz, the only other player here, is tasty but never overpowering, filling that crucial bottom.

As much as I love the fact the songs travel so easily among the various styles, there's a particular magic Officer brings to the more blues-based numbers here. He's Got It All is one of the most spectacular new blues numbers I've heard in years, very simple in structure, but sung and played with so much feel. His guitar work and tone is almost shocking, sure to light up the face of any fan. I can't throw enough accolades at this collection.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: VARIOUS - THE JOSHUA TREE - NEW ROOTS

Here's a charity project that's all about Ireland, but with enough interest that it's made it's way across the ocean. The charity in question is a children's hospice in that country called LauraLynn, and the album includes mostly new and upcoming Irish musicians who aren't known here, except for a couple of exceptions. The real star here though is the material, one of the best-known albums of Irish origin ever, U2's landmark The Joshua Tree. It just had its 30th anniversary, which was the impetus for this new version.

Each track on the original album has been covered by one of the groups or solo artists, either in loving recreation, or with a new and novel arrangement. The known names here include Imelda May, who puts her tremendous vocal talents into a spare version of I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For, slower and dominated by her mighty pipes. The only other act I'm familiar with is The Strypes, youngsters who weren't even born until almost a decade after Joshua Tree's initial release, who put their considerable energy into a far-more rocking take of Trip Through Your Wires. That's the main flip-flip for cuts here, the bigger songs are done slower, and the moody ones toughened up.

Gavin James, a star singer-songwriter at home who has been making waves here on TV shows and opening up for Ed Sheeran, will probably be a well-known name soon, gets the honour of doing Where The Streets Have No Name, a more thoughtful cover certainly. The Academic, the current hottest band in the country, who went to number one with their debut album, put a sharper edge (pun intended) in In God's Country. It's actually an interesting way to be introduced to a bunch of new groups.

And what of the superstars originally responsible? Well, they are always charity-minded and nationally-focused as well, and go above and beyond for the cause. The compilers here make note of the fact the band and their publishing company are donating all the publishing royalties from the sales and airplay, plus they show up too, with the final cut. It's a live version of Red Hill Mining Town, recorded on their anniversary tour last year for the album. This set is win-win for everybody.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: HUGH CHRISTOPHER BROWN - PACEM

 
Toronto's Bourbon Tabernacle Choir were certainly one of the country's most eclectic bands of the '90's or ever, and founding member Chris Brown has continued in a varied career. A producer, co-conspirator and activist, Brown has turned the old post office in Wolfe Island, ON. into his studio, and has also run a respected program in prison to help inmates with music careers. His new album corrals many of his ideas and influences, starting with a Latin prayer, adding a host of guest co-vocalists, allowing room for a serene piano instrumental, and filling the rest with inspiring, thoughtful lyrics.

A keyboard player first and foremost, Brown lets the meditative qualities of piano feature prominently on some songs, including penultimate song The Wave, even handing over the vocals to longtime partner Kate Fenner, another original from the Bourbon Tabernacle Choir days. It's imbued with this gem of wisdom, like some ancient Eastern text: "If goodness is what sorrow saves, then let these tears roll like the waves." Others spring from acoustic guitar, accented with only the most peaceful of instrumental help, from cello and violins, mandolin, pedal and lap steel. Pacem, indeed. There's decency, humanity and fine musical innovation at work here.

Monday, April 9, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: EVA CASSIDY - SONGBIRD 20

One of the saddest, and oddest stories in music has to be the superstardom of Cassidy, who first came to fame 20 years ago with this landmark album. Sad because she was recently deceased, discovered only when she was succumbing to cancer. Cassidy was just another singer doing what she loved, singing jazz and blues in clubs in Washington, D.C., recording when she pieced together enough cash and offers. She had some local respect, but nobody outside her hometown had paid any attention.

After her death in 1996, people started people her music a bit more, and eventually tracks got to England, where BBC Radio got tremendous response playing her material. A compilation of sessions called Songbird was released, featuring her versions of classics and covers such as Over The Rainbow, Sting's Fields of Gold, and the Fleetwood Mac favourite as the title track. One of the few stars who had heard of her before was Mick Fleetwood, when she had played his Washington-area restaurant. He wrote a piece in a British magazine about her wonderful voice and collection, which was selling hundreds of thousands of copies in the U.K., making the Top 10. Eventually word spread to North America, and it became a massive seller for the recent Amazon chain, as well as a PBS favourite and coffee shop standard, marking a new kind of retail hit. It eventually sold a staggering five million copies,
 
The success of the album led to a great demand for more, and live tapes, demo sessions, collaborations and more were mined for subsequent albums, both family-approved (all good) or not (not much Eva involvement). Since everything has been repackaged already, there wasn't much to left to supplement this anniversary edition. What the label has done is taken acoustic versions of versions of four of the favourite tracks here that have already been out on the Simply Eva set, and appended them here. My guess is only the bigger fans will have that other album, so if you're knew to Cassidy or looking for another copy of this classic, it's worthwhile.

How good was she? Songbird will make you forget it was ever a Christine McVie song. Oh, Had I A Golden Thread will turn you religious, and Over The Rainbow will reduce you to tears. The acoustics versions are, if anything, better.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SILLS & SMITH - MAPS - BURNED OR LOST

Six albums in, Ottawa duo Sills & Smith have a reputation for alt-rock and prog rock, but this is calmed down, and leaning heavily folk/singer-songwriter. Perhaps that's because they've got some things to get off their respective chests. Frank Smith, who handles almost all the lyrics, has some harsh words off the top in On The Edge for those senators and congressmen Dylan called out years ago, and who haven't learned in all that time: "A pox on all your house." The song puts us near the precipice, foolishly getting too close, just lucky we're not falling over. It's a warning that seemingly nobody's taking. How we got in this mess is pretty clear, Smith once again pointing the finger at the greedy in Kings: "Opportunists in tailored suits collide with Fascists Sloganeers Carnival barkers. Although the song is looking back at the old captains of industry, the parallel is plain to see.

There's a lot of different subject matter over the 14 cuts here, and for such a lengthy album to steer away from love songs for the most part is pretty remarkable. Several times they return to current affairs, echoing feelings a lot of us are having of late. Grave Fascination looks at how bigotry and greed have become so open in society, and how brazen the perpetrators are. Mercy is simply a call for some of it. There are moments of hope spread about, and the record doesn't have a negative tone. It's more a plea for a little sanity, putting their lot on the side of the righteous. It feels like something we should all be making clear these days.

Saturday, April 7, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: SLOAN - 12

Canadian rock's most enduring democracy soldiers on, proving a good band is worth nurturing. Album 12 sees the group rules firmly entrenched: Four writers, each getting equal treatment if they desire, each creating their own tracks, with or without help from the others as requested or required. Oddly, while that should lead to a fractured collection at best, instead this has to be the most cohesive album the group has ever made. I don't know that anybody put out the word to make a pop album, but 12 is, start to finish, hooks and harmonies and catchy moments galore.

Chris Murphy kicks things off with the song that rocks the most, Spin Our Wheels, although All Of Our Voices is guitar-edged as well. After that, it's a cavalcade of fun. Andrew's Gone For Good has CSN vocals, whereas Essential Services sounds more '70's British, piano and cheery harmonies. Don't Stop (If It Feels Good Do It) is a brilliant celebration of that cliche, with an insane chorus. Every song is clean, crisp, sharp, and features some of the best guitar playing they (all of them) have done. Usually you go through a Sloan album thinking Jay's songs are this and Patrick's that, but on 12, you get 12 potential hit singles. I know there are lots of different opinions of what the best Sloan sound is, favourite eras and such, but for me, this is the group's pinnacle.

Friday, April 6, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ALEX PANGMAN'S HOT THREE!

They don't make like this anymore, except for this one. Toronto swing/jazz singer Pangman took her trio into a studio in New Orleans that specializes in antique gear and sounds, and recorded this seven song set onto an old 78 RPM cutting lathe, the way they did it back in the Dirty '30's. What you lack in fidelity is more than made up for in presence, as you really feel like you've been transported back in time. While the sounds are tinny and flattened out, the magic is in the skilled musicians making room for each other in the limited space, and the vibrant tone of the instruments cutting through the atmosphere.

Pangman chose several hot tunes, some of which have a bluesy feel, others a European sensibility. All three of her players handle solo work, passing the lead back and forth; mostly violinist Matt Rhody and guitar player Nahum Zoybel take spotlight, but for me bass sax player Tom Saunders is the key, handling the bottom end, always present and the counter to Pangman's singing. She's always a joy, whether it's today tech or this ultimate oldies gig, and takes this way past retro chic. It's really an appreciation for that whole style of music-making, and lets us realize new technology isn't better, it's just part of the package.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: ROSIE & the RIVETERS - MS. BEHAVE

Mix the Andrews Sisters with Amy Winehouse and you'll get the sound of Rosie and the Riveters, a trio of strong women letting loose. Their retro/modern mix includes vintage clothes, hair, look but voices very much from today. They rip apart mansplaining on Ask A Man, singing "I Need a man to explain things to me/the space in my head is quite small you see/I am uncertain, what are my concerns/Can you spell them out in more simpler terms?" Point made.

The title cut says it's nobody's business how a woman acts, demanding an end to the old cliche of lady-like behaviour. Gotta Get Paid is about the most soulful way of campaigning for pay equity you can imagine. They aren't bashing anyone with these message songs, it's just plain, and they do it with good humour, stating the obvious while entertaining at the same time. Great harmonies, jazzy and groovy arrangements, and a positive way to get women's voices in the mix of crud that's slammed at us daily. The biggest point to take away is that these issues and societal changes should have been over with back in the '40's, but 70 years later we still need Rosie and the Riveters fighting the fight.

The group is bringing its dynamic live show to the East Coast to launch the new album. They'll be performing Saturday, Apr. 7 at the Kings Theatre in Annapolis Royal, NS, Sunday at Le Richelieu in Metaghan, NS, Wednesday, Apr. 11 at the Playhouse in Fredericton, Friday the 13th at the Harbourfront Theatre in Summerside, PEI, and Saturday the 14th at the Mermaid Imperial Performing Arts centre in Windsor, N.S.

Monday, April 2, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JOEL THOMAS HYNES - DEAD MAN'S MELODY

If you've spent any time in the gritty downtown core of the city, any city, you'll know there's a subculture. Most musicians and lots of the arts community are familiar with that scene, from the very late nights to the shell-shocked mornings, where the reality of sex and drugs and rock and roll is far from the glamourous lifestyle often portrayed. And that goes double in ports, for a variety of reasons. Or so I'm told.

Hynes knows the deep city, the port of St. John's. Yes, he's a close relation to Ron, and yes, it runs in the family. He's already a hugely successful writer, his recent We'll All Be Burnt In Our Beds Some Night winning the Governor General's Award for Fiction. This is his first studio album, after a live collection, and it sounds like he's just as comfortable in this role as he is on the page. As befits his edgy lyrics, there's a punkish, searing feel to the music, lots of rough guitar and his gritty vocals. Hynes' characters are in various points of disarray, from the barfly frustrated at being downtown "going home, all alone, in your tightest pants" (Last Call) to the "cold and callous, mean and cruel" love interest in Bad Boy. And he closes the album with a real Zevon-worthy rocker with a classic observation, Everybody Loves You (When You're Dead).

Usually, people in one artistic discipline who try to move into music end up sounding like they're on holiday. Hynes sounds like he's belonged there all along, and if he wasn't already a tremendous writer, I'd be calling him that for this album alone.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: NATHANIEL RATELIFF & the NIGHT SWEATS - TEARING AT THE SEAMS

Starting with the saucy strut Shoe Boot sets the right tone for another great soul reboot from Rateliff. Thick organ and greasy horns lead into a drum break that, if it was 40 years old, would be seized by samplers upon rediscovery. What I like most is, despite all the correct and proper instrumentation, is a loose and uncluttered sound, lots of room to enjoy Rateliff's country-flavoured vocals.

What sets Rateliff apart from the equally-fine Daptone label soul groups is that old folk-roots side that he had starting out. Cuts like Babe I Know feel like the country soul of Arthur Alexander, slow and thoughtful, with strong lyrics. And he plays around with both forms, much the same way Otis Redding wanted to go with Dock of the Bay. Usually we spend time studying folk-style lyrics for deep truths, but Rateliff is reminding us the real truths can be found in the soulful places too.