Saturday, December 9, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1081: Courtney Marie Andrews

Back at Disc 953 I provided a list of best albums of 2016 but I’m not linking to it, and don’t look it up – it’s wrong. I made that list too soon, and while there are a lot of great records on it since then I’ve found a lot more. This next album is one of them.

Disc 1081 is…Honest Life
Artist: Courtney Marie Andrews

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? The return of the Giant Head cover. The Giant Head cover was a lot more popular back in the seventies, but Courtney Marie Andrews is kind of a throwback to that era, so it makes sense. Also as Giant Heads go, I find hers pleasant to look at.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review of the album and decided to check out a couple of tracks. I liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Courtney Marie Andrews album, but I’m on the prowl for the album that preceded this one, 2013’s “On My Page”. For now, I can’t make a stack out of one album.

Ratings: 5 stars

I spent an hour last night standing with twenty other people waiting for a bus that never came. This should have annoyed me, but when you have Courtney Marie Andrews’ “Honest Life” keeping you company it just feels like part of the journey. My heart swelled and soared with beauty while all around me people fretted, peered down the road and thumbed away furiously at their smart phones.

“Honest Life” is an apt name for this record, which is raw and emotionally evocative. I heard in an interview that Andrews got a lot of her ideas for this record talking to people while working in an Eastern Washington State pub. Whether she is taking on their stories or telling her own – and it is often hard to tell – she applies an unflinching honesty to the subject. There is a lot of heartache on an “Honest Life” and Andrews dives deep as she explores it.

The music is folk-tinged country, played straight up, no chaser. The songs don’t call for a lot of technical wizardry from the band and the production is sparse and keeps everything even in the mix, letting the songwriting and Andrews’ vocals draw you in. Sometimes this can be a bigger challenge to a band than complex arrangements, because it exposes any falseness or lack of feeling. Fortunately, everyone on “Honest Life” fully commits, throwing their hearts into the songs with the same courage as Andrews.

Andrews was only 25 when she made this album, but she has an old soul. Her tone is rich with a very subtle quaver in the upper register. It feels timeless, and the way she makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck reminded me of Emmylou Harris. Like Harris, Andrews can sing in an exposed and delicate way that makes you catch your breath. She has a frayed innocence and pathos that evokes the first time you felt lovelorn, or lost or uncertain, but with a core of conviction that reminds you how you pulled yourself together and carried on.

The first songs that catch your attention are the road-weary mid tempo numbers. Andrews opens the album with “Rookie Dreaming” and when she lands the opening line “I was singin’ with the choir on the train” you wish with all your heart you could’ve been on that train. Listening to her, you kind of are. On “Put the Fire Out” when she sings the chorus:

“I am ready to put the fire out
There’s a place for everything
And I think I know mine now.”

The melody line walks down with a conviction that matches her commitment. There’s some uncertainty in that “I think” section, but the music tells you that she’s going to be OK. These songs are a balm for anyone feeling a little uncertain about life. They’re so real and true that they go beyond telling Andrews’ story, or even the story of her bar patrons, they tell your story too.

There is a plainness in Andrews writing that speaks very directly, and lets the metaphors she chooses stand out stark and clear. “Irene” tells the story of a woman with bad luck in men, or as Andrews puts it:

“You are a magnet, Irene
Sometimes good people draw troublesome things.”

Or she’ll just go for the plain truth, no need for literary terms. Such as on “Let the Good One Go”:

“They say a goodbye is a goodbye
That my heart won’t ache
All it will take is time
But I’d like to think pain ain’t that black and white”

These lines are a good encapsulation of this record; forthright and direct but not pretending to have all the answers. Life isn’t about simple solutions or defined end points, it’s a journey that flows like a river until one day, it doesn’t. While it flows it’s nice to have someone like Courtney Marie Andrews helping put words to those swells in your heart that are so hard to translate.

On the title track, Andrews sings:

“All I’ve ever wanted was an honest life
To be the person that I really am inside.”

Some people take a lifetime and never achieve this, but at the tender age of 25, Andrews has delivered a record that does so on every song.

Empty inspirationals are like candy – immediately gratifying, but ultimately leaving you empty and wanting more. “Honest Life” is food for the soul, filling you with resolve and leaving you a better and wiser person than before you heard it.

Best tracks: All tracks

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1080: Nice & Smooth

I’m busy in a whole lot of ways right now but I’m trying to keep my head above water and stay inspired. With the help of my Friday night server I’ve discovered two new bands this week that I really like.

Chief is an indie folk band from California that only ever released one album – Modern Rituals – but it’s a good one. The Acorn is a Canadian band that is still going strong and released a couple of records that really appealed to me – “Glory Hope Mountain” and “Heron Act”. Both have now gone on the wish list I cart around while CD shopping.

Disc 1080 is…Self-Titled
Artist: Nice & Smooth

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? You know when you see a picture of yourself from way back in the day and you think that you look pretty good: young, vibrant, ready to take on the world. Then you look at what you’re wearing and cringe, realizing that what was the height of cool in the day has not aged well. That’s the reaction Nice & Smooth probably have every time they look at this album cover.

How I Came To Know It: I heard Nice & Smooth to a guest rap on Gang Starr’s “DWYCK,” a song from the 1994 album “Hard to Earn.” Although they were only on for a couple of bars they really impressed me and I had to find out more.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Nice & Smooth album. They’re kind of hard to find so while I’m not ruling out adding more, I’m not counting on it either. For now, one doesn’t allow a stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Nice & Smooth may not be as famous as other bands that came out of the eighties New York rap scene, but they deserve more recognition. Listening to this album as an outsider to that scene looking in, I can only hope that among the faithful, they are known and well loved.

This is classic late eighties rap, with a few solid samples, borrowed at the time without fear of copyright law and used in small snippets to help facilitate a beat. There are occasions when the sample is a bit too obvious – they borrow from the Five Stairsteps “O-o-h Child” a bit too heavily on a song also called “O-o-h Child” – but generally they keep it simple and know how to repurpose grooves from the seventies to make raps of the eighties that are just as imaginative and original.

Nice & Smooth are Greg Nice and Smooth Bee, and they share duties on the mic. Greg Nice is more traditional for the time, reminding me of LL Cool J or maybe the Fresh Prince if he was being a bit more hard core. Nice does a good job of establishing a narrative and his rhymes fall hard on the end of each bar which isn’t terribly imaginative, but he does it with style. Also, remember that in 1989 all rap was innovative.

Smooth Bee is a different animal, and in many ways before his time. He’s got a smooth laid back style that is a bit like Rakim, but with a curl to his delivery that makes him sound like he’s some kind of street philosopher. Like Guru, Smooth Bee also goes beyond bragging about how well he raps and explores intellectual rhymes. One of my favourites is from “Funky For You

“Smooth B, notorious, glorious
Knowledge is infinite, I live in a fortress
I'm so astronomical, yet on a physical plane
My body's just a shell, in control is my brain.”

Dope on a Rope” has an infectious neo-African beat and a crazy sample of someone singing “zoomba-zoomba, ba-zoomba, zam.” Looks weird in print, but it works on the record, aided by Smooth Bee dropping rhymes about atoms and quasars. Smooth Bee is that super chill guy you run into late at a party that comes off as a stoner, and then you realize he’s read five times as many books as you and speaks three more languages.

Despite dabbling in philosophy, Nice & Smooth do rap a lot about 1) how well they rap and 2) scoring girls, but as an old school rap fan I like these subjects. It is like always ordering pasta at an Italian restaurant. Sure you know what you’re going to get, but over time you start to develop a nuanced appreciation of just what makes a good plate of spaghetti.

As rappers go, Nice & Smooth’s debut album is a pretty solid plate of spaghetti. They are playful when it is called for, but hit the beat hard when the mood moves them. Early tracks play games by refusing to close a rhyme that clearly ends with “ass” but on “Hit Me” they happily drop a half dozen explicit references to genitalia. They swear with purpose, not simply for shock value.

I’m no rap historian, but I also got the impression a lot of later acts were inspired by their work. Listening to the heavy thump and downward cascade of “Gold” I found myself thinking of modern acts like Run the Jewels’ (who have a song called “Stay Gold” on their latest album). Nice & Smooth songs are slower don’t hit as hard but you can see the seeds of what would come later. Or maybe I’m just fooling myself because both songs feature rhymes about gold.

The album is slightly long at 15 songs and 52 minutes, but only slightly and there is enough ear candy sprinkled throughout that you don’t mind one or two bits of filler. Listening to this record I realized two things. First, they should have been more famous. Second, regardless of how famous they are, I need to put this on more often.

Best tracks: Perfect Harmony, No Delayin’, Funky For You, Hit Me, Dope Not Hype, Nice & Smooth, Dope on a Rope

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1079: Portugal. The Man

I didn’t sleep great last night and I’ve had a bit of bad news of late as well. Fortunately, the Odyssey supplied me with a record designed to lighten my mood.

Disc 1079 is…Woodstock
Artist: Portugal. The Man

Yes, that period in the title is not a typo. How silly. So silly, that I decided to see if there was some compelling reason why they ended up with this name. Here’s what I found on Wikipedia:

“The band's name is based on the idea of David Bowie's "bigger than life" fame. They wanted the band to have a bigger than life feel but didn't want to name it after one of their members. "A country is a group of people," guitar player and vocalist John Gourley explains. "With Portugal, it just ended up being the first country that came to mind. The band's name is 'Portugal'. The period is stating that, and 'The Man' states that it's just one person." The name has more personal meaning as well: Portugal. The Man was going to be the name of a book that Gourley had planned to write about his father and his many adventures.”

Nope – that is a silly reason after all. The effort to twist it into multiple reasons (including a gratuitous appeal to authority through invoking Bowie) just makes it all the more forced and awkward.

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A Rolls Royce burns away merrily. I find this cover strangely beautiful but maybe that’s just because I’m not much of a Rolls Royce fan.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review of this album and decided to check it out. I was surprised to find I liked it.

How It Stacks Up:  Portugal. The Man have eight studio albums but I’ve only got this one so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 3 stars

Look at me, everyone: I’ve got some radio friendly pop in my collection! Don’t panic, though, I wasn’t listening to the radio. As noted above, this was just me reading a review and investigating from there.

The quintessence of success for radio friendly pop is a bona fide hit, and “Woodstock” has one in “Feel it Still.” This song is a sing-a-long earworm that is compelling as hell, and likely the reason I first took an interest in the album. “Feel It Still” checks off all the boxes, with a danceable back beat, a catchy hook, an appeal to shared experience (they pay homage to 1966 and 1986 in the chorus) and a bunch of slick production that keeps your ear interested as the song basically explores more and more ways to dress up the same catchy hook. It would’ve made me mad but damn, that’s a catchy hook.

All the songs on “Woodstock” are catchy, particularly “Rich Friends” which ticks all the boxes that “Feel It Still” ticks, and should’ve been their next single. Instead they went with “Live in the Moment”, a song for the “drunk and swaying” portion of a night out. It’s OK, but it doesn’t have the empty/ironic enthusiasm of “Rich Friends”.

This album was a crash course for me in the inner workings of Hitsville USA, and how to make one. There are lots of handclaps – because who doesn’t love handclaps? When there aren’t handclaps there is well-placed percussion that sounds an awful lot like handclaps. Feel free to clap along when listening – it’s fun!

The drums and bass dominate the mix, so it is easy to shake your booty in time to the beat, and that’s fun too. Alternatively you can be a melody dancer like me, and sway along to lead singer John Gourley’s vocals while artfully extending your arms in various directions. Gourley sings high and effortless, like a slightly more indie Adam Levine that you can admit you like and not feel old.

Gourley’s vocals are powerful and alluring and he has a great talent for phrasing. He slips right into a pocket that accentuates the beats rather than competing with them. This being radio-friendly pop, these vocals are subjected to every effect ever dreamed up on a soundboard: echoes, squawk box, distortion, and reverb are all present to name just a few. Ordinarily this would drive me nuts, but Portugal. The Man (sic) does it so well I found myself just grooving along and having a good time.

Did I learn a lot from this record? Not really. “Woodstock” is about as good as radio pop gets, but unfortunately here on the CD Odyssey that can only rate it 3 stars. Nevertheless, it’s a good time, the songs are thoughtfully constructed and there are no horrifying clunkers. It’s a good record to put on before you head out to an event where there’ll be a bunch of people you don’t know (I just did this a few weeks ago) because it gets you up and feeling social. Hell, you might even hear it when you get there; that “Feel It Still” song is everywhere lately. Even here.

Best tracks: Easy Tiger, Feel It Still, Rich Friends, Tidal Wave

Sunday, December 3, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1078: Iron Maiden

People sometimes ask me how I come up with new music to listen to, since I don’t listen to the radio and don’t have any of those fancy new streaming services.

I’m lucky in that I have a bunch of musically inclined friends and we are always exchanging recommendations and sharing our latest finds. I also read a lot of music reviews. Beyond that the key is to be open minded and never miss an opportunity. If you hear a song in a store that you like, ask the clerk what it is. If you’re at a party and you meet someone for the first time don’t open with the tired old yawner “what do you do for a living” – ask them instead what their latest musical discovery is.

Friday night I exchanged recommendations with server at the pub and yesterday I did the same thing with my brunch server. Once it is clear you’re talking to another music fan you might as well see what they like. There’s a lot of music out there, and to discover the best stuff you’re going to need help.

Disc 1078 is…The Number of the Beast
Artist: Iron Maiden

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? Ever-present Iron Maiden mascot “Eddie” is controlled by the devil, but an even bigger Eddie controls that same devil with bloody marionette strings. Plus we have fire, lightning, and the storm clouds of hell. This cover offended all manner of mothers back in the early eighties, although mine weathered it pretty well, probably going no farther than a “oh, Virgil – that awful!” when my brother showed it to her.

How I Came To Know It: Everyone who was a metal fan in the eighties knew this album, and in my home town it blared out of muscle cars, house parties and ghetto blasters at every turn. The CD version has been in my collection as long as I can remember and still gives me fond memories of my teenage years.

How It Stacks Up:  I have been on a bit of a buying spree with Iron Maiden albums of late and now have 11. “The Number of the Beast” comes in at the lofty position of #2, narrowly beating out “Piece of Mind” (reviewed way back at Disc 2) and just behind “Powerslave” (reviewed at Disc 720).

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

“The Number of the Beast” is frequently espoused as Iron Maiden’s greatest record, and while for me it falls short of “Powerslave” it is still an amazing accomplishment.

The record is Maiden at their most fast and furious, with less emphasis on the long epic tracks of albums like “Piece of Mind” or their later work. Sure three of the eight songs exceed six minutes but trust me when I tell you that for Maiden that is practically radio friendly.

A case in point is the opening track “Invaders” which kicks off with a frantic drum line from Clive Barr (who would be replaced by Nicko McBrain later that year). Even after Barr’s drum punches you to start the song there is no respite, as the tune races forward at the front of the beat. The effect makes you feel like you have no time to breathe, not unlike the Viking invaders the song depicts.

Maiden have a great feel for how to make a record feel cohesive, and the speed metal of “Invaders” is followed by the doom-filled “Children of the Damned,” its slow menacing guitar riff the perfect foil after the audio assault of the previous track.

This album features two of Maiden’s most iconic songs. The title track and “Run to the Hills” both showcase Bruce Dickinson’s powerhouse, operatic vocals. Even though there is no keeping up with Dickinson as he soars into the chorus of “Run to the Hills” it doesn’t stop you from trying. Over the years the song has been sadly overplayed, but I still can’t resist it when it comes on, with its galloping beat, anthemic power chords and a tight and well-structured guitar solo. As for “The Number of the Beast” I can honestly say it scared me a little as a kid.

For some reason my Walkman thought “Hallowed Be Thy Name” was called “Total Eclipse” which was weird and had me temporarily nervous it was going to be some weird Bonnie Tyler cover. That would have been cool, but fortunately it was the right song – covering the cheerful topic of waiting to be hanged. I recently watched a video of two guys reviewing this song after hearing it for the first time and it gave me a new appreciation for Iron Maiden’s strong songwriting. How these guys could sit and head-bob and marvel at the song’s construction and then still decide they didn’t have room for it on their playlist was beyond me. Get a device with more memory!

As is tradition with an Iron Maiden album, there are plenty of historical and art references. We have the aforementioned Viking invaders of "Invaders", “Run to the Hills” telling the story of First Nations being attacked by Europeans, and “The Prisoner” is about the old sixties TV show of the same name.

One song I could have lived without was “22, Acacia Avenue” a song about going to visit a prostitute that has not aged well. The song revisits the character of “Charlotte the Harlot” off of their debut album but doesn’t add anything and isn’t as good a song either. The appeal to Charlotte to live a better life rings hollow surrounded as it is by the viewpoint of her lustful clients. When the protagonist tells Charlotte “you’re packing your bags, you’re coming with me” it feels less like a rescue and more like an abduction.

Despite this one misstep, “Number of the Beast” has earned its reputation as one of metal’s most iconic records and 35 years later it still sounds fresh and powerful.

Best tracks: Invaders, Children of the Damned, the Number of the Beast, Run to the Hills, Hallowed Be Thy Name

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1077: The Creepshow

I’m going for a tattoo consultation tomorrow so it’s only fitting that this is the second album in a row featuring artists with a lot of ink.

Disc 1077 is…They All Fall Down
Artist: The Creepshow

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? Lead singer Sarah “Sin” Blackwood plows a lug right in the kisser in an underground fight scene right outta the fifties.

How I Came To Know It: I went to buy their most recent release “Death at My Door” at my local record store in anticipation of their upcoming concert (album and show were both reviewed back at Disc 1065) but they didn’t have it in stock. They had this one though, which was also on my list.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Creepshow albums, this one and the aforementioned “Death at My Door”. Of the two, I give the edge to “They All Fall Down”.

Ratings: 3 stars

When you make a record you have to be mindful of first and last impressions – they’re important. “They All Fall Down” makes major missteps on both counts but the quality of what’s in the middle makes the record a fun ride nonetheless.

Creepshow is a psychobilly band, which mixes punk, rockabilly and horror themes. It is highly theatrical stuff (even on the studio recording) and it’s important that the lead singer has the charisma to pull it off. This is Creepshow’s first album featuring Sarah Blackwood, replacing sister Jen. Like her sister, Sarah Blackwood has a great combination of stage presence and big vocals. In psychobilly range isn’t what’s important, it’s tone, power and delivery and Sarah has it all.

The band is solid, with Sean McNab’s big standup base holding down the jump-swing rhythm that can wreck this music if done poorly, but is what makes the magic when done right. The whole band does a good job of staying in the pocket and making you want to jump around or sway your hips, depending on the tempo of the moment.

I like that psychobilly features horror-themed lyrics. They work in the basic rock and roll themes of love, rebellion and road trips but the metaphors they use to explore those themes tend to be loaded with blood and murder. Horror is a great genre to explore the extreme, and in doing so show some common aspects of human nature in a new light. It’s an underrated artistic medium.

Here you have lost love interpreted as murder (“Sleep Tight”) and road trips associated with being damned to hell (“Hellbound”) and it makes it a fun and fanciful journey. Not actual murder and damnation, obviously – it is just pretend.

Sleep Tight” is my favourite, a song in a fifties or early sixties crooner style, suitable for slow dancing with your gal at the local dance hall under the watchful gaze of some fusty old chaperones. Hopefully the chaperones don’t listen to the lyrics, though, since this song is about a guy who murders his girlfriend and buries her under the floor. She gets her revenge by haunting him for eternity. Sarah Blackwood is a delightful combination of romantic and creepy as she sings:

“Oh sleep tight my boy
You shoulda thought it out
Oh you can’t kill a girl without her soul stickin’ around
Oh sleep tight my boy, I’ll be watching you…
With undead eyes.”

Hellbound” is a glorious Dropkick-Murphy sing-a-long, which acknowledges you might be trapped for days in a smelly van with your band mates, but don’t forget how much fun you’re having doing what you love. I’m always happy when the young realize how great it is to be young.

While these songs stand out a lot of the others have a very similar feel that takes away a lot of dynamics of the band. If you like the Creepshow’s signature sound it is a good thing, because you are going to get a lot of it. I think it is a good time, but the record is a little short (I guess that is the punk influence) and after two days of it I felt I’d heard them a few too many times. That isn’t how great music is supposed to work, although I can’t point to specific songs that annoyed me. They are all solid, even if they don’t all rate “best tracks” status.

The real issue with this record is the intro and outro. The intro is a short spoken word poem delivered in a way that makes you realize the poet thinks they are way more clever than they are. Titled “The Sermon III” (because earlier albums also begin with sermons) hearing it once was once too often, and it doesn’t add anything to the record’s ambience or thematic approach.

Worse is the last track, “Road to Nowhere.” If only the song had been a road to nowhere. Instead after five minutes of dead air it starts up again with a “hidden recording” featuring a very bad prank call to a record company. The band obviously thinks they are the second coming of the Jerky Boys here, but they just come off as jerks. I’m hoping there is some backstory to this call that makes this more hilarious, but since I didn’t know that backstory, I just found it annoying.

Despite this, I think there is enough solid content on “They All Fall Down” to warrant three stars. It’s a fun record with good energy and tongue-in-cheek humour that – when they stick to singing – typically finds the mark.

Best tracks: Last Chance, Sleep Tight, Hellbound

Monday, November 27, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1076: Frank Turner

Another long day but I’m home now, and it feels good. I could watch the end of the football game, but instead I’m going to write this blog while I’ve still got some creative energy in the tank.

Disc 1076 is…Tape Deck Heart
Artist: Frank Turner

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? An artist’s literal interpretation of a tape deck heart. This looks a lot like a tattoo design, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Frank has this tattooed on him somewhere. As album covers go, this is top notch, except of course for Tipper Gore’s parental advisory, wrecking the symmetry of the art all so that the moms of America will know that Frank says “fuck” from time to time on the album.

How I Came To Know It: I came relatively late to Frank Turner, with “Tape Deck Heart” being the first album that I heard. I believe my friend Casey played a couple of songs off of here for me and I was hooked.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Frank Turner albums. Of those six, “Tape Deck Heart” comes in at #1.

Ratings: 5 stars

Frank Turner albums don’t just speak to your soul; they whisper comforting words to it to let you know everything is going to work out. “Tape Deck Heart” has Frank working his usual magic, reinforced with some of his strongest songwriting and arrangements that are crisp and confident.

No one writes an inspirational anthem like Frank Turner. These are songs that empower you and demand you sing along, lifting you up on their powerful messages of reflection, rebellion and redemption. Unlike so many radio friendly pop songs that try to do the same, Frank’s brand of inspiration is never giddy and vacuous or vague. These anthems are inspirational because they represent confronting and overcoming real issues, and real challenges.

Depression, lost love, and substance abuse all feature prominently and you get the distinct impression that Frank sings what he knows. On “Tell Tale Signs” he compares the memory of a damaging relationship with cutting and self-harm. It is a raw and emotionally real song from its stark opening of “God damn it, Amy/we’re not kids anymore” through Frank’s comparison of the memory of the girl he knew, described as “a beautiful butterfly burned with a branding iron.” The memory of her is like the scars on his arms, always there, sometimes painful and strangely comforting.

Turner’s willingness to confront his fears creates an instant rapport in the listener. On “Plain Sailing Weather” he sings “give me one fine day of plain sailing weather and I can fuck up anything.” It is a relatable moment for anyone who ever had a dumb moment and is in the middle of slamming their head into their palm. You may not have Frank’s specific demons, but you’ve got some kind of demons, and it is just nice to hear someone sing so openly about theirs.

For all the sadness, at his heart Turner is an optimist and understands that even bad memories serve a useful purpose. “Recovery” is a song about screwing up a relationship, but it is also a lesson on how to grow and learn from loss. “The Way I Tend To Be” is Turner admitting he can be a schmuck, but how it makes him appreciate a love that “can save me from the way I tend to be”.

Frank Turner albums are often about the lyrics and message, and he wisely keeps the melodies basic so you can focus on them. The backdrop is a smartly organized blend of pop, folk and punk. “Tape Deck Heart” has a bit more production than earlier records, but Turner wisely leaves lots of room for the songs to breathe, punctuating his four minute jolts of wisdom with a flourish of piano or mandolin as the occasion demands.

And of all Turner’s albums, “Tape Deck Heart” has songs that are the most consistently catchy. Listening to this record I can’t understand why he isn’t more famous. Maybe people just like their pop with a little less pain.

My only issue with this album is that it is too long, clocking in with 16 songs and 62 minutes, including four ‘bonus’ tracks. I’d be tempted to cut those four songs, but they are some of the best on the album. “We Shall Not Overcome” has a chorus that feels like the theme song of my life:

“The bands I like they don’t sell too many records
And the girls I like they don’t kiss too many boys
And the books I read will never be bestsellers
Yeah, but come on fellas at least we made our choice.”

Turner understands that his army of counter-culture iconoclasts need a sense of belonging too –often achieved when standing united and proud behind our obscure bands and books.

Mostly though, Frank is about accepting that bad things happen to good people, but the human spirit has an incredible propensity to overcome. The lessons we learn along the way are part of the celebration, even if they hurt at the time. On tattoos he sings “if we had the luck to live our lives a second time through/we’d be sure to get the same tattoos”.

Despite all this excellence I was going to downgrade Frank to four stars for breaking my 14 song rule. Then I read this quote on the Wikipedia entry for the album:

“Track listing an album is a fine art, and usually a pretty agonising process. I’m glad I've had the opportunity to do the extended version for this one – all these songs belong together. That said, I think an album is a piece of art in its own right and can be too long, so it’s worth making the twelve-track definitive version. Choosing what makes it and what doesn’t is agonising, though.”

Damn you, Frank, you managed to be unflinchingly honesty about even your decision to put too many songs on the album. I just can’t stay mad at you over it when you put it like that. Five stars it is, given with love from the depths of my compact disc heart.

Best tracks: All tracks

Friday, November 24, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1075: Opeth

Every year at this time I take a couple of days off to watch football on US Thanksgiving and recharge my batteries for the home stretch leading up to Christmas.

With an enjoyable day of football now behind me I now need to feed the spirit, so I’m going to write this music review and then I’m going to work on my book.

To all those people at work right now who are filling in for me so I can do these things, a heartfelt thank you.

Disc 1075 is…Blackwater Park
Artist: Opeth

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Many years ago I was into this collectible card game called “Magic: The Gathering” which featured a bunch of evil-looking swamps you could use to power your spells. This cover would be a perfect fit for one of those swamp drawings.

As with their 1999 album “Still Life” (reviewed back at Disc 1040) Opeth has hidden some shadowy human figures in the picture. Creepy…

Also, great font for the band name. Even without a foreboding swamp, that band logo would look cool.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Kelly had this album years ago and played it for me, but I didn’t buy it back then. Recently I was digging through Opeth’s discography and I discovered it again, liked it a bit more and so…here it is.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Opeth albums. Of those albums, I put “Blackwater Park” second or third best. To leave room for “Ghost Reveries” I’ll say third. Hey – it’s tough to skate first.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Progressive metal is not for everyone. Hell, it isn’t even always for me, but “Blackwater Park” is such a good example of it that it is hard not to like.

As is the case on a lot of their albums from this period, “Blackwater Park” is an artful blend of two styles There are pounding black metal riffs, with lead singer Mikael Akerfeldt barking out in the guttural throat singing style common to the genre, mixed with lighter symphonic mood elements, coupled with Akerfeldt switching it up to an airy atmospheric melodic singing. In this later style he is reminiscent of Tool’s Maynard James Keenan.

While “Blackwater Park” isn’t as consistently amazing as “Still Life” there is still plenty to like. The record knows when to pound away relentlessly and get your energy up. Then, just when you’re starting to feel a bit frantic, it brings you back down with an echoing bit of standalone piano.

This is intricate music, and requires a good deal of skill from all the players. Despite intricate song constructions and a feverish pace, everything sounds tight and crisp, allowing your ear to roam around a little and hear the songs from different perspectives.

I started out trying to hear the lyrics, but most of the time I got swept up in the guitar riffs and let my thoughts wander. I’ve had a lot on my mind lately and the layered song construction was therapeutic. I can see why troubled kids are drawn to this stuff; at least the smart ones.

Somewhere between my second and third listens I started tuning in to the bass lines, which on a lot of metal just travel below the guitar melody and give it oomph at the bottom end. Not so on “Blackwater Park” where the bass has its own journey, lifting and falling deep in the mix and providing a foil to the guitar line that is often different, but always complementary.

The bass line was a lot easier to pick out when walking. When I was riding the bus, the low rumble of the engine got in the way of me hearing the songs in their full glory. It made me realize why people like to turn this kind of music up. You gotta hear it from top to bottom or you’re not really hearing it.

The songs on “Blackwater Park” tend to be drawn-out affairs. There are only eight songs but the record is over 67 minutes long. Despite this the record doesn’t drag and the songs, though long, have sufficient complexity that you want them to go on for eight or ten minutes so the musical themes feel fully explored.

In terms of what the songs are about, as I noted above it was hard to follow along, even though the lyrics are in English. Because it’s been a rough November, the song “Dirge for November” appealed to me just because of the title. Also, its “wet leaves and cold hard rain” vibe was just right for a wallow while I walked. However, when I looked up the lyrics in the liners notes, I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was happening. Something bad, but Opeth aren’t terribly specific. It’s a mood piece for when you’re in a mood.

The Funeral Portrait” is the crowd pleaser on the record, with powerful power riffs that would be at home on an early Metallica album, and a groove that demands a mosh pit. It also has some pretty cool moments from drummer Martin Lopez.

While I preferred “Still Life” overall, there is a lot to be said for “Blackwater Park” being the gateway album into this band. The riffs are accessible, the record has good energy throughout and these boys can play.

Best tracks: Bleak, The Funeral Portrait, Blackwater Park

Saturday, November 18, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1074: Hawksley Workman

I had a fun night out last night at the Victoria Art Gallery’s “Urbanite” event. It was great to have a place for people to gather and get a little dressed up. I ran into people I knew, people I sorta knew and strangers that I made new connections with, which is pretty much the perfect night out.

Disc 1074 is…The Delicious Wolves
Artist: Hawksley Workman

Year of Release: 2001, 2002 or 2003. Wikipedia thinks it is 2001, Windows Media Player thinks it is 2002 and the liner notes suggest 2003. The artist’s website indicates it is 2001, which seems to be the most definitive source, so let’s go with that. That site also had it with a different cover, so maybe mine is a reissue. Trying to figure it out was a hot mess, just like this damned record.

What’s up with the Cover? An out of focus Hawksley Workman tries to be cool. That about sums up this record.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila was into Hawksley Workman back in the day, so this is one of hers. I also liked a couple of songs but more on that shortly.

How It Stacks Up:  We have two Hawksley Workman albums, this one and Lover/Fighter (reviewed back at Disc 500). Of the two, I prefer Lover/Fighter by a large margin.

Ratings: 2 stars

Technically this album is called “(last night we were) The Delicious Wolves.” This is an awkwardly pretentious title, but once you listen to the record you realize it is entirely appropriate.

Workman starts things off on the right foot, with his two best songs (“Striptease” and “Jealous of Your Cigarette”) coming 1-2 in the lineup and giving you a reasonable expectation of quality to follow. Both songs are sexy and funky. “Striptease” has a cool production, with techno beats playing off traditional guitar riffs. “Jealous of Your Cigarette” is a little crazy with its strange staccato opening, but the B section has such a cool hip-swingin’ groove you forgive the frantic and unfocused opening. These are two quality songs.

Unfortunately, it seems that with two songs under his belt that are enjoyable, Workman seems to think he’s done his duty to the folks who want to hear something nice, and he can now spend the rest of the record showing off how far he can push his sound. I respect that he is pursuing his art and striving to “find the new sound” but the result is an unfocused jumble filled with half-explored notions liberally slathered with excess production.

Throughout the record Workman shows off his strong voice, singing low in the back of his throat and floating into falsetto with equal ease. Despite this, the delivery didn’t hold any emotional gravitas for me. He bangs away on pianos, and creates riffs and melodies that have a lot of promise, but then he combines them with other almost-working melodies and a bunch of layers of percussion and what-not that just left me frustrated with what could have been.  

Lyrically, there isn’t much going on here. Lines like “I’m jealous of your cigarette/and all the things you do with it” are clever and sexy but they feel like one-offs rather than parts of more thoughtful and cohesive themes. And that’s on one of the good songs.

The low point can be found on “Your Beauty Must Be Rubbing Off” where he channels his best Beatnik poet voice and deadpans “cacophony” then a dramatic pause followed by “caca…phony.” Get it? Because it is fake and also like poop? Or something like that. It is certainly like poop.

By the time “Dirty and True” comes along 10 songs in there isn’t anywhere to go but down. We get treated to what I think is supposed to be alternative rock. Lots of bizarre and jarring piano sounds mixed with the clash and clang of rock chords, and falsetto singing that sounds like it is pulled from some high school musical written by Andrew Lloyd Webber when he was 15.

It leads into the album’s final track, “Lethal and Young” where an echoing piano bangs away as Workman does his best impression of Roger Watters at the end of “The Wall” to make us all feel thankful that we’ve gone beyond the wall of whatever musical theatre that has just been inflicted on us. It was a far cry from “The Wall”  but I have to admit I was glad it was over.

On his next album, “Lover/Fighter,” Workman succeeds in pushing the boundaries of pop in a way that was both enjoyable and thoughtful. Knowing he can do it made the hot mess of “The Delicious Wolves” all the more annoying. I guess to make an omelet, you gotta break a few eggs.

Best tracks: Striptease, Jealous of Your Cigarette

Thursday, November 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1073: Barton Carroll

For a short week it has felt pretty long, but I had two pieces of good news today. First, my Amazon CD order came in. New to my collection are:
  • Lera Lynn’s new album “Resistor”
  • The Masterson’s new album “Transient Lullaby”
  • Mountain Goats “Heretic Pride”
  • Dori Freeman “Letters Never Read”
Of all of these, I’m most excited about Dori Freeman, whose last album was my favourite record of 2016.

Second, I got a couple more CD shelves, so my growing collection will continue to have a home. My kind and understanding wife even let me put one in the living room.

Disc 1073 is…Avery County, I’m Bound to You
Artist: Barton Carroll

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A very tastefully drawn flower. Also, that isn’t part of the album design – Barton Carroll signed it! Very cool.

How I Came To Know It: I read about it on a Paste Magazine article called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection.” I did just that, ordering it direct from the artist’s website.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Barton Carroll albums, and “Avery County, I’m Bound to You” is number one! The best!

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Listening to “Avery County, I’m Bound to You” I couldn’t see a path for Barton Carroll to commercial success, and it left me disappointed with the arbitrariness of fame in the music world. These songs may not be written with pop hooks in mind, but they are insightful, carefully considered songs from someone who clearly puts their art first. The album is like the flower on the cover, opening its hearts to you hesitantly, but no less beautiful for it.

“Avery County” feels like the heartland of America, pastoral and dusty, with a meandering quality that makes you think of long gravel driveways and towns where everyone knows your name, and people guard their secrets all the more jealously as a result.

For all the understated beauty of the songs, Carroll’s subject matter is often dark. Small towns are just as rife with broken hearts and troubled minds as anywhere else in America, and the sweet and light tones of the instrumentation on “Avery County” belie deep hollows of sadness lurking beneath.

The best of these is “Every Little Bit Hurts” a song about how life chips away at you bit by bit, populated by characters that have settled into a grim acceptance of their circumstances. Even within these sad stories, Carroll searches for answers:

That old drinkin’ man livin’ out on Tatum’s land
Well I’ve known him in this town all my life
He sips away his days and he’s got a kindly way
And if you care to sit a spell, he will abide

“I said you never looked much trouble though the years are comin’ on
There must be some secret that you own
He said son I never fight with old Jose you know
I always hold out for Patron.”

As wisdom goes, “drink quality tequila” seems like a low bar to clear, but it gets worse from there. Later Carroll meets up with an old girlfriend now working as a stripper and offering him a discount on a lap dance and the song ends with the narrator flipping a dismissive nickel to the local preacher. It is rough stuff.

Pauline” is a disturbing song of spousal abuse, both physical and emotional. A terrifying tale of a bully admitting his sins whose rage is so vast it makes him brag of his misdeeds when he should be horrified.

I recently read an interesting BBC article on Taylor Swift’s songwriting, and her propensity for ‘one note melodies,” which are compelling to the listener because they draw your ear to the lyrics, and because they are generally easy to sing along to.

While the songs are vastly different in most other ways, Carroll often uses the same technique. He lets his vocals be the most stable thing on the songs, high in the mix and shaking with a confessional vibrato. He isn’t a great vocalist (on “The Beech Mountain Waltz” he labours under the strain of a basic waltz) but he gets it done, and he sings with a conviction that draws you in. It also helps that he’s a master lyricist, with a gift for the quick turn of phrase and the slow burn of tragedy with equal skill.

The record is a bit short, clocking in at only 10 songs and 33 minutes, and some of the songs need a bit more melodic movement, but there aren’t any truly bad songs. Production wise I could use a little less flute, which Carroll throws in to create flourishes and dynamics, but feel a bit stilted and strained where it’s used. I would have been happier just letting the songs slowly work their lyrical magic on me.

Still, this is a hidden gem of a record, with a lot of great stuff. The stories are often tough, but Carroll unfurls them with a natural talent for the spoken word. In so doing he fulfills the greatest victory of any folk musician; making ordinary lives extraordinary, and finding art and lasting wisdom in the face of tragedy.

Best tracks: The Straight Mile, What a Picture Is, Every Little Bit Hurts, Avery County I’m Bound to You

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1072: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Between my job and volunteer work it ended up being a long day, but I’m getting this review in before it is over.

Disc 1072 is…Songs and Music from the Motion Picture “She’s the One”
Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? A couple scenes from a movie (less on that later), on either side of a shot of Tom doing what Tom does. Also, a whole lot of yellow. That’s right, album cover, I called you yellow. Care to make somethin’ of it?

How I Came To Know It: For the longest time I skipped getting this record, thinking that because it was a soundtrack to a movie I’d never seen, it wouldn’t resonate. Finally I bought it last year. Sorry, Tom – I should’ve had more faith.

How It Stacks Up:  I have sixteen Tom Petty albums, which I think is all of them. I like them all but competition is fierce and “She’s The One” was only able to land at number 12.

Ratings: 3 stars

Usually when I buy a soundtrack it is because I heard the music while watching the film, and having never seen “She’s the One” it was a bit weird reviewing the record. I tried to just think of it as another solid Tom Petty album (which it is) but I couldn’t help but wonder how these songs fit into a movie.

I have deliberately decided not to find out. Whatever mysteries “She’s the One” the movie will reveal to me will have to wait until I see it – this one is for Tom and the Heartbreakers. I will say that I bet “She’s the One” is some kind of romance or romantic comedy, because these songs are focused on relationships, not all of them healthy.

“She’s the One” borrows from a lot of different aspects of Petty’s music. It comes immediately after Petty’s 1994 solo masterpiece “Wildflowers” and incorporates a lot of the sparse and understated indie folk sounds of that record. However, with the return of the heartbreakers the grime and dust of southern rock returns with a vengeance and Petty seems equally willing to explore a blues riff as he is a lilting melody.

Generally I love when Petty showcases his range, but even though “She’s the One” is only slightly overlong - 15 songs in 51 minutes – it feels disjointed. No doubt being a movie soundtrack it had to cover a lot of emotional ground when telling the story of…whatever the hell “She’s the One” is about. Let’s guess it is boy meets girl/boy loses girl, boy meets girl again and it may or may not work out before one of them moves to California. I mean, there is a song about going to California. But I digress…

One of the reasons I eventually bought this record was the presence of a cover of Lucinda Williams’ “Change the Locks.” The Heartbreakers do a solid version of it, but Petty’s vocal delivery is a bit too “Don’t Come Around Here No More” to make it feel as nasty and visceral as I wanted it to be.

Much better are the original tracks “Walls” and “Angel Dream” both of which have multiple versions present on the record and were likely recurring themes in the film. While I didn’t need a whole bunch of versions of both songs, it helped that they were two of the best songs on the record.

 “Angel Dream (no. 4)” is a bit more up tempo, whereas “Angel Dream (no. 2)” is slower and stripped down. “Angel Dream (no.4)” is a rolling tune best suited to thinking kind thoughts about the woman you love while looking wistfully out a car window. “Angel Dream (no. 2)” is more about looking out through a rainy window wondering when that love is going to pull into the driveway. With songs like this, the movie writes itself.

A similar decision is made with “Walls” where the “circus” version is a bit more jangly and up-beat, and “Walls (No. 3)” which feels thin and drawn out, and fills the lyrics with a heartfelt resignation – like no one was at fault, but things still didn’t work out.

Incidentally, there is no sign of “Angel Dream” nos. 1 and 3 nor does either “Walls” nos. 1 or 2 make an appearance. They were either left on the cutting floor of the studio, or preserved for movie-goers only.

More than anything, “She’s the One” reminded me that even when he is constricted to writing for some limited release art film, Petty is a master storyteller that can knock out timeless melodies in his sleep. Whatever the hell the movie was about, the film makers should feel damn fortunate they managed to get Petty to do their soundtrack.

Tom Petty was taken from us too soon, and while “She’s the One” isn’t his greatest work, it was nice to hear his voice again so soon after he left us all and headed out into the great wide open.

Best tracks: Angel Dream (No. 2 and No. 4), Hope You Never, Asshole, Walls (No. 3), California