Wednesday, June 28, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1021: The Byrds

This review was slightly delayed because just as I was about to complete it my friend Casey called reminding me we were going to a concert that night! I had totally forgotten but after a quick change of clothes and a hurried walk/run downtown we saw Tami Neilson play at Distrikt nightclub.

I’ll write a review of the show shortly but for now let’s get back to the review I rudely interrupted with my own forgetfulness. I mean, who forgets they're going to a concert?

Disc 1021 is…Sweetheart of the Rodeo
Artist: The Byrds

Year of Release: 1968

What’s up with the Cover? If hippie cowgirls made Tarot cards, they’d look like this. Or maybe these are supposed to be rodeo trading cards. Bronco Billy! Lureen Newsome! Collect them all!

How I Came To Know It: I think the aforementioned Casey once told me this record was a big deal in the history of music. Then it seemed for months after he did, every other music article I read seemed to mention it. When they released a special edition with a bunch of extra Gram Parsons content on it, I decided it was time to see what all the fuss was about. Gram’s no longer with us, so I don’t pass up a chance to get more of his work.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Byrds album I have, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

For an album that was a commercial disappointment, “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” has cast an awfully long shadow. This is widely cited as the album that married country music with rock and roll and the rest, as they say, is history. Nowadays you can hear country artists covering Elvis and rock artists taking on John Prine around every corner. The boundaries between the styles have been fuzzy for years, and a lot of the credit goes to “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

So that’s the history of it all (well, a very short version of it anyway) but is the record any good? The short answer is – yes. I don’t love it to death just because of its importance, though. If anything, I had heard so much country/rock crossover music by the time I worked my way back to the beginning that I have to remind myself that in 1968 the concept was relatively unknown.

What’s important is the record is full of beautiful harmonies, carefully constructed songs and some top-notch guitar playing from Roger McGuinn and pedal steel master Lloyd Green. Green in particular, gives the album just the right mix of rock resonance and country twang and I don’t think it would be the same without him.

McGuinn and Gram Parsons famously fought over this record, and we are all the poorer for it, because the resulting legal threats kept several songs from having Gram Parson’s vocals on them (they went with McGuinn singing instead). Roger McGuinn has a lot of talent, but he’s not much of a vocalist. His voice always sounds thin and nasally, a bit like Bob Dylan but without the mix of sass and weighty import that Dylan manages. He is solid on the old-timey crime ballad “Pretty Boy Floyd” because it’s a song that sounds like it should be played on some old tavern record player that winds with a crank, but otherwise I wanted Gram on almost every song.

You get Gram on “Hickory Wind” and he absolutely kills it, his hurtful mourn providing the perfect partner to Green’s pedal steel wail. I prefer later remakes by Emmylou Harris and Gillian Welch even more but Gram did it first, and he did it beautifully.

Also, my copy of “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” is a bonus two-disc edition that includes the original Gram Parsons’ vocals for “The Christian Life,” “You Don’t Miss Your Water” and “One Hundred Years From Now” turning every song from just plain good to something special.

If anything, it is the addition of Gram Parsons that makes this album the special creation it is. Gram had the rock/country cross in his head coming into the band and the direction his presence provides the Byrds is immediately noticeable. With all those fresh ideas and heartfelt vocals, it is no wonder his ego clashed with McGuinn’s.

The bonus disc has a lot of outtakes that include the band doing a series of false starts and questions about the various mic levels. The takes are competent, but all that professional musician banter is annoying. “What take is this?“Is the bass coming through for you?” Seriously guys, that’s not interesting to your listening audience.

What was cool were two instrumental versions of “All I Have Are Memories”. I wouldn’t listen to these every day, but it really underscored how talented they were as musicians, and a nice addition.

Also welcome were six tracks of the International Submarine Band (ISB), which was Gram Parsons’ band before he joined the Byrds. You can hear the germination of Parsons’ sound on these tracks and it underscores what a difference his creative genius and vision were for the Byrds. One of the tracks, “Luxury Liner” would eventually be the title track to one of Emmylou Harris’ better records (reviewed back at Disc 697).

As a member of the ISB, Parsons does a killer version of the old Terry Fell song “Truck Drivin’ Man.” “Blue Eyes” is a honky tonk love song as good as anything that “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” had to offer.

Taken as a whole, two discs and 39 songs are a bit much, particularly when you are getting multiple rough cuts of the same songs, but I wouldn’t trade this in for the non-extended version because I don’t want to part with the Gram Parsons versions of some of the songs, as well as the International Submarine Band section.

As for the original record, this is one of those seminal albums that you really must have in your collection if you care about the development of Americana music. While “Sweetheart of the Rodeo” may not have been fully appreciated when it was released almost 50 years ago, this album has made a hell of an impression on generations of musicians that followed in its wake.

Best tracks: Pretty Boy Floyd, Hickory Wind, One Hundred Years From Now, The Christian Life (Gram Parsons vocals), One Hundred Years From Now (Gram Parsons vocal),

Best International Submarine Band Tracks: Truck Drivin’ Man, Blue Eyes, Luxury Liner, Strong Boy

Sunday, June 25, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1020: Frank Turner

It’s been a lovely weekend, starting with a Friday night dinner date with my lovely wife,  then a lazy Saturday afternoon wandering town with a buddy. After a couple of nights of drinking I’m looking forward to a quiet and restorative Sunday.

I also managed to find time to buy five new albums because hey, that’s what I do. They are:
  • First Aid Kit “The Big Black & the Blue”
  • Gillian Welch “Soul Journey”
  • Justin Townes Earle “Kids in the Street”
  • Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit “The Nashville Sound”
  • Caroline Rose “I Will Not Be Afraid”
Coming soon (or not so soon, depending on how the dice roll) to a blog near you.

Disc 1020 is…Sleep is for the Week
Artist: Frank Turner

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? A guy looks out the window. He looks concerned, but if the buildings in my neighbourhood were that ramshackle I’d be concerned as well. He’s probably concerned they’re going to fall over, which would account for his pale skin: he’s probably too afraid to go outside.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me digging into Frank Turner’s back catalogue. Although this is the earliest album of his that I have, I bought it last because for a while it was very hard to find. I assume they reprinted it recently.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Frank Turner albums which in terms of full length studio albums is all of them. I really liked “Sleep is for the Week” but competition among Frank Turner albums is fierce. I put it fifth, just ahead of “Positive Songs for Negative People”.

Ratings: 4 stars

While “Sleep is for the Week” is Frank Turner’s first solo release, he was already a seasoned musician by 2007 from previous projects like “Million Dead.” This musical maturity is in evidence on “Sleep is for the Week,” which shows good range and thoughtful lyrics to go with Turner’s relative youthful exuberance (he was 26).

If you’re more familiar with Frank’s later releases (as I was) then “Sleep is for the Week” will feel a bit softer and folksier. Frank still rocks out in places, but the album relies a lot on acoustic guitar strumming and a stripped down production. This is a good thing, as it lets the vocals come to the fore, where Frank’s inspirational lyrics can hit with maximum impact.

Turner’s songs always feel intensely personal and autobiographical. He draws you in and makes you feel like he’s sharing a moment with you. It can be a moment of protest, regret or just a celebratory anthem, but he is the master of creating a moment. I think it is a big reason his fans (me included) are so dedicated, often following him around through multiple tour dates, singing every word back to him like we wrote it ourselves.

The album begins with one of my all-time favourite Frank Turner songs. “The Real Damage” is a song about wondering whether your party lifestyle is sustainable, and whether you even want it to be anymore:

“I woke up on a sofa in an unfamiliar house
Surrounded by sleeping folks that I didn’t know
On failing to find my friends
I decided that it was clearly time to go.”

It is a conversation most of us have with ourselves at around 26, but Frank being Frank, turns it into an existential crisis:

“It was about then that I realized I was
Half-way through
The best years of my life.”

Having had a bit of the old self-destructive path in my youth, I have awaked on that same sofa, with the same regret-filled thoughts. Fortunately, I got better, but it is fun to safely revisit the experience through song.

Like a lot of the songs on this record, “The Real Damage” doesn’t have a traditional chorus, so much as it has a couple of musical concepts that play back and forth against each other as Turner unfolds a narrative. For all this, he always manages to hit high points that make you want to sing along.

Turner’s albums often feature heartbreak, and “Sleep is for the Week” has plenty to offer. “Romantic Fatigue” is about how all those failed efforts at relationships help fuel his songwriting, and “Worse Things Happen At Sea” is that awful final conversation had with a person you used to love, right before you sling your bag over your shoulder and head out to look for a new place to live.

When Turner gets political, it is always from an intensely personal perspective. “Once We Were Anarchists” is a about wanting to change the world, but just feeling worn down. As Turner tells it:

The times they aren’t a-changing
Yeah, England’s still shit and its still raining
And everybody’s jaded, tired and bored.”

I think of this song as a prequel to “Love, Ire and Song” a song where he shakes off his lethargy and calls his audience to action. On “Once We Were Anarchists” Turner is still wallowing, but it is an honest and self-examined wallow.

Overall, “Sleep is for the Week” is the soundtrack for being in your mid-twenties. These are songs about re-examining watershed moments of youth, reconsidering what kind of world you want to live in, and (hopefully) growing into the person you want to be. Coming to this album in your mid-forties is just as affecting though, because it reminds you that those questions never get fully answered, but you’ve got to keep asking them all the same.

Best tracks: The Real Damage, Father’s Day, Once We Were Anarchists, Wisdom Teeth, The Ballad of Me and My Friends

Thursday, June 22, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1019: The Fiery Furnaces

I woke up today tired, but forgetting my music listening device and having to race home and get it and then back out to catch the bus got the blood pumping. It could have been stressful, but instead I made the bus and have felt energized all day.

Disc 1019 is…Gallowsbird’s Bark
Artist: The Fiery Furnaces

Year of Release: 2003

What’s up with the Cover? Dog meets goat. Dog is looking a little bit agro, with a tongue hanging out and a steady stare, but Goat doesn’t seem impressed. I can only conclude that these two are on the knife edge of either killing each other or making out.

How I Came To Know It: An employee of Ditch Records (Griffin) recommended this album after learning I liked another of their albums (2007’s “Widow City”). I’ll admit that I checked out their whole catalogue after that, and Griffin was right; this was the best one I didn’t already have. I went back and bought it.

How It Stacks Up:  The Fiery Furnaces have nine studio albums, but I only have two – this one and 2007’s “Widow City”. It is close, but I’m putting “Gallowsbird’s Bark” second. It is better overall, but “Widow City” has a few more of my favourite songs.

Ratings: 3 stars

By all my usual measures and rules I should not like “Gallowsbird’s Bark.” It is full of things I don’t like: complicated arrangements, jazz, techno, and frenetic beats that pound about and threaten anxiety. It’s even too long. Yet despite all this I can’t help myself; this record is too good to be denied.

The Fiery Furnaces consists of siblings Matthew and Eleanor Friedberger. Matthew is a mad genius who plays most of the instruments and writes the songs. Eleanor is the principal singer who carries the tune – more on that later.

Matthew creates music that is crazed and frantic, and you are liable to hear almost anything in these short, strange little pop songs. You’ll get samples, crashing drums, jazz piano, hand claps and occasionally even an ordinary electric guitar. It can seem jarring and directionless when you first hear it, but once your ear has acclimated (which doesn’t take long) you start to hear the genius amid all the jumble of sound.

Once you are aurally invested, you’ll realize what you are hearing isn’t a jumble, but instead a clever collection of syncopation and beats. Like James Brown, the Fiery Furnaces treat every instrument like a drum, each one punctuating a tiny piece of the song, and together creating a panoply of sound.

None of this would work without the sweet tone of Eleanor’s voice. She has a natural pop vocal power, and a rich full tone. She can deliver lyrics in either a jazzed up spoken word style, or a sweet melody, as the song demands. Sometimes the song demands both, and she makes that work too.

Eleanor Friedberger is how I came to know the band in the first place. I heard her solo albums (which are much more straightforward indie pop) and fell in love. I only discovered the band by the happy accident when the record store didn’t have any of her solo work and desperate, I took a chance on the band.

It was a shock to the system for a guy who likes his rock and roll to rock out and his folk simple and sweet. Even simpler songs, like “Two Fat Feet” are still a blend of styles (in this case, a laid back blues riff, a jazz piano and some kind of early eighties new Wave vocal performance from Eleanor). Against the odds, the Fiery Furnaces make songs like this work.

Before I wax too poetic, it is worth noting that when you are pushing the envelope this often there are times when your reach is going to exceed your grasp. Sometimes in their press to be clever the song can lose its way, or take too many paths at once. Even when this happens it is still interesting to the ear. Also, when you are in doubt or feel you’re losing the plot just fasten your ears onto Eleanor’s vocals. The songs are designed to let her carry the melody. Once you’ve recovered your bearings feel free to range back into the soup of sound that Matthew has prepared for the more adventurous.

When they play it more straight, such as on “Tropical Ice-Land” they demonstrate they are perfectly capable of writing an (almost) traditional pop song. With its easy strumming acoustic guitar, the easy rise and fall of the melody and Eleanor’s sugary delivery of the lyrics, this could have been a radio hit but alas, it is just a bit too complicated even still. Also, the band decides to drop a counter-melody in about halfway through, and layer the whole thing with some chirping bird samples. They just can’t resist.

The album is only 46 minutes which is about right, but at 16 tracks, each of them heavily laden with a lot of musical concepts, it is a little tiring. Also, while the album is chock full of interesting imagery, it rarely adds up to a narrative you can follow for long. Usually that would bother me as well, but with the way these songs work, building too much logical flow into the words would detract from some of its energy.

“Gallowsbird’s Bark” is definitely not for everyone, but if you like your pop on the experimental side this is something you’re going to enjoy a lot. It even won over a meat-and-potatoes guy like me.

Best tracks: I’m Gonna Run, Up in the North, Don’t Dance Her Down, Crystal Clear, Two Fat Feet, Tropical Ice-Land, We Got Back the Plague

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1018: Aimee Mann

I got my income tax refund last week but it was already spent, paying property taxes and buying a new suit. Being an adult is not nearly the glamorous enterprise I imagined it would be as a teenager.

Fortunately, I still have enough money to frivolously add CDs to my collection!

Disc 1018 is…Mental Illness
Artist: Aimee Mann

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? When I uploaded this album, the interwebs decided to assign it the digital cover art for the alt country band Old 97s 2017 release “Graveyard Whistling.” At least it got the text and the songs right. I don’t own “Graveyard Whistling.” I did give it an honest listen and liked it, but it fell just short of shelf-worthy.

The actual cover is a creepy painting that I have decided to call “Giant Chicken in the Enchanted Forest.” If you were to encounter this chicken in the woods I think it would silently walk up to you, look down with that benevolent half smile on its face, then lean over and bite your head off. Not everything in the Enchanted Forest is your friend, folks.

How I Came To Know It: I have been an Aimee Mann fan for years. She is one of those artists I trust enough to buy whenever she puts out a new album. That’s what happened here.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight Aimee Mann Albums. Of those eight, “Mental Illness” isn’t the best but it holds its own. I’ll put it fourth bumping “Fuck Smilers” and “Charmer” down one spot each.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

“Mental Illness” is an apt title for this record, which explores doubt, confusion and the poor decisions people make when they are emotionally or mentally unbalanced. Aimee Mann does a great job of capturing the rabbit hole of disconnected imagery of characters trying – and often failing – to get themselves straightened out.

At times I’m not even sure what Mann is singing about, such as on the album’s first and best song, “Goose Snow Cone”. This feels like a song about someone trying to keep it together when friends visit, desperate to keep up appearances. Whether the narrator is depressed, insane or just suffering dementia isn’t clear. It is a testament to Mann’s songwriting talent that she can weave this into a lovely trilling melody that unfurls all that doubt and confusion like a flower.

All the songs are carefully constructed, starting with zingers like this one from “You Never Loved Me”:

“Boy when you go you go
Three thousand miles just so I’ll know
You never loved me”

Ending on sad and abrupt notes, often with the melody unresolved and restless. This is music that makes you want to give yourself a reassuring hug, partly because you’re not sure you can trust someone else to do it right, and partly because its introspective secrets call for solitary comforts.

Mann’s voice has lost nothing over the years, and still knows how to flow around a melody, often punctuating a line with an early high note, with plenty of room for her to gently descend back down the other side or trill a little, as the song demands. She’s not a powerhouse singer, but she has a sweet and melancholy tone, and writes to her strengths.

Her previous album (2012’s “Charmer”) has a lot more up tempo and rock elements, but “Mental Illness” opts for a softer approach, with a focus on lightly played piano, and flourishes of cello and violin. “Charmer” is the easier album to love out of the gate, but “Mental Illness” is a slow burn, digging deeper into my soul on each listen.

The melodic structures are very similar to what Mann has done before, but since that has always been beautiful it’s no great crime. She employs them more subtly than previously and so while the album isn’t immediately catchy, it is worth the time invested.

The last song is “Poor Judge” which combines all the best elements of the record; piano driven, with swells of violin that are romantic and tragic in equal measure. Mann’s vocals are low in her register and honest as she admits “My heart is a poor judge/and it harbours an old grudge” as she lattices in broken relationship imagery like “A dream of a car with the brake lines cut” and “leather books and surplus government chairs.” Sumptuous and coldly bureaucratic all at once; you can’t tell if the narrator is singing about her therapist or her lover – maybe both.

“Mental Illness” is one of those records that will require a bit of time to open up to you but you’ll be glad you gave it the chance. While the characters she sings about are not sure of themselves, Mann remains very much in confident and total control of her craft.

Best tracks: Goose Snow Cone, You Never Loved Me, Patient Zero, Good For Me, Poor Judge

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Concert Review: Tool

Tool concert – Thursday, June 15, Rogers Arena, Vancouver

My apologies for the long delay between entries – I was away seeing progressive metal band Tool in Vancouver at Rogers Arena last Thursday night. So rather than wait for my next music review I give you bonus content in the form of a concert review (no accompanying album since Tool hasn’t released it yet).

The opening act was Crystal Method. I had spent a couple of days checking out their body of work on Youtube and had liked what I’d heard. They have a cool mix of industrial dance, techno and rock. I was excited to hear some it played, but instead they played the role of DJ, a few of their own tracks but a lot of other stuff as well, messed with ‘creatively’ like a club DJ would do. It felt like being at a nightclub, but with no room to dance.

Tool was solid, and the band was incredibly precise but it didn’t engage me that way I wanted. I think this was the result of a combination of things, including:
  • I had a few drinks before the show and by the time it started, I was a bit groggy. That’s on me, not Tool.
  • Large venues make it that much harder to connect with the band. This was my first huge show since Rush about ten years ago (which I enjoyed a lot more, but was also a lot closer). I think I just prefer smaller venues and if that means I’ll have to limit myself to less popular bands, I can live with that.
  • Tool are incredibly proficient on their instruments, which you need to be to play music this fast and intricate. For all that, they played a little too well, and I never felt any variation that made the performance feel ‘live’. Even the godlike Danny Carey’s drum solo felt more technical than inspirational.
The set list was solid and featured many of my favourites including “Schism” “Opiate” and “The Pot”. Although I was warned they wouldn’t play anything off my favourite album, “Undertow,” it was still disappointing when the warning proved true.

The crowd was well behaved and spanned multiple generations (I think we were the oldest), proving Tool has staying power even ten years after they released their last studio album. These large shows tend to attract a bunch of people who go just so they can say they did, but not this time. The crowd was both knowledgeable and appreciative, with very few posers. Overall it was a good energy, although there was a lot of smoke (tobacco and otherwise) that while it added to the ambience, was a bit thick at times.

Also, while I didn’t feel emotionally engaged (even after trying the show with ear plugs out for maximum aural assault) the sound was excellent for such a large venue, crisp and nicely layered. Kudos to the folks running the soundboard.

Visually, the band doesn’t do a lot – they just stand in one spot and play their instruments. There are disturbing videos playing behind them on a big screen, but that just made me feel like I was sitting at home watching a video, which wasn’t the experience I signed up for. On the plus side, there was a pretty killer laser light show.

Best of all, I took the trip (and saw the show) with great friends, and great friends make every experience better. While I wouldn’t see Tool live again, I look forward to seeing my friends at other events for years to come.

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1017: ACDC

Observant readers will note that I’ve changed my profile photo. Gone is that short-haired excitable fellow in the Bruins jersey, replaced with this photo of me looking like I fell out of a Richard Linklater movie.

Disc 1017 is…Back in Black
Artist: ACDC

Year of Release: 1980

What’s up with the Cover? This may be simple, but it is one of rock and roll’s most iconic album covers ever. Its coolness has stood the test of time and then some.

How I Came To Know It: I have known this album since I was a kid. Everyone had it, and everyone loved it where I came from, at least everyone who mattered.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine ACDC albums. Many regard “Back in Black” as the best, and in many ways it is a three way tie for top spot, but I didn’t create this section of the blog to equivocate. I’m going to put “Back in Black” in at a respectable third best, behind only “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” (reviewed back at Disc 619), and “Highway to Hell” (not yet reviewed).

Ratings: 4 stars

There aren’t many bands that can lose their iconic lead singer and then immediately follow that loss up with one of their best records. Really the only two that come to mind are Black Sabbath’s “Heaven and Hell” and “Back in Black” and both were released in 1980. There must’ve been something in the water that year: something awesome.

“Back in Black” is balls-to-the-wall rock and roll that takes no prisoners. The record begins with the iconic echoing of four bells that announces “Hells Bells.” It is the album’s only long deep breath, and the last chance for the listener to take one, because within a couple of bars “Hells Bells” has launched into the quintessential riff-driven hurricane that is ACDC. For the next forty minutes “Back in Black” will pin you in your chair and rock you from the lower spine up to the cerebellum. Don’t worry about the frontal lobes; they are of limited value here.

“Back in Black” came out in the wake of tragedy, shortly after the band’s long-time frontman Bon Scott’s untimely death earlier the same year. New vocalist Brian Johnson’s singing style couldn’t be more different than the man he would replace. Johnson is rough, straightforward and solid in pocket, a straight rod of steel compared to the sleazy, lascivious and serpentine style of Scott.

I fully admit that overall I prefer Scott’s vocals, and I can’t help but wonder what the songs on “Back in Black” would sound like with him at the helm; presumably quite a bit different, though equally awesome. However, Brian Johnson brings something fresh and wonderful to the band. His pounding style makes this ACDC’s heaviest record to date, and the way he rides high on the beat gives the music another level of urgency and intensity. I miss Scott when I’m thinking about the album, but it is impossible to deny the glory of Johnson when I’m listening to it.

This album was huge when I was in high school. Even though it was released three years before I got there, “Back in Black” had staying power. From Grade 8 through Grade 12 you could hear this record at every house party, and in every passing muscle car. In fact, one of my fondest memories was listening to the title track in the 1973 Malibu that belonged to my friend Rob’s older brother, Tom.

Tom had modified the Malibu with a blower on the motor so big that he had to remove the car’s hood to fit it on. That was cool enough, but he’d also modified the back of the interior to fit in two home stereo tower speakers, mounted into a piece of plywood. I was relegated to the back seat with the little brother, and when that tell-tale “chk chk chk chk” of the title track’s guitar came on I would feel the hairs on the back of my neck rise with anticipation. When the signature riff kicked in Rob and I would be literally lifted out of our seats with the thump. It was sublime.

That was a magical experience, driving down the town’s only main road, “Back in Black” pounding away, and the sun streaming in on us as girls turned their heads (admittedly to look at Rob’s brother, but whatever). The visceral power of that song – as perfect now as the day I first heard it – recaptures that feeling every time.

If you’re looking for lyrical significance, this album is not for you, but that doesn’t mean the lyrics aren’t deliciously ridiculous. These are songs about rockin’ hard, drinkin’ hard and chasin’ girls with the time in between. Their most romantic gesture is “Let Me Put My Love Into You” and their subtlest metaphor is “Given the Dog a Bone.” The latter song doesn’t even use the right “given”.

On “You Shook Me All Night Long” you will learn about ACDC’s vision of female beauty:

“She was a fast machine
She kept her motor clean
She was the best damn woman I had ever seen
She had the sightless eyes
Telling me no lies
Knockin' me out with those American thighs”

I’ve never been sure what “American thighs” are all about, but it sounded good back in the day. Less so, “the sightless eyes” but maybe those were the awe-filled stares of all those pretty girls checking out Tom’s ’73 Malibu. Or maybe the song is actually about a car - that seems just as likely.

The closest the album comes to deep thinking is the final track, the slower and bluesy “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” where Johnson rasps out:

“Cause rock 'n' roll ain't no riddle man
To me it makes good, good sense”

Indeed it does, Brian, indeed it does. Coming at the end of the record, “Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution” is a reminder that you just listened to some kick ass rock music and you shouldn’t overthink it. If anything, you should just play it again, only louder.

Best tracks: Hells Bells, What Do You Do For Money Honey, Back in Black, You Shook Me All Night Long, Rock and Roll Ain’t Noise Pollution

Monday, June 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1016: The Handsome Family

As I alluded on my previous entry, I went a little overboard recently and bought this next artist’s entire discography direct from the band’s website. So if you end up seeing a lot of album reviews for this band in the next little while, now you’ll know why.

What can I say - when I fall for a band, I fall hard.

Disc 1016 is…Milk and Scissors
Artist: The Handsome Family

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? Where you might expect to see a depiction of milk and/or scissors we instead get two dogs. Maybe they are named “Milk” and “Scissors” although those aren’t exactly classic dog names.

How I Came To Know It: I found out about the Handsome Family when their song “Far From Any Road” was used for the opening credits to the TV show “True Detective,” but since then I’ve delved pretty hard into their catalogue, as noted in the teaser above. My mass mail order included “Milk and Scissors” (and a lot more besides).

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Handsome Family albums, which is all of them other than one obscure German import. Of the 12 that I have, “Milk and Scissors” is solid, albeit not my favourite. It could be as high as seven or as low as nine depending on my mood. Let’s split the difference and go with eighth, with the proviso I might change my mind later. I’m whimsical like that.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes you just feel an instant connection with a band, and so it was when I first heard the Handsome Family, and most every time since.  “Milk and Scissors” is one of those times; an album filled with haunting vocals and dark and troubling imagery that is not for the faint of heart.

This is only the Handsome Family’s second album but their signature sound is already starting to come into focus; ghostly, lilting melodies that snake their way mysteriously through songs like a river winding its way through a deep forest.

This album is the last to feature the band’s third full member – drummer Mike Werner – but the Handsome Family are principally the husband and wife team of Brett and Rennie Sparks.

Brett is a gifted musician on multiple instruments who writes the music. His ghostly vocals range from the urgent lover heard calling across a lake at night, to the ethereal and tormented voice of a lost soul that drowned in it. He tends to sing lower in his register, and the effect makes everything feel just a bit more…creepy. His natural talent for phrasing adds extra gravitas to the narratives.

The lyrics are a star of this show, and those are all written by Rennie Sparks. While I love a good instrumental as much as the next guy there is no denying I am a sucker for a well-turned phrase and a good story, and Rennie is the mistress of both.

As with any good tale, these songs have multiple layers. The tortured exploration of mental illness on the opening track, “Lake Geneva” is layered with the dread of existential angst of a hero of modern science exploring the mysteries of the world:

“Albert Einstein trembled when he was that time was water
Seeping through the rafters to put out this burning world.”

After all, if Einstein’s nerve fails in the face of the world’s secrets, what chance do the rest of us have? It is delightfully fun spine-shivering stuff.

On “Drunk by Noon” we catch the desperate and impotent energy of the addict:

“Sometimes I flap my arms like a hummingbird
   just to remind myself I’ll never fly
Sometimes I burn my arms with cigarettes
   just to pretend I won’t scream when I die.”

At least that’s what I take from this song; Rennie Sparks’ lyrics are so thick and rich they stretch your mind in a lot of directions. That’s the joy – and terror – of them.

The album also features songs about historical figures from early America. “Emily Shore 1819-1839” explores the story of a woman who documented her agonizing death from tuberculosis (consumption at the time) in a journal. “Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear” imagines what Earhart’s last thoughts might have been as her plane went down.

The album isn’t all folk. There are also occasional rock elements, mostly in the form of heavy reverb electric guitars. Although not as heavily grunge-influenced as the band’s first album “Odessa” they are worth noting, and add a rawness to songs like “Winnebago Skeletons.”  Despite this, it is clear that the band has a solid grounding in very traditional folk music forms, finding a way to explore those forms (here and on the many brilliant albums that follow) in a way that is both timeless and compelling.

Even when the Handsome Family is being derivative (as they are on “#1 Country Song”) they are doing it deliberately. The song may be a very basic country song about not getting the girl of your dreams, but the title makes it clear that they have their tongue planted firmly in their cheeks. The Handsome Family could make commercial pulp country music, they just choose not to do so. While this decision has likely not led them to riches, we – their listeners – are definitely the richer for it.

Best tracks: Lake Geneva, Drunk By Noon, Emily Shore 1819-1839, Amelia Earhart vs. the Dancing Bear

Thursday, June 8, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1015: Dropkick Murphys

My holidays continue in glorious fashion. Yesterday I had a lovely day out with Sheila, which included a little shopping, seeing a movie (Wonder Woman – and yes, it is good), and having a couple of great meals.

On Tuesday, I bought five more albums:
  • The Civil Wars “Barton Hollow”
  • Daniel Romano “If I’ve Only One Time Askin’”
  • Olivia Newton John and E.L.O. “Xanadu” (a guilty pleasure).
  • Gillian Welch “Hell Among the Yearlings”
  • Joan Shelley “Self-Titled”
I also recently got nine (yes, nine) Handsome Family albums in the mail, and I’d like to give a shout-out to Rennie Sparks. Rennie personally emailed me to thank me for my order and generally gave me a fanboy thrill that someone in the band was taking the time to say hello. You’re a class act, Rennie, and the fact that you and Brett make great music is nice too. OK – on to the next review.

Disc 1015 is…Signed and Sealed in Blood
Artist: Dropkick Murphys

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? This cover would make a kick-ass tattoo (and is likely inspired by – or the inspiration for – the song “Rose Tattoo”). In fact, based on the dozens of photos in the CD booklet, getting this tattoo is a bit of a thing among Murphys fans. I would get this as a t-shirt, but I prefer my tattoos to be unique, so I won’t be joining the throngs. For now, it is a great album cover.

How I Came To Know It: Last year I was poking around the Dropkick Murphys to see what their more recent albums were like (I hadn’t bought one since 2007). I found three I didn’t have and of those three, “Signed and Sealed in Blood” was the best of the lot.

How It Stacks Up:  I have seven Dropkick Murphys albums. Of those seven, “Signed and Sealed in Blood” is pretty solid. I’ll put it right in the middle at fourth.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

If you are familiar with the Dropkick Murphys, “Signed and Sealed in Blood” might feel like more of the kind of thing you’ve heard before. If you are a fan of the Dropkick Murphys, this will be a good thing.

The album’s first song is “The Boys are Back” seeming to announce their intention to give their fans more of what they love – a mix of Celtic folk and punk rock, bagpipes, lots of singing in unison, and a whole lot of triumphant energy.

The Murphys continue to sing about their favourites topics: blue collar life, loyalty to family and friends, nights on the town and their beloved Boston hockey and baseball teams. I love songs about all these things as well (go Bruins!), and few have done them as well as the Murphys over the years.

There is not a lot of new ground being broken here, but so what? Listening to the Murphys is like being invited to the best party on the block. The songs have memorable choruses that beg you to sing along, swaying back and forth with friends while you down a few pints. Won’t some of that pint get spilled with all that swaying? Absolutely! A little spilled beer is part of the feel of this music; raucous and just a little bit out of control.

The album could have used a few more references to my beloved Boston Bruins. The only one I could find was on “Rose Tattoo,” where lead singer Al Barr belts out:

“This one’s for our favourite game
Black and gold, we wave the flag.”

Despite this, “Rose Tattoo” isn’t about the Bruins per se, so much as it is an anthem to all the things the Murphys hold dear: family, true loves, and honour. This is a song that explains why people get tattoos in the first place; to commemorate the things that are nearest and dearest to their hearts. With its bright and confident mandolin riff, and rollicking melody it is also the best song on the album. Here you find the perfect mix of Dropkick Murphys, taking traditional Irish song structures and infusing them with a raw rock and roll delivery. The Pogues would be proud.

The Murphys love their sports history and “Jimmy Collins’ Wake” teaches us about an early baseball player who Wikipedia tells me perfected the bunt, and later led the 1903 Boston Americans to the first ever modern World Series championship. When I was in school I was a pretty skinny kid, but I was fast and I was a bit of a bunt expert myself. Watching those bigger, stronger kids curse as I got on base with foot speed and guile felt pretty good back then. Here’s to you, Jimmy Collins.

The album isn’t as angry as the Murphys’ early work, but they still take the time to work in some social commentary. “The Battle Rages On” revisits a Murphy theme of how the worker is sacrificed in the interests of the rich and powerful, and “Don’t Tear Us Apart” is a song about how the human race needs to come together and love one another. Messages of equal treatment and human love may have been covered by the Murphys before, but I don’t think you can have enough songs about these things.

As with a lot of Dropkick Murphys albums, “Signed and Sealed in Blood” ends with a ‘night on the town’ song. “End of the Night” is about how sometimes when the bar lights come on, you aren’t ready to go home. These nights aren’t great for your liver, but they are pretty great for your spirit, and the Murphys always manage to capture the triumph of the moment, and not the inevitable headache the next morning (although they do end the song with a punch-up that doesn’t go well for our heroes, so there is a healthy dose of realism in there as well).

There isn’t a lot of new ground on this record, but the Murphys walk their familiar roads with an enthusiasm that makes it feel new. If you’ve never heard a Murphys album before, you’ll like this one for an introduction. If you’ve heard plenty, then this record will be like meeting very old friends for a few pints. Maybe you’ve heard each other’s stories many times before, but it doesn’t make it any less fun to put your arms around each other’s shoulders and share a song or two.

Best tracks: The Boys Are Back, Prisoner’s Song, Rose Tattoo, Jimmy Collins’ Wake, Don’t Tear Us Apart, End of the Night

Monday, June 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1014: Angel Olsen

I’m on holidays this week and trying to enjoy every minute of it. But I’m not trying too hard. Trying too hard to enjoy yourself is like paddling against the current; you’re just gonna get tired before you ever get far enough out to make a difference.

Instead, you gotta relax and let that free time wash over you. Let it lift you up, like the tide coming in.

Disc 1014 is…Burn Your Fire For No Witness
Artist: Angel Olsen

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? This drawing made me think of a bunch of women in 1920s bathing suits. According to the liner notes, the artist is Kreh Mellick. I could impress you all by looking up information to share about Kreh Mellick, but I’m just not keen enough on this picture to bother.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review for Angel Olsen’ 2016 “My Woman” and later bought the album. I liked it a lot, and it inspired me to drill back through her earlier work.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have all three of Angel Olsen’s full length studio albums (I don’t waste time once I like an artist). All of them are excellent, with very little to separate them. So much so I spent a while to just listen to the other two and have them fresh in my head before I decided. After all this groundwork, I’m going to say “Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is the best of the bunch.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Take a splash of Leonard Cohen, a dash of Patti Smith and a little Liz Phair, and give them all the singing voice of a sixties pop star, and you’ve got something approximating the brilliance that is Angel Olsen.

After releasing the artfully understated alt-folk album “Half Way Home” in 2012, Olsen begins to experiment in earnest with her sound on her sophomore effort, “Burn Your Fire…” adding more rock elements and an almost symphonic sound that provides a nice foil to lyrics that are introspective and insightful.

This is a record that summons up a ball of moody darkness, fully immerses you in it, and then fires complex soundscapes across it to give all that negative space purpose. The result is a thick, echoing sound, across which Olsen’s high, evocative vocals cut through, giving us comfort. The lyrics may be more about doubt than certainty, but sometimes just knowing someone else is out there doubting is certainty enough.

The album’s opening track introduces this concept immediately. Even the song title, “Unfucktheworld,” suggests the combined concept of something that is wrong, but also that it can be fixed. While “Unfucktheworld” could easily be a larger geopolitical message, with Olsen’s intimate delivery, minor key and single resonant acoustic guitar, it feels much more intensely personal. Olsen evokes early Liz Phair here, albeit with more quaver and power in her voice. When she sings “I wanted nothing but for this to be the end” she sounds like a widowed bird, beautiful and tragic as it sings its grief.

This is immediately followed by the fuzz-rocked “Forgiven/Forgotten,” a rock anthem that channels the early sixties and then washes it in the dirty water of early nineties grunge. Olsen sings “I don’t know anything” over and over with a desperate questing urgency that shows that while she may be lost, she’s not giving up.

With its haunting guitar riff, and descending melody “White Fire” reminded me strongly of Leonard Cohen around his “Songs of Love and Hate” period; stark and introspective. Here, Olsen shows her vocal acumen through restraint, singing in a half-whisper, low and breathy and full of doubt.

A lot of the songs on “Burn Your Fire…” have simple guitar riffs that would be nothing notable on their own, but Olsen knows how to combine them with bass, a bit of feedback and a vocal style that fills already thoughtful lyrics with even more gravitas.

Halfway through the album, “Lights Out” is the hopeful anthem you need to sustain your spirits for the rest of the journey; a shaft of light into the darkness right when you aren’t sure which way to turn. This is a song about putting aside your self-loathing, finding whatever strength you’ve got left, and building around it. Or as Olsen sings it:

“Just when you thought you would turn all your lights out, it shines
Some days all you need is one good thought strong in your mind.”

Lights Out” is quiet in places, but this quiet deliberate pace only serves to further highlight the inspirational message as Olsen’s voice climbs up the melody, strong and vulnerable.

This theme is revisited at the end of the record with “Windows,” an uplifting number of hope and support. Olsen’s vocals are ethereal and haunting as she gently chides us to open a window sometime, repeating the simple and insistent question “what’s so wrong with the light?” until you feel foolish that you ever chose the dark in the first place.

I often think that having a positive outlook is a lot like choosing to turn the light on before finding your way around a room. With the lights on, all the furniture becomes obvious and easy to navigate around. Things you are looking for are easily found. Leave that light off, and you will instead stumble into things in the dark, skinning your knees, and grope blindly for things that are already easily within reach.

You can’t make people turn on that light and you shouldn’t judge those that haven’t done it too harshly, because it’s a hard thing to do. I know because I’ve lived with it off too, and finding that damned light switch can be the hardest search of all. I’m not sure you can teach people to find it, but a song like “Windows” is about as good a clue as you’ll find. Just open your heart and let Angel Olsen’s voice guide you there. Such is the power of great music.

“Burn Your Fire For No Witness” is a subtle record that requires a close listen. If you want to have music to gab over while you play Parcheesi this isn’t the album for you. Instead do yourself a favour, and give this one a listen on headphones in a darkened room. Then, get up, let in the light, and get on with your day.

Best tracks: Unfucktheworld, Forgiven/Forgotten, High & Wild, Lights Out, Stars, Windows

Thursday, June 1, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1013: Elvis Costello

With my work week over early, I am looking forward to some extended time off. I can already feel a mixture of content and weariness seeping into my bones. Maybe I’ll take a celebratory nap. But first, I’ll write a music review!

Disc 1013 is…When I Was Cruel
Artist: Elvis Costello

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? Something very troubling. Am I supposed to know what these creatures are? Are they some famous piece of pop art, or just a meaningless piece of kitsch? I have no idea, I just know their vacant alien stares fill me with dread. And those hands! Those hands! Why do they have to be so…tiny?

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album for Sheila around the time it came out, likely for a birthday or Christmas gift. I knew she liked Elvis Costello so I bought this on the chance it would be good and because it met my criterion of only buying her music I wouldn’t ordinarily buy for myself (because otherwise, isn’t it just a gift for me?).

How It Stacks Up:  Although Elvis Costello has almost thirty studio albums all we have is this one and a greatest hits package. We used to have “The Juliet Letters” but it got reviewed and sold long ago for being…not good. “When I Was Cruel” is much better.

Ratings: 3 stars

Elvis Costello is one of those artists that just exudes artistic endeavor. Whether early or late in his career you always get the impression he is looking for the next musical frontier. While I’ve never loved him the way his talent deserves (or his ego craves), I enjoyed listening to “When I Was Cruel.” It is an underappreciate record with a lot of god stuff going on.

This is one of those obscure later-career records that is primarily in the collections of hardcore Costello fans, who are likely to reference it at parties with “It isn’t as famous as his early stuff, but it is an amazing album you just have to have.” I am known to make similar comments about certain Blue Oyster Cult or Alice Cooper records.

I have never waxed poetic about Elvis Costello, but I like him and “When I Was Cruel” explores a lot of concepts. The album fuses jazz, new wave, punk and pop into a mélange of sound that stretches the record pretty thin, but never quite loses its cohesiveness.

The record starts with “45,” a semi-autobiographical tale where Costello describes two people meeting in 1945 in the euphoria of victory following the Second World War, and nine years later giving birth to a son (Costello was born in 1954). He then cleverly twists the 45 metaphor into the child’s early love of music, bought back in the early sixties on 45 singles. The echoing refrain of “45” grounds the song through the images, drawing you on a single thread through the years with the repetition of metaphor. Costello even toys with the gun image the number conjures up, but the song is really about one boy’s love affair with music. It’s a tale with which I can relate. My first two 45s were John Cougar’s “Jack and Diane” and Steve Miller Band’s “Abracadabra.” I’ve still got them both.

This is followed up with “Spooky Girlfriend” which is more playful than spooky, leaving you with the impression that Elvis has his tongue firmly in his cheek. The jazz-style drum and bass lends a lounge singer quality to the song. The bass line in particular is delightfully intricate, dancing around in the back of the mix, and occasionally coming to the fore only to shyly slip back as soon as you notice it.

When I Was Cruel 2” has some bizarre time signature that I’m too much of a neophyte to tease out. I actually think it has two time signatures going: one for the main tune and one for a woman sexily singing “un” over and over. Costello really gets how to use syncopation in pop music, and “When I Was Cruel 2” is one of the better examples of it. This record manages to play with jazz structures throughout, without causing me the usual frustration I feel when this happens.

Alibi” is a high point of the record, a song that is almost seven minutes long but flies by. In many ways this song is more like early Elvis Costello, but he’s adopted some of his new softer jazz edges into it without losing the magic of his original formula. It is an example of an artist growing, while not being afraid to show his roots.

The production is thick and rich and there are places where I wished there was a bit less echo, but maybe that would have just made the songs sound too sparse.

My biggest challenge with Costello is his voice, which I have never really liked. It is too thick in the middle and too sparse around the edges, and it always feels like he’s shaking his head pretentiously when he sings in the back of his throat, even though I’m sure he’s not.

Also, at 15 tracks and 62 minutes, “When I Was Cruel” is a tad too long. It could benefit from losing about three songs and 12 minutes.

The album ends with the atmospheric – almost electronic – “Radio Silence” featuring ghostly guitar reverbs and Costello singing high in his range (which I was surprised to find I preferred). It is a song that can’t help but evoke his early hit “Radio Radio,” as Costello explores the artistic process and the dangerous journey of creation that can lead equally to success or failure.

“When I Was Cruel” doesn’t always succeed, but it isn’t afraid to walk the road and see where it leads. For the most part, it led me to a surprisingly thoughtful and innovative record that I should put on more often.

Best tracks: 45, Spooky Girlfiend, When I Was Cruel No. 2, Dust 2…, Alibi, Radio Silence