Friday, April 21, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 996: Sarah Jarosz

I woke up today feeling a bit out of sorts but I then spent a lovely afternoon visiting with friends, and wandering around town. Along the way I picked up some music (the new album from the Wooden Sky). Now my mood has wholly shifted and the world seems full of fresh promise and hope. Good friends and good music have that effect on me.

Disc 996 is…Follow Me Down
Artist: Sarah Jarosz

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Someone has taken a perfectly good Giant Head cover and wrecked it. Somehow Jarosz still comes off looking beautiful, despite the unfortunate face-schism.

How I Came To Know It: I fell down a Youtube well. I was investigating another bluegrass singer named Aoife O’Donovan.  Aoife O’Donovan didn’t quite grab me enough to delve into her collection, but “Oh Mama” is one hell of a beautiful song nonetheless. While checking out that song and a few others, I found a duet of O’Donovan and Jarosz singing “Some Tyrant” – which is also great.

This led me to a trio of women (Jarosz, O’Donovan and Sara Watkins) collectively known as “I’m With Her” where I was once again struck by Jarosz’ talent. When I heard her sing Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” I knew I had to learn more about her, eventually leading me to “Follow Me Down” and her whole discography besides.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three of Jarosz’ four solo albums. I’m only missing 2009’s “Song Up In Her Head” which I don’t really want. Of the three I have this is the first one I feel I have fully grokked, but from what I know of the other two they are slightly better, so I must reluctantly put “Follow Me Down” in third place.

Ratings: 3 stars

Some artists just ooze with talent, and Sarah Jarosz is one of those people. While “Follow Me Down” feels in places like she is still finding her voice as a songwriter, the vocals and exceptional musicianship she brings to the table are impossible to ignore.

Jarosz plays mandolin, octave mandolin (a bigger mandolin that is an octave deeper than a regular mandolin), clawhammer banjo and guitar with equal talent. She’s just one of those people guitar hacks like me want to hate, because in her hands any instrument is a natural extension of her soul, given voice. Vocally, she ranges from breathy and mysterious to rich and full depending on what best serves in the moment.

This is what drew me to her initially, and hearing her play Bob Dylan’s “Ring Them Bells” on the octave mandolin was a revelation. Not only is the mandolin on this track breathtaking, but the vocals that Jarosz delivers on this exceptional and inspirational track are so full and rich that I think my heart is going to burst. Whenever this song comes on my face twists into some painful rapture, and my head sways involuntarily with the rhythm. I’m surprised no one called an ambulance thinking I was having a stroke.

I would have bought “Follow Me Down” just for “Ring Them Bells” and been happy, but the rest of the album is also solid. Jarosz brings together a talented group of bluegrass musicians to play alongside her, and understands that this style of music works best when everyone gets a chance to shine. The first instrumental “Old Smitty” follows the traditional ‘take turns playing a solo’ approach and the second instrumental “Peace” has Jarosz play lead on mandolin throughout, with flourishes of violin and flute helping punctuate the emotional high points. Both songs work equally well. Jarosz wrote both of these pieces and they sound both timeless and unique, just like a good folk song should.

There are also smooth pseudo-jazz and pop elements married into the more traditional bluegrass sound, with generally good results. “Come Around” has a restless energy and some brave melodic choices that pay off, with Jarosz singing in an almost lounge style over top of some first rate mandolin riffs.

The Tourist” tries a similar tack, with a slower tempo which for me lost the energy it needed to marry the two sounds as successfully. “My Muse” does a better job of keeping it slow and meaningful but even here the lack of a hook beyond the refrain at the end of each section, the song takes a bit of active listening to unlock its secrets. This isn’t a bad thing, but it does mean you need to be in the right frame of mind.

Another bright spot is Jarosz’ reinterpretation of Edgar Allen Poe’s poem, “Annabelle Lee.” Jarosz rearranges and rewrites the tale of love and borderline necrophilia to serve the restless energy of the clawhammer banjo, without losing any of the creepiness necessary for the story to work. The ominous violin and cello in the mix helps the whole thing feel suitably ghostly.

This record is subtle in revealing itself to you, and gets better with repeat listens. Put on in the background (as I first heard it) and it is a little too subtle for its own good. These are not hook-laden pop songs, and you need to commit yourself to an active listen for best results. On my first round, on a bus with my head full of work, I found myself coming in and out of it, but last night walking home from town with a couple of pints in my system the subtle emotion hit me a lot harder.

One thing is certain: getting to know “Follow Me Down” makes me excited to do the same deep delving with the other two Sarah Jarosz albums I have.

Best tracks: Come Around, Annabelle Lee, Ring Them Bells, My Muse

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 995: Patty Griffin

I'm not feeling great tonight after watching my Boston Bruins lose again, and falling behind 3-1 in our playoff series with the Ottawa Senators. Being a sports fan can be hard on the spirit.

I had a lovely weekend, though and got a lot of music listening in. I did things other than just walking and painting while I listened though, so while I enjoyed a lot of music it wasn’t reviewable (see Rule #4 to the right).

But now we’re back on track, so here’s another music review for your reading pleasure.

Disc 995 is…American Kid
Artist: Patty Griffin

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? This is an 1880 photo entitled “Charley, a slave boy from New Orleans”. Charley is showing remarkable patriotism considering its 17 years after the Emancipation Proclamation and he’s still a slave boy. If it were me I’d be asking the photographer to please take the negative to the local police since slavery is frickin’ illegal!

How I Came To Know It: I have been a fan of Patty Griffin for many years, and this was just me buying her new album when it came out and hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 7 of Patty Griffin’s 9 albums. I’m only without 1998’s “Flaming Red” and her 2010 gospel album, “Downtown Church.” I’m not missing either one, though; I just don’t want them. Of the 7 I have, I rank “American Kid” a respectable fourth.

Ratings: 4 stars

I hadn’t given this album much thought in the last couple of years. It recently captured the attention of my guitar teacher, Josh and while I didn’t just pull it down and review it – how would that be random? – when I rolled it I was intrigued to see what had caught his attention.

The first thing was the guitar work (there’s a shocker), and it is true that Patty Griffin is a gifted acoustic guitar player, who knows how to get a lot of layers of emotion out of her instrument. The same goes for her voice, which is as big and bold as ever on “American Kid”.

Griffin’s vocals burst out of her like every breath is breaking some pressure seal, but despite the explosion of sound she manages to sound smooth and controlled. There aren’t many people that can range around as much as she does and never feel pitchy. When she is off, she’s deliberately a little sharp in just the right places to evoke a little hurt. I’ll never understand how she is more famous for selling her songs to other artists (notably the Dixie Chicks) than for recording them herself.

As ever, Griffin has a talent for painting complex character studies with her music. On “Faithful Son” a man prays to God about a life lost to empty promises and a life of toil with little reward. Griffin cleverly paints this portrait with the details that are missing: what is the promise that held the man in place? Was it the quiet desperation of a man who married, had children, and never felt he found his true place in the world, or was it some lonely man who never had wife or kids? What matters is the lonely emptiness that Griffin paints in the man’s heart. He’s kept his promises to his God, but at the expense of any joy for himself. Also, the guitar work on this song is pretty dynamite.

Later Griffin will tell a more concrete tale of a soldier with PTSD on “Not a Bad Man” that reminds you the next time you see an old drunk lying on the road he isn’t just a stranger – he’s someone who may have a perfectly legitimate reason for being so broken.

It’s not all sadness and gloom, though. “Mom & Dad’s Waltz” is a happy tale of the duty we owe to our parents, and “Get Ready Marie” is a humorous song about a randy bridegroom, who gets drunk at his own wedding but still ends up with a playful and enduring love.

The album has the sad and thoughtful goodbyes of various kinds, including relationships on the rocks (“That Kind of Lonely”), soft songs of departure that hold the promise of a future reunion (“Highway Song”) and the more permanent farewell of death (“Ohio”).

Highway Song” is a duet with co-writer Robert Plant who continues his exploration of American folk music. It is a beautiful vocal performance where Plant blends his voice effortlessly with Griffin’s. I’d say Plant missed his musical calling except, you know, the whole Led Zeppelin thing also worked out pretty well.

My favourite song on the record is “That Kind of Lonely” which on an album full of variations on saying goodbye, is the most poignant. Griffin uses the image of a party that went on too long as the metaphor for a relationship ending:

“Every strand has come unwound
Every heart is all worn down
Everyone in this room wanted
To be somewhere else
So tonight I’ll find the key
And drive away a little early
It’s the last time I wanna be
That kind of lonely.”

Overall, the record has a stripped down production that serves the music beautifully, and lets Griffin’s vocals and guitar both shine in the mix. I didn’t fully appreciate this album when I first bought it, but it is fair to say I’ve come around.

Best tracks: Go Wherever You Wanna Go, Ohio, Faithful Son, Highway Song, 

Friday, April 14, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 994: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Greetings, gentle readers! The long weekend has finally come and it is most welcome indeed. I am feeling a little worn out and a few days off is just the thing I need. Let’s start it off with a music review!

Disc 994 is…The Calling
Artist: Mary Chapin Carpenter

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? Mary Chapin Carpenter, looking contemplative. For some reason this pose reminds of a knight standing at ease, his sword resting easy. Carpenter’s sword is a guitar, of course.

How I Came To Know It: I told the story back at Disc 946 of how I first was introduced to Carpenter, so you can read that tragic tale of unrequited love there. “The Calling” it was a trio of later albums I bought while exploring her more recent work.

How It Stacks Up:  Of my eight Mary Chapin Carpenter albums, “The Calling” falls last. However there is no shame in that; Carpenter has 14 studio albums, so “The Calling” is ahead of six others I decided not to buy at all.

Ratings: 2 stars

I’m generally a glass half full kind of guy. I say this so that you’ll know I feel conflicted when I say that “The Calling” is just a bit too upbeat and positive. There isn’t enough of that in the world, but here all the love, understanding and grace comes off a bit boring.

“The Calling” feels a little bit like that advice you get from that sweet old lady on your block when you’re a kid. The one with all the trite sayings like “things will all work out if you let them” and “everything happens for a reason,” usually delivered as she bent over you with her hands primly on the tops of her knees. That lady is nice enough, but even as a kid I knew that shit was some bad advice.

Songs like “Twilight” are supposed to be pastorals about the beauty of certain times of the day, but for me it felt like that aforementioned lady talking blandly about the weather (the favourite topic of people like that, when not giving unhelpful advice).

It doesn’t help that “The Calling” takes a lot of what makes Carpenter’s music so wonderful -  lilting, subtle melodies that grow gently into wistful stories about overcoming adversity – and strip out the hard edges that make those stories compelling.

The production, lush with guitar and piano is muted and soft, like the songs themselves seeming unwilling to offend. They aren’t afraid, they’re just content to deliver their messages in a nice easy flow. I wanted the waters to have a little more chop, to remind me I was on a journey. There are still songs about heartache and loss. “Closer and Closer Apart” is about an approaching breakup and “It Must Have Happened” hints at tough times in the narrator’s past. However, they didn’t pluck my heartstrings like they should have.

Despite this, Carpenter’s low, rich vocal performance is beautiful, and I found that I enjoyed hearing her sing even when the songs weren’t inspiring me. And I like that an artist can feel inspired about the human spirit overcoming and looking to the horizon with a healthy and hopeful attitude. I just wanted the obstacles to be better defined, so I’d enjoy Carpenter maneuvering her way around them more.

So I’ll be selling this record, right? Wrong. Because there are a couple song that when I heard it I knew I had to have it.

On With the Song” takes all that positive energy and focuses it like a knife on all the haters and prejudiced jerks that wrap themselves in the flag and smugly think they are the better for it. Carpenter calls out all those country music artists that take that jingoism and make commercially successful songs that feed those prejudices:

“This isn’t for the ones who blindly follow
Jingoistic bumper stickers telling you
To love it or leave it, and you’d better love Jesus
And get out of the way of the red, white and blue.”

Take that, Toby Keith. This song reminded me of John Prine singing “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore” but lest you think Carpenter is singling out America or Christians, she’s not. As anyone knows, America and Christianity are both full of wonderful, caring people. Carpenter’s target is intolerance.

She also acknowledges that haters are gonna hate and maybe even profit it from it, but that she won’t sit quietly while it happens. She ends the song with:

“This isn’t for you and you know who you are
So do what you want ‘cuz I know that you can
But I’ve got to be true to myself and to you
So on with the song, I don’t give a damn.”

By the end of the record, Carpenter starts to give a more compelling voice to her optimism. On “Why Shouldn’t We” she invokes the names of God, Buddha and Allah as inspiration that the world can be better place. As she notes:

“We believe in things
We’re told that we cannot change
Why shouldn’t we
We had heroes once, and we will again
Why shouldn’t we.”

Why Shouldn’t We” is full of inspirational piano licks that made my heart swell with hope that humanity is going to be alright after all. By the end of this record, Carpenter’s optimism wore me down and gave me a little appreciation for all that schmaltz at the beginning. Or put another way, that friendly lady down the street when you were a kid probably had her fair share of heartache too. But she put that aside so she could deliver a little comfort to some neighbourhood kids. And why shouldn’t she?

So while this album misses the mark a lot, it did enough to convince me to keep it. My cup doesn’t runneth over, but it’s half full.

Best tracks: The Calling, On With the Song, Why Shouldn’t We

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 993: Nikki Lane

I’m in my first hockey pool in many years. I idiotically picked way too many Boston Bruins so I probably won’t win, but at least I won’t have divided loyalties while I’m watching the games.

Speaking of which – Boston wins our opener 2-1! 15 wins to go…

Disc 993 is…Highway Queen
Artist: Nikki Lane

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? This looks like a country farm version of that iconic moment in the movie Titanic. Instead of shouting “King of the World!” I assume Nikki will shout “I’m Queen of the Highway!” Or maybe she’s trying to get that steer to move. If so she should get some help, or find a smaller steer.

How I Came To Know It: I liked both of Nikki Lane’s earlier albums, so when I heard there was a new one out I checked it out on Youtube. I liked it enough to buy it as well.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Nikki Lane albums. I like all of them about equally and for slightly different reasons. “Highway Queen” feels a bit more mature – particularly in vocal delivery – but it is also a bit too mainstream. Because I like the more genre bending elements of her earlier efforts, I’m going to put it at number three. It is still a solid record and just as good as earlier efforts, just a little different.

Ratings: 3 stars

After two very bluesy alternative country albums, “Highway Queen” finds Nikki Lane driving a bit more down the middle of country. There are still flourishes here and there that demonstrate she’s more than just a run-of-the-mill Nashville country act, but she embraces Nashville sounds more than she has on previous albums.

Despite the many bad things I’ve said about new Nashville music, “Highway Queen” shows you can use these sounds in a way that is interesting. While Lane walks dangerously close to the line of Nu Country, she never tips over into the obvious. If anything, she shows that there are ways to use these melodic structures and “yeehaw!” attitudes and still make interesting music.

The opening track, “700,000 Rednecks” comes perilously close to going wrong. It is a catchy song but it also feels like it is trying just a little too hard for a hit. However, after this the album settles into some up tempo country classics, with just the right touch of rock and roll to let you know Lane hasn’t lost her edge.

The album has a celebratory feel. Despite some songs that are clearly reflective of broken hearts and bad decisions (this is country music, after all), it is clear that Nikki is having a good time, and happy to bring us along for the ride.

Jackpot” is a Las Vegas song of excess telling one of the records several bad relationship songs, but it is done with such joie de vivre you get the sense the journey wasn’t all bad. As Lane admits, “life ain’t been too hard/Since you ran away from me.

Companion” shows Lane’s willingness to stretch the genre, ending with a doo wop chorus that would fit on some bubble gum hit from the fifties. It is an homage to an earlier sound, skillfully updated for the present. Later “Send the Sun” has a seventies a.m. radio feel that shows you how that swaying, finger-snapping beat (minus actual finger snapping) from the fifties translates well into styles twenty years later and into the present day as well. Listening to these songs I got the strong impression that Lane understands and respects the music that came before.

Big Mouth” is a great “keep my name out of your mouth” song, with a rolling rock riff and a defiant Lane making it clear that she doesn’t enjoy the rumours some gossipmonger has been spreading about her.

The girlish vocal delivery present in some songs on earlier records is mostly gone as well. Lane’s voice on these songs remains playful where it is called for, but there is a worldly wise quality and a willingness to finish each line with conviction that lends the gravitas to these songs that they need.

The production decisions are also solid, if a bit obvious. The instruments are nice and even in the mix. While there isn’t anything special, Lane and co-producer Jonathan Tyler seem to understand that their job is to stand back and let the songs work their magic.

The record ends strong, with a couple of somber tracks, “Muddy Waters” and “Forever Lasts Forever.” The latter song is a heartwrenching tale of love gone wrong, with some classically country twists of phrase, like:

“The only ring left on my finger
Is a lighter shade of skin”

The album is only 10 songs and 36 minutes long so it doesn’t take long to feel like it is an old friend. This is a solid effort from an artist that deserves a lot more credit than she’s getting from the Nashville establishment. Not being recognized by them is more of a badge of honour anyway.

Best tracks: Highway Queen, Big Mouth, Muddy Waters, Forever Lasts Forever

Monday, April 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 992: Tchaikovsky

Monday has arrived and the Odyssey isn’t going to write itself, so let’s get to it.

Disc 992 is…Tchaikovsky Box Set Disc 5 (of 5)
Artist: Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky

Year of Release: 1875 through 1892

What’s up with the Cover? Not much. Pytor’s portrait oversees the stately business of the album’s contents. He doesn’t smile but that doesn’t mean he isn’t happy; no one smiled for photos back then.

How I Came To Know It: Back in university I decided to get into classical music and quickly gravitated to Tchaikovsky. I bought this box set because it was reasonably priced and the folks in the A&B Sound’s classical department said it was a good recording.

Yes, there was a time when music stores were so plentiful there were entire sections dedicated to different types of music, and folks working in them that knew their stuff.

How It Stacks Up:  This is not an album so much as a “best of” compilation of three operas. Consequently, it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: I shouldn’t rate this at all since it is only sampling from three operas, but I’ll give it 4 stars overall since I created the precedent on previous discs from the same box set.

At last we reach the end of a journey begun back at Disc 9 when I reviewed the first of this five disc box set of the incomparable Tchaikovsky. I can safely say that over 900 reviews later I still know next to nothing about classical music but I know what I like and I like this guy plenty.

What I don’t like is that this album is only “excerpts” from the three ballets in question. Sure the excerpts are fairly extensive (maybe 25 minutes of each one) but I feel like I am missing out. So following are my thoughts on the parts of these operas that EMI has deemed to consider important from these famous works of art.

Swan Lake, Op. 20 (composed 1875-76)

I listened to this opera while walking home from downtown on Saturday afternoon and at the risk of overselling it, it felt like the music carried me all the way to my door step. “Swan Lake” is majestic, playful and pastoral and even a little creepy in places – but only just the right places.

There are parts of this tune that are instantly recognizable (doubt having been used for movies and commercials for decades) but none of it ever felt tired or overdone.

There were places that I thought I was in some enchanted forest, and in others it felt like I was in some stately throne room, sunlight streaming through stained glass windows onto a massive marble floor. Listening to this music everything just felt bigger and more important.

It made me want to run out and buy the full opera, but I’m a little afraid it will wreck my experience. I’ve never been to the ballet (I’ve been to two operas and I’m not a big fan) but if anything was going to get me to the ballet, “Swan Lake” is it. 5 stars.

The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66 (composed 1889)

My reaction to “Sleeping Beauty” wasn’t quite so amazing. Given that the Tchaikovsky opera was made in the nineteenth century and based off the Brothers Grimm version, I was excited to have some of the creepy dark fairy tale magic of the original tale.

Instead the opera felt whimsical and lighthearted. Frankly, it reminded me more of the 1959 Disney version. “Sleeping Beauty” is probably the best of those early Disney animations but it is still a bit schlocky for my tastes.

Tchaikovsky’s brilliance as a composer comes across well, but I didn’t feel engaged emotionally like I was with “Swan Lake”. Maybe it was the selective editing process by the Soulless Record Execs at EMI, but this one just didn’t grab me. 3 stars.

The Nutcracker, Op. 71 (composed 1892)

If “Swan Lake” was a revelation and “Sleeping Beauty” was a disappointment, “The Nutcracker” was somewhere in between.

It isn’t like there isn’t anything to get a hold of here – this thing is the top 40 hit machine of the 1890s, with earworms a-plenty. Maybe that’s the problem, though. “The Nutcracker” is like that song that was too big of a hit. You’ve heard it a thousand times and you’re just a little sick of it now. Like Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” or anything by Duran Duran. Yes, screw you, Duran Duran.

What “The Nutcracker” needs is to be shelved for a decade or two, but instead it gets hauled out every Christmas for another round. Brilliant composition? No doubt, but there is so much other stuff by Tchaikovsky I would rather play. Some of it even features cannons; something I wish I had handy whenever I hear the dance of the sugar plum fairy.  A begrudging 3 stars.

Overall I still love Tchaikovsky and while I don’t put him on that often, that is more a function of my belief that classical music is best enjoyed in its entirety, while sitting quietly in a dark room. It is complex stuff and it is worth your full attention.

On those rare occasions when I do choose to have a listen, it is usually something from Discs 1-4 of this set, despite the brilliance that is “Swan Lake”.

Best tracks: Swan Lake 

Saturday, April 8, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 991: The Pack A.D.

After two disappointing reviews in a row, I’ve finally broken my losing streak.

Disc 991 is…Funeral Mixtape
Artist: The Pack A.D.

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? Pack A.D. band mates Maya Miller and Becky Black relax in a graveyard, no doubt enjoying the titular funeral mixtape on that ghetto blaster sitting between them. I’ve got a bit of skill myself at making mixtapes, and this cover (and album title) inspires me to make one for my funeral. My funeral mixtape would include Frank Sinatra’s “My Way,” Stan Rogers’ “Barrett’s Privateer’s” and Crash Test Dummies’ “At My Funeral.” I haven’t thought much beyond those three songs.

How I Came To Know It: Last fall my friend Nick asked if I was interested in going to see the Pack A.D. in concert. I didn’t know who the Pack A.D. were so I checked them out on Youtube and liked what I heard. I mean I really liked what I heard. Over the next three weeks I bought three of their albums. “Funeral Mixtape” was one of them.

You’ll be glad to know this album is available on both compact disc and vinyl. I have no idea if it is available on cassette tape and frankly, I don’t understand the recent fascination with that format. Take it from a guy with some experience in this matter, hipsters: cassette tapes suck.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have four Pack A.D. albums (I picked up the fourth from the merch table at the show in November). Of those four I put “Funeral Mixtape” in at third best. I like it a lot, it is just I like the two in front of it more.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Funeral Mixtape” is from early in the Pack A.D.’s career, but it already shows the band’s brilliance. Their mix of blues riffs and garage rock is well blended and although they are only a duo they make enough sound to wake the dead. So, you know, don’t have them play at a funeral; when people come back that way they come back…wrong.

If you are already living however, this music is a balm for any ennui or listlessness you may be experiencing. Rarely does rock and roll achieve this level of raw energy in the studio. Pack A.D. play with an enthusiasm you’d expect to only feel bouncing around in a mosh pit at one of their concerts (which I don’t recommend unless you are a hardy soul).

These songs have a more stripped down production than later albums that leans more heavily on traditional blues riffs than later records. Despite this, while the music is deferential to what came before, it never feels derivative. They know how to cool it in one portion of a song to let Becky Black’s grimy blues vocal stand out stark and alone, and then in the next bar leap into a furious clash of reverb guitar and high-hat heavy drum beats. Indie music could learn a lot from these women on how to generate restless energy in a clash of sound without losing the melody in the process. This stuff feels raw, but it never loses direction, and that’s important if you want a song and not just a bunch of noise.

Overall I liked the first half of the album slightly more, as it does more of what I’ve just described, whereas the second half is a bit more traditionally blues dressed up in garage rock clothes.

The album features a number of songs about the awkwardness of human communication. “Don’t Have To” is a great song that posits that if people do things you don’t like, then there isn’t some law where you have to pretend to like them. Of course in the real world there are times when compassion and understanding is called for, but this is rock and roll, where we can temporarily shed our social niceties and shout at some folks.

Making Gestures” has Black at her vocal best, sounding like part spoken word poet, part drunk as she rambles away about anxiety and the complexities of communicating with other people. If you need an outlet (and don’t want to actually shout at anyone), these songs are both solid therapy.

“Shiny Things” starts off about watching a bird picking at something that has caught it’s attention, and ends with people rubbernecking a murder in the streets; a reminder that we are all a bit like birds, drawn to the peculiar and the grotesque like a bird to a shiny thing. Like a lot of Pack A.D.’s work, it seems on the surface to just be guitar-driven rock power, but under that layer there are lyrics that are slyly insightful.

While the more straightforward blues numbers are generally the weaker tracks for me, the exception is “Wolves and Werewolves.” Like when Creedence Clearwater Revival or the Rolling Stones does a classic blues cover so well it feels like their own, you can’t help but love it, “Wolves and Werewolves” feels immediately timeless. In fact, the Pack A.D. has a leg up on those rock legends in that they actually wrote the song.

“Funeral Mixtape” leaves little to quibble about, although I will point out that the song “Oh Be Joyful” would be better titled “O Be Joyful.” That is unless the band is just off-handedly reminding us as we go out the door to be joyful, in the same way you might ask someone to pick up a carton of milk while they’re at the store.

When that’s the best quibble you’ve got, though, you’ve got a good album on your hands.

Best tracks: Don’t Have To, Making Gestures, Shiny Things, Oh Be Joyful (sic), Wolves and Werewolves 

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 990: Dido

Earlier this week my book got rejected by another publisher, so last night I spent a bunch of time figuring out who I’m going to pitch it to next. I’m still tired from the experience. Writing books is a lot more fun than trying to get them published.

In the absence of getting someone to buy 80,000 of my words, I’ll provide the next 900 or so free of charge. I hope you enjoy.

Disc 990 is…No Angel
Artist: Dido

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? This cover feels like it was designed in MS Publisher over two hours and three glasses of white wine. Next time just have someone take a picture of you drinking the wine.

How I Came To Know It: This album was huge when it came out (#1 in multiple countries although inexplicably only #4 in Canada). Although I liked what I heard, I never got around to buying it until. Then about a year ago I saw it in a clearance bin for $1.99, at which point I figured it was worth a shot.

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

Ratings: 2 stars

Ah Dido Florian Cloud de Bounevialle O'Malley Armstrong, I feel we are star-crossed. If we had gotten to know each other back in 1999, things could have been different between us. “No Angel” isn’t a bad album; it just came to me a little late.

Back in 1999 I really dug Dido’s sound but for whatever reason I didn’t buy the record at the time. Instead, whenever Eminem’s “Stan” came on Much Music I would idly complain I preferred hearing the full version of Dido’s “Thank You” to a sample. I’ve since come around to a full and proper appreciation of both “Stan” and Eminem more generally and regret the casual judgments of my youth.

“No Angel” is very much of its time, with lush production that fills the room with a lot of ambient sound, deep drum sounds and a general feeling that you’re hearing the songs at night under deep water. “My Lover’s Gone” even samples seabirds in case the experience wasn’t obvious enough.

However, Dido does a good job of maximizing that sound and while it sounds dated in places, it also sounds good. Yes there is lots of atmospheric thumping and whumping, but it lays a nice background groove to the emotional power of Dido’s voice; low and sweet with a hint of ether around the edges that is just the right amount of dreamy.

The songs all have a smoky lounge quality to them, as if they were being played in one of those lounges that converts to a nightclub at 10 p.m. on the weekends. Dido is the last thing those places play before the switch, no doubt giving the old booze donkeys a jolt, and making the early arriving clubbers unsure if they are in the right place.

The album had two top ten hits, “Here With Me” and the aforementioned “Thank You”. Both are solid pop songs with a majestic energy that lands them comfortably midway between a ballad and a dance song. These are songs for swaying back and forth on a dance floor, hands on your partner’s hips or around their waist, depending on how well the evening seems to be going. Lyrically they are nothing to write home about, but combined with that blanket-of-sound production, some gently flowing melodies and Dido’s soulful delivery, they just feel right.

When I bought this album in the bargain bin, it was these two songs that I was thinking about, with the hopes that the album would have a few deep cuts that would pleasantly surprise me. Unfortunately, while the album is OK I didn’t have one of those “wow” moments during Side Two that makes me fall in love with an album. I’m not a “buy it just for the hits” kind of guy. I need a deeper commitment.

As deep cuts go “I’m No Angel” is pretty solid, despite some goofy drum machine action. It has a catchy Latin dance beat and Dido’s voice climbs up high in the register and shows off some casual power (I like that Dido sings beautifully while never feeling the need to show off with a bunch of vocal acrobatics).

My Lover’s Gone” is confessional and somber and reminded me a lot of Sarah McLachlan. Despite the aforementioned bird noises it is one of the stronger songs on the record, and feels as real as a thing can feel while making me think “this must be how elven music would sound!”

But the truth is the hits have been seriously overplayed over the years (note: not Dido’s fault) and the rest of the record comes to me at a time when I’m looking for something different. I was starting to get into the groove, but when I got home and was only halfway through the second listen I didn’t feel any particular need to keep going.

I just wasn’t feeling it but it isn’t you, Dido, it’s me. It’s just bad timing. I’m just not that into this album, and it’s time I send this CD along to someone who is.

Best tracks: Here With Me, Thank You, I’m No Angel 

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 989: The Kills

As I sit here writing this review there is a professional cleaner in my house cleaning my kitchen and bathroom, and vacuuming and tidying my living room. If you have never had someone else clean your house, it is pretty wonderful. If you have had someone else clean your house for years, then take a minute right now to reflect about how truly awesome that is, and how lucky you are.

OK – on to the review.

Disc 989 is…Ash & Ice
Artist: The Kills

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Two of the coolest things that involve ash and ice: a volcano and a martini. Personally, I prefer my martini with a twist of lemon over an olive, but a martini is a martini.

As for my volcanoes, I prefer them dormant when I’m climbing around on them and furiously erupting with lava when I am a safe distance away. Perspective is everything.

How I Came To Know It: I have been a fan of the Kills for years, so this was just me buying their new album on faith when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all five of the Kills’ studio albums. Of those five I must reluctantly put “Ash & Ice” in last – and not just because of the use of the ampersand in the title (although that never helps).

Ratings: 2 stars

“Ash & Ice” sees the Kills add a bit of eighties reverb and drum machine to their signature garage rock sound. While I liked that the band is growing their sound a little, the result didn’t appeal to me as much as their earlier records.

As with many of their records, the Kills are a band that make garage music where the beat is king. Groovy drum licks define most of the songs, and while the guitar makes the sound flower, it is the rhythm section that is the vase that holds everything together.

It helps to have Alison Mosshart on lead vocals. Her bluesy growl drives the energy of the songs at the top end and she has a sixth sense for knowing when to cut loose and when to just let the groove flow for a while. While she almost always settles down in the middle of the pocket she does it in a way that makes you feel like she’s restless, and ready to break out at any moment. It is this rebellious tension that gives these relatively basic songs the energy they need to thrive.

In places on “Ash & Ice” Mosshart adopts a bit more of a pop sensibility, with some sweetness creeping into her tone. This is evident on both the opening track “Doing it to Death” and the final one, “Whirling Eye”.

Both those songs have heavy eighties New Wave influences, as well as some drumbeats that sounded suspiciously artificial. If they weren’t made on a drum machine, they were made with the sound a drum machine in mind. I am not a fan of the drum machine.

Both also have coquettish “oh oh oh” singing in the background that would be more at home on a Kylie Minogue album. I have nothing against Kylie Minogue – she’s pretty cool, actually – but that kind of production in the middle of a Kills album felt out of place. Worse, the artificiality at the front of some of the songs made my ear start picking it out on other tracks where it is more in the background, reducing my enjoyment of those ones as well.

The Kills have always had a talent for heartbreaking ballads on otherwise rocking albums, and “Ash & Ice” delivers a good one with “That Love.” A stripped down song featuring a lone piano and Mosshart giving the sad news:

“It’s over now
It’s over now
That love you’re in
Is all fucked up.”

It is heartbreaking and unlike a lot of singers, Mosshart knows how to use a swear word with the right mix of vitriol and casualness that is the key to making such words work. Swear like you mean it, but also like you’ve done it before. “That Love” is a powerful and raw song and was almost enough all on its own for me to keep this record. Almost.

The other strong track, “Heart of a Dog” is vintage Kills, with its pounding beat, sparse riffs and reverb. This song has a bit of techno-drum at the beginning, but it quickly develops into a ballsy rock song, layering three or four complementary riffs that cycle around like sharks in chum-filled water.

Sadly, the album is too much chum and not enough shark. A lot of the other tracks made me wishing I could put on an early Kills album that was a bit more raw and real. This isn’t a bad album, but I had to ask myself how often I was going to play it. Even when I am keen to hear the Kills when I go to that section of the collection, will I pull out “Ash & Ice” or will my hand pass over it and land instead on “Keep on Your Mean Side” or “Blood Pressures”. Probably the latter.

Add in the backdrop of a quickly diminishing amount of space to store all this damned music (yes, I cling stubbornly to physical media) and I need to make tough decisions. Today’s tough decision is to part with “Ash & Ice” and send it on to a good home only sixth months after I welcomed it into mine.

Best tracks: Heart of a Dog, That Love, Impossible Tracks

Sunday, April 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 988: Gang Starr

I am in the middle of a delightfully relaxing weekend, chilling out with my lovely wife and watching the world go by. It was exactly what I needed.

I even found time for a small CD shop. I bought four albums: the new Shovels & Rope album, the new Aimee Mann album, as well as old seventies albums by John Prine and Heart. I’ll talk about those when I roll ‘em.

Disc 988 is…Moment of Truth
Artist: Gang Starr

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover? Guru and DJ Premier approach the bench. Presumably the judge is explaining that a tour shirt is not appropriate attire for the court room. Also everything is bathed in a golden light. Is the courtroom under some curious enchantment or am I having a stroke? Does anyone else smell toast?

How I Came To Know It: I already knew Gang Starr and thought I had enough of their music to be happy when my friend Patrick sent me a Youtube clip of the song “The Militia”. When I heard it, I knew I had to have whatever album it was on. This was it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Gang Starr albums, which is all of them. Of those six, I put “Moment of Truth” fifth.

Ratings: 2 stars

“Know when to say when” is an expression that was temporarily forgotten in the heyday of the compact disc. All of a sudden artists had a format that could hold 80 minutes of music and were determined to use it. Songs that should have been cut and left on the studio floor started making it onto albums. Gang Starr is a repeat offender of this failure to edit, and “Moment of Truth” is this tendency at its worst.

I’ve gone on about album length many times in the past, but that’s because it is important. Overly long albums are hard to focus on, and almost always have weak and self-indulgent selections. There is plenty of good music on “Moment of Truth” but like a clogged artery, it is made less efficient because of all the musical congestion. This album has 20 songs and is 78 minutes long. If you aren’t “The Wall” or “London Calling” there is a good chance this is a mistake.

In addition to songs that are forgettable, “Moment of Truth” also wastes time with skits and rants. This includes a series of phone messages from sexy women offering Guru support in the wake of his arrest for gun possession (as well as a song “JFK 2 LAX” about the same topic). Both the song and the skit should go.

Later Guru spits some invective at other rappers who reveal where Gang Starr is getting samples. “Moment of Truth” came out in the era where you were legally required to pay to sample other songs, which has severely limited the way the art form has evolved – and not for the better. While I share Guru’s sentiment I’d rather listen to music, not a long diatribe about not being a fink.

For all these complaints, I still enjoyed this album. If some rap is for dancing, some for driving and some for having a party, “Moment of Truth” is rap for chillin’ out. The sound is heavily influenced by jazz and 70s smooth and the beats are laid back and slow. Guru’s rhymes take their time unfolding, focusing on smooth cadence over furiously packing a lot of rhymes into a single line.

Also this album features one of my favourite rap songs of all time, “The Militia.” A classic “we rap better than you” track, “The Militia” has a funky R&B guitar sample, and some sweet scratching from DJ Premier. The song is a collaboration of a number of artists, including Big Shug and Freddie Foxxx. When Freddie Foxxx takes the mic at the end and starts spitting about delivering beat downs (through both his raps and his fists) it is one of rap’s great moments.

Thematically, the album covers a lot of ground, including the pressures of maintaining the rap lifestyle (even when it can be unhealthy) as well as the importance of working hard if you want to succeed at the rap game. I’ve always admired the positive messages that wind through Gang Starr albums. Behind all the requisite references to guns and girls, Gang Starr is a self-examined bunch. As they say on the title track:

“Don’t even feel like drinking or even getting high
‘Cause all that’s gonna do really is accelerate
The anxieties I wish I could alleviate.”

Not many rappers would admit that they are avoiding drinking and drugs, and later in this song Guru doubles down, eschewing violence as well:

I’m ready to lose my mind but instead I use my mind
I put down the knife and take the bullets out of my nine
My only crime was that I’m too damned kind
And now some scandalous Motherf___s wanna take what’s mine
But they can’t take the respect that I’ve earned in my lifetime
And you know they’ll never stop the furious force of my rhymes.”

Not many rappers would be brave enough to talk this way, but Guru not only does so, he manages to sound tough at the same time. His rhymes are powerful enough to protect him all on their own.

Unfortunately, these messages are spread through a massive and sprawling album that threatens to drown them in a sea of less compelling songs. Less is more, Gang Starr.

Best tracks: You Know My Steez, Moment of Truth, B.I. vs. Friendship, the Militia

Thursday, March 30, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 987: Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

Spring was in the air today as I walked home. Cherry trees blossomed and the sun felt like it might soon be sufficiently bold to kick winter to the curb for good. Well, for six months or so anyway.

Disc 987 is…Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions
Artist: Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? The ladies look like they are part of a wedding party – a super-hot wedding party!

Later they’ll stand gracefully beside the bride in a garden photo shoot. The bride will have a strained smile on her face as she wonders why she told the bridesmaids to wear white, and how much better Emmylou and Linda look in it than she does. Later she’ll blame the maid of honour for a night on the town the previous evening that left bags under her eyes, then get too drunk at the reception and fall in the hotel fountain.

I have a vivid imagination.

How I Came To Know It: I just bought this album in the last couple of months. I think my coworker Sam alerted me to it and a used copy coincidentally showed up a few weeks later.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one album with this particular pairing but I have three Emmylou Harris albums where she partners up with another singer. Of the three, “Western Wall” is about even with her Rodney Crowell collaboration, “Old Yellow Moon” but behind “All the Road Running” with Mark Knopfler.

Ratings: 3 stars

What’s better than one of country music’s most defining voices? Two of those voices, of course! On “Western Wall: The Tucson Sessions” CD Odyssey frequent flier Emmylou Harris teams up with fellow chanteuse (and Odyssey newcomer) Linda Ronstadt to take some great songs and make them their own.

Emmylou is famous for the sheer volume of her collaborations. She is so prolific she has five separate Wikipedia pages cataloguing them all. Seriously, check it out. With her emotive quaver and natural airy range, Emmylou can make anyone sound good: Bob Dylan, Guy Clark, you name it – and that’s just from the A-F section of the Wiki pages.

So when she teams up with Linda Ronstadt, with her power, range and thick rich tone, good things are going to happen. Together, the two women sing duets, sometimes taking turns on the verses, sometimes blending into harmony where both the richness and the quaver find a delightful balance. This is candy for the ears.

Access to material was obviously not an issue, either, because “Western Wall” is packed with famous songwriters ‘lending’ their tunes. The album features songs written by Jackson Browne, Roseanne Cash, Sinead O’Connor, Leonard Cohen, the McGarrigle Sisters, Bruce Springsteen and others.

Despite this august company, my favourite track is by lesser known Andy Prieboy. Harris and Ronstadt cover Prieboy’s “Loving the Highway Man,” which is about a woman who is ostracized for falling in with an outlaw. The song has amazing production. It mixes ethereal electric guitar, sweet but stark vocals and some well-placed percussion that emphasizes the frustration of the character’s bad decisions like a fist beating a wall.

As usual, Emmylou quietly slips in a couple songs of her own which are every bit the equal of the covers. “Raise the Dead” is a retrospective of Emmylou’s career (already long, and this was 17 years ago). It has a nice mix of bluegrass, country and rock tinges around the edge. Even Ronstadt wisely takes a back seat here and lets Emmylou tell the tale of the musicians that fell before her, and how she knows she’s trapped by the same calling until it’s her time to follow.

Not so good is Harris’ “Sweet Spot” (co-written with Jill Cunniff) which suffers from some very unfortunate production decisions, including a weird echo of some lines flashing only in the right speaker. It felt like my headphones were shorting out. When I realized it was on purpose it made it worse.

Sweet Spot” is also one of a number of songs on “Western Wall” that feel a bit too…motherly. On this track and Sinead O’Connor’s “This Is to Mother You” it sounds like the duo are going to bake you some cookies or bring you soup in bed. It is all just a little domestic. Worst of all, this vibe seeps into Leonard Cohen’s “Sisters of Mercy.” It was hard to hear two of my favourite vocalists take one of my favourite Cohen songs and trade its weary respite for a peace that felt just a little too perfect.

1917” is a nice juxtaposition to this vibe. It tells the story of a French woman having an affair with a soldier on leave from the front. The motherly concern is here as well, but it is intertwined with a steamy romance that is so intimate it is a little uncomfortable to listen to; like you are hearing something that should rightly be between the two lovers alone.

When “Western Wall” sticks the landing, it feels like magic. The musicians are top notch, and the production is sharp, clear and in service to the amazing voices of Ronstadt and Harris. When it misses, the production is overblown, leaving the vocals saccharine and trite. Overall, though, it hits a lot more than it misses, and when you have these two singers it is hard to go far wrong.

Best tracks: Lovin’ the Highway Man, Raise the Dead, For a Dancer, Western Wall, 1917