Saturday, January 21, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 960: Heart

You can’t always choose what you love. So if loving this record is wrong – and it probably is – I don’t want to be right.

This next review will make me sound very hypocritical, but I’m hoping to make up for it with embarrassing honesty. At least I know I shouldn’t like this stuff.

Disc 960 is….Self-Titled
Artist: Heart

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? Ah, Heart. You have my sympathies; the eighties were cruel on fashion. Ann Wilson looks like a wealthy dowager off to a company Christmas party, and Ann looks like she’s going to clean the house while she’s out. The less said about three men the better, who collectively are covering every facet of what made men’s hair styles in the eighties terrible: mullet, mousse and mini-fro. I had the latter.

How I Came To Know It: Back in the eighties my brother and I pretty much only bought Heavy Metal, but he made an exception for this album, likely because Heart were sufficiently hard rock to not be embarrassing. Also, I suspect that, like me, he thought the songs were good. I bought it on CD a few years ago at very low price – maybe $7 in a bargain bin.

How It Stacks Up:  Since giving away the terrible “Bad Animals” (reviewed back at Disc 827) I only have two Heart albums. This one probably doesn’t deserve to be ranked first, but that’s what I’m doing anyway so…#1!

Ratings: 3 stars

Yeehaw – mid-eighties production! Organs where guitars should be! But…wait a minute. Don’t I hate those things? Don’t I prefer organic sound and sparse production? Well, there’s an exception for everything, and Heart’s self-titled eighties comeback is the exception for me.

Admittedly it is a strange choice, with songs that straddle the line between hard rock and power pop and lyrics that range from teenage angst to creepy sex metaphors. But damn it, there are some really good songs on this record.

It helps that I grew up with this record and I know it like the back of my hand, particularly Side One. I’ve been singing along to these songs since the ninth grade. Familiarity makes a difference, I suppose.

It also helps that Ann Wilson has one of the rock’s greatest voices ever. Big and bold with wicked range and power on songs like “Never” and “If Looks Could Kill” then soft and sweet on lighter tracks like “These Dreams” and “Nobody Home.” Sister Nancy manages the same range on guitar.

Finally, if I’m being honest, in the great age of eighties music videos both women were easy on the eyes. That probably held my attention a little longer and gave the music a chance to win me over.

As I noted earlier, Side One is easily the best half of the record. “If Looks Could Kill” launches the record with a thick, eighties metal sound; crunching guitar (including the requisite gratuitous solo). The organ adds a bit of pop spice and gives it the mass appeal this record enjoyed in the day.

That synthesizer and organ sounds are present on almost every song, and it should wreck them but doesn’t. On “What About Love” it (along with Ann’s vocal) is the star of the show, underscoring the overwrought emotion that would make Bonnie Tyler or a Broadway musical equally proud. I like it too.

Despite my love for all the great songs on Side One, Side Two had my favourite; a deep cut called “Nobody Home” full of strained imagery that really worked for me when I was 15. Wilson’s vocal is soft as a prayer, but still fills the room with warnings to her man to not go too wild, or one day when he comes home she won’t be there:

“Don’t run too fast like a shot from a gun
Don’t jump too high and knock out the sun
Don’t stray too far out on your own
When you finally come knocking there’ll be nobody home.”

Based on what the guy is apparently up to, I assume these lines are sung by Lois Lane. Yes it is schlocky, but I can’t help liking it. Like the rest of this record, it is half great artistry, half guilty pleasure.

The rest of Side Two is not good however, even for me. “All Eyes” is supposed to be charged with sexual tension, but just feels awkwardly creepy to me, with lines like:

“When you look at me
It melts my legs
Wraps me around your fingertip
You don’t have to say a word
To get a hold of me”

What the hell is going on here, and are pictures available? But no…no eighties video for this one.

The album spawned four top ten hits and the worst of them, “Nothing At All” isn’t bad so much as it doesn’t hold up against the other tracks with its strange back up singing that makes it way too…eighties.

But wait a minute – why didn’t I complain about the same issues with all the other songs? I can’t explain it except sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Or maybe I’ve been cooped up singing the songs on this record so long that I have the music listening strain of Stockholm syndrome.

I grade the first side of this record at 4 stars and the second at 2, so I’ll split the difference and give it 3 overall. I really wanted to give this record an extra star. Maybe that one I arbitrarily sucked from my last Duran Duran review…But no, I squandered that long ago on movies featuring Ron Pearlman and vampires. So I guess I’ll stick with 3, but it is a very heartfelt and appreciative 3. Thanks, Heart, for reminding me that even at its worst, eighties production can’t completely sink great singing and a good melody. Every now and then it even helps things along.

Best tracks: If Looks Could Kill, What About Love, Never, These Dreams, Nobody Home

Thursday, January 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 959: Uncle Tupelo

I’m tired and a little stressed but I’m reviewing this album anyway because music is my salve. Also, I want to listen to something else tomorrow, and the Odyssey is a harsh mistress: I don’t get to move on until the review is in the books.

Disc 959 is….March 16-20, 1992
Artist: Uncle Tupelo

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t like it. I think it is some rusted out old barrel or box or something. Maybe it is supposed to represent the “rust belt” of the American mid-west. That would go thematically with a lot of the songs, but doesn’t make the cover any better.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Brennan introduced me to the band and this is just my latest foray into their back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Uncle Tupelo albums. “No Depression” (reviewed back at Disc 867) is easily the best, but the other two are pretty close. I’ll put “March 16-20, 1992” in second for now.

Ratings: 3 stars

“March 14-20, 1992” is Uncle Tupelo at their most folksy, an album that represents indie rock ten years before they called it that. Back in the day they called it “alternative.” I guess every generation has its own word for hard-to-categorize music, maybe so they can feel like they invented the idea.

The record (which I’m going to call “March” because…really, we get that you recorded it in a week) relies heavily on acoustic arrangements. It has an old timey feel that evokes a thirties religious revival show as much as it does a nineties protest. I like the way it feels like it comes from a simpler time and lets some of the best parts of Uncle Tupelo (their ability to write subtle and soothing melodies) shine through easier. In fact, I would have been happy to have this production applied to their first two albums more often.

Just like a folk album, the boys cover a lot of old traditional songs. The best of these are “Coalminers” and “Lilli Schull.” “Coalminers” is a union protest song about working for the company for a pittance and struggling to get ahead. “Lilli Schull” is a slow and mournful song about a murder. It is full of disturbing imagery of a man committing a heinous crime, and thinking back on the grisly details as he awaits the hangman’s noose. Both songs are reminders that folk music has never shied away from the hardest topics, long before rock and roll ever took up the mantle.

Other songs like “Atomic Power,” a cover of a 1946 Buchanan Brothers song do not age so well. The novelty of nuclear destruction is long gone, and other songs have covered the same material better in the intervening years. Also, the song suggests some old time religion will get you through the holocaust, which isn’t much of a solution to the burgeoning Cold War. Maybe less thinking about what comes after we’ve all murdered each other and a bit more thinking about how the hell we’re going to prevent it.

So what about the original stuff? It is pretty solid, although I tended to prefer the tracks where Jay Farrar sings lead. The best of the originals is “Moonshiner,” a sad song with a beautiful guitar strum and the story of a man being slowly destroyed by alcohol. The title suggests the man’s occupation is making the booze but the song quickly makes it clear that being a drunk is as far as it goes, and for this poor soul, as far as it is ever going to go. Lines like:

“Let me eat when I'm hungry
Let me drink when I'm dry
Two dollars when I'm hard up
Religion when I die
The whole world is a bottle
And life is but a dram
When the bottle gets empty
Lord, it sure ain't worth a damn”

Showcase how Uncle Tupelo have learned the stark lessons from those early standards they recorded, and are able to put a fresh and modern twist on the same old demons to make them their own.

Despite all this good stuff, the album feels self-indulgent in places, and it feels at times like the band is trying so hard to be authentic they lose the plot. Songs like “Grindstone” and “Criminals” are OK, but they seem to be pushing themselves on me, rather than landing naturally. The instrumental “Sandusky” is pretty enough, but in order for it to hold my attention for the 3:44 it requests I think it needs...words.

The worst part is the five bonus tracks at the end, which combine to add almost 20 minutes to my version of the record. Three are just live versions of tracks I’d already heard that just didn’t sound all that different, and one of those (“Moonshiner”) is marred by an extra two minute “hidden track” of the band playing the theme from “The Waltons.” No, Uncle Tupelo, this is not nearly as much silly fun as you think it is. There is also a cover of the Stooges’ “I Wanna Be Your Dog” which has a nice original sound, but isn’t interesting enough to warrant a place on the record. Know when to say when.

Overall, still a strong album, though, and one I’m glad to have in my collection, even if just for the five or six standout songs.

Best tracks: Coalminers, Shaky Ground, Moonshiner, Lilli Schull, Wipe the Clock

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 958: Blondie

Another busy day has me feeling a bit knackered and it is only Tuesday. I need a weekend but while I wait for it to arrive I’ll draw a little sustenance from musical genius.

Disc 958 is….Parallel Lines
Artist: Blondie

Year of Release: 1978

What’s up with the Cover? Debbie Harry and the boys looking sharp in black, white and – in the case of Harry – blonde. Possible exception the shoes: suits look better with dress shoes, boys. I guess that’s why its rock and roll, and not a wedding portrait.

How I Came To Know It: A few years ago I bought a bunch of Blondie albums on CD and this was one of them. I already knew Blondie from my youth, though, so it wasn’t exactly a blind leap of faith; I knew it would be good.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Blondie albums, and this is by far the best so…#1!

Ratings: 5 stars

I have almost 19,000 songs in my collection, yet I can’t remember the last time I made a party mix that didn’t feature at least one – and usually two – of the 12 songs on “Parallel Lines.”

“Parallel Lines” is a perfect record, so perfect it seems to simultaneously be ahead of its time and yet have a sound so timeless it could have been released any year from the birth of rock and roll all the way through to 2017.

I’ve heard very few albums with as much range as this one. When “Parallel Lines” wants to rock out, it rocks out it with a vengeance. “Hanging on the Telephone” starts things off with a punk edge, and it is quickly followed by the riff heavy “One Way or Another.” Harry’s voice is a combination of sex and snarl, provocative and aggressive in equal measure. She’s that girl you desperately want to ask out but you don’t because even though you talk tough about her with your friends deep down, she kind of scares you.

But by track three, the record switches gears to a romantic pop song. “Picture This” has a lilting melody, with a rounded off and gentle production, but still with an urgency about it that says this isn’t just the girl next door. When Harry sings:

“I would give you my finest hour
The one I spend watching you shower”

She evokes the perfect combination of coquette and voyeur, without ever surrendering her power. You’re in her picture, buddy, not the other way around.

Then, before you can blink you’re whisked away with “Fade Away and Radiate” which sounds like it would be at home on Queen’s soundtrack for “Flash Gordon;” all futuristic and full of an ambient but undeniable authority.

A few minutes later and you’re listening to the sixties-inspired “Pretty Baby” which mixes doo wop chorus with the glitter and glam of the seventies club scene.

My favourite song (and a party standard) is “11:59” which combines elements of several of these themes, including an ominous guitar riff that could also be inspired by science faction. It features a drum beat that is New Wave to its core and Debbie Harry singing high and sweet as she calls for the night to never end:

“Pumping like a fugitive in cover from the night
Take it down the freeway like a bullet to the ocean”

It’s 11:59, and she reminds you that you want to stay alive forever in that magical moment the day changes over, and listening you believe it’s possible. The experience is a microcosm for the whole album.

This record has two of 1978’s most classic tracks, the aforementioned “One Way Or Another” and “Heart of Glass” but when you listen to the album in its entirety, they just blend in naturally; two more great songs on a record full of them.

My version of “Parallel Lines” is remastered with a few bonus tracks. The live versions of “I Know But I Don’t Know” and “Hanging on the Telephone” are good but I could live without them. Fortunately the worst part is having to hear both great songs a second time, which is hardly torture.

The other two bonus tracks are great additions. “Once I Had a Love (aka the Disco Song)” is like an early demo of “Heart of Glass,” slightly funkier and more upbeat, with just enough melodic differences to make it fun and new. Blondie’s cover of T-Rex’s “Bang a Gong” is brilliant, and does a good job of capturing the energy of their live show.

This record features the best of sixties pop, New Wave, punk, and hard rock and lets them all rub shoulders with one another in a way that feels easy and natural. Whatever your favourite kind of rock and roll “Parallel Lines” is not only going to have some of it, it is going to make you appreciate it in a different light before it’s done with you.

Best tracks: all tracks

Sunday, January 15, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 957: Alejandro Escovedo

I stayed up a little too late last night and drank a little too much. This led to sleeping in a little too late, but I think I have just enough time to get this review written before I settle in for an afternoon of NFL football.

Disc 957 is….A Man Under the Influence
Artist: Alejandro Escovedo

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Last minute Halloween costume? This mask looks bent up at the bottom, probably because the wearer realized halfway through the evening he couldn’t both wear the mask and drink. You can’t very well be a man under the influence if your mask gets in the way of your drinkin’ hole!

How I Came To Know It: I had a chance to see Alejandro Escovedo when he came to Victoria a couple years ago and didn’t take it. Stupid! However, I did check out his music online and liked what I heard. Since then I’ve been drilling through his collection. “A Man Under the Influence” is my most recent acquisition.

How It Stacks Up:  Escovedo has 13 studio albums and while I have been hitting that back catalogue pretty hard, I only have five. I don’t know any of them that well yet, so it is hard to compare them. However, based on limited knowledge I’ll put “A Man Under the Influence” in at second or third best, dependent on how I end up feeling about the others when I review them..

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

“A Man Under the Influence” is a hard record to categorize. It has its feet firmly planted in rock and roll, it has elements of folk, flamenco and country sprinkled through it as well.

Mostly, this is a record that evokes a romantic mood, with lush and layered production, understated guitar played with grace and ease, and Escovedo’s plaintive vocals.

Escovedo’s vocals sound a lot like Greg Keelor, and many of the songs could fit easily on a Blue Rodeo album from the same era. He won’t blow the roof of a vocal performance, but the songs are written to land well within his range, and he has the right tone for the subject matter.

That subject matter is very often about love, whether that love is fading or blooming; sustaining someone, or dragging them down. It is a subject that is often visited, but Escovedo is determined to examine it from every angle before he’s through.

On “Across the River” Escovedo opts for a stripped down guitar and while I’m never sure of the answer to Escovedo’s question “What kind of love/destroys a mother/and sends her crashing through the tangled trees?” we can feel that it must be terrifying indeed.  “Across the River” is a good example of Escovedo’s storytelling approach, which is dreamlike and non-linear. It is a set of images cycling around one another that leaves you more with an impression than a complete narrative.

Escovedo can be playful as well, as he is on “Castanets” which is a song of love for that dangerous girl you just can’t resist, who is every bit as fiery as the one in Cake’s “Short Skirt, Long Jacket”. Best line is the refrain of “I like her better when she walks away.”

Escovedo has a great range on his guitar playing, and delivers folksy acoustic strumming and full on electric rock solos with equal skill. His throaty vocals match both styles and help hold the record together, which benefits from being a restrained 12 songs in length.

He also employs a string section to good effect, and I think I heard both cello and violin at various times, adding texture and emotional underpinning to the songs.

Wedding Day” is one of those perfect ‘first dance’ songs, and had me thinking happy thoughts about my own wedding day, and that perfect moment when you first see your girl in that dress. That image never leaves you, but it was nice of Escovedo to remind me. A song like “Wedding Day” could easily become sappy, but Escovedo navigates the territory with grace and an honest delivery that holds everything together.

While some songs are more memorable than others, “A Man Under the Influence” doesn’t have any obvious blunders, and plenty of standouts. It is a lush record with a good understanding of how to layer in different instruments to create layered landscapes of music that match well with the emotional snapshots created by Escovedo’s lyrics.

Best tracks: Across the River, Castanets, Don’t Need You, Follow You Down, Wedding Day

Friday, January 13, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 956: Alice Cooper

Last night Sheila and I went to see Dwight Yoakam. We were pretty excited that he returned after cancelling last year (also, he apologized and explained what happened, which was appreciated).

The show itself was a disappointment, although no fault of Dwight’s. The sound was so terrible you could hardly distinguish song from song. It was a reminder of the dangers of arena rock. Also, here’s a hint to concert goers: your camera flash doesn’t work beyond a few feet. Please turn it off!

Anyway, from a show that was well below my expectations, let’s turn to an album that exceeded them.

Disc 956 is….Welcome 2 My Nightmare
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? It’s an homage to the original “Welcome To My Nightmare” album from 1975 (reviewed back at Disc 449). Alice is looking a bit rougher 35 years later, and now writes his name in blood instead of art deco lettering. Hey, times change.

How I Came To Know It: I am a huge Alice Cooper fan (I’m writing this wearing one of my three Alice Cooper t-shirts), so this was me buying his latest release. Alice has done a couple live albums since this record was released, but no new studio albums, which is a bit of a bummer.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 26 Alice Cooper studio albums. I had originally reserved space for “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” at the bottom of that list, but after giving it a couple of listens, I was pleasantly surprised. That said, Alice Cooper has made a lot of great records, so I can only put it in at #24, slightly edging out “Brutal Planet” (reviewed at Disc 883).

Ratings: 2 stars

If you are long-lived and prolific enough you can start to reference your own mythology. After almost 50 years of making music, Alice Cooper has earned the right to do that, and the material to back it up. “Welcome 2 My Nightmare” isn’t perfect, but it is an album that only Alice Cooper could make. No one else has the right combination of staying power, depth of understanding of what makes hard rock hard, and a willingness to try new things even well into his sixties.

Like the cover art would suggest, the entire album is set up as a long-awaited sequel to Cooper’s first solo album, 1975’s “Welcome To My Nightmare.” My negative reaction when I first heard it was based in making comparisons with that record, a rock masterpiece that has been in my life since I was five years old.

However, on revisiting the record I realized that while Cooper’s attempt at a sequel falls well short of the original, most sequels not titled “The Empire Strikes Back” tend to do that. The very act of making the attempt is intriguing, and it allows Cooper to further develop themes on the original album, while also speaking of his own journey as a performer through the intervening years.

The best example of this (and best song on the record) is the opening track, “I Am Made of You”. The song works lyrically on three levels.

First, as Alice Cooper talking to his other self (Vince Furnier) about how he is not truly a different person (as Cooper sometimes characterizes his alter ego in interviews) but rather a creation he developed himself from his darker parts. As Cooper puts it:

“In the beginning
There was only night…
I was shattered, left in pieces
And I felt so cold inside
But I called you from the darkness
Where I hide.”

A concept many performers wrestle with, but none so creatively or openly as Cooper has over the years (often leading to his self-destructive relationship with substance abuse). Here, an older Cooper looks back at the nightmare he has created, and takes ownership.

Second, the song can be taken as a conversation between Cooper and his audience. A reminder that all those dark things we thrilled to listen to him sing about were the manifestations of our own id, and our own troubled tortured darker selves. “Alice Cooper” the character is empowered as much by our adulation as by the divisionary thoughts of the artist he inhabits.

And third, obviously Cooper is noting that this new record was born out of the nightmares of the original. Throughout, the song has the signature Cooper sound of somewhere between creepy and anthemic, both in just the right proportions.

While the tracks that follow aren’t as strong they do show Cooper gamely pulling in all of the influences he’s absorbed over a half century of making music. The frenetic “Caffeine” hearkens back to his early eighties rock/new wave crossover sound. “The Congregation” feels like his late eighties anthem metal crossed with early Cooper band influences. On “Disco Bloodbath Boogie Fever” he even works in disco beats not heard since “Alice Cooper Goes to Hell” with a healthy dose of musical theatre.

Not surprisingly, the strongest influences related back to the original “Nightmare” album, featuring direct musical lines pulled from classics like “Stephen” “The Black Widow” and others. When I first heard these, it irked me, but now I see Cooper is taking old musical arrangements and marrying them to a new sound to create something different.

The album features a fair bit of modern pop influences, and I think I heard some voice modulation effects at one point that felt very out of step with the record. There is even a duet with Ke$ha called “What Baby Wants” which is a marriage between radio pop and Cooper shock rock. I really wanted to not like this song, but damn it’s catchy. I’m filing it under guilty pleasure.

The record is produced by long-time Cooper collaborator, Bob Ezrin. Ezrin just gets Cooper’s crazy brilliance like no one else, and the combination is always magical. The songs on this record aren’t the classics of yesteryear, but they are strong melodically and Ezrin understands that they work better when you take risks with them.

Near the end of the album on “I Gotta Get Outta Here”, Cooper fully reveals his theme; the man in 1975’s nightmare has died. He thinks he’s in a dream, but he’s actually in the afterlife. Maybe it is Cooper’s way of saying that he’s killed the Alice Cooper character, and subsumed it back into himself in a more health pairing. Maybe it is just him thinking this would be a cool way to make the sequel bigger, better and creepier.

The song ends with a chorus singing a catchy little ditty of “what part of dead don’t you get?” and Cooper doing his signature theatre as the incredulous artist trying to talk his way out of the situation. Then an “Underture” which incorporates musical themes from the original album and this one and…we’re out!

Or we should be. My disc has four more bonus tracks (mostly live) that add over 17 minutes of material and push the album over 70 minutes total. It makes the whole thing feel bloated, so I prefer to stop listening at “Underture”, when the CD Odyssey rules aren’t compelling me otherwise.

A quick note on the actual physical CD. Even though we live in a digital age, Cooper continues to give fans a great CD booklet, with lyrics, high production values and lots of creepy art. Thanks for taking care of the little things, Alice.

Best tracks: I Am Made of You, The Congregation, When Hell Comes Home, What Baby Wants, I Gotta Get Outta Here

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 955: Harpeth Rising

I tried a while back to convince this next band to come to Victoria, but so far no luck. I guess in retrospect, I didn’t try all that hard. Listening to this album made me want to make a second attempt.

 They are based out of Indiana, so I guess it is a bit of a trip, but if this review intrigues you, you can stream the first verse and chorus of most of their songs at their website. If you like what you hear, encourage them to come up here!

Disc 955 is….Dead Man’s Hand
Artist: Harpeth Rising

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Not surprisingly, the Dead Man’s Hand: two pair, aces over eights, in spades and clubs. If Wikipedia is right (and of course, Wikipedia is never wrong!) this was the hand Wild Bill Hickock allegedly held when he was shot dead at a poker game in 1876, hence the name.

The ace of spades is a well-known harbinger of death all on its own, of course, immortalized in the song of the same name by Motorhead. I reviewed that album back at disc 752. It’s fair to say that apart from the presence of the Death Card, the two albums are stylistically a tad…different.

How I Came To Know It: I read about Harpeth Rising in a great article by Jim Vorel at Paste Magazine called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection” which featured their amazing 2015 album, “Shifted.” I bought that record and liked what I heard (a lot) and so looked into their back catalogue. I eventually ordered the four missing albums direct from the band. Support up and coming bands!

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Harpeth Rising albums (five if you count the one made with David Greenberg). Of the four standalone records, “Dead Man’s Hand” is in a ‘dead’ heat for second with 2013’s “Tales From the Jackson Bridge.” I reserve the right to bump it down in favour of “Tales…”, but for now let’s land it at #2.

Ratings: 4 stars

Harpeth Rising take bluegrass and folk music to a whole new level; blending very traditional sounds with progressive shifts in tempo mid-song that draw your ear in strange and unexpected directions that sound better and better on repeat listens. Or as they put it on their website: “Unapologetic genre-benders, Harpeth Rising uses Folk, Newgrass, Rock and Classical into something organically unique.” Sure, that works too.

All this juxtaposition is highlighted with violinist and lead vocalist Jordana Greenberg. On the one hand, Greenberg’s voice is classic Americana folk. Her upper register has a sweet tone with a curl on the edges of the notes that can be wistful or playful depending on what emotion is called for. In the lower register she doesn’t lose any of the power, even when at the edge of her vocal range. It is folk singing at its best, and if it feels a bit sing-songy, well, that’s exactly how this music is supposed to sound.

Greenberg is also the violinist/fiddler and I use the slash deliberately. We all know this is the same instrument; it’s how you play it that decides the matter. Jordana Greenberg plays both. She is equally likely to rip off a few bars of a reel, play a controlled and stately classical solo, and then then throw in a little pizzicato for good measure. Often this all happens in a single song, and it all works seamlessly. I was unsurprised to read that she is classically trained (as are all the band’s members), with a discipline that is absolutely essential when you’re pushing the arrangements around with this much wild abandon.

Helping keep those seams together is her long-time musical partner, Rebecca Reed-Lunn on banjo. Reed-Lunn has a breezy and carefree feel for the banjo that is the perfect balance to Greenberg’s frenetic energy, grounding these songs and keeping them on track.

The rest of Harpeth Rising’s lineup has changed a couple times over the years, but on this album we have cellist Rachel Gawell and hand drummer Chris Burgess, both of whom add flourishes here and there that are deftly build into the arrangement.

Everything comes together beautifully on “California 1854.” Greenberg’s range is on fine display, as she sings a tale of gold, greed and murder, Reed-Lunn’s banjo sets a pace of unease and foreboding and Gawell’s cello cuts in at just the right time to underscore the foreboding of the violence and betrayal to come.

Thematically, “Dead Man’s Hand” has restless feeling about it, with songs about wild card games, the aforementioned California gold rush, and all manner of travel including horses, trucks, trains and even a Toyota Corolla. This latter vehicle (immortalized on “Tough As Nails”) wasn’t my favourite, but it was clearly a labour of love about a car that put on a lot of miles for probably very little money. Greenberg’s delivery helps lift some choppy lyrics, taking an obvious joy in a mock epic about a car that doesn’t normally get a lot of love.

Even the title track is ultimately about a restless spirit, doomed to be drawn to an endless card game through eternity. Or it could just be symbolically about gambling addiction. I like to think it’s a ghost story, though. I’m romantic that way.

Folk music has a wonderful tradition of covering past greats, and Harpeth Rising couldn’t have chosen much better with Stan Rogers’ “Guysborough Train” a gorgeous song which is buoyed along on Reed-Lunn’s purposeful banjo, and some pretty harmonies.

In fact, the whole album features beautiful harmonies, with Harpeth Rising reminding me favourably of the Wailin’ Jennys. Like the Jennys, Harpeth Rising know how to make their voices play well off of each other and they are fearless in how they construct their harmonies.

Most of the songs (six of ten) are written by Greenberg and Reed-Lunn, and it is a testament to them both how timeless these songs sound. They feel like they are ancient folk songs that have been given modern treatments, when really they are modern progressive songs that have been given a folk treatment. However you arrive at that mid-point, the journey is worth your time.

The journey to sunny Victoria would also be worth your time, Harpeth Rising – please visit us! If not, thanks for sending me the CDs!

Best tracks: Dead Man’s Hand, Coyote, California 1854, Time, Hey Driver, Next Year’s Rain

Saturday, January 7, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 954: The Dead Weather

Thursday night Sheila and I went to see Henry Rollins’ spoken word performance. While not music, I highly recommend going if you get a chance. Rollins’ energy is infectious and his observations while highly personal touch on universal notes and make you see the world with fresh eyes.

I haven’t reviewed an album by this band for over five years. Crazy. Back then they were kind of new to me but now I find I haven’t put this on for many years. That is one of the great things about the CD Odyssey – it reminds me there is a lot of music in my collection to love, and to not forget to love it all.

Disc 954 is….Sea of Cowards
Artist: The Dead Weather

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? Not really a sea of cowards so much as a line of weird super heroes. From left to right we have Bird Lady, Mr. Guitar Head, Creepy Jackalope Guy and the Wooden Wizard. Not exactly the Justice League of America.

How I Came To Know It: Our friends Sherylyn and Joel introduced me to this band with their earlier album “Horehound” and I liked it so sought out more of the same.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Dead Weather albums. I like all of them, but I’m going to put “Sea of Cowards” first, narrowly edging out “Horehound” for the top spot.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Sea of Cowards” is a case study in how to make intense, crunchy rock and roll that gets into your spine, gives it a shake and then departs, leaving you slightly rattled and loving the experience.

The Dead Weather is a collaboration of a number of famous artists: Jack White (White Stripes), Alison Mosshart (Kills), Dean Fertita (Queens of the Stone Age) and Jack Lawrence (lots of cool bands). While this is only their second album together but their playing is so on point you would swear they’d all grown up together and had been playing music with each other for 20 years.

Like many of Jack White’s projects, this music is heavily percussive with thick reverb and a crunchy sound that is unapologetically rock and roll. This is not an album to get fussed about lyrics and subject matter. This is a record for bobbing your head and letting your hair fall in your face.

The Dead Weather are not afraid to shift gears within songs, sliding from one groove into another within a single song without ever losing forward momentum or feeling awkward. Sometimes it feels like a jam session, if a jam session were to go absolutely perfectly in every way.

The vocal duties are shared by Mosshart and White, although Mosshart does the majority of the work. Her bluesy raunchy power is exactly what these crunch-fests need to lift their energy. The words themselves are just fragments and emotional snapshots, but matched to all that power they just seem more important. On “I’m Mad” Mosshart snarls “I’m mad” over and over again, throwing in a few derisive laughs here and there for kicks. On “Hustle and Cuss” she hustles and cusses and “licks on the dust.” What does it mean? Who cares, because in the hands of the Dead Weather it feels vital and insightful.

The record isn’t afraid to throw in seventies organ where it is needed, but while the spirit of seventies rock is alive and well, the approach to these compositions is thoroughly modern. The result feels like a clever fusing of new turns and approaches with old forms and chord progressions. It is music that isn’t afraid to take sharp turns at unexpected moments. The effect isn’t jarring, but rather helps create and build the restless energy these songs feed off.

The album is truly collaborative, with most songs having three of the four band members writing them, or at least two. Unexpectedly, the only complaint I had was with the one song written solely by Jack White, “Old Mary.”

Old Mary” ends the record, and is half rock song, half spoken word. The song is delightfully haunted by organ, but felt a little directionless at times. At the same time, I wouldn’t take it off the record, because its softer, hazier vibe is the right cool down experience after the furious energy of the preceding ten tracks. It’s that last three minutes you take strolling on the treadmill after running hard for the previous fifteen.

“Sea of Cowards” is only 11 songs long and at a mere 35 minutes total playing time, leaving you wishing it were longer, but that is a good thing. It is a project with lofty ambitions that delivers on those ambitions. Four masters of their craft, coming together and redefining the rules of what a classic rock record should sound like.

Best tracks: Blue Blood Blues, Hustle and Cuss, The Difference Between Us, Die by the Drop, I Can’t Hear You

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 953: Daniel Romano

Happy 2017!

I’ve had a lovely holiday, during which I had a chance to read a lot of “best of 2016” music lists. I didn’t agree with any of them, so before our next review, here’s mine.

I bought 23 albums released in 2016, so here’s my top 10 so far. I've already reviewed #6, 5, 3 and 1 on the list so feel free to check out those links. I'll talk about the other ones when I roll 'em.

10.  Conor Oberst “Ruminations”
9. Marlon Williams – Self Titled
8. Sturgill Simpson “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth”
7. Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds “Skeleton Tree”
4. Angel Olsen “My Woman”
2. Eleanor Friedberger “New View”

I don’t technically own Conor Oberst (#10), but I’ve listened to it and it is definitely top ten for the year.

And now here’s a review of a 2016 album that did not make the top ten but still had a few good moments.

Disc 953 is….Mosey
Artist: Daniel Romano

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? With his loose afro, Adidas track suit and defiant stare Romano looks like a cross between Bob Dylan and a low level mobster.

How I Came To Know It: My coworker Sam introduced me to Romano and this was me just buying his new album on a whim.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Daniel Romano albums, and this is my least favourite so…third.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Daniel Romano’s passion for trying something new and his evident zeal for avoiding being pigeon-holed is admirable, but there is a danger that the resulting record can come off sounding either disjointed or self-indulgent. “Mosey” is a bit of both, but there are enough high points to counter the missteps.

The record opens with “Valerie Leon” which sounds like something from 70s a.m. radio, with a horn section that would fit right in as background music in a chase sequence from Anchorman: Legend of Ron Burgundy. It still kind of works, which is a testament to Romano’s innate understanding of how to write a pop song.

Sadly, Romano’s efforts to marry indie folk sensibilities to seventies schmaltz more often results in songs that are overblown and self-conscious. On “Toulouse” he recruits Rachel McAdams to make sexy “famous actress” quips over the song, but doesn’t improve it noticeably in the process. When adding Rachel McAdams doesn’t make something better, you’ve made a serious wrong turn. I can think of a long list of situations where the addition of Rachel McAdams makes things better, but this song isn’t one of them.

Other odd decisions include a number of songs with strange instrumental tails (“I’m Alone Now”, “Maybe Remember Me” “Mr. E. Me”) that relate tangentially or not at all to the original melody. Romano seems to want to to shake us loose from our musical foundations, and maybe to give us a palate cleanser between songs. Instead the effect is like one of those appetizers that Tom Hanks samples in Big; it looks fancy, but tastes terrible.

Mr. E. Me” is the worst offender, with a title that is (I assume) deliberately cheesy. With its crazy string section and groovy beat you can almost see a guy in a red leisure suit and flare pants walking down the street. As the soundtrack to a seventies spy film, it might work, but it isn’t something I want to chill out and listen to.

Maybe Remember Me” is a pretty song, with Romano’s high and airy vocal calling out, frail and honest, supported by pretty imagery and sharp imaginative rhymes. Hell, this song is so pretty and pure it holds up despite the pointless tail tacked onto the end.

The record’s best song is “Hunger is a Dream You Die In” which is a beautiful country track, with exceptional and understated guitar work. When Romano sings:

“Hunger is a dream you die in
Dreams wake when you’re done deciding”

You think this song is a warning not to spend your time in listless desire. However on repeat listens, lyrics like this come more to the fore:

“I’ve been hungry all my life
And nothing feeds my appetite
Hunger is a dream you die in
When the best of it comes true
There’s always more I need from you.”

The title refrain is repeated multiple times in each verse, and then conspicuously replaced with a guitar run right when you’re expecting it. The music, like the song’s warning, leaves you hungry for more yet forever unfulfilled. This track isn’t a roadmap out of the Dreamlands, but rather a lament of someone trapped within it. It is a brilliant, thoughtful and emotionally evocative song and I wish this record had more like it.

If one song sums up “Mosey” it is “I’m Alone Now.” As I noted earlier, this is one of the many songs with a disjointed ending tacked onto it. It also features a mix of brilliant poetry and a jangling and tinny production and an eclectic mix of instrumentation that sometimes works and sometimes fails.

It reminded me heavily of Leonard Cohen’s album “Death of a Ladies Man”. That record marks a strange point in Cohen’s career. He was near the end of his light and frail poet croon, and not yet into the deep-throated gravel and groove that would define the end of his career. “Death of a Ladies Man” is full of horns and orchestration and songs that sometimes work and sometimes don’t.

Transitional records are sometimes like that, and “Mosey” shows enough promise and ambition that I’m excited to see what Romano will do next. But outside of two or three tracks, it would be an overstatement to say I’m excited about what he does here.

Best tracks: Hunger is a Dream You Die In, One Hundred Regrets Avenue, Maybe Remember Me

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 952: The Kinks

After a month of cooling it on CD purchases the holidays have brought a glut of new albums into the house from various sources. I’ll discuss each in detail when I roll it, but here’s a taster:
  • Three in my stocking. Two were solid (“Searching for Sugarman” and the new Band of Horses album “Why Are You OK?”). One did not impress (Imagine Dragons’ “Night Visions”).
  • One in Sheila’s stocking – a greatest hits compilation of the Thompson Twins that I enjoyed more than I expected I would.
  • One gift from my friend Patrick – Scott Fagan’s “South Atlantic Blues”. This record was very cool and I’m looking forward to getting to know it better.
  • Five that I purchased with a combination of a gift certificate and cold hard cash. Two albums by modern metal band The Sword (“Age of Winters” and “Gods of the Earth”), Prince’s “1999”, Hard Working Americans’ “Rest in Chaos” and the very hard to find “Live at the West End Cultural Centre” by Scruj MacDuhk.
I’m looking forward to getting to know all these albums better.

Disc 952 is….The Kinks (Self-Titled)
Artist: The Kinks

Year of Release: 1964

What’s up with the Cover? The suits say these young lads are fine upstanding citizens, but just one look at their scandalously long hair should tell you to lock up your daughters. Also, is that orange glow a reflection of hellfire from below? Since this is rock and roll, we must assume so.

How I Came To Know It: When I reviewed the Kinks’ compilation album “Come Dancing” back at Disc 560 it reminded me how great they were and I decided to take a tour of their back catalogue. This album stood out as the best of the bunch.

How It Stacks Up:  Apart from the aforementioned compilation album, this is my only Kinks album, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Some albums just feel like the birth of rock and roll, and the Kinks’ debut is one of those.

As I listened to this album I found myself imagining all those future rock icons of the seventies and eighties growing up listening to this record, which holds the seeds of so many styles that would follow.

The album has a restless energy that a decade later helped fuel the punk movement, with short songs that seem to be in a hurry to get in, get on it, and wrap it up and be done with it. On my previous review I noted that five minute Duran Duran songs seemed to drag. Here, songs are over in 2:30 and leave you wanting more almost every time.

The Kinks alternate smoothly between the heavy (for 1964) rock riffs and sprightly pop fare that drive you to hand claps and dancing in your living room.

For all its modern flair, this record is also grounded in what has come before. Classic fifties rock and doo wop are both heavily on display. The first song is a wonderful cover of the 1958 Chuck Berry song “Beautiful Delilah” and Berry’s influence runs deep in the record overall (they also cover “Too Much Monkey Business”). There is also a fair bit of Buddy Holly echoing through the music, although that’s true for most acts at this time. Despite this, the music doesn’t feel derivative. Instead, the Kinks’ restless energy brings a different edge to the sound similar to contemporary acts like the Who.

The number one quality all the songs share is that they are catchy. Principal songwriter Ray Davies has a natural talent for writing a pop hook that makes you want to sing along from the moment you hear it. The guitar sound is light and carefree, although the riffs themselves are grounded in American blues. The combination is a key part of the birth of modern pop and rock music, and it is fun to see it forming.

But if I presented this album as nothing more than a bit of a musical history lesson, I’d be doing it a disservice. This record remains as compelling and enjoyable on its own terms as it was the day it was released over fifty years ago.

My favourite track is “I Took My Baby Home” which has a swing to it that is undeniable, and lyrics that are both playful and sexy, with a forward girl not afraid to invite her man inside after a night on the town:

“She had some pile-drivin' kisses
They really knocked me out
They knocked me oh-oh-over
She had a hug like a vice
She squeezes once or twice and I moan”

Shame about that last line. Next time, think about baseball or something.

Two songs (“Bald Headed Woman” and “I’ve Been Driving on Bald Mountain”) feature references to baldness and specifically a “bald mountain”). I’m not sure if this meant something in 1964 that I’m not aware of, or if I’m reading too much into this and it is just references to losing your hair.

The album has some production issues, most of which I suspect relate to the conversion from mono to stereo. A few songs have weird speaker channel shifts that don’t serve the song. My version of the CD is a special edition and includes a second disc with the original album in mono, but it doesn’t make it better.

Also, there are just too many extra tracks. The original album is 14 songs and 33 minutes long, but the reissue has a bunch of demos doubling both number of tracks and overall duration. A lot of these tracks are great, but as a whole they just add too much content and I’d prefer they had appeared on a separate record.

For those reasons, I’m giving this version only four stars, but if you just had the original 14 songs, and the production issues were cleared up this album could easily score a perfect 5.

Best tracks: So Mystifying, Just Can’t Go To Sleep, I Took My Baby Home, I’m A Lover Not a Fighter, Bald Headed Woman, Stop Your Sobbing

Monday, December 26, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 951: Duran Duran

Happy holidays! Best present of the year: the Miami Dolphins are back in the NFL post-season and we got there in part while eliminating the hated Buffalo Bills. Huzzah!

Speaking of blind hate, when I rolled this next album I couldn’t help but let out a sigh of disappointment. Sheila (who likes it) sharply reminded me that this odyssey is about keeping an open mind to every album.

That’s true, and I do my best, but my dislike of this next band goes well beyond any logical reasoning. It just…is. With that in mind, here’s my best effort.

Disc 951 is….Rio
Artist: Duran Duran

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? Patrick Nagel art was as synonymous with early eighties pop culture as…well, as Duran Duran. I kind of like this cover although if a girl’s skin is as white as her teeth, you should check for bite marks on your neck after every date.

How I Came To Know It: I knew this album in the eighties when it came out, but chiefly through the practice of actively avoiding it. It came into our collection earlier this year when Sheila decided to break the Duran Duran embargo and buy it.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Duran Duran album we currently have [knocks on wood] so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 1 star – see below for special calculation procedures for Duran Duran albums

Since my early teens I have hated Duran Duran, both for their music and for the way they took over the consciousness of my junior high in the early eighties. At every high school dance, on every music video channel and on the radio of every other car that passed this band’s blend of borderline New Wave and pop pablum would assault your ears. For a budding young metal head like myself, outside of Much Music’s Power Hour, there was no escape.

Long time readers will remember that I was pretty narrow minded back then when it came to music. I’ve since happily come to my senses over amazing eighties bands like the Police, U2 and the Clash, all of whom I initially dismissed when I was a teenager. Duran Duran is not so lucky.

The album’s first song is the poster child for what is wrong with this record. “Rio” was a massive hit which had all the girls gabbing about how dreamy Simon Le Bon and Andy Taylor were, and all the boys trying to copy their look. Or maybe it was Roger Taylor or John Taylor; I don’t remember and there’s too many guys named Taylor in this band to keep it all straight. Even I would watch the video when it came on (it featured a beautiful woman in a bikini and body paint, after all).

Rio” has a passable keyboard hook and a solid chorus and could have been an average song, despite all the bangs, bells and whistles that are thrown in an attempt to ruin it. But then at the three minute mark we are subjected to a drawn out and pointless saxophone solo. This may be the worst sax solo ever, a cancer to this song so aggressive that nothing could save it. The solo eventually ends, draining (like a flushed toilet) into a synthesizer doing an impression of a xylophone. We never learn why.

This was my reaction to most of the songs on this record, which load a ton of disparate bells, bangs and whistles into a cacophonous hodge-podge. It is about as tempting as a frittata comprised of ingredients from the three preceding days of leftovers because that’s what happens to be in the fridge.

And this is a damn shame, because the bass and drums (played by a couple guys named Taylor) are actually pretty solid, particularly John’s bass playing, which gives the songs a nice and vaguely funky foundation at the ground floor. The fact that the band decides to build a ziggurat made out of shit isn’t entirely his fault.

So what about my promise to Sheila to have an open mind? Weren’t there any songs I liked? Yes, to my horror there were three. “Lonely in Your Nightmare” has a cool sound that reminded me of the Smiths or the Cure, and while there is a bit too much futzing around with the drum sounds, the melody still shines through. “Hungry Like the Wolf” is also a good song, with one of the better doo-da-doo-doo-da-doos in music. That annoying pseudo-xylophone is in the background throughout, but it doesn’t quite wreck what is a good track.

The album ends with “The Chauffeur” which I also enjoyed, a steamy song full of sexual tension that reminded me favourably of Depeche Mode, despite Simon Le Bon’s one-note vocals. In fact, when Duran Duran are at their best they sound a lot like an inferior version of Depeche Mode. At their worst they just sound like…Duran Duran.

Even the songs that I liked tend to go on too long, and the whole album (which is 43 minutes long despite having just nine songs) tends to drag. Or maybe it is just that I don’t like most of the songs and just want them to end soon after they begin. Maybe the songs are longer because they are meant as dance songs, but I found this shit impossible to dance to in high school and nothing over the years has changed my mind.

Everyone has that one band they hate, and Duran Duran is mine. If I was being fair, I’d acknowledge this record has enough going for it that it warrants a two star rating, but I’m not going to be fair. Would I congratulate the Buffalo Bills on a good effort on Saturday as my Miami Dolphins ended their season? No I wouldn’t.  Would I applaud the Montreal Canadiens for winning a game? Again, no.

Besides, I always give vampire moves an extra star for no reason (it’s how the Twilight movies earned their single star). I also grade up every movie that includes Ron Pearlman by a star because…Ron Pearlman! The universe demands balance. I will provide that balance by arbitrarily giving any Duran Duran record -1 star for equally baseless reasons.  

Best tracks: Lonely In Your Nightmare, Hungry Like the Wolf, The Chauffeur