Friday, December 2, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 943: Sera Cahoone

I have had one of those days that was so bad it wasn’t a case of me eating dinner late, it was a case of me not eating dinner at all. It is 9:00 p.m. and I’m too worn out to care.

Despite all this my desire to write about music lives on, like a corpse’s fingernails, long after my brain has turned to mush…

Or not. That first bit is what I wrote last night before I curled up on the couch and fell asleep watching a bad Chinese action comedy. Sometimes even my corpse fingernails need a break. With a bit of sleep under my belt, and daylight (at least as much as winter will allow) seeping through the window, I’m ready to give it another shot.

Disc 943 is….Only As the Day is Long
Artist: Sera Cahoone

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? An eagle on a bouquet of flowers. I imagine there was a garden wedding and the bride closed her eyes and tosses the bouquet high in the air only to have an eagle swoop down and carry it off. No bridesmaid would find love that day, my friends, but all is not lost in the world of romance: eagles mate for life.

How I Came To Know It: I don’t actually remember, but since I took this album from my “new music” section it can’t have been that long ago. I think I read an article about her in a songwriter magazine and looked her up on line. Finding her albums locally was impossible so…I asked my local record store to order them in! Old school! Support your local record store!

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Sera Cahoone albums (she has three but her eponymous debut is devilishly hard to come by). Of the two I have, “Only As The Day Is Long” comes in second. It may yet come in first, but I have a feeling that “Deer Creek Canyon” is going to edge it by a nose.

Ratings: 4 stars

This somber and thoughtful record was the perfect soundtrack for my last two days, giving me a quiet place for introspection as life presented a series of challenges, as life is wont to do.

Sera Cahoone is one of those “indie” acts who blend folk, country and rock elements. She reminded me at times of both Blue Rodeo and Cowboy Junkies and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was secretly Canadian. She’s actually from Washington State, which is about as Canadian as America gets. Like the Cowboy Junkies, Cahoone falls closer to folk and country, with songs that feature soft guitar strumming and touches of banjo and steel guitar drawing a melodic line through the slow roll of the guitar strings.

Cahoone is a late bloomer, making her first album in 2005 at the tender age of 30. “Only as the Day is Long” came out three years later and it shows the wisdom and craft of a musician who has been at it for a while. At their core, these songs incorporate very old country and bluegrass structures but Cahoone makes them current, juxtaposing classic steel guitar runs with meandering melodies that sound dreamy and disorienting at times, but always walk you safely home in the end. It’s called “resolution” and many indie bands that choose to end their songs with clashing and clangor could learn a lot from Cahoone’s songwriting skills.

Cahoone has an accomplished background as a drummer (even playing briefly with Band of Horses, which is a bit of a thing in the indie world). The drums aren’t high in the mix on “Only as the Day is Long” but the way Cahoone uses percussive sounds in general shows her understanding of its importance. The beats serve the songs, and the guitar is played in a way that sometimes enhances the percussion, sometimes replaces it, and sometimes plays off it, as the song demands.

She has a breathy vocal style that makes you feel like she does a lot of her singing while staring at the rain. She sings with an edge of sadness, but there is a lot of soothing, reassuring qualities as well. A good example is “You’re Not Broken” a reassuring song to someone who is being weighed down by life:

“All this wondering how and why
Has made me lose a little heart
Oh you got it right
You're just still there aching and there's nothing I can do

“I don't mean to sound unkind
But it's driving me mad
To see you walking so slowed down”

This song also shows how adept a songwriter Cahoone is. Its foundation is a five note guitar piece that walks you down but feels like it is missing a couple of notes. It isn’t jarring so much as…incomplete. Later, violin and guitar pieces offset this with full melodies, underscoring the song’s themes of damage, and the promise of hope and restoration.

Many of the songs are about relationships, particularly ones where there is trial or trouble. Things can be rocky at times, but as Cahoone notes on a later track, “I’ll just keep tryin’ to make things alright.” At times it’s probably not a good idea, such as on “The Colder the Air” where she admits:

“I know, I know
What you got, it ain’t nothin’ I want.”

Sometimes it feels uncomfortable because you’re getting such a clear look into her fears and insecurities, and sometimes it is uncomfortable because it feels like she’s looking into yours. It’s OK, though; Cahoone’s soothing voice and keen understanding for how a song should unfold will give you comfort in whatever darkness you might find yourself.

Best tracks: You Might As Well, Baker Lake, Only as the Day is Long, You’re Not Broken, The Colder the Air, Seven Hours Later

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 942: Soundtrack

I meant to write this review last night but after a long and late night at the office I was knackered and opted instead for a couple TV shows and bed. Fortunately, I love this record so an extra day with it was no sacrifice.

Disc 942 is….True Detective Soundtrack
Artist: Various Artists, but a lot of Lera Lynn

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? It looks like the promotional poster for Season Two of True Detective. From left to right we have: a crooked cop, a mobster trying to go legit, an angry cop and a cop with PTSD. It’s not a happy show.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila and I loved the show and the music it featured was always great. By happy accident while looking for someone to see in Nashville, I discovered that Lera Lynn was the mysterious singer in the background of the bar seasons in Season Two. From there it was a simple matter of looking for the soundtrack, which (happily) features music from both seasons.

How It Stacks Up:  I have a lot of soundtracks. I had originally finished reviewing them back at Disc 479, but had forgotten there were a bunch of albums that qualify as soundtracks that I file with the artist that did them. Since I’m now up the 31 soundtracks total, it is probably time to revisit the list. Take a deep breath, because it is long. You’ll note that “True Detective” lands impressively at number four.

  1.  The Harder They Come: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 371)
  2. Saturday Night Fever: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 392)
  3. Hedwig and the Angry Inch: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 225).
  4. True Detective: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. The Matrix:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 291)
  6. Magnolia:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 181)
  7. Crooklyn:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 75)
  8. Swingers:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 12)
  9. A Kind of Magic: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 749)
  10. Flash Gordon: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 659)
  11. Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 681)
  12. Into the Wild:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 260)
  13. Pulp Fiction:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 102)
  14. Elizabethtown:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 33)
  15. Highway 61:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 230)
  16. O Brother Where Art Thou:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 386)
  17. Buffy The Vampire Slayer:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 216)
  18. Reservoir Dogs:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 116)
  19. Jackie Brown:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 30)
  20. Transamerica:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 402)
  21. Les Miserables:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 111)
  22. Big Night:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 215)
  23. The Warriors:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 479)
  24. James Bond:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 103)
  25. One From the Heart: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 935)
  26. About a Boy:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 252)
  27. Chess:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 156)
  28. Honeymoon in Vegas:  2 stars (reviewed at Disc 17 and then sold)
  29. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat:  1 star (reviewed at Disc 284)
  30. Moulin Rouge:  1 star (reviewed at Disc 151)
  31. Natural Born Killers:  0 stars (reviewed at Disc 302)
Ratings: 4 stars

Sometimes a soundtrack perfectly captures the feel of the film or show it is meant to accompany. Other times, it is just a great collection of songs. The “True Detective” soundtrack manages to do both.

If you don’t know, “True Detective” is a disturbing crime serial, featuring damaged characters (mostly cops) trying to redeem themselves by stopping criminals even worse. While the first season is superior, both are worth your time and will leave you contemplating the baseness of humanity and the darker secrets of the universe; those secrets that reveal themselves only in fragments, lest they threaten your sanity when encountered whole. Yeah, it’s one of those kinds of shows.

A show like that needs music that sets just the right mood, and famed producer T. Bone Burnett delivers. This soundtrack is actually songs from the first two seasons, shuffled together imperfectly like a deck of cards at a poker table. The shuffling could have taken away from the narrative of the show, but instead the song order creates a new musical narrative that is both evocative of the show, and also casts a spell of its own.

The show manages to find two of the most brooding tracks for each season’s opening credits: the Handsome Family’s “Far From Any Road” (Season 1) and Leonard Cohen’s “Nevermind” (Season 2). The first song is some sort of drug-addled country, with a deep, mysterious vocal and echoes of mariachi bands gone wrong. I don’t know anything else by the Handsome Family, and frankly, this song makes me a bit nervous to delve any deeper. I probably will though.

Cohen’s “Nevermind” has a funky groove and Cohen is at his apocalyptic best as he speaks of all the people who get away with it, whether “it” is love or murder, or some terrible combination of the two.

For all the greatness of these two “title” tracks, the glue that holds this album together is alt-country chanteuse Lera Lynn.

“True Detective” is how I discovered Lera Lynn. Her mournful and lounge-tinged voice sounds like the voice of a ghost here, with T. Bone Burnett turning up the stark echo dial to 11 to maximize the effect of her vocal. Each of her five songs sends a shiver down your spine, leaving you cold and alone with fell thoughts of dark deeds done and the secrets that follow.

Lynn is an accomplished songwriter on her own, and here she teams up with T. Bone and Roseanne Cash. The result is a selection of restless mournful songs that wrap you in loss and regret. On “Lately”, when Lynn sings:

“Lately I'm not feeling like myself
When I look into the glass, I see someone else
I hardly recognize this face I wear
When I stare into her eyes, I see no one there
Lately I'm not feeling like myself”

You can feel the edge of madness creeping in – or is it just grief? The line blurs here as it does throughout the record. Later on “It Only Takes One Shot” she sings of a woman spurned, wrapped in imagery of guns and murder and fell conviction.

As if this record didn’t have enough creepy mood music, we are treated to two longstanding masters: Nick Cave (with Warren Ellis) and Bonnie Prince Billy. Cave and Ellis cover the Gatlin Brothers’ “All the Gold in California” and thoroughly twist it from country anthem to some kind of cultist chant. Bonnie Prince Billy’s “Intentional Injury” is a quiet internalization of the same order.

The record is so good that the Bob Dylan track (“Rocks and Gravel”) is good, but more of an afterthought.

In a way having all these artists contributing their best feels a bit like cheating, and that’s at least one reason I couldn’t give this record a perfect score. It came damn close, though.

Best tracks: All the Lera Lynn tracks (The Only Thing Worth Fighting For, Lately, My Least Favorite Life, A Church in Ruins and It Only Takes One Shot), Nevermind by Leonard Cohen, All the Gold in California by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, Far From Any Road by The Handsome Family, Intentional Injury by Bonnie Prince Billy.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 941: The Pack AD

Greetings again, gentle readers. Apologies for the long delay in posting a review – I have been busy grokking the Vancouver rock band “The Pack A.D.” in preparation for seeing them live last night.

But your wait was not in vain! Below is a review of their latest album and following that a review of their concert.

Disc 941 is….Positive Thinking
Artist: The Pack A.D.

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? This is your brain. This is your brain on fruit loops. Any questions?

Despite this being drawn by guitarist (and rock hottie) Becky Black I can’t bring myself to give this cover a thumbs up. Fortunately, that’s been taken care of.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Nick heard the Pack A.D. were playing a show in town and was interested in checking them out. I’d never heard of the Pack A.D. so before I committed to going to see them live I went on Youtube to check them out. I liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  I have bought three Pack A.D. albums in the three weeks since I found out they existed (what? I like them!). The danger of getting a bunch of albums by the same artist at once is they tend to blend together in your mind, but it also lets you appreciate a band’s growth over time. Both happened with the Pack A.D. I have a hard time picking a favourite, so for now I’ll leave myself room to change my mind and put the amazing “Positive Thinking” in second.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Positive Thinking” shows the continuing evolution of the Pack A.D.’s sound, while not losing the restless energy that is such a big part of what makes this band great.

As ever the band generates a lot of sound and fury despite just having two members: guitarist/vocalist Becky Black and drummer Maya Miller. Because there is just two of them there is a heavy temptation to compare them with the White Stripes, and there are definitely similarities. The Pack A.D. has the same raw lo-fi crunch and like the Stripes they are heavily influenced by the blues.

However, on “Positive Thinking” the band continues the evolution of their sound begun on 2014’s “Do Not Engage,” backing away from the blues in favour of a thick guitar sound and vocals that incorporate a softer vocal style from Black and even a bit of light harmony. The musical arrangements have a surfer groove that evokes thoughts of the ocean and later Pearl Jam. “Sorrow” in particular sounds like it could be added to either “Yield” or “Riot Act” and fit right in.

All of this is a good thing. I can get the blues anywhere, but watching a band incorporate multiple influences and grow into something uniquely their own is far more rewarding.

The album starts with the crowd pleaser, “So What,” which has the band’s signature guitar crunch, with lots of sparse and stripped down production to let all the carefully structured syncopation lubricate your lower spine and lizard brain. Black’s vocals on the song nicely straddle a Patti Smith-like growl and a more ethereal head voice. “Yes I Know” follows this up and digs its heels in with a stronger blues growl, as if the Pack is reminding you that they are still badass.

The next song, “Teenage Crime,” has a bit too much banging and crashing without purpose but the guitar riff and Black’s vocals are so awesome you forgive a little excess occurring in the song’s margins.

This is a good time to note that “Positive Thinking” is more about the sound and melody than specific lyrics, but underneath all that power and woo-ooo-ooing there are some thoughtful lines, which is a nice discovery as I dug in more deeply on repeat listens. “Teenage Crime” begins:

“I was feeling kinda romantic
It’s hard to explain
Coulda been the Bauhaus
Coulda been the rain.
Burned a dark ritual
A real creepy effigy
Just so I could say
I know what you mean.”

Then the band takes a hard left with “Anyway,” which despite all the guitar shows the band’s softer side, with a melody that floats along like sad eighties Goth and prominent vampire metaphors (the previous song references Bauhaus so we should not be surprised at this point).

The strong opening to the album makes it hard for the second half to hold up the same consistent standard, but the songs that fill the back of the order aren’t bad; they’re just not as good as the record’s start. Standouts on “side two” include the aforementioned “Sorrow,” and “Error” which has a strong vocal that shows off the sweeter side of Black’s voice.

“Positive Thinking” is a solid entry in the Pack A.D.’s discography and shows that six albums and almost ten years into their career they are still developing and growing as a band. This record is just weeks old, but I’m already excited about what they are going to do next.

Best tracks: So What, Yes I Know, Teenage Crime, Anyway, Sorrow, Error

The Concert: Friday, November 25 at Sugar Nightclub, Victoria
My concert going experience got off to a strange start because we had to first bid farewell to a friend moving out of town and that event was at the Union Club. Trying to find an outfit that would pass the Union Club’s conservative dress code and still rock sufficiently hard enough for the show wasn’t easy. As it turns out, I failed – Union Club staff required that I hang up my jacket because it featured a skull on the back. They were very nice about the whole thing, though.

After a quick slice of pizza and the undoing of my dress shirt to reveal one of my Alice Cooper tour shirts (see, Union Club – I was trying) we headed off to the show at Sugar.

Sugar is a pretty good venue for a show. It has a great vibe and if you get there early enough, you can snag some pretty cool balcony seating.

Getting there early also means you get to see all the opening acts. Last night there were two of them.

The Malahat

The first band was a local act called The Malahat. These guys had lots of stage antics,  with the lead singer channeling a young Robert Plant and the guitarist trying out variations on Angus Young. Both were inexplicably barefoot.

I thought the rhythm section of the band had the edge in talent, but maybe that’s just because the bass player looked like me at 20.

While my fellow concert-goers liked this band’s energy I found their performance muddy and artificial. I will give them credit for getting the crowd going early (opening bands have to play to half-empty houses, which is never easy). Also, during their set a couple speakers broke loose from their moorings and spun around from their ceiling mounting. This caused the roadies to have to temporarily stop the show to fix it. The boys of Malahat took it all in stride. I later checked out a song of their's called "The Grit" on Youtube and they sound pretty sweet. I think they just need more experience playing live to hone their skills, and that will come over time.

Smash Boom Pow

The second band was Smash Boom Pow who, like the Pack A.D., were a two-piece. These guys played hard rock with delightful guitar riffs. The singer had a beautiful high voice that was clear and powerful even at the top end of his range. He also understood how to speak into a microphone so you could understand what he was saying. This is a skill that is surprisingly absent from most live acts.

I liked Smash Boom Pow a lot; so much so that I went searching for their merch table to buy their album, but there was nothing to be found. When I checked today I discovered that both their albums are available only as electronic downloads. Argh. I will now spend a couple months seeing if I can work up the nerve to do this, and then burn them on a CD that I can put on my shelf. Always have merch, SBP! Here’s a song of theirs called "A Girl" showing that they are also awesome in the studio.

Pack A.D.

Finally, after three hours of nursing my tall cans of beer and holding off latecomers determined to horn in on our awesome seating, the Pack A.D. took the stage with little fanfare.

I’d heard rumours that these guys rocked live and they did not disappoint. They got right down to it and brought all the infectious energy of their recorded album and then some.

Singer Becky Black plays a mean rock guitar. The guitar seems to drag her around the stage with a mind of its own, as she fights it off with a wide-legged, pigeon-toed stance. Despite all this seemingly involuntary movement she is always totally in control, and her playing is sharp and powerful. Her voice is strong enough to soar over the heavy riffs, although I found that she has a habit of pulling away from the microphone when she goes for higher notes that makes it sound a bit thin.

Drummer Maya Miller was (surprisingly) in charge of banter and she did a fine job of sounding disaffected and cool, as a rock star should be. She plays the drum with power and authority, and she has a nice thudding style that reminded me of Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward.

The set list was a good mix of older and new stuff, and they had a good feel for the crowd, throwing in a couple of slower numbers at just the right time to give the concert a natural ebb and flow.

The crowd was mostly young (under 30) and was a mix of the super happy and the broodingly aggressive. The mosh pit was one of the craziest I’ve seen in a while, or maybe it just felt that way from my high perch over the floor. I played paper-rock-scissors with a guy to determine who would be next to order drinks at the bar and generally had a good experience. I also wisely stayed out of the pit, which surged and bucked with an almost animalistic intensity throughout the whole performance.

The merch table was cool, with groovy t-shirts and plenty of size M (long-time readers will know my frustration with a merch table with inadequate size options). I even bought a fourth album there for a mere $10.

I would definitely go see the Pack A.D. again, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they become a lot more famous very soon. They have a great sound, and they own the stage from the moment they take it to the moment they downed tools and walk off without fanfare or drama.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Figurine: Black Dragon

I haven't got a lot of music reviews this week because I'm busy grokking a new band so I can better enjoy their show on Friday. I'd tell you who it was, but that would spoil the surprise when I review their new album and the concert!

So occasional miniature! Here is a black dragon figurine for your viewing excitement. Scroll down if you'd rather just read music reviews.

I worked on this guy for quite a while. He was very badly cast and required a serious amount of carving and refitting to even glue together:
I also built the base from scratch. I was originally going to do a swampy pool, but working with the low-temperature melted plastic is annoying so I went more woodland/ruins.
The wings on this guy are metal, and I lived in constant fear of him breaking while I was maneuvering him around to paint.
Here he is, looking all snarly. I'm guessing he didn't get a lot of hugs as a kid, probably on account of all the pointy bits.
 Close up the head and signs of bad oral hygiene:
 And the obligatory "He's coming right at me!" pose.
Don't worry; he's just a model.

Back to music in a couple of days!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 940: Allman Brothers Band

Not having a car isn’t usually a big deal in the city, but every now and then there is a strange inconvenience. The most recent was the realization that there are no stores in the downtown core that sell vacuum cleaner bags. Undeterred, I took a long walk to a place out of town that sells them. Added bonus – I was able to listen to this next album.

I did all this on Friday, but I delayed posting the review because I figured Band of Heathens deserved a bit more exposure than their career has afforded them so far. I’m giving like that.

And now…another music review!

Disc 940 is….Idlewild South

Artist: Allman Brothers Band

Year of Release: 1970

What’s up with the Cover? Six heads and a whole lotta hair. You don’t get this much hair these days, but don’t despair Allman Brothers Band; I am keeping that tradition alive as long as I can.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila bought me two Allman Brothers albums for Christmas one year, taking a chance that I would like them. She was right!

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Allman Brothers albums, this one and their 1969 self-titled debut. Both are awesome, and it is hard to pick between them. I’ll give “Idlewild South” first place, though.

Ratings: 5 stars

When a band is heavily influenced by the blues, sometimes it takes an album or two for them to shake that and find their own sound. Led Zeppelin is an example of this. But if the band is truly great their sound quickly evolves into something greater than its musical inspiration. Led Zeppelin again, is an example. So is the Allman Brothers Band’s sophomore masterpiece, “Idlewild South.”

This record is more smoothed out than the Allman’s debut, but this doesn’t make it lesser, it makes it more nuanced and interesting. Hearing this record I could feel its echoes through my music collection. Molly Hatchet and Tom Petty have been influenced by this blend of blues, rock and a hint of prog, and the music world has been made the richer for it. I even hear elements of Blue Oyster Cult in some of the guitar licks and organ, although I suppose it is the opposite that is happening.

Gregg Allman has a wonderful rock tone to his voice that sounds deep in his chest and has plenty of both range and power. The sheer musicianship of the record sometimes overshadows him and it is worth pointing out what a signature rock voice he has.

Every member of the band is at the peak of their ability and they know how to play off one another whether they are employing hard hitting riffs or smooth almost jazz flavoured noodle fests.

Never is this more evident than on “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed,” a seven minute long instrumental that never lets your ear get bored. This song has it all – changes in tempo and time signature, multiple guitar solos, an organ solo, and near the end, a drum solo to boot. All of it is awesome. The song even has tambourine. Yes, that works too.

The band doesn’t totally abandon their blues roots, nor should they, since the innovative blend of the blues into these songs is part of what makes each one wonderful. They go all-in with a cover of Muddy Waters’ “Hoochie Coochie Man” (the only song sung by bass player Berry Oakley). This song isn’t as raw as the original but it is just as powerful and truth be told, I like it better. A big part of the blues is authenticity, and the Allman Brothers bleed authenticity. If you are looking for the deliberate disconnect so common in a lot of modern indie music, look elsewhere; these guys mean every note they play and every note they sing.

The record ranges all over and while only seven songs and 30 minutes long it feels like you’ve taken a journey across the universe; the musical universe anyway.

The album opens with “Revival” which has a celebratory hippy vibe, and then morphs into the blues-rock number “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin.” “Don’t Keep Me Wonderin’” reinvents the blues in yet another direction, with guitar licks that scream with a pre-metal complaint that reminded me of Nazareth. Or was that the other way around again?

The third song, “Midnight Rider” has one of the simplest and most classic guitar riffs ever. It is perfectly matched by Allman’s throaty voice telling the world about how he has one more silver dollar in a way that demands you sing along and help speed the titular character on his way. This is a song that as soon as you hear the first few notes you start nodding and smiling and saying “oh, this song!” because it is so classic it is tattooed into your DNA.

Near the end of the record, “Please Call Home” delivers a heart-breaking love song that made me think of every seventies and eighties rock ballad that would follow. It may be Allman’s greatest vocal on the record, if only because he is exposed here and out in front of the production, protected only by the artfully placed guitar licks of the legendary Dickey Betts.

The fact is that this album made me not only appreciate the Allman Brothers, it gave me a new appreciation for large swathes of the other rock music in my collection. These guys are amazing spirit guides through the growth of hard rock, prog rock, southern rock, and a host of other sounds. This is foundational rock that remains a joy to listen to, forty plus years after it was released.

Best tracks: All tracks

Thursday, November 17, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 939: The Band of Heathens

I’ve had a lot going on after work lately and haven’t found the time to write this review until now. As a result, I got to listen to it a lot while I walked home for three days. Fortunately it’s a new album, and we needed the time to get acquainted.

Disc 939 is….One Foot in the Ether
Artist: The Band of Heathens

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? When tree line meets eye line? It’s a red letter day? It kind of works but it also kind of feels like a photography class project gone wrong.

How I Came To Know It: Last October Sheila and I went to Nashville to see the Miami Dolphins and take in the sights. We were trying to find a band to go see while we were there but we didn’t know any of the acts that were playing. I started listening to any band that was in town on Youtube to see if I’d like them. Two artists stuck out: Lera Lynn and Band of Heathens.

We ended up going to see Lera Lynn because we liked her slightly more and because the Band of Heathens had this ‘mystery’ show where they didn’t tell you the location until a few hours before the show. When I got home I bought a Band of Heathens album.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Band of Heathens album. I’m tempted by 2013’s “Sunday Morning Record” but for now I’ve just got the one, so I can’t really stack it up.

Ratings: 3 stars

It’s good when an album has artistic range, but if you take it too far you lose focus. “One Foot In the Ether” walks that line like a drunk sailor; mostly well balanced with an occasional lurch that threatens to take them off the edge of the pier.

Fortunately this is music, and no one is going to drown from an occasional misstep or a bit of excess, sometimes it just makes it better.

But that doesn’t change that the album has so many competing styles it is initially hard to get into. Three of the five band members (Ed Jordi, Cordy Quist and Colin Brooks) are songwriters and singers, and each has their own style doing both. These range from an alt-country gravel to a Rolling Stones’ tinged rock and roll and then to a bluesy Otis Redding inspired soul.

My early favourite is the outlaw country guy, but unfortunately I don’t know who is who since the CD has no liner notes, and the internet is equally unhelpful when it comes to bands of this relative level of fame. Let’s call him Guy #1.

Whatever his name, the album starts with a song by him, “LA County Blues,” which is a glorious track full of a restless energy about slackabouts drinking their way through Las Vegas and (presumably) heading home with a fuzzy head and empty pockets.

This tone of grit and uncertainty is the common thread through all three styles on the record but alone it isn’t enough to hold the record together. The recurring country numbers by Guy #1 are though, and on “What’s This World” the band delivers another indictment of modern society:

“We got mouths to feed and boots to fill
Pills for sleep and dreams of dollar bills
And we clean our guns while we turn our cheeks
We’re like angels and demons and dogs in heat.”

The melody of both this song and “LA County Blues” aren’t incredibly innovative but they make all the right turns to serve the lyrics and ably underscore the themes they explore.

The bluesier numbers (Guy #2? I’m not sure…) are generally good as well particularly “Shine a Light” which straddles a line between blues and gospel and gave me visions of hobos down by the railroad tracks dancing around a burning barrel. I have no idea why that crossed my mind, because there are no hobos involved in the song, but that’s what I saw. It was a pretty sweet dance number too, with the lead hobo resplendent in torn trousers, red mack jacket and toque. But I digress…

Golden Calf” is also a grimy bit of blues rock, and someone calling for “eight more seconds on the golden calf” is a great image, biblically ominous and thoughtlessly self-indulgent all at the same time. My only regret here is the squawk box effect on the vocals on the track. I think it is intended to evoke a 30s feel, but it sounds fake. Worse, there is a live version of the song on Youtube without any such artifice which is infinitely better. Here it is. Every time I hear the studio version I find myself wishing I could hear the live version instead.

Also, while the band is incredibly tight there are times where they sound like a bar cover band. This is ironic, considering that apart from a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Look At Miss Ohio” these are all original tracks. Also, they wear their musical influences a bit too prominently on their sleeves. On “You’re Gonna Miss Me” the band sings “Otis Redding sang the blues the sometimes” and on “Talking Out Loud” the vocalist (let’s call him Guy #3) sounds like he is doing an Otis Redding impersonation. The proximity of the reference to the homage is a bit jarring.

Fortunately, the album’s brilliance overcomes these minor annoyances with relative ease. There are even a couple of optimistic tunes near the end with “Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled” and “Hey Rider.” While I generally prefer this album when it is stripped down, I liked the fuzzy production on “Hey Rider” which creates a dreamy quality that suggests anything is possible, even world peace. Sounds flaky but you have to be there.

I gave this album four listens over the last three days and I went from not being sure about whether I liked it to knowing that I did. The Band of Heathens don’t make it easy with all their shifting styles, but it is worth the effort in the end.

Best tracks: LA County Blues, Shine a Light, What’s This World, Let Your Heart Not Be Troubled, Hey Rider

Monday, November 14, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 938: Chic

After a dark and somber time soaking in Leonard Cohen’s latest album and contemplating his passing, this next record was exactly the infusion of fun I needed to right myself.

Disc 938 is….Dance Dance Dance
Artist: Chic

Year of Release: 1991 but featuring music from 1977 to 1982

What’s up with the Cover? Five cool cats pose at a photographer’s studio that needs a slightly bigger backdrop.

How I Came To Know It: I knew Chic because I grew up in the seventies, but as a rocker I was taught at an early age to hate the devil disco. Years later my friend Spence played a few choice cuts from this album and showed me how wrong it was to hate. I bought it a week later.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one album and it is a compilation anyway, so it doesn’t stack up.

Ratings: ‘best ofs’ don’t get rated. It is an Odyssey rule!

Some music is for sitting quietly and thinking, some music is for a gentle toe tap or two and some music is for singing along. Chic is music for dancing, and as dance music goes you can’t do much better. This is dance music about dancing, for use while dancing.

Hell, the first song is called “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) and it is over eight minutes of funky guitar hooks, bass lines and singers exhorting us to…well you get the idea. I would kill to have been hanging out at a New York disco when this song came on. So gloriously self-absorbed, like so much of the disco era, and yet so damned good at it that you forgive every ounce of ego stuffed into it.

Most of the 11 songs on the album are entirely unsuited to radio play, or would have been cut down to a radio edit to fit it conveniently into three or four minutes back in the day. That is a damned shame, and I’m glad that this compilation album sticks with extended versions. These aren’t for radio play, these are for nightclubbing or private parties where the carpet was white shag and the entrance hall had a fishbowl full of keys.

And for all this excess and aimless celebration, the musicianship of Chic is amazing. The bass line in “Everybody Dance” is incredible, and because the song is eight minutes long you get plenty of time to let it sink into your spine where it belongs. This is the land where the only lyrics you need are a bunch of people sexily whispering “everybody dance”. And then you do, and all is right in the world again.

The production is also a welcome departure from a lot of modern dance music. Nowadays the bass line is often a boring thump-thump-thump and almost always way too overpowering in the mix. Chic knows how to balance out the mix so that every instrument gets its moment. Care to follow the bass line a while? You can do that. Maybe you prefer to synch up with the guitar’s groove and shift your dancing to something more melodic – you can do that too.

The two people responsible for this tasteful mix are guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edward, who in addition to being key contributors as players also produce most of the songs on the record. Rodgers would go on to produce a bunch of famous records, including David Bowie’s “Let’s Dance” and Madonna’s “Like A Virgin.”

If you want your music to go somewhere or do something, this is not for you. Chic establish a groove and explore every corner of it, but they aren’t looking to travel any great distance away from that initial groove. As for lyrics, you better like to hear about dancing, because that’s what they’re going to sing about. About one in four songs shake it up with a song about makin’ love. These songs are also very predictable in what they inspire. Dancing again, only in this case of the horizontal variety.

If for some reason you can’t fully cut loose (for example you are on a bus going to work, or walking somewhere) the music can be a bit frustrating, and in those moments I appreciated the tighter timelines of classics like “Chic Cheer” and the classic “Le Freak”. “Le Freak” is the more famous song, and I have always appreciated its active encouragement for everyone to get their freak on:

“Have you heard about the new dance craze?
Listen to us, I'm sure you'll be amazed
Big fun to be had by everyone
It's up to you, It surely can be done.”

Did I mention this music is not about the lyrics? That’s OK, though because ‘big fun’ will indeed be had by ‘everyone’ as advertised. Just think less, and keep those feet moving.

I know ‘best of’ albums don’t get rated, but if they did I would give this album three dances, three yowsahs and a chic cheer.

Best tracks: Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah Yowsah Yowsah), Everybody Dance, Chic Cheer, Le Freak

Sunday, November 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 937: Leonard Cohen

Given the circumstances, choosing this next album seemed the only thing I could do. I’m going to wax a bit poetic now about my relationship (from afar) with Leonard Cohen, so if you’d rather just read the review, scroll down to the picture of the album cover.

Leonard Cohen has been a fixture in my life for a very long time, and he’ll continue to be despite the fact the he’s gone.

I first discovered Leonard Cohen in Grade 11, digging through the library shelves with my high school friends. We used to hang out in the library during our free period and one of us found his poetry books “The Spice Box of Earth,” “Flowers for Hitler” and “The Energy of Slaves”. We spent the next few days giggling at all the sexual references. Later his words would seep into me in a more serious way. At 16 I had no idea Cohen even made music, but I knew his words mattered to me, and that poetry was something I was going to delve into with a deeper passion than had existed before.

When I went away to university in 1988 I chose English Literature as my major, and around the same time discovered that Cohen also made music. I bought “I’m Your Man,” “Various Positions” and “Songs” on tape and played the hell out of them. If they’d let me into grad school I was going to do my thesis on Cohen. Their loss.

Then I found “Recent Songs” and “Death of a Ladies Man” but only on CD. Back then my ghetto blaster only played tapes, but I bought both albums anyway and asked a friend to tape them for me. Before he had the chance, my ghetto blaster died and I spent the last of my food money buying one that could play CDs. Yes, the entire music collection that makes up the CD Odyssey began with Leonard Cohen.

Cohen has been a guiding light for me through good and bad times. When I lost my first love he gave a voice to my misery in the darkness. When I met Sheila I made her a Cohen mixed tape. “Dance Me To the End of Love” became our song and twenty years later, it still is.

I’ve seen Cohen in concert four times, twice recently and twice on “The Future” tour back in 1993. I’m even one of the people cheering on the live rendition of Suzanne at the Orpheum in Vancouver on the live album.

Earlier this week, I was quoting from “Closing Time” to a friend (I quote Cohen often). I had no idea that 24 hours later would be closing time for Cohen.

So thanks and goodbye, Leonard. They’ve finally moved you to a tower so far down the track that I can’t reach you anymore. But I want you to know that your wisdom, your self-effacing sense of humour and your deep insights into the human soul remain with me, and have helped shape the better parts of who I am.

Disc 937 is….You Want It Darker
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Leonard smokes a cigarette, one hand hanging out a window as he gazes off into the abyss. As always, it gazes back at him.

How I Came To Know It: This is just the latest Leonard Cohen album, and I buy Leonard Cohen albums when they come out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 13 Leonard Cohen albums. Of those, “You Want It Darker” is facing stiff competition, and I can only put it in at #10, bumping both “Popular Problems” and “Old Ideas” down a spot in the process.

Ratings: 4 stars

Cohen knew he was nearing the end when he recorded “You Want It Darker” and that focus is evident throughout the record. Reviewing the album now without having his death looming over every track isn’t possible now, so I’ll just have to let it loom.

On his two previous albums (2012’s “Old Ideas” and 2014’s “Popular Problems”) Cohen embraced jazz, lounge and rock elements, but “You Want It Darker” takes a starker approach more akin to 2001’s “Ten New Songs.”

“Ten New Songs” falls down on synthetic production values that numbed Cohen’s amazing lyrics, but he doesn’t make that mistake on “You Want It Darker.” This album is rich with amazing musicianship, and a stripped down quality that lets Cohen’s voice roll across the top of it all, like a thick fog spilling across the surface of a lake. There’s lots going on down in those depths, but wrapped in the gravelly tone of Cohen’s voice it feel close and personal, like he’s talking only to you.

Cohen has always made up for a lack of range with a poetic instinct for phrasing and emotional impact in his singing. As with most of his later career, he employs background singers to hit whatever high notes are needed to serve the song. On this record it is clear he wants it darker, though, and the backup vocalists are further back in the mix, and appear more sparsely than on previous records.

The record opens with the title track, which starts with an almost Gregorian chant that adds a quality of mysticism and religious reverence to the track. Cohen is laying his cards on the table (the imagery of quitting a card game runs throughout the record) and letting us know it is time to say goodbye.

Despite singing about his imminent death, Cohen never gets maudlin. He is ready to go, and he’s saying goodbye. When he sings, “I’m ready my Lord” it rings true.

Cohen also seems eager to square accounts with old friends and lovers. On “Treaty” he apologizes to someone, acknowledging his own ego in the process:

“They’re dancing in the streets – it’s Jubilee
We sold ourselves for love but now we’re free
I’m so sorry for the ghost I made you be
Only one of us was real – and that was me.”

So much of Leonard Cohen songs are the lyrics, and as a result his talents as a songwriter are often overlooked. “Leaving the Table” starts with a mournful guitar lick that reminded me of the fifties song by Johnny Ace “Pledging My Love” but “Leaving the Table” takes a discordant note at the end that tinges the song with regret and resignation.

As the record nears an end Cohen takes one last turn to deliver some advice on “Steer Your Way”:

“They whisper still, the injured stones
The blunted mountains weep
As he died to make men holy
Let us die to make things cheap
And say the Mea Culpa which
You’ve probably forgot
Year by year
Month by month
Day by day
Thought by thought.”

This is more advice Cohen is giving himself than advice for us, but as ever, we get to tag along for the ride. Cohen’s biblical imagery remains sharp and in focus, and while the song’s lyrics have an apocalyptic feel, there is a sublime violin lick at the end of each stanza that reminds us that there is a celebration here as well. Death is the next adventure.

I’ve had a hard time of it since hearing about Cohen’s death. I’ve wallowed too much and I’ve generally felt unfocused. “You Want It Darker” shows that Cohen handled it a lot better than I have. He settled his accounts, he spoke a few polite words of welcome to his maker, and he left us a record of his thoughts to guide us through those darker places one last time.

Best tracks: You Want It Darker, Treaty, Leaving the Table, Steer Your Way

Friday, November 11, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 936: Drive-By Truckers

I got home last night to learn that Leonard Cohen had died. I’ll have more to say on that in my next review, but for now I’ll just note that Leonard Cohen has been a huge part of my life. He’s helped me through hard times and helped me appreciate the good ones as well. Last night Sheila and I put on five of his albums, got drunk, and remembered him. Yes, tears were shed and yes, some of them were mine.

But as today is Remembrance Day, let’s take a moment for all the brave servicemen and women who have served our country. Use that minute of silence wisely, and let it sink deep down in you.

And now, against all odds, more Drive-By Truckers. My intro was going to be all about how statistically unlikely that is but other events were just more important.

Disc 936 is….English Oceans
Artist: Drive-By Truckers

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? This is another cover by artist Wes Freed. If the Drive-By Truckers are going to use the same artist for the album covers so often I’m glad it is this guy and not that guy who does Steve Earle covers these days.

Here, two creepy figures lurking off the coast for unwary swimmers. I like to imagine they are nereids because Greek mythology makes everything cooler. What could be creepier than seeing these two figures by the light of the full moon? When you open the album up you find out:
It's three nereids! I’m glad the cover doesn’t unfold any further. I don’t think my heart could take it.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve told this tale a bit too much of late. I traced them back through my interest in Jason Isbell’s solo work (Isbell having once been a member of the DBT). I’ve been drilling through their entire discography to see what I liked, and “English Oceans” was one of the albums that made the grade.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Drive-By Truckers albums. I’m starting to get a good appreciation of each, given how much of my listening time they’ve taken up over the past week. I like “English Oceans” but I only buy my favourite DBT albums so competition is tough, and I must put it last out of those five.

Ratings: 3 stars

The Drive-By Truckers have been on a good run for the past five years, with three solid albums released in that time. “English Oceans” is the middle child of that run, and while it sits in the shadows of its closest siblings, it still has that signature Drive-By Truckers southern rock sound, and the thoughtful songwriting of both Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood to keep its head above water (get it? get it?).

Hood’s voice is more steeped in a southern drawl, and Cooley’s tone is a bit flatter and more country. Like Blue Rodeo’s Greg Keelor and Jim Cuddy, it is the trading off between the two voices that helps give the record its range.

The album opens with the rockin’ Mike Cooley number “Shit Shots Count” that has the Drive-By Truckers exploring the plight of the working man, with language that he might use to describe his own circumstances. It a cynical song, but it is meant to be, and it rocks out with just the right amount of ‘give ‘er!’ to sell the illusion.

Primer Coat” is another Cooley stand out; a touching character study of a father coming to terms with giving his only daughter away in marriage. It is a poignant glimpse into the life of a man who says very little, but has oceans of emotion going on underneath. The song ends:

“My sister’s marrying in the spring and everything will be fine
Mama’s planning the wedding, Daddy’s planning on crying
She’s slipping out of her apron strings
You best let him be
He’s staring through his own taillights and gathering speed.”

As Drive-By Truckers’ songs go this is positively jubilant.

The album is largely introspective, but this being the Truckers there is a bit of political commentary as well. “The Part of Him” is a Patterson Hood number about a corrupt self-serving politician. The song has a nice rolling quality, and the touches of banjo put a nice jump in that roll. The lyrics are stark and Hood ably employs a caesura mid-line to drive home internal rhymes. My favourite one is:

He was an absolute…piece of shit to tell the truth.”

I like it because it features a curse word (that’s always fun, right?), but it isn’t a great line of poetry on its own. I would’ve liked the song to use a bit more metaphor. That would have detracted from the stark tone Hood is trying to strike, so maybe I shouldn’t quibble. Besides the opening line…

“He was elected, wingnut raised and corn fed
Teabags dragging on the chamber floor.”

…is pretty brilliant.

Hood’s other standout is “When Walter Went Crazy” which has the great line:

“When Walter went crazy he had rattlesnake in his eyes
Blended whisky in his veins and murder in his heart.”

The album’s penultimate track is a finger-picked Cooley number called “First Air of Autumn.” The song has a gentle, calming tone which belies the underlying tone of sadness and decay. As school starts and life resumes, the narrator is left feeling numb and directionless.

Maybe the stark uncertainty of “First Air of Autumn” is why the band felt the need to conclude the record with the upbeat “Grand Canyon”. It is a song of friendship and natural beauty and I would have liked it a lont more if it weren’t for the two minutes of groaning guitar feedback and atmospheric noodling at the end. The song is 7:50 in length and should be (you guessed it) 5:50.

“English Oceans” is a good record, but having very recently delved into the brilliance of “Decoration Day” and “American Band” I have developed higher standards for these guys. Maybe for this reason I judge “English Oceans” a bit harshly, but it is still a welcome addition to the collection.

Best tracks: Shit Shots Count, Primer Coat, When Walter Went Crazy, First Air of Autumn

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 935: Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle

As is often the case, I’m double-booked with activities tonight, so I’m trying to squeeze this review in before company arrives. By checking the time it was posted you’ll know if I succeeded.

Disc 935 is….One from the Heart
Artist: Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? This album is a soundtrack to a movie, and this is the movie poster. I think that’s Terri Garr’s back, walking away. Judging by that suitcase, I think she’s gonna be gone a while.

How I Came To Know It: I can’t remember. Sheila might have bought me this one to round out our Tom Waits collection, or I might’ve bought it for her for the same reason. We both like Tom Waits.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 18 of Tom Waits’ studio albums. While technically this one is a duet album with Crystal Gayle, I’m going to count it. So where does it land? I left a spot for it at #14 but it didn’t inspire like I expected it to, so I’m dropping it down to #17 and moving everything in between up one.

Ratings: 2 stars

Unlike most of the soundtracks in my collection, I’ve never seen “One from the Heart”. Consequently I had to take the music on its own terms, but really shouldn’t every album be taken that way anyway?

In this case, the music is a lot of early eighties lounge action, with its feet planted firmly in the tradition of fifties and sixties musicals. I half expected Frank Sinatra to stroll out.

Instead, it is Tom Waits (who wrote the whole thing) and seventies pop heart-throb Crystal Gayle. I mostly remember Crystal Gayle from duets with Kris Kristofferson and from the tingly feelings she’d give me when I would stare at her sexy album covers. I was a bit too young to fully appreciate it, but make no mistake – Crystal Gayle was the bomb back in the day.

She also had a great voice that was full and rich, with a lot of range and power throughout it. Usually she sang in a style that mixed country and pop, but on “One From the Heart” she sings a lounge-style jazz which works equally well for her.

The purity of her tone is a nice juxtaposition to Waits’ whiskey-and-cigarette’s rasp, and the best songs on the album feature them trading verses.

The songwriting is excellent and thoughtful, which is what I’ve come to expect from Tom Waits. Here Waits has embraced the old fifties and sixties jazz sound yet written original songs that sound fresh and interesting. If you like to sit and listen to old musical soundtracks from that era, you’ll probably enjoy this record a great deal.

Unfortunately, I don’t really go for a whole album of playful crooning, particularly when the songs are so focused on telling a story that they don’t stand out on their own. The story comes through just fine: boy and girl have problems and split up, or get back together or…something. I guess it would have helped to see the movie.

But the soundtrack doesn’t inspire me to seek it out. Listening to the story it felt like I was trapped in an episode of Moonlighting. Will David and Maddie get back together? Won’t they? Will I care? No, I won’t. The songs may be pretty and well dressed up, but the narrative doesn’t hold me. Kind of like Moonlighting after about season three...

There are Christmas songs on the album, so I am guessing the movie takes place over the holidays, (which would also explain the fireworks on the cover). The whole thing captures the feeling on the album cover as well: rain soaked streets, city lights and a lot of wistful walking. Usually I’m a sucker for this stuff, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get into it today.

There are lots of reasons to like this record. Waits writes a beautiful song and Gayle sings them with grace and just the right amount of playfulness. The stripped down instrumentation serves the vibe well, so the production also hits the right notes.

Yet, for whatever reason this record didn’t resonate with me. I do like a few songs quite a bit, but taken out of the context of the album they lose their punch. Within the context of the album, I don’t have the patience to wait for them to show up.

And so I am going to send this album on its way to a home that will appreciate it more than I did. It is a good record, and deserves better treatment than I could give it. Picture me in place of Terri Garr, heading out to find a musical relationship that works better for me and wishing “One from the Heart” all the best for the same.

Best tracks: Picking Up After You, Old Boyfriends, I Beg Your Pardon