Thursday, August 25, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 904: Various Artists

Apologies for my lengthy absence, gentle readers! I lost my MP3 player on Saturday night and have not been able to listen to music on the walk to work for most of the week as a result.

There is a silver lining though, at least for me. My old MP3 player was a 2008 Zen Mosaic that held 2 GB of music. It’s most salient feature was its annoying refusal to die.

My new player is a fancy 64 GB Sony Walkman A17 with all the bells and whistles a fella could hope for. So the reviews were slightly delayed, but now the music sounds so much sweeter as a result.

Disc 904 is….Wild, Cool and Swingin’
Artist: Various Artists

Year of Release: 1996 but featuring music from 1949 to 1964

What’s up with the Cover? A microphone holds a microphone. Do not be alarmed, the smaller microphone is not holding yet another smaller microphone.

This guy looks like he could date the martini garnish lady from the cover of “Bachelor Pad Royale” (reviewed way back at Disc 372).

How I Came To Know It: Back in the mid-nineties I fell for the swing and lounge craze like a lot of other people. I didn’t fall hard, and I didn’t fall long, but it was long enough for me to buy this compilation album of classic lounge tracks.

How It Stacks Up:  Compilation albums don’t stack up but since I have three of these “Ultra Lounge” albums I’ll stack it up against the other two. “Wild, Cool and Swingin’” is easily the best of all of them by a wide margin so #1, baby!

Ratings: compilations don’t get ratings!

This record is like a Sunday walk in the park: easy, breezy and fun. These are songs that make you happy to be alive, skillfully written, sung and played.

Hearing “Wild Cool and Swingin’” made me feel like artists paid more attention to their craft then than now. It isn’t likely true, but hearing these artists deliver such perfection it is easy to believe. The album features multiple vocalists, but all of them share an exceptional talent for settling down in the pocket that makes swing music work.

The musicianship is also incredible, likely because this is from a time when studios had stables full of musicians at their beck and call, and the best artists got the pick of the litter. It really shows.
The times were never ‘simpler’ (every age has its issues) but the music on this record paints a picture that suggests it was. People went out and about, met one another, batted eyelashes and fell in love. The songs on this record are usually playful, occasionally sexy and always full of energy.

Back in our Lounge revival days of the mid to late nineties Sheila and I both played this album often, and it was a staple at parties in the era before you could just load music onto a memory stick. It is just good music for sunshine, laughter and the tinkling of bar glasses.

It is hard to pick out favourites, but there are a few. The record starts with the flourish of trumpets and swingin’ Dean Martin singing “Ain’t that a Kick in the Head” as though that would be the most marvelous experience ever. Peggy Lee’s sultry rendition of “Fever” is an all-time classic and for a more playful couple’s version of similarly heavy flirtation I recommend Louis Prima and Keely Smith singing “That Old Black Magic”.

Prima does a solo number, “Closer to the Bone” that is mildly inappropriate but undeniably fun about a guy who likes skinny girls, full of metaphors about just how skinny his gal is:

“Now she’d make a good thermometer
If she drank a glass of wine
She’s built just like a garter snake
She climbs up like a vine.”

The idea that sixty years ago someone would write a song feeling the need to defend how he likes slender women shows just how inconstant the nature of beauty is. It would be easy to see this song as a slice of fifties sexism, but I prefer to see it as a reminder that we shouldn’t get all wrought up about classical notions of beauty; they’re going to change soon enough anyway.

My favourite song on the record is “Sunday In New York” which is a Bobby Darin track I’d never heard until I got this record, but damn if it isn’t perfection. Sunny horn flourishes match ambling piano riffs in the perfect song for a stroll. The song begins:

“New York on Sunday,
Big City taking a nap!
Slow down, it's Sunday!
Life's a ball, let it fall in your lap!”

The way Darin snaps out the second line is perfect; New York City’s feeling a bit snoozy, but even a nap in the Big Apple has some pizzazz to it, and in Central Park love is around every corner.

The album could feel a bit bloated at 18 tracks, but I’m going to let it slide. For one thing, the songs are all so short that the total playing time is still only 49 minutes. Also, I’d have a tough time cutting many of them out, they are so good. There are a couple of schmaltzy numbers like Wayne Newton’s “Danke Schoen” (I’ve never liked that song) but for the most part even the lesser tracks are still a fun little musical stroll.

Best tracks:  Ain’t that a Kick in the Head, Dig that Crazy Chick, Fever, Jump Jive n’ Wail, French Poodle, Sunday in New York, Closer to the Bone, That Old Black Magic

Sunday, August 21, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 903: Bonnie Prince Billy

I recently sold my car, which was where I would tend to listen to my new music when I’m not doing this CD Odyssey thing. As a result I have one less way to listen to new music, and my new purchases are starting to overflow (I think there are around 70 right now I haven’t properly grokked in their fullness).

Fortunately, the CD Odyssey has a rule that allows me to insert a new (to me) album into the mix if I choose to. It has been years since I’ve done it, but I’m going to try it out again by periodically taking a new album (still rolled randomly) from the albums I’ve recently purchased and inserting it into the mix. This next review is one of those.

Disc 903 is….Superwolf
Artist: Bonnie Prince Billy, with Matt Sweeney

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? A bloody hand, raised from the water. Shark attack? Superwolf? Superwolf Sharknado? The B-movie options are almost endless.

How I Came To Know It: Recently when I decide I like an artist sufficiently, I dig through their back catalogue and listen to everything they’ve ever done that I can find on Youtube. Then I buy what I like. I recently did this with Bonnie Prince Billy and “Superwolf” made the cut.

How It Stacks Up:  I have one compilation album by Bonnie Prince Billy and four studio albums. Of the four studio albums, I must reluctantly put “Superwolf” last.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Superwolf” is a headphones-only album that loses a lot of its oomph when played in the open air. It is also an atmospheric record, with a lot of ambient sound filling in all the gaps of the production. Sometimes I wish it were a little sparser, or would at least get where it is going with more sense of direction.

Bonnie Prince Billy is a natural poet, but it is not always clear what he’s getting at. He carefully chooses words to evoke a mood that mixes restlessness, unease, sexual desire and romanticism. It isn’t an easy cocktail to adjust to, but usually it is worth the effort.

The opening track, “My Home Is The Sea” starts the record off on the right foot, with the stark opening of:

“I have often said
That I would like to be dead
In a shark’s mouth”

It then morphs into a surprisingly romantic love song. Bonnie Prince Billy is nae very bonnie, and he’s obviously learned how to use music to woo the ladies. Even I felt wooed by many of “Superwolf’s” tracks.

Beast for Thee” and “What Are You?” follow the opening track with more romance and a fairly large helping of sexual innuendo as well, and I found myself slipping into a drifting reverie, under the Bonnie Prince’s high tenor voice, frail and insistent.

Then “Goat and Ram” breaks the spell, alternating a lukewarm bath of directionless reverb guitar with the clash of instruments that sound too loud no matter how much you turn down the volume. The treatment stands out like a sore thumb, and makes the song disruptive and (dare I say it) a little annoying.

Worse still is “Blood Embrace.” It is almost eight minutes long, starting out with a pretty nifty and haunting melody on the guitar that unfortunately never develops into something more. For the first two minutes you are excited to see where the song will go, and for the last six you just want it to end.

While “Blood Embrace” is the worst offender, many of the other songs have a similar problem. They start out promising but they have a meandering feeling that makes me want them to just do a little more.

The overall effect is similar. Even though the record is a tastefully restrained 11 songs and 43 minutes long it seems to drag and take too long to say what it has to say. Despite this, I can’t deny Bonnie Prince Billy’s innovative approach to music, and it lifts the album from merely average to good.

The record ends on a high point, with the depressing but beautiful “I Gave You

“I gave you a child, and you didn’t want it
That’s the most that I have to give
I gave you a house and you didn’t haunt it
Now where am I supposed to live?”

All the unsettled romanticism expressed earlier on the record comes home to roost on “I Gave You,” which expresses the horror of a love that won’t leave, even though everything it now touches is polluted and wrong.

On a record that I was considering giving away, it is just enough to land the needle on the “keep” side of the dial, at least for now. However, “Superwolf” is still not a record I would use to introduce someone to Bonnie Prince Billy.

Best tracks:  My Home Is The Sea, What Are You?, Only Someone Running, Death in the Sea, I Gave You

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 902: The Who

I’ve had an exhausting five days full of a combination of work and life commitments, and frankly I’m knackered. However, with the worst of it behind me, I'm glad to finally be able to spare an hour to review another record.

Disc 902 is….Meaty, Beaty, Big and Bouncy
Artist: The Who

Year of Release: 1971, but featuring music from 1965-1970

What’s up with the Cover? Four malcontented youths loaf about on a stoop, looking tired after a long day of puncturing tires and setting off car alarms. The actual band looks on from the safety of a window, no doubt fearful for their wallets.

How I Came To Know It: I believe Sheila had this album when I met her. If not, we got it very shortly thereafter (likely on her recommendation). Anyway, it is a good one.

How It Stacks Up:  This is a compilation album, so it doesn’t stack up. Them’s the rules.

Ratings: No rating for compilation albums!

I’m not a big fan of compilation albums generally but with a band like The Who, where half the songs they released early in their career were just 45s, if you don’t get a compilation you don’t get a lot of their best music. “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” is definitely a collection of The Who’s best, at least from the early part of their career.

The Who are giants in the early history of rock and roll, and have earned the right to be mentioned alongside other great sixties British bands including the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and an edge that reminded me particularly of the Kinks. It is a new approach to rock and roll that was somehow divorced from the American blues that inspired so much sixties music. The songs have an anthemic quality, no doubt inspired by the grandiose singing style of Roger Daltrey, who never met a camera he didn’t want to make love to.

The real inspiration of the band, however, is guitarist and principle songwriter Pete Townshend. Townshend is a troubled genius, who channels a nerdy restlessness into powerful guitar riffs that are married to innovative song structures that still sound fresh decades later.

The album covers the very early part of the band’s career from 1964 to 1970 (covering four albums and a half dozen or so single releases. Early on Townsend is clearly interested in themes of youth, including rebellion, confusion and early sexual experience (sometimes expressed through humorous anecdote).

Songs like “The Kids are Alright” and “My Generation” cover off the rebellion. Sexual discovery is featured in two lighthearted tracks, the masturbatory “Pictures of Lily” (seriously, it is about masturbation) and the involuntary gender-bending “I’m a Boy.”

My favourite song on the album has always been “The Seeker” which captures youthful confusion with a sense of purpose, as though if just seeking the truth is enough, even if you never find it. It is a great, and maybe only equaled in delivery by Alice Cooper’s classic “I’m Eighteen.” Hearing Roger Daltry’s voice climb into falsetto as he sings “I’ve been searching low and high-eee!” is one of rock’s great vocal moments. The guitar riffs from Townsend are also inspiring.

There are a few tracks that fail to impress, most notably “Boris the Spider” which is written and sung by bassist John Entwistle. Entwistle is the third best vocalist in the band (behind Daltry and Townsend) and it shows. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if drummer Keith Moon would have done it better. “Happy Jack” is also a song that descends into pointless kitsch, and not even Daltry’s vocals can save it.

The album also suffers from a bad transfer to CD, which was pretty common around this time (my copy was released in 1990). CD technology was still pretty new then and record labels were still struggling with making the sound as thick and rich as vinyl. Or maybe they just didn’t care, and the Soulless Record Execs were just in a hurry to cash in on the new format. Probably it was a bit of both.

Despite the production, “Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy” is a solid record of 14 tracks that never seems to drag. It is such a fine compilation it almost feels like a studio record unto itself. It also has, hands down, the best title for a ‘best of’ record in the history of music. I declare every adjective in the title as advertised, and heartily recommend this album as a worthy introduction to The Who’s music.

Best tracks:  I Can’t Explain, I Can See For Miles, Pictures of Lily, The Seeker, Pinball Wizard, I’m a Boy

Saturday, August 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 901: Warren Zevon

As you may have noticed, I buy a lot of music. The more music you hear, the harder it is to impress you (I think this is why so many music critics are such hard markers). But that also means when an album does blow your mind, it is that much sweeter of an experience. This next album blew my mind.

Disc 901 is….Excitable Boy
Artist: Warren Zevon

Year of Release: 1978

What’s up with the Cover? A classic giant head cover, very common to 1978. Is it just me or does it look like Warren Zevon is about to order an espresso and start pontificating about Sartre?

How I Came To Know It: Everyone knows the song “Werewolves of London” but my interest in Zevon (and this album in particular) was the result of my friend Randall introducing me to the title track. Many thanks to Randall, even though he is about to cost me a bit of money

How It Stacks Up:  Zevon made 12 studio albums, but I only have this one at present so I can’t really stack it up. However, that is going to change soon since I’ve recently listened to four more and they are all good, and will soon be mine. I can’t wait.

Ratings: 5 stars

Warren Zevon, where have you been all my life? “Excitable Boy” was a revelation, an album that pulls it all together – memorable songs, thoughtful lyrics, perfect production and players at the height of their creative ability.

It all starts with Warren Zevon, who wrote or cowrote all nine songs on “Excitable Boy.” Yes, in addition to being an amazing album, it is also tastefully restrained in terms of overall length.

Zevon’s voice has a deep gravitas that delivers meaning and emotional import with every word. Neil Diamond has the same talent, but this comes across less hokey than Diamond. Diamond preaches easy listening, but you can tell Zevon’s soul is sold to rock and roll.

The album has a perfect opening with the triumphant and celebratory “Johnny Strikes Up The Band” as Warren does just this, delivering a track full of dramatic flourishes and soaring melodies.

The opening track is great, but it is impossible to pick favourites on a record this good. The weakest song on the record is the R&B flavoured “Nighttime In the Switching Yard” and even it is great. It made me think of David Bowie’s work on “Young Americans” except that it is better. Zevon keeps it simple and lets the R&B flow, with perfect timing, and a band that is as tight as hell.

Zevon loves turning historical events into works of art. “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” is set during the 1960-1965 Congo War and it is part history, part romantic tale and part ghost story. Zevon starts out singing about “Roland the Thompson Gunner” but after Roland is murdered he becomes “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner” who sets out to exact vengeance on his killer. Zevon’s phrasing is so perfect that he works the word ‘headless’ into the exact same number of notes as the original moniker, and it feels so natural you don’t even notice.

Veracruz” is the story of the United States invasion of the Mexican city of Veracruz in 1914. Zevon tells the story through the eyes of one of the many residents of the city, and he ably combines the bigger picture and the immanence of the tale to those affected:

“I heard Woodrow Wilson’s guns
I heard Maria calling.
‘Veracruz is dying’”

It is heart-wrenching stuff and bonus points for successfully singing a song about Woodrow Wilson, which you just don’t see very often.

The title track juxtaposes an upbeat fun ditty about giving an energetic lad a bit of freedom, with the ugly narrative when he takes advantage of that permissiveness to rape and murder “Little Suzie.” (Yes, that Little Suzie – Zevon toured with the Everly Brothers in the seventies. I wonder what they thought of the dark twist to the story).

And what can you say about “Werewolves of London”? which is a perfect song in every way. It sounds as fresh and fun almost forty years later as it did when it was released. It is sad that it has caused Zevon to become a one-hit wonder in the minds of ninety percent of the population, but if you are only going to be remembered for one song you could do a lot worse. The song has awesome lyrics and Zevon even makes howling like a wolf work. In other songs like Hank William’s “Howlin’ at the Moon” this comes off as kitschy, but Zevon manages to walk that line and never cross over. Yes, on a single album he manages to outdo both Hank Williams and David Bowie.

Lawyers, Guns and Money” ends the album with an amazing journey into bad decisions and three of the things that can help make those bad decisions go away. Or are those the three things that cause the problems? Whatever the case, the lyrics are incredible, opening with:

“Well, I went home with the waitress
The way I always do
How was I to know
She was with the Russians too.”

This song is full of musical flourishes and an irresistible riff played on both guitar and piano with equal impact.

Like a lot of Zevon’s albums, “Excitable Boy” is packed with guest musicians drawn by his genius and ability. This record features appearances by Jackson Browne, Mick Fleetwood, Jennifer Warnes, Linda Ronstad and Leland Sklar and many others.

Warren Zevon was taken from us far too soon, dying of cancer in 2003 at the age of 56. He leaves behind an exceptional legacy of music, of which “Excitable Boy” is one of the best. In fact, just like that werewolf’s hair in “Werewolves of London,” it’s perfect.

Best tracks:  all tracks. Listen to all of them!

Friday, August 12, 2016

CD Odyssey: The first 900 albums

Another milestone achieved with my 900th review on Tuesday. The next disc is a great one but before we get there, let’s take a look back.

I continue to mark pretty hard, , and it is mostly showing up in a reduction of five star albums, and a corresponding bump in four star albums. In the last 100 reviews I gave 39 albums three stars (up one from the previous 100) and 36 albums four stars (up 6).

Five star albums slipped for the third straight time, and a mere 4 albums achieved a perfect score. This is down 1 from the previous 100 and less than half of the 11 I awarded between discs 500 and 600. The reviews are random, so I’m either getting to be a harder marker or possibly a lot of those classic albums I’ve had in my collection for years have now been reviewed, so I am increasingly reliant on new music.

That wouldn’t explain my next review, though, which is going to be a five star album that I’ve only owned for a few months. That’s a teaser! For now, here are the four perfect scorers from discs 801 through 900:
  • Lyle Lovett– Pontiac
  • Bob Dylan – Oh Mercy
  • Dave Brubeck Quartet – Time Out
  •  Blue Oyster Cult – Secret Treaties

This is Blue Oyster Cult’s second consecutive five star review (they got on in the previous recap for “Fire of Unknown Origin.” What can I say? I like Blue Oyster Cult.

There was only a single one star album in the past 100, and that went to the half-baked abomination that was Neil Young’s “A Letter Home.” Here’s the full list of albums that were dismissed from the collection:
  • Neil Young, “A Letter Home” – yech. Truly terrible.
  • Neil Young, “America Stars ‘n’ Bars” – not terrible but just not worth keeping.
  • Heart “Bad Animals” – I really like the hit (“Alone”) but not enough to keep the rest of the questionable material. Gone.
  • Black Mountain “IV” – a very recent parting as I only bought this album in the last few weeks and just saw the accompanying tour as well. It just isn’t up to the level of their earlier releases though, and I’m going to end the relationship now rather than drag it out for years. I already regret buying the T-shirt at the swag table.
A bit of a bad run for Neil Young, I suppose.

The nineties still hold a slight edge in terms of the decade with the most albums at 223. The eighties are in second with 196 and the oughts and seventies are neck and neck at 185 and 181 discs reviewed respectively. As I buy more and more newly released music the ‘tens’ are making a bit of a surge; I’ve already reviewed 67,with 11 of those in the past 100.

In terms of overall reviews, Alice Cooper remains in top spot with 24 albums (up one from 100 albums ago), and Steve Earle stays in second place with 17 albums (up one as well). Third place is a two way tie between Bob Dylan and Tom Waits, each with 16 reviews.

On we go toward 1,000 reviews!

Tuesday, August 9, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 900: Elton John

Yeehaw! My 900th review! Hard to believe I’ve come so far – and in only seven short years!

I’ll do a recap of the last 100 shortly, but for now let’s let Disc 900 have its moment.

Disc 900 is….Tumbleweed Connection
Artist: Elton John

Year of Release: 1970

What’s up with the Cover? If England were the old west, I suppose this would be it. Someone needs to move that listless hippie along, though. What’s that? That hippie is the star, you say? Welcome to 1970.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila had a run on a bunch of reissued Elton John CDs a few years ago, and this was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  We have seven studio albums. Because of a recent purchase a lot of those albums got bumped down a spot, but “Tumbleweed Connection” holds its own at #2 in my heart.

Ratings: 4 stars

If you are expecting Elton John to do country because of this album’s name you’ll be disappointed. “Tumbleweed Connection” is better described as “Elton thinks about country music, while still doing Elton”.

Whatever you call it, it appeals to me. Most Elton John albums have at least one or two songs that sound like they belong on the Muppet Show (and some even ended up there). I like Elton better when he sounds earnest and soulful. Due to the experimentation with some of country music’s forms, “Tumbleweed Connection” has a toned down quality, while still maintaining Elton’s signature warbling voice and trilling piano.

A good example of this is the opening track, “Ballad of a Well-known Gun.” The song still has that boogie woogie swing that is so indicative of many of the Elton John songs that annoy me (“Honky Cat” and “Bennie and the Jets” come to mind). However, the song is restrained enough that you could hear it playing in some old western saloon. The lyrics, about a man trying to escape his violent past as a gunfighter, also helps ground the song in a narrative about something other than a bunch of yeehaw.

Most Elton John albums from his heyday have a signature track, and on “Tumbleweed Connection” it is “My Father’s Gun,” one of a number of songs on the record about a character’s relationship with his father. The album is a concept album, and this song informs just how our character became known as a gunfighter through soldiering in the U.S. Civil War. It is a song full of oath-taking and imagined glory, made tragic because as listeners we know that the narrator’s chosen side (the Confederacy) is destined for defeat. Elton is faithful to the viewpoint of his character, who sees himself fighting for love of family and freedom.

The most country-flavoured song is the appropriately named “Country Comfort” which is pretty solid, but here Elton is too good at mimicking the style, and as a result it is missing the interesting twist he puts on many of the other songs.

Burn Down the Mission” is innocence lost as the poor storm the local mission to get what little food is available. The song is triumphant in tone, quickly shifting the frenetic in the bridge as the music captures the restless energy of a mob that spills out of control, before slowing again as it returns to the regret of crimes done, and the debt that must be paid.

Burn Down the Mission” is driven by Elton’s masterful piano playing, but the record benefits from a lot of great musicians. This includes some pretty sweet guitar from Caleb Quaye, who manages to match up with Elton’s piano style but insert a bit southern-flavoured rock ‘n’ roll like you might hear on a Little Feat record.

The album ends with another song about a father (Elton explores serious daddy issues on this record), “Into the Old Man’s Shoes.” Here the character turns his back on the responsibilities left by his dead father, leaving town to what sounds like a dissolute pursuit of fortune, with the judgment of those he leaves behind weighing on his shoulders:

“And all they say is you ain't half the man he used to be
He had strength and he worked his life to feed his family
So if that's the way it has to be, I'll say goodbye to you
I'm not the guy, or so it seems to fill my old man's shoes”

The weight of family on “Tumbleweed Connection” is like a Greek tragedy. No matter whether our characters embrace their duty, or flee from it the resulting narrative leaves us empty and uncertain.

As great a fit as “Into the Old Man’s Shoes” is, it was not part of the original album, but is a bonus track on my remastered edition. It is followed by a bloated nine minute version of “Madman Across the Water” proving that bonus tracks are almost always a mixed blessing.

“Tumbleweed Connection” is probably the best Elton John album that you don’t own (unless you only own a greatest hits package in which case, God help you). This record didn’t chart as well as many other Elton John records of this era, but it is every bit their equal nonetheless. If anything, I like it better than most.

Best tracks:  Ballad of a Well-known Gun, My Father’s Gun, Burn Down the Mission, Into the Old Man’s Shoes

Monday, August 8, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 899: The Staves

Damn it all if I didn’t catch a cold over the weekend. I never get sick but when I do I ignore the living hell out of it.

On that note, let’s talk about music! It’s been exactly 300 albums since I last reviewed this next band.

Disc 899 is….If I Was
Artist: The Staves

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? The Staves are from England but this cover looks very much like a Canadian winter. The three sisters that make up the band look suitably miserable as they trudge along the road (Canadian winters aren’t for everyone).

How I Came To Know It: I liked the Staves 2012 debut “Dead & Born & Grown” (reviewed back at Disc 599) so I decided to take a chance on their new album despite having only heard snippets of two of the songs..

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Staves albums, and I like them both but this one is the weaker of the two, so…second.

Ratings: 3 stars

It took the Stavely-Taylor sisters three years to release their sophomore album, and during that time their sound has evolved, bringing in much stronger undercurrents of contemporary pop and indie rock. I have no complaint with the changes, although overall the quality of the songwriting is stronger on their earlier record.

This band is all about the complex harmonies, and when there are solo moments they seem prettier because they jump out at you, sharp and clear like a sunny winter’s day after a snowstorm. Kind of like the cover but with more natural light.

The three sisters have an exceptional understanding of each other’s voices and know just how to come in a little high, or a little low, sometimes tight to one another, sometimes doing loose harmonies or even rounds of interlaced lyrics. It could easily become busy or affected but they manage to hold everything together with some great timing and careful structure.

The melodies of the songs are also innovative, again not going so far as to jar you out of the folksy reverie the women create, but far enough to catch your ear. However, despite the interesting way the songs progress, they aren’t catchy, and few tracks separate themselves out from the pack.

Similarly, the lyrics of the album are sweet enough and feel like they have the weight of real experience behind them. With this much vocal prowess I found myself wishing from time to time that the record was a bit stronger poetically. Maybe it suffered from following on the heels of a Leonard Cohen record, but it didn’t impact me deep in the heart the way music like this should.

Fortunately while the album doesn’t have a lot of standouts, it doesn’t have any duds either, and the whole thing is a pleasant and at times even whimsical listen.

Let Me Down” is a pretty little track, driven by a lightly picked acoustic guitar and some nice dynamics in and out of the harmonies (did I mention this was their thing?). “Black & White” mixes that same light touch at the beginning with a more electric rock feel as it progresses, which works equally well.

I also liked “Teeth White” which is a song about getting all dressed up and hitting the town, but not really feeling it inside. The chorus triumphantly declares:

“I got my teeth white
And my jeans tight
I got my hair long
And it’s still wrong.”

I totally get it, ladies. Except the white teeth thing, that is. Not that I haven’t tried but damn it if the rum, coke and coffee always seems to hold the upper hand. But I digress…

Back to this record, where I found myself casting about looking for a song to not enjoy. Was “The Shining” too much like Suzanne Vega? No…it was just the right amount of Suzanne Vega. What about “Damn It All”? – at 6:26 it surely must be overly long. But no, it has a nice slow build that perfectly suits its odd combination of existential ennui and mild disappointment.

Yet I can’t give this very fine record four stars. I think it is because these girls just sing too damned perfectly. The record needs a little more hurt around the edges of those flawless harmonies to complete it. This is a minor quibble, though. “If I Was” is a solid folk record and I’ll be excited to see what the Staves do next as they continue to grow into their own voices.

Best tracks:  Blood I Bleed, Let Me Down, Black & White, Damn It All, Teeth White

Sunday, August 7, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 898: Leonard Cohen

My weekend has been jammed with activity. Despite all the fun I’ve had I find myself on a Sunday morning happy for the first real respite from all the revelry since I walked out of my office on Friday afternoon.

Disc 898 is….Old Ideas
Artist: Leonard Cohen

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Leonard lounges in the backyard, trying to come up with some old ideas. The ideas are new, but he’s old, thus creating various tensions in how you’re supposed to understand the title. As an aside, no one rocks a black suit like Leonard; he puts the Blues Brothers to shame.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a fan of Leonard Cohen for a very long time, so when he put out a new album I bought it despite the fact that his previous record (2004’s “Dear Heather”) was truly terrible.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 of Cohen’s studio albums and 1 live record. Of the 12 studio albums “Old Ideas” can only manage 11th best, but that’s because Cohen has so many great records.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

After some musical experimentation on his previous two records (“Ten New Songs” and “Dear Heather),” “Old Ideas” is a return to the mix of jazz, lounge and folk that made “I’m Your Man” and “The Future” such great records.

“Old Ideas” was Cohen’s first new album in eight years, and made at the tender age of 77 and from the title through the final track, Cohen seems determined to stay current and keep looking forward, musically and thematically. For the most part he succeeds.

The opening track, “Going Home” sees Cohen returning to the oft-visited topic of the process and compulsion of writing. It’s a topic he knows well after six decades of songwriting, and he approaches it with his signature mix of self-deprecation and wry humour:

“I love to speak with Leonard
He’s a sportsman and a shepherd
He’s a lazy bastard
Living in a suit.

“But he does say what I tell him
Even though it isn’t welcome
He just doesn’t have the freedom
To refuse.”

Gorgeous stuff and a reminder that Cohen’s poetic muse has never abandoned him – he still writes the best lyrics you’ll find in music.

In later years, as Cohen’s voice has gotten more gravelly and less certain, he has brought in more musical flourishes and background singers to hit the high notes he can’t manage. It works beautifully. “Amen” is a good (if slightly overlong) example, with soft horns playing here and there, and a violin adding restrained but beautiful solo where the song needs it.

Backing vocals are provided by the Webb Sisters, as Leonard can’t resist recording and touring with young, beautiful women (in concert they even do a synchronized cartwheel). The Webbs are as good as anyone Leonard has brought into his circle, and given his ability to attract great musicians over the years, that is saying something.

The album’s highlight is “Darkness” a song that opens with an ominous bass-line that brings a sense of dread to the entire track, even after the  rest of the instruments cut in to create a toe-tapping blues-groove. “Darkness” finds Cohen in a somber mood, thinking of loss and feeling a little more worn down than usual:

“I got no future
I know my days are few
The present’s not that pleasant
Just a lot of things to do
I thought the past would last me
But the darkness got that too.”

The up-tempo rhythm of the song reminds us that even when Leonard is down, he never forgets to revel in the feeling a little; an essential skill for any poet.

Come Healing” has a hymnal quality, and the combination of the majestic keyboards of Neil Larson and the Webb Sisters’ harmonies are the perfect backdrop to a song that promises succor and rescue from the dark mania expressed earlier on “Darkness.”

After “Come Healing” the record loses momentum and the next two tracks - “Banjo” and “Lullaby” - and had me feeling fidgety and ready to be done. I can’t put my finger on what disappointed me. Are the lyrics not as strong, or is it the production decisions and arrangement? I suspect a bit of both.

The final track (“Different Sides”) is the poppiest of the bunch, and ends the record on an up tempo. Again, Cohen juxtaposes the catchy tune with what is essentially a fight with a lover.

Cohen’s voice on the record definitely shows signs of age, but he’s written the music to keep the tune in his comfort zone, and both the arrangements and production fill in any of the flat areas where Cohen can’t carry it. The best thing about never having the greatest singing voice is that the step down as he ages hasn’t been as big a deal for Cohen. Also, he has learned over the years to try out new phrasing within the bar that keeps things interesting.

While “Old Ideas” doesn’t have the same high standard from beginning to end that a lot of Cohen’s other albums do, it has some memorable moments, particularly “Darkness.”  

Cohen doesn’t have many years left with us, as he himself observed just this week in a farewell letter to his long-time muse Marianne Ilhen (do yourself a favour and read it here). I’m glad Cohen keeps extending his hand back to us through his art as he approaches the darkness.

Best tracks:  Going Home, Darkness, Come Healing, Different Sides

Thursday, August 4, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 897: Dick Dale

I’m feeling a little worn out on this fine summer Thursday, and I’m ready for the weekend to begin. Before we get there, let’s get to another music review.

Disc 897 is….Mr. Eliminator
Artist: Dick Dale and his Del-Tones

Year of Release: 1964

What’s up with the Cover? This picture looks like Dick Dale is sitting behind one of those cardboard cutouts where you can pretend to be sitting in a race car. This would be a feature for kids at Daytona or something. Dick probably paid 25 cents to have his picture taken here, and I bet there was a line of kids waiting in line with their moms waiting for him to be finished so they could have a turn.

How I Came To Know It: I really loved Dick Dale’s other “ho-dad” album “Checkered Flag” and went back looking for more of the same. “Mr. Eliminator” was it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Dick Dale albums (plus one compilation album that doesn’t stack up). In every race there is a car that must come in last, and “Mr. Eliminator” is that car. Because this is the last Dick Dale album in my collection, here’s a recap:

  1. Checkered Flag: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 688)
  2. Summer Surf: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 394)
  3. Surfer’s Choice: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 756)
  4. Mr. Eliminator: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. Surf Beat: best of (not rated but reviewed at Disc 757)
Ratings: 3 stars

In 1963 Dick Dale struck hot rod lightning with “Checkered Flag,” one of my favourite albums of all time. “Mr. Eliminator” is proof that lightning never strikes in the same place twice. It is a good record, but it doesn’t have the same magic as the record released just one year prior.

All the elements are there. Dick Dale’s signature surf guitar sound wails across the tracks. In fact, some of the best tracks on this record are the instrumentals, which are all about Dale and his axe making magic.  The album begins with the title track, which features not only a groovy guitar riff, but some pretty sweet drumming action as well. Like most of Dale’s songs, it is over in just over two minutes, leaving you wanting more.

Fortunately, there is more, as the record features a fistful of instrumentals, including the furiously fast “Flashing Eyes” and the Mexicana-flavoured “Taco Wagon” before it hits the album’s instrumental height with “The Victor.”

The Victor” has an arrogant disconnect in the guitar and a deep well filled with confidence and aggression that simply says “I drive fast.” I was fortunate enough to be on the bus when I heard it, with my foot far away from any inconvenient gas pedal.

On many other Dick Dale albums, the songs with lyrics paint a great picture of whatever beach crowd he is idolizing. On his surfer records, the songs are full of tanned lads sneaking off to secret surfer spots to hang ten and mocking the gremmies and the ho-dads (the slang term for the cool kids at the beach who were more into cars than surfing). On his other hot rod record, “Checkered Flag” he flips the script, and sells up these same ho-dads, racing up and down the strip looking for fast cars and adventurous women.

There are definitely moments of this latter tradition on “Mr. Eliminator.” The best example is “Blond in the 406” a classic track about a fast girl in a car faster than even Dick Dale’s hot-rod persona can muster. The resulting pursuit is a lot of fun, and Dale’s admiration for a girl who can out-duel the boys down on the strip is a welcome bit of gender equality for 1964.

My X-KE” is a fun song about a Jaguar that warns:

“Look out Stingrays and Cobras too
I’m gonna show you what this car can do.
My X-KE, My X-KE
She cost me a fortune yessiree
Dual exhaust and four on the floor
Man this car is sure a go…er!”

I’m more into American muscle these days, but the mid-sixties Jaguar X-KE is a pretty sweet ride, and well deserving of any car enthusiast’s love.

Unfortunately, despite a lot of good stuff on “Mr. Eliminator” there is just a bit too many hokey tracks to pull me all the way in. “50 Miles To Go” might as well be “50 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” for all its musical interest, and “The Squirrel” is the kind of kitsch that would be fun if I were eight years old, but doesn’t have enough to catch my attention of a grown-up.

The record is still solid, and for musicianship alone I’m tempted to give it 4 stars, but it suffers from standing in the tall shadow of “Checkered Flag.” The instrumentals made me long for better ones on other albums, and apart from the two exceptions noted above, the songs with lyrics were lacking the standard of excellence I’ve come to expect from a master like Dick Dale. I guess he spoiled me with his own greatness.

Best tracks:  Mr. Eliminator, The Victor, Blond in the 406, My X-KE

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 896: Black Mountain

I had originally planned to take today off work, but fate intervened. I’m still managing to get a half day off work, and I’m filling it with lunch with friends and writing this blog entry. The day’s glass is decidedly half full.

This next review was delayed because first I had to grok a new album in its fullness, and then I had to wait to see them live in concert so I could review that as well. Here goes…

Disc 896 is….IV
Artist: Black Mountain

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? I’ve heard people criticize Black Mountain’s music for not being sure what it wants to be. That is certainly reflected in this cover, where a bunch of disparate images fight for attention. Note the Concorde is part of “IV” airways. Presumably Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin also fly with them.

How I Came To Know It: I am already a fan of Black Mountain and while the first two singles off this album didn’t grab me, I decided to give it a chance since I was going to see them live anyway.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Black Mountain albums. “IV” is appropriately titled, falling in at fourth best. Because this is once again the last Black Mountain album reviewed in my collection, here’s a recap:

  1. Wilderness Heart: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 315)
  2. In the Future: 3 stars (reviewed way back at Disc 4)
  3. Self-Titled: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 511)
  4. IV: 2 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 2 stars

I admire Black Mountain for doing what they want to do musically, and not caring how commercial or accessible it is. Unfortunately, with “IV” this decision results in a record that is self-indulgent but not terribly enjoyable (or even interesting) to listen to.

The opening track, “Mothers of the Sun” is pretty solid, as the band juxtaposes their two styles (atmospheric ambient sound and seventies-inspired rock riffs) to create a song with interesting dynamics. Amber Webber’s warbling vocals are alien and intense even for her standards. Like the two musical styles they stand out well against fellow vocalist (and band leader) Stephen McBean’s more traditional delivery. The song is a little long (more on that later) but it grew on me over multiple listens.

Regrettably, it doesn’t take long for Black Mountain to lose the plot (or maybe more precisely, they follow a plot all their own). “Florian Saucer Attack” had me thinking of Blue Oyster Cult, but only in that it made me want to be listening to them instead.

The album then takes a turn for the atmospheric with “Defector” and “You Can Dream,” two songs that meander around in a tight melodic box without a lot of forward motion to catch your ear. Black Mountain has always loved layering sound and on “IV” they take it one step further, with organ and synth sounds higher in the mix and lots of otherworldly laser sounds. These songs need a little more of the rock and roll that balances the opening track, but it is clear early on the band isn’t going to offer that up.

Constellations” is a return to rock and roll, and even has a cowbell in the mix but the song sounds a bit too like something the Killers might have released ten years earlier, with a thin coat of proggy production to hide the crime.

Midway through the record, “Line Them Up” brought me back from the brink. This is a quiet and mournful tune, aided by a stripped down production and a restrained and emotional Amber Webber vocal performance that serves the tune beautifully. The chord structure of the song reminded me a little of Clannad, but stays strongly in the rock genre. This is a song for sitting in the dark and remembering absent friends.

Cemetery Breeding” follows “Line Them Up” with a cool organ riff and a strong chorus, which gave hope that I was finally picking up what Black Mountain was putting down.

Instead the album ends with “Crucify Me” a song that wants to be good, but the band just won’t let it and two eight-plus minute brutes: “(Over and Over) The Chain” and “Space to Bakersfield.” Both songs wind their way so slowly and sluggishly they become the musical equivalent of an Oxbow Lake; stagnant and cut off emotionally even from themselves.

The album is over 55 minutes long, and lacks the energy to sustain itself.  “IV” has moments, but unfortunately, the moments are too sparse to make up for the wandering dissolution on the majority of the songs.

Best tracks:  Mothers of the Sun, Line Them Up, Cemetery Breeding

The Concert – Tuesday, August 2, 2016 at Distrikt Nightclub

Black Mountain came to Victoria last night which was a welcome gesture (bands don’t always bother crossing the Strait of Georgia). Knowing the band’s penchant for noodling, and already underwhelmed with the latest record, I went into the show with low expectations.

Distrikt as a venue has never been a great place to see a show. Despite many incarnations (“The Forge,” “Legends,” “Club 919,” and more) it will always be limited by the fact that is essentially a basement with a low ceiling. The Distrikt folks have made improvements by sinking a dance floor in front of the stage, improving the sight lines, so it was better than I remembered it but the sound remained sketchy and a bit hot.

I went to the show with my friends Nick (happy birthday, Nick!), Chris and Chris’ son Kevin. It was a lot of fun enjoying a concert with the next generation.

The opening act was a trio in desperate need of a drummer. I would tell you their name but they never stopped their droning long enough to let the crowd know. Black Mountain gave them a shout out later on, but I missed the name. Attention opening acts: you are there to promote yourselves – at least say who you are!

Not that it would have mattered, because I was uninspired. They played about a half dozen songs and they all sounded the same. The organ player seemed bored, and the bassist kept adjusting his amp, and so came in late to half the tracks. The band was slightly improved when Black Mountain drummer Joshua Wells came on stage to give them an assist. Wells is a top-notch drummer and his work here (and later with Black Mountain) was a highlight of the evening.

In between the two performances roadies came on stage and did their disheveled yet meticulous dance with the equipment. One older guy, unkempt beard in full array, was wearing a Sherlock Holmes hat. Chris and Kevin dubbed him “Sound Hound of the Baskervilles.” Nice. Also, during the wait the club DJ played Blue Oyster Cult’s “Dominance and Submission.” Double nice!

At length (literally – it was approaching 11 p.m.) Black Mountain came on stage to the scattered applause of the 30-something hipster crowd. I will give the crowd credit – they were enthusiastic without being disruptive and I saw a lot of local audiophiles and legitimate music lovers in the audience.

The band wasn’t much for audience interaction, and it seemed the kind of audience that enjoyed the coolness of the band ‘keeping it real.’ McBean’s only attempt to engage was to note that it was Tuesday, which as conversation topics go ranks up there with remarking on the weather.

Black Mountain is not terribly exciting to watch. They have a lot of cool tracks (fast and slow) but for every fast-paced cruncher they felt the need to kill all the energy in the room with some pointless droning. The quieter songs I preferred of their previous album “Wildnerness Heart” were mostly ignored in favour of the lesser tracks off of “IV” (see album review above).

Instead of ending the set with a rambunctious energy-filled song, they went with a coma-inducing epic of feedback and blah.

The cheer for the encore was the most lackluster I’ve ever encountered, and Black Mountain took their time returning. I got the feeling the audience were too cool to take part in the age-old rock concert ritual, and Black Mountain were too cool to care. It was weirdly cool, actually. Kind of like when spoken-word poetry audiences snap their fingers instead of clap.

The encore featured not timeless favourites, but instead a lot more droning. I believe this was expected, since the most die-hard fans up close on the floor seemed to eat this up.

I like to think I am a Black Mountain fan (I even bought a shirt, despite sourly noting that once again a band has come to Victoria without enough ‘mediums’ for sale) but the band has a lot of range, and I don’t love everything they do. This show was engaging when they were in my wheelhouse, and the boys can definitely play, so overall I’d say the show was solid, but not inspiring. It was weighed down by the new material such that it strayed too often from throwback seventies rock show and into the space-sounds of indifference. They might do this latter sound well as well, but I had a hard time caring.

Having said all that, all three of my companions liked it a lot more than I did, leading me to believe this was more a matter of taste. If some of the things I’ve complained about are things you actually like in music then this is the band for you.