Tuesday, March 21, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 984: Judas Priest

On July 1, 2009 the CD Odyssey officially began with my first review. It was Judas Priest’s “Screaming for Vengeance.” Now, 984 discs later the Odyssey continues to roll, but our journey with Judas Priest is (at least for now) officially at an end.

Disc 984 is…Ram It Down
Artist: Judas Priest

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? This is one of my favourite album covers so far. A vengeful god rams it down on an unfortunate planet. Don’t worry, though, the planet being bashed is not earth – there’s too much orange.

How I Came To Know It: I knew this album briefly as a kid, but in 1988 I was already transitioning from metal to folk, and I didn’t pay it much attention. I only bought it about five years ago when I was fleshing out my Judas Priest collection.

How It Stacks Up:  I have twelve Judas Priest albums. Of those twelve, it is at the top…of the bottom half, so seventh. Since I’ve now reviewed all my Judas Priest albums, here’s the full recap:

  1. British Steel: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 272)
  2. Defenders of the Faith: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 35)
  3. Killing Machine: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 261)
  4. Screaming for Vengeance: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1)
  5. Rocka Rolla: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 41)
  6. Sad Wings of Destiny: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 461)
  7. Ram It Down: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  8. Turbo: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 471)
  9. Stained Class: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 195)
  10. Sin After Sin: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 319)
  11. Point of Entry: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 424)
  12. Nostradamus: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 594)
Ratings: 3 stars

After the synthesizer-fueled fun of 1986’s “Turbo,” Judas Priest seemed determined to re-establish their heavy metal cred on “Ram It Down.” From the pounding blue fist on the cover through the blistering guitar riffs that seem to suffuse and dominate every song, “Ram It Down” is an album that follows its own advice.

The songs on the album feature everything you’ve come to know and love about 1980s Judas Priest: visceral energy and anthems that encourage you to raise your fist and cheer on the metal revolution. In short, it is good, honest, semi-clean fun.

That this album doesn’t achieve the same level of greatness as classics like “British Steel” or “Defenders of the Faith” is not a slight, so much as a recognition of how great those records are.

The record opens with the title track and quickly signals that Priest is ready to pound out some heavy metal. The song boasts “Thousands of cars and a million guitars/Screaming with power in the air” and sets a clear tone; everything on this album will be big, bold and loud. Rob Halford isn’t called on to do anything spectacular, but he sings with his usual power; one of the few voices that can hold its own against not one - but two - lead guitars.

The album’s style heavily recalls “Defenders of the Faith” with many of the songs having similar pounding beats and the same solid mix of speed riffs and rising anthems. The songs aren’t consistently as good, nor are the melodies as interesting, but they’re solid.

The best anthem on the record is “I’m a Rocker” which is an unabashed celebration of the band’s years on the road. No subterfuge here; they are rockers and they have spent their lives…rocking. It’s a song that proves you don’t have to overthink what makes a good song. Just rock out, and tell the world about it.

At the other end of the spectrum is the almost eight minute epic “Blood Red Skies.” The song has a slow build, starting with a power ballad that grows into a rising crescendo of rock and a chorus that is gloriously triumphant. This song made me think about what it must feel like to be a gladiator, standing victorious in the Roman Colosseum, soaking in the adulation of the fans. No, the song isn’t about that but it evokes that feeling. Also, I just watched a bunch of documentaries on ancient Rome, so give me a break.

“Ram It Down” also features a cover of “Johnny B. Goode”. This song has been done by so many artists over the decades, but my favourite has always been this one. It is powerful and ballsy, infusing eighties metal power chords into a song that is tough enough to take it and then some. It is a worthy tribute to Chuck Berry in the week of his death. Rest in peace, Mr. Berry, and thanks again for rock and roll. We still like it.

This particular edition of the CD has two live bonus tracks tagged onto the end that I could live without. Both “Night Comes Down” (from Defenders of the Faith) and “Bloodstone” (from Screaming for Vengeance) are good songs, but I’ve got them on their original albums already. Tagged on the end here they are awkward and make the record feel a bit too long.

Despite this and the fact that there are better albums in the Judas Priest discography, “Ram It Down” is a solid entry in the band’s career. There are no bad songs and plenty that are genuine head thrashers. It is well worth adding to your collection if you’re looking to expand your Judas Priest collection.

Best tracks: Ram It Down, Blood Red Skies, I’m a Rocker, Johhny B. Goode

Saturday, March 18, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 983: Harpeth Rising

It is a busy weekend for me, with my family in town visiting and lots of official stuff on the go. By contrast, last night was a quiet night in with the Sheila, playing board games and listening to music.

On the music-listening front I’ve had a bit of a double backlog due to all the albums I’ve been buying. The front line of that backlog has been albums I haven’t heard at all. We got through the last five of those last night – they were (in order of appearance):
  • The Handsome Family “Singing Bones”
  • Thor “Only the Strong”
  • Thin Lizzy “Chinatown”
  • Allison Moorer “Down to Believing”
  • Shins “Heartworms”
While that backlog is complete, I don’t introduce a new album into the “main stacks” until it has had a minimum three listens, including two consecutively. That backlog is more like 100 discs, and for this reason every other review is randomly chosen from this overflow until I catch up a bit. This next review is the latest one of those.

Disc 983 is…Self-Titled
Artist: Harpeth Rising

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? The original lineup! The only person still in the band is the woman in the hat (violinist/vocalist Jordana Greenberg). When I said that some of you were going to have to step aside if I was going to get into the house, that isn’t what I meant.

How I Came To Know It: As I noted when I reviewed “Dead Man’s Hand” back at Disc 955, I read about the band in an article for Paste Magazine by Jim Vorel. I ordered all their albums direct from the band’s website.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Harpeth Rising albums. Another one is being released very soon (excitement!) but for now let’s stick to what we’ve got, shall we?

While I enjoy their Self-Titled debut, I like their other albums more so I must reluctantly put it fourth. I hope it stays in last, because that’ll mean the new album is even better!

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Sometimes you fall hard for a band, and that has certainly happened to me with Harpeth Rising. While their self-titled debut has some rough edges, hearing the germination of their unique sound is a pleasure.

From the very beginnings you can see the band wants to be more than just bluegrass. Yes, they are a bluegrass band, with that front-of-the-beat intensity, crisp playing, and a lot of ones, fours and fives in the chord progression.

However they do more than that, throwing in melodic decisions that daringly sidle right up the edge of classical and put their hand on her knee. Ruthie Valente Burgess’ cello is grounded on the classical side most of the time, and Rebecca Reed-Lunn’s banjo lives over in bluegrass. Greenberg is the swing vote, playing the fiddle half the time and the violin the other half. It shouldn’t work, but it does.

As is often the case when a band is just starting out, there is a restless energy on this record in both the playing and the subject matter. A lot of the songs delve into questions about whether we can make a lasting difference in society, or failing that, at least stand up and resist overweening authority.

The masterpiece of rebellion on the album is “Abraham,” which is not so much a retelling of the story of Isaac and Abraham as it is a rumination on the damage done to both father and son when willful gods descend demanding loyalty. The melody of the song is soft, lilting and sorrowful, grounded by Reed-Lunn’s masterful banjo playing and some of the best vocals Jordana Greenberg has delivered on this or any other Harpeth Rising album.

Most of the song focuses on Isaac trying to find the path back to love and trust after his father was willing to sacrifice him on an altar. It won’t be easy, as Isaac sorrowfully notes to his father “you should have told him ‘no’” and ends with an unresolved melody and the question “can this ever be undone?” Pair this song with Leonard Cohen’s “Story of Isaac” to have your mind truly blown by what is – along with the Story of Job – bible storytime at its harshest.

Abraham” is the high point of the album. The low points are mostly one-off moments of awkwardness of phrasing or lyrics. Lines from “Train Fare and 50 Cents” like “You met a woman in New Orleans/But that’s not where you’re going it seems” where the superfluous “it seems” is tagged on just to fill the bar and close the rhyme happen just a bit too often. This is also a song where the band explores novel melodic structures, but falls a little short.

For the most part though, this is a fearless and ambitious record that pushes the edges of disparate musical styles, blurs the lines between them, and delivers some thoughtful observations on the human condition along the way.

Best tracks: Here I Stand, Last Honest Man, Can’t Find the Revolution, Abraham, 

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 982: Red Hot Chili Peppers

I ran for the bus today because I didn’t want to walk home after a long day. It doesn’t count as exercise, but I’ll take it.

Disc 982 is…Freaky Styley
Artist: Red Hot Chili Peppers

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? A collage of the band doing various silly things in various silly outfits. These guys look like they’d be a lot of fun to run into at a party, as long as it wasn’t anywhere that you were responsible for the glassware or the carpets.

How I Came To Know It: My friend and old roommate Greg introduced me to both the band and every album I own by them, including this one. Thanks, Greg!

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Red Hot Chili Peppers albums and I like them all. I rank “Freaky Styley” second, just behind “Blood Sugar Sex Magik” (reviewed back at Disc 690).

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Listening to the power pop stylings of the Red Hot Chili Peppers in recent years it is hard to remember just how incredible and innovative they were at the beginning of their careers, but if you need a refresher look no farther than “Freaky Styley”.

Back in 1985 the Chilis were drugged out beach bums oozing with potential. They were a mix of surfer punk, funk, and psychadelia. With the dynamic balls-forward vocals of Anthony Kiedis and the incredible bass licks of Flea they seemed destined for greatness. Add in Parliament’s George Clinton as producer and it felt like anything could happen.

The only thing holding this record back is its total refusal to have an artistic direction, but that’s also what makes it so enjoyable. The Chilis range through musical styles, throwing in bizarre rhyming spoken word tracks like “Thirty Dirty Birds” as readily as they land backbone sliding funk riffs. I love the mix, but it is hard to concentrate on what’s coming next.

This whole recording from the name, to the cover art through to the music feels overblown and excessive. Ordinarily I would call it ambitious, but you get the feeling these guys are just freaking out and having a good time. That they were defining their own musical niche in the process feels more born out of fearlessness than forethought.

Kiedis has a wonderful tone to his voice, although for the most part this won’t be fully showcased until later records (even 1987’s “Uplift Mofo Party Plan” has more sustained singing). On “Freaky Styley” he is all about delivering his crazed and frantic lyrics into the pocket of the beat with the precision of a rap star. He’s like James Brown if James Brown were a surfer acid freak.

Guitarist Hillel Slovak (who would die tragically of a heroin overdose three years later) brings the punk edge to the band, with raw, saw-toothed playing that cuts its way through the groove when the song needs grit, and drops a funky riff down on “Yertle the Turtle” that will make you dance like a madman. It made me dance in the elevator on the way home, in fact. I’m just thankful no one was in there with me, because there was no resisting that funk – audience or not. Also, bonus points for making the best song about a Dr. Seuss story ever.

The rhythm section of Flea and Cliff Martinez hold the whole thing together. Flea is the star of the band at this stage of their career (maybe at every stage). The title track is just a slow fade in/fade out groove driven almost entirely by Flea’s bass playing and I can’t get enough of it.

The band features some fine guest musicians in the horn section, including none other than the great Maceo Parker on saxophone. On “The Brothers Cup” the mix of the Chilis doing their rap-rock stylings mixed with the funky flourishes of the horn solo make that song timeless and irresistible.

Regrettable, the record suffers from poor production (sorry George). It could just be the transfer of everything onto CD that is the culprit here (my copy is old and in those early days they didn’t know how to fix the mix for compact disc). In any event, it sounds tinny and distant in places, which is the worst thing for music as visceral as this.

Also, the way the music jumps around from style to style – sometimes between songs, and sometimes within them – makes it hard to settle your ears down and listen. The music is frantic and distracted. It is brilliantly so, but it isn’t for everyone, and you have to be in the mood to have your senses assaulted.

Overall, “Freaky Styley” is a solid record that is hard to define but easy to love.

Best tracks: Hollywood, Freaky Styley, The Brothers Cup, Catholic School Girls Rule, Sex Rap, Yertle the Turtle

Monday, March 13, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 981: Scruj MacDuhk

It’s now Monday evening, but I’m still basking in the glow of a lovely weekend filled with friends, fun and music. The highlight was seeing Elton John live on Saturday night.

My previous experience with the sound system at the Memorial Arena made me nervous, but as it turned out my fears were wholly unfounded. The sound was amazing and so was Elton John. Two weeks before his 70th birthday he still sang and played beautifully. He gave us two and a half hours of solid entertainment and seemed genuinely happy to be there. I know I was.

Speaking of live music, this next review is of an album that was recorded live albeit in Winnipeg, not Victoria.

Disc 981 is…Live at the West End Cultural Centre
Artist: Scruj Macduhk

Year of Release: 1997

What’s up with the Cover? A painting by artist Megan Mansbridge of what appears to be a four headed duck (a ‘duhk’ perhaps?). It would be an understatement to say I don’t like this painting. I’m not saying it had me longing for Tony Fitzpatrick’s Terraplane (see previous review) but it was close.

How I Came To Know It: This was me digging back into the origins of Wailin’ Jenny Ruth Moody. Moody’s first band was Scruj Macduhk so I decided to give them a shot, figuring anything featuring Moody’s heavenly voice can’t be all bad.

How It Stacks Up:  I’m still on the lookout for Scruj Macduhk’s other live album, “Live at Canso” but for now I’ve only got the West End Cultural Centre show, so it can’t stack up (yet).

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Live albums are often either a mess or an amalgamation of multiple shows pulling the best performance from each to ensure it is not a mess. Not so, “Live at the West End Cultural Centre.” It is a single show with the energy of a concert but the precision and execution of a studio record. In short, it is the best of both worlds.

Scruj MacDuhk is a Canadian folk band that everyone who loves obscure folk music either knows or pretends to know. They are a bit of a big deal in the “not a big deal” world of obscure folk music. Listening to them play live – even if it is just on CD – it is easy to see why they have such a good reputation.

Scruj MacDuhk play traditional Irish/Eastern Canadian folk music and they play it brilliantly. It is a style that requires the players to be both precise and relaxed at the same time, letting the jigs and reels roll out with energy and enthusiasm. Not only does the band need to stay tight and disciplined, it’s got to make everyone think it’s easy. Despite having six regular members, Scruj Macduhk sound effortless.

It helps to have the incredible vocals of Ruth Moody. Just 21 years old on this record, she shows a talent for phrasing and an innate sense of when to inject power and when to let the natural sweetness of her tone do the talking.  There are four songs that feature Moody’s vocals and they are hands down my favourites on the record.

For the most part the songs are traditional, although there are two originals written by guitarist Joel Fafard. These tracks (one with words, one instrumental) are solid, but didn’t blow me away. I think it was just because Moody doesn’t sing them, though. More Moody!

Moody sings on most of the traditional tracks, filling them with love and making your heart soar. “Roddy MacCorley” is rebellious and celebratory tale of an Irish rebel going proudly to his own hanging, and “Oh No, Not I” is the tale of a woman spurned by a lover who they themselves had once turned their back on. I have versions of both by other artists (Shane MacGowan and the Irish Descendants respectively) and Moody puts them both to shame. “Rocks of Bawn” was new to me. It’s a song about a patch of ground that’s tough to plow. Hard to believe that would be a compelling topic, but Moody makes it work.

The best track on the record is “Banks of Red Roses” which has a melody that reminded me of “Bonnie Banks of Loch Lomond.” It appears to be a song about some young musician enjoying an outing with his girlfriend when things go a bit sideways. She asks him if he’d ever leave her and his response is to take her to a secluded area and stab her to death with a penknife. Hmmm. I suppose “a bit sideways’ was a bit of an understatement.

Also, lest you think it was just him panicking in the spur of the moment, the secluded area he chooses is a cave where earlier he’s dug a grave. That kind of premeditation will get you MacCorleyed in 32 U.S. states. It’s a rather serious overreaction, but that’s folk music for you. In modern love songs gone wrong, after a reasonable amount of heartache the two lovers just agree to see other people. In traditional folk music someone either dies of grief or murders their partner. It’s tragic and unnecessary, but it makes for a good song.

Even if I weren’t a sucker for a murder ballad, this is a solid record. The only serious criticism I have is that at nine songs and 37 minutes of music, I wish they would’ve played longer.

Best tracks: Roddy MacCorley, Oh Not Not I, Rocks of Bawn, Allan MacPherson of Dumbarton/Pretty Little Indian, Banks of Red Roses

Friday, March 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 980: Steve Earle

I’m a bit worn out after a hard week at work, but the weekend is here. It is even here early, since I’m off today! I am looking forward to recharging my batteries doing things I enjoy, starting with writing this blog entry. I only wish I had enjoyed the album more.

Disc 980 is…Terraplane
Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? After all those Drive-By Trucker albums featuring killer art by Wes Freed I had almost forgotten that Steve Earle has been putting the horrible art of Tony Fitzpatrick on his covers for decades.

This cover features a Terraplane, which was a car made by the Hudson Motor Car Company from 1932 to 1938. Legendary bluesman Robert Johnson featured it in a song called “Terraplane Blues” in 1936 which may be the connection here.

It looks like after Fitzpatrick painted this one he left to go answer the phone and while he was gone his kids doodled all over it.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me buying Steve Earle’s latest album on faith. I’ve done that with this record and then again with 2016’s “Colvin & Earle” (reviewed back at Disc 921). Steve’s going to have to earn the next one.

How It Stacks Up:  Not counting Earle’s album of Townes Van Zandt covers (which is awesome, but hard to stack up) I have 16 Steve Earle albums. “Terraplane” comes in dead last at #16.

Ratings: 2 stars

Long-time readers will know I am a huge Steve Earle fan. I’ve seen him in concert four times and next time he comes to town, I will go again. It is rare that I have anything bad to say about him. I guess there is a time for everything.

After years of skirting multiple genres, “Terraplane” is primarily a blues album, and Earle’s love for the blues is evident throughout, as he plays around with most (if not all) of the various styles that make up the blues. I like the blues well enough, and I also like it when artists keep things interesting for themselves and – by extension – their audience. But it wasn’t the musical style of “Terraplane” that put me off. It wasn’t even Earle’s delivery or musicianship; he plays with heart and grit. I just didn’t like these songs all that much.

Earle plays with a grimy and raw quality that makes it feel somewhere between someone playing in a cheap dive bar and a street busker. I think this is what he was going for, but it just felt like one more bluesman, ambling his way around and hoping to pick up a few tips. There isn’t anything wrong with that, but as a devoted fan of Earle’s for over thirty years, I’ve come to expect better.

“Terraplane” is also a break up album, being written in the wake of his divorce from his seventh wife, singer/songwriter Allison Moorer. She also did a breakup album called “Down to Believing.” You can check out the title track here.

Sometimes a break up album can bring the best out of an artist, but “Terraplane” feels like an idle exploration of those feelings, more interested in exploring the blues than with internal exploration. It is there, but it feels like a junior partner. Songs like “You’re the Best Lover That I Ever Had” and “Baby’s Just as Mean as Me” both feel have catchy rhythms (few know how to build a song better than Earle), but I didn’t feel the heart behind them like I wanted to.

Musically the most interesting song is “Better Off Alone.” This track could’ve been great, and with those seven marriages under his belt Earle has miles of material to draw from. It also has Earle backing away from the blues and going back to his pocket of roots folk. Despite how much I want to like it, every time I hear this line:

“And though
I taught you everything you know
I learned a thing or two myself and so
I’m gonna miss you when you’re gone.”

I find it jarring. If this is just a character amalgamated from Earle’s various experiences, then the rest of this song’s ‘mea culpa’ feel fails when the singer suggests he was the only one teaching anything to his partner. If it is specifically about Moorer – a talent in her own right for some time – it’s just unfair. And lest you think that third line balances it all out, go read it again. The narrator learned some things, but he’s not indicating from whom – just as likely it is from himself. I know Earle is hurting – at his last show you could feel it bleeding off the stage – but as Kris Kristoffersen once said:

“Don't ever cuss that fiddle, boy
Unless you want that fiddle out of tune
That picker there in trouble, boy
Ain't nothin' but another side of you.”

Later on the record there are a couple of songs I enjoyed, including the old-timey “Gamblin’ Blues” and the more rock-driven “Go-Go Boots Are Back.” I was looking forward to doing a playlist of songs featuring go-go boots (with this one, plus Mudcrutch’s “Queen of the Go-Go Boots” and the Drive-By Truckers’ “Go-Go Boots”. That’s not likely to happen though, because for the first time in 30 years ever I find myself willing to part with a Steve Earle album.

Instead, I’m going to go check out Allison Moorer’s album and see how it holds up. In the face of tragedy, it seems only fair to give everyone equal time. That one song I linked to above is promising, and I’d like to hear more.

Best tracks: Go-Go Boots Are Back, Gamblin’ Blues

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 979: Emmylou Harris

Well that was a busy day! I am looking forward to a music review and then slouching on the couch for a while before I fall asleep.

Disc 979 is…Cowgirl’s Prayer
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1993

What’s up with the Cover? Cowgirl Emmylou, strong and beautiful. It is hard not to like cowgirls in moments like this, but if they aren’t your thing the back side of the booklet provides something completely different: Vampire Emmylou.
Basically there’s no look Emmylou doesn’t master.

How I Came To Know It: When I reviewed “Bluebird” back at Disc 973 I noted that I recently dug through all the Emmylou albums I hadn’t heard yet, purchasing the ones I liked. This was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  I didn’t like this album nearly as much as “Bluebird” but it has its moments. I’ll put it 12th out of my 14 Emmylou albums, but since slots 10 through 14 are otherwise unoccupied, I reserve the right to move it up or down a bit depending on how later albums fare.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

When you have a voice like Emmylou Harris you can’t really make a bad record, but I still walked away from “Cowgirl’s Prayer” wishing for a bit more. This record has a few great moments, which is why I bought it in the first place, but they’re too few and far between overall.

Let’s start with a positive. At a time in music when production tended to get a bit too busy and new Nashville was creeping in from all sides, Emmylou manages to maintain a timeless style all her own. She knows how to blend traditional country and bluegrass with blues and contemporary folk that makes even the most boring song sound pleasant. A little new country creeps in on “High Powered Love” but mercifully that song is an outlier.

And as ever there’s her voice, delivering that magical quaver I can never get enough of. It is a voice that can make a bad song sound average and a good song sound great. There were a few times when it was put to the test on “Cowgirl’s Prayer” but it held up well.
Emmylou has a natural talent to cover a great song and make it her own, but “Cowgirl’s Prayer” was a bit of a disappointment on this front, if only in comparison to the amazing run of covers she does on other albums. She does a fine job of the classic Eddie Arnold “You Don’t Know Me”, but it didn’t knock me out of my chair. It could just be that the song has never been a favourite of mine. It’s a bit too mopey, but not in a good way (yes, there is a good mopey. More on that in a minute).

She also tackles Lucinda Williams’ “Crescent City,” once again being drawn to songs about New Orleans and Louisiana. She sings it well, but I like this song with Lucinda’s hurt over Emmylou’s quaver.

The best cover on the record is a reimagining of Leonard Cohen’s “Ballad of the Absent Mare.” With a few subtle line changes Harris turns the mare to a stallion and the song still works beautifully (spoiler alert – the horse represents a person anyway). It is a beautiful song in any incarnation and while Emmylou sings it better, I have a soft spot for the Cohen version. RIP, Leonard.

I bought the album primarily for “Prayer in Open D.” Remember earlier I mentioned that a song can be ‘good mopey’? Well, “Prayer in Open D” is it. It is a confessional of sadness and while the title may be vague, this doesn’t detract at all from the depth of the darkness it descends into. The song begins:

There’s a valley of sorrow in my soul
Where every night I hear the thunder roll
Like the sound of a distant gun
Over all the damage I have done.”

And while the song ends on a flicker of hope, it’s only noticeable because of the thickness of the night Emmylou paints across the song in earlier voices. “Prayer in Open D” is one of only two songs on the record penned by Harris, and another example of how underrated she is as a songwriter.

After multiple listens the song that grew on me the most was “Lovin’ You Again,” a song about the bad loves that attract us, and a recurring booty call that needs to stop but doesn’t. Emmylou serves it all up with equally generous helpings of desire and regret.

The worst song on the record is “Jerusalem Tomorrow” which is a spoken word piece about a travelling charlatan who finds religion. I heard the record three times through, and this track was progressively more painful on every listen. It made me imagine what it would be like to be a kid in Sunday school hearing some story from a nun who wouldn’t let you leave even though the bell had rung. When it came on for the third time on the walk home tonight I winced with the agony of it all.

Fortunately, while few songs inspired me, apart from “Jerusalem Tomorrow” none of the others caused me to physically recoil. Two stars seems a little low given all the threes and fours I sling around this blog, but it doesn’t mean this is a bad record. It just means I wish it were better. Whatever the rating, it is worth keeping just for the three best songs on the record.

Best tracks: Prayer in Open D, Lovin’ You Again, Ballad of a Runaway Horse

Monday, March 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 978: Shovels and Rope

Today I finally made it back to the gym. After months of relative inactivity, my body feels like it is falling apart, and at age 47 it probably is. Sure I get in a brisk 45 minute walk home five days a week, but that’s just basic maintenance at this point.

Atrophy is a harsh mistress, and if you don’t want her pushing you around, you’ve got to do something about it. I’m not saying a single day at the gym is going to give me the title, but at least I won a round before the fight was over.

Disc 978 is…Swimmin’ Time
Artist: Shovels & Rope

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? If you get thrown one of these, then ‘swimmin’ time’ hasn’t gone well.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Justin introduced me to Shovels & Rope one night and I really liked their sound. I went out and picked up this album shortly thereafter.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have two Shovels & Rope albums. “Swimmin’ Time” is #1.

Ratings: 4 stars

Never underestimate the power of simple music. “Swimmin’ Time” is a master class in how much you can accomplish with some pretty harmonies, an infectious beat and something to say.

Shovels & Rope (argh…ampersand) is a folk duo comprised of husband and wife team Michael Trent and Cary Ann Hearst. For a duo they move a lot of air, and a big part of the magic is how focused they are on beat and rhythm. “Swimmin’ Time” has foot stompin’, hand clappin’ and infectious, anticipatory drum beats. The couple let their vocals carry the melody, and the other instruments are locked in step with the drum so much that their main impact is to add oomph.

If you’re looking for thoughtful guitar picking or complex strum patterns, look elsewhere. I am usually looking for those things, but this record does what it does so well I never missed them.

Neither Trent nor Hearst are powerhouse vocalists but because of how they approach their music it doesn’t matter. Their harmonies are sometimes so loose they sound almost like a duet, and sometimes they are so tight they’re like a single person. Whatever structure they’re using, they have a great sense of timing, and how to make the natural beat of a song serve the story they’re telling. They both have a rough edge to their singing styles, and it gives all that artful harmony have a bit of grit you don’t often hear in this style of singing. The experience is like sitting around a campfire, feeling a sense of community and a confidence that you could join in anytime and not offend a soul.

The album opens with “The Devil is All Around” which begins as a sweet and sorrowful a capella, before a drum beat kicks in and the duo sing:

“I got wasted and I sat around the fire all day
See if I could find someone to make love to
And I barely even noticed how the fibers did tear away
From the fabric of my being
But nobody knows it like you do, babe
Nobody knows it like you do
The lengths we will go to.”

They hit that “I got wasted” line with a fervor that lets you know they’ve been there. The rest of the line is all harmony, but feels like a single narrator. It’s just that this narrator has got so much pain to share it takes two voices just to get it out.

The Devil Is All Around” is just one of several songs on the record that thematically explore our relationship with evil – and by evil Shovels & Rope are talking about that voice in people encouraging them to do bad things. This record is filled with people hitting their kids, burning bridges and turning to drugs, all the while knowing each step forward is just another step in the wrong direction.

But there is fun on the record as well, including a couple of sweet fishing songs (“Fish Assassin” and “Stono River Blues”). Both evoked childhood memories of shore casting on the local lakes around the small town I grew up. Sometimes I miss that.

On any record where two people are so perfectly expressing a single thought with two voices, it is only appropriate that they explore how our actions impact one another. This is expertly explored on the love song “Mary Ann & One Eyed Dan” (argh…ampersand) and the more emotionally complicated “Pinned.

The album ends with the haunting tale of the tragic loss of the USS Thresher, a submarine that was lost to the ocean’s depths with all hands on board in 1963. Just like Gordon Lightfoot’s “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” it is a story of a nautical disaster that I would never have known without someone who took the time to immortalize the struggle in a song. Damn folk music is awesome.

There are some songs on this record that feel a bit hokey, and because of that I was originally going to give it a three out of five. Also their gratuitous use of the lazy and semi-literate ampersand didn’t help.

Instead a busy weekend delayed the review to the point that I got a full six listens in before I was able to sit down and share a few words about what I thought. During this time I never once got tired of hearing these songs – even the hokey ones. Hoke and ampersands be damned; a good record has staying power, and this record has it.

Best tracks: The Devil Is All Around, Pinned, Stono River Blues, Mary Ann & One-Eyed Dan, Thresher

Thursday, March 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 977: Mudcrutch

I was feeling out of sorts this week, but things started to come into focus today and I regained my joie de vivre. Long ago I learned that a half full glass just tastes better than a half empty one, but sometimes I forget. Today I remembered.

Disc 977 is…Mudcrutch 2
Artist: Mudcrutch

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? You talkin’ to me? It’s bear cub street fight! The grainy picture makes it look very old, and makes me think of a couple of Depression-era kids fighting over a dropped quarter or a half-loaf of bread.

How I Came To Know It: I bought the first Mudcrutch album and liked it. I didn’t know they had another one out until I saw it on the new release shelf at my local record store. I decided to take a chance.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have two Mudcrutch albums, but I think that’s all there is. Of the two, “Mudcrutch 2” is second.

Ratings: 3 stars

If the saying “you can never go back” was proved wrong by the original Mudcrutch album, the follow up record released eight years later proves you can even do it twice.

Mudcrutch is the original band of Tom Petty and two Heartbreakers (Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench) reunited with two of their original playing mates – Tom Leadon on guitar and Randall Marsh on drums. When you listen to it you can’t help but wonder if this is what they would have sounded like if they’d all been signed back when they first traveled to California for a record deal.

That sound is a lot like a Tom Petty record, which is mostly a testament to Petty’s incredible talent and force of will. He just makes the magic happen, and all his songwriting talents are on display here. The record is his trademark mix of southern rock, blues licks and anthems for the soul.

The addition of Marsh and Leadon give the record a bit of a university/indie rock feel, although that could just be me projecting my knowledge of the band’s history onto the songs. Then again, the one song written and sung by Marsh, “Beautiful World” had me thinking heavily of other oft-forgotten bands of yore like the Vulgar Boatmen. “Beautiful World” is a life affirming song that makes you wish you were driving in a convertible. It holds its own against the mostly Petty-fueled album, which is no easy feat.

Not so Leadon’s entry. “The Other Side of the Mountain” attempts to mix rock and roll with Americana folk (fueled by banjo and high harmonies) but it didn’t work for me. It lands halfway between the genres without pulling the right elements of each to sit there comfortably.

Mike Campbell’s single entry, “Victim of Circumstance” is better, with an up tempo boogie woogie swing that works even though the song doesn’t have a lot to say. Benmont Tench does an Elvis-esque number called “Welcome To Hell” that made me think of late Alice Cooper when Cooper is feeling goofy. Cooper barely gets away with this schtick and Tench and the rest of Mudcrutch can’t quite make it work.

The rest of the record is Petty doing what he does; effortlessly delivering brilliant rock songs like they grow on trees. The opening track, “Trailer” is the story of how love fails you when you drop everything because you think you’re going to be with your high school sweetheart forever. This song is the grimy dust-covered Southern version of Billy Joel’s “Scenes From an Italian Restaurant.”

Rock anthem “Dreams of Flying” carries on the theme of restless youth and uncertain futures. It is like getting back together with the old crew reminds these aging rockers what it is like to be young again. It is followed by “Beautiful Blue,” which calms things down in a psychedelic rock number complete with a haunting piano piece that comes in and out and makes you think of Nick Cave.

My favourite song on the record is the quiet and thoughtful “I Forgive It All.” As the name implies, this is a breakup song grounded in acceptance. People are who they are, and sometimes things just don’t work out. Nonetheless it is a lonely, worthless feeling and Petty captures it well with the line “I ain’t broke and I ain’t hungry, but I’m close enough to care.”

It’s been a while since Tom Petty was broke or hungry, but he hasn’t lost the ability to tap into how that feels. The album even ends with a yearning rock ballad called “Hungry No More.

While Petty is clearly the driving creative force behind “Mudcrutch 2” the rest of the band make meaningful contributions. Also, you can’t tell these guys haven’t played regularly together since 2008 (when the previous album came out) and for decades prior to that. They are sharp in their vocal harmonies and tightly together on their instruments. It doesn’t sound exactly like the Heartbreakers, but it works. 

Best tracks: Trailer, Dreams of Flying, Beautiful Blue, Beautiful World, I Forgive It All, Save Your Water, Hungry No More

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 976: Dwight Yoakam

This next album is a whole lot better than seeing this artist live.

Yes, I’m still bitter about the sound quality at the Dwight Yoakam show earlier this year.

Disc 976 is…If There Was a Way
Artist: Dwight Yoakam

Year of Release: 1990

What’s up with the Cover? A giant head cover – very traditional! Here Dwight Yoakam looks back, no doubt wondering if there is a way to light his entire face instead of just half of it. There is, Dwight! Just adjust the light source or move your head – either one will work!

How I Came To Know It: Back at Disc 796 I reviewed a Greatest Hits package of Dwight Yoakam. This got me thinking I might enjoy hearing his studio albums, so I bought “Buenos Noches From a Lonely Room.” I was really enjoying that when I saw a deal for Yoakam’s first five CDs repackaged together for a great price, so I gave away “Buenos Noches..” and the Greatest Hits package and replaced it with the package deal. “If There Was a Way” was one of those albums.

How It Stacks Up:  I now have 7 Dwight Yoakam albums. I like them all, but “If There Was a Way” is not my favourite and I must reluctantly place it…last. Hey, someone’s gotta be last.

Ratings: 3 stars

For an album that ranks last in my Dwight Yoakam collection, “If There Was a Way” is a pretty solid effort. Its biggest sin is sounding a lot like any other of Dwight’s first five records, but just not quite as good.

All the stuff that makes early Dwight Yoakam enjoyable is here. Yoakam’s signature urban cowboy sound is solidly represented, as is his hurt-infused warble. Yoakam has one of those immediately recognizable voices that makes every one of his own songs timeless and every one of his covers seem like an original. It is a high, twangy voice that nevertheless sounds intrinsically macho. Yoakam’s voice is like his jeans; a bit stretched and strained, but in all the right places and sexy as hell.

“If There Was A Way” is a record that focuses on original content, which is nice, given what an undue amount of Yoakam’s hype surrounds some well-known covers. Yoakam is a gifted songwriter and like Emmylou Harris when he picks songs written by someone else, he has a sixth sense in knowing what works best for him.

After three straight #1 country records on the U.S. charts, the record took a minor step back (climbing only to #7) but still spawned six five top twenty singles. At least according to Wikipedia (which is never wrong). Or is it? Because one of the singles I remember was “It Takes a Lot to Rock You” and it isn’t even listed. I don’t love that song but I remember the video vividly, because it features a lot of scantily clad women dancing about. That sort of video makes an impression on a man. But I digress…

Back to the music! This record also features guitar master Pete Anderson, who is a huge part of Yoakam’s early sound. I didn’t notice Anderson as much on “If There Was a Way” as I do on some other records (Scott Joss’ fiddle filled some of that void), but whenever I listened for guitar, there was Pete, faithfully grounding the song in a mix of honky tonk and class.

While the record isn’t my favourite, it is solid throughout and has a couple of my favourite Yoakam songs (“Sad Sad Music” and “You’re the One”). “You’re the One” in particular is a clever mix of heartbreak and revenge. As I wrote about it on my review of the Greatest Hits record, it is “a nasty break-up song filled with bruised hearts and nasty rejections that are all the more pathetic because they are clearly coming after the other party’s already done the damage.” Well said, former me!

“If There Was a Way” is only 48 minutes long, but at 14 tracks still feels a bit too long, and the final two songs, “Dangerous Man” and “Let’s Work Together” feel tagged on after “You’re The One” had provided the perfect exit. “Dangerous Man” is just a bad song and “Let’s Work Together” has a workin’ man solidarity that is a positive message, but seems out of place amidst all the preceding broken hearts and emptied bottles.

These are minor quibbles, however on what is overall a solid record whose biggest crime is not being quite as good as some of Yoakam’s other records.

Best tracks: Sad Sad Music, Turn It on Turn it Up Turn Me Loose, You’re the One

Monday, February 27, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 975: Sera Cahoone

I felt out of sorts today, without being able to put my finger on why. Fortunately this next album’s somber thoughtful songs were just the right balm for my restless energy.

Disc 975 is…Deer Creek Canyon
Artist: Sera Cahoone

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Sera sits in the woods. This scene reminds me of the kind of coniferous forests I grew up near. I’m a city boy now, but every now and then I miss a long walk in the woods.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review of this album in a music magazine (I forget which). When I checked out the music I liked it even more and ordered both this record and 2008’s “Only As the Day is Long” (reviewed back at Disc 943) through my local record store. Support your local record store!

How It Stacks Up:  Cahoone has made three albums so far (a fourth is being released in March). Her self-titled debut is hard to find, so I only have two: “Only As the Day Is Long” and “Deer Creek Canyon.” Of the two, I put “Deer Creek Canyon” first. I’m looking forward to seeing if the soon to be released “From Where I Started” can challenge it.

Ratings: 5 stars

“Deer Creek Canyon” is an album that puts you in a state of contemplative grace. It isn’t like your troubles are gone though. They are very much still there, summoned like ghosts by Cahoone’s high ethereal voice. Rather, it is like being in the enchanted forest on the cover where it isn’t exactly safe to wander in there, but the discoveries are worth the risk.

This is a record that sounds like an evening confessional, full of the doubts and fears and hopes you only have the bravery to speak aloud when the light is low. When most of us express ourselves in those moments it is halting and uncertain, in a voice so quiet that our companions might ask us to repeat it, but we don’t dare.

Cahoone does dare, and while her voice is soft it is equal parts certain. She knows exactly what makes her shiver, and she’s not afraid to share it with the world. For all this, the album never feels gloomy or self-absorbed. “Nervous Wreck” is a good example, When Cahoone sings “I’ll be alright but I’m a nervous wreck” she makes it clear she’s feeling awkward and troubled, but she knows deep down things are going to be OK. Musically, the song is the perfect match for the words, tripping forward with a skittering energy on front of the beat. Cahoone sings “I’m a nervous wreck” as the melody resolves almost perfectly – but not quite.

My favourite example of this is on the title track, a rolling piece of perfection that feels like a trip out to sea at night. Cahoone sings:

“All the love I have here sometimes it’s just not enough.
Forget you in the summer by fall I always want you back
Oh the mountains are red and the rock fallin’ down”

With the melody falling down with regret at the end of each line, before a frail line of hope lifts the tune and she sings:

“and I know you’re right
I should just take a little time
Deer Creek Canyon’s where I’m from.”

And the way the tune walks down as she names the titular location you realize everything is going to be OK. It is that deep relaxation you get when you sink into your favourite chair, or sip your favourite whiskey, or just come home from a little restless wandering. I can feel the tension flow out of me just hearing her sing that line. I don’t know if Deer Creek Canyon is real or just an artistic construction, but in that moment it isn’t just real, its home.

Cahoone’s vulnerability is like a tangible thing on this record, a hunger that feeds her. On “Anyway You Like” when she sings: “’Cause I’m already in your life so take me anyway you like/I’m right in front of you” it is the sexiest thing you’ll ever hear, but it’ll just make you want to give her a hug.

This is a quiet record, and often with those kinds of records I find it takes a few listens and a lot of alone time for them to sink in. Not here, though – from the first bars of the record’s opening track, “Worry All Your Life,” I felt like I was listening to a longtime friend. The record is filled with wisdom, wrapped around purposeful but unforced melodies that catch your attention without ever shouting.

The opening song challenges you with:

“How you gonna grow if you don’t know you’re dragging you down
You’ll waste the rest of your days if you worry all your life.”

It sounds like an admonishment standing stark on the page, but actually it’s just the record gently shaking you awake. “Deer Creek Canyon” invites you to look around, see both the forest and the trees, and stop worrying about which one you’re supposed to be looking at.

Best tracks: All tracks