Friday, February 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1106: The New Pornographers

I saw the tour supporting this next album last September, but because I didn’t have the album yet I didn’t have a review to pair the experience with. As it happens I found the show just OK, but how will it compare the studio album? Let’s find out!

Disc 1106 is… Whiteout Conditions
Artist: The New Pornographers

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? I dig this cover because I like stuff in silhouette (I even like the word ‘silhouette’) and I like old school neon, and this cover has plenty of both. By the way, that cool silhouette on the right is also the coolest member of the band – Neko Case. Sorry, rest of band, but my heart is with Neko.

How I Came To Know It: I found out about the New Pornographers after reading a review of the album “Challengers.” I then checked out their whole discography (as I do) and discovered I liked about a third of it.

Whenever I can, I like to scope out an entire album on either Youtube or Bandcamp before I buy it. In the case of “Whiteout Conditions” I pulled the trigger a little early, after having only heard three songs. I liked those three, so I bought it and hoped for the best.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 3 of the New Pornographers 7 albums. Of those three, “Whiteout Conditions” is a distant third.

Ratings: 3 stars

Based on the songs I’d heard I knew “Whiteout Conditions” was going to be the more pop incarnation of the New Pornographers. I prefer their folksy side, but I took a chance that everything would be as good as my limited sampling. Unfortunately, by the time I was through three listens, I’ve found little that inspired me past the initial sampling.

Things start off strong with “Play Money” which has a groovy futuristic synthesizer sound grounded in Neko Case’s powerhouse vocals. Case is a natural star that elevates everything she does.

This is the first of four solid tracks, followed by the title track which is a compelling song about mental illness and the drugs people take to control it. It is a bit packed with production (more on that later) but here the resulting fuzz helps underscore the dulled feelings that mood inhibitors generate.

At its best the album has a techno-edged New Wave feel that had me thinking of Nick Gilder’s work in the early eighties crossed with the new disco grooves of Broken Bells. There is a lot of synth, a lot of sound effects and a lot of restless energy.

New Pornographers has seven members which is OK if you are a Ska band and need a horn section, but for pop music tends to be a little busy. The intricate layers that I could handle early on quickly started to wear on me, becoming a bunch of artificial beeps bouncing around, not giving me a chance to let the song soak in a bit.

The album is aiming for an insistent, rising energy but the way the songs circle around themselves and bang away in front of the beat caused me to get bored and a little anxious. As things progressed I increasingly started to lose the buried melody in the face of too much banging, crashing, an excessive repetition of phrases and general art-house busy-ness

Case in point is “Second Sleep” a song that explores having difficulty sleeping. It does a good job of recreating that dull over-stimulated ache you get in your brain. However, it isn’t pleasant and I’m not sure it revealed anything new to me about the experience.

In places, “Whiteout Conditions” felt a bit like the pop equivalent of experimental jazz. It wouldn’t surprise me if the New Pornographers like that comparison, but I just don’t dig experimental jazz.

There isn’t anything bad about this album – in fact it is quite good – it is just a matter of preference. Sometimes a good album just doesn’t suit your personal tastes, and this is one of those times. Knowing how much more I enjoy the other two New Pornographers albums in my collection, “Whiteout Conditions” isn’t ever going to be able to work its way into the rotation, post-Odyssey. Rather than have it languish in neglect, I’ll pass it along to a home that will appreciate it better than I do.

Best tracks: Play Money, Whiteout Conditions, High Ticket Attractions, This is the World of the Theater

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1105: Lucinda Williams

Happy Valentine’s Day! If you find yourself without a romantic partner today, think about all the other wonderful people in your life. Chances are you are a lot more surrounded by love than you realize.

Disc 1105 is… Essence
Artist: Lucinda Williams

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? Flowers in vibrant orange and luscious pink. How appropriate for Valentine’s Day!

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Lucinda Williams listening to Steve Earle (she did a guest spot on one of his records). “Essence” was just me digging through her collection once I knew it was all good.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Lucinda Williams albums, I thought was all of them but when I checked I discovered that last year she re-recorded her 1992 album “Sweet Old World” with four new songs and called it “This Sweet Old World”. I’ll have to check that out. For now, I’ve got 12 and “Essence” ranks 6th best, which is pretty solid.

Ratings: 4 stars

Before I put on a Lucinda Williams album, I try to mentally steel myself for some raw emotion that is going to reach deep down and find my vulnerable centre. It never works though; you don’t mentally steel yourself for Lucinda Williams – you just get on board for the ride.

“Essence” falls between her folksy early work and the more blues driven alt-rock of her later records. It has elements of both and does a solid job demonstrating that these two sides of her sound are complementary.

The first half of the record is the more folksy side, although with a thick echoing production that provides an almost pop vibe. While I would’ve been happy with less ambient sound in these songs, the opening few tracks are still some of the strongest the record has to offer. Good songwriting and an honest performance will always overcome.

Lonely Girls” has a gentle bass-note strum with a light simple melody layered above that belies a deep sorrow with a bit of wistful “woe is me” brushed across the top of it. This is a song that captures the sadness within beautiful women, dressed up and presenting confident to the world, but filled with doubt internally. For anyone who has ever wondered if the beautiful people have doubts too, “Lonely Girls” confirms they do.

Few artists do sexy like Lucinda Williams. Hers is neither a girlish flirting nor a sexy strut – it’s a slow seduction, starting somewhere deep within and flowing out, revealing her hidden desires until you feel flush, and a little uncomfortable. “Essence” is one of her sexier albums, with the insistent “Steal Your Love” and the wistful “I Envy the Wind.” The title track digs deeper than all of them, with an urgency so intense it becomes a physical addition; an itch that must be scratched. Or in Lucinda’s words:

“I am waiting here for more
I am waiting by your door
I am waiting on your back steps
I am waiting in my car
I am waiting at this bar
I am waiting for your essence.

“Baby, sweet baby, whisper my name
Shoot your love into my vein
Baby, sweet baby, kiss me hard
Make me wonder who’s in charge.”

You can sense the woman in this relationship is flirting with danger, but the desire is so great you feel as swept up in its wanton abandon as she is.

Another Lucinda tradition is a nasty break up song, and “Essence” has a solid entry with “Are You Down”. Lucinda sings:

“Can’t force the river upstream
When it goes south – know what I mean
Nothin’ will make me take you back
Are you down, babe, down with that?”

Williams is just as sexy and seductive on this song as she is on “Essence” but the words make it very clear that this time he’s getting none of it. This song also features some brilliant blues guitar from Bo Ramsey which adds atmosphere and groove. It is a song that makes you wish you could ask your ex for a slow dance, even though you know in your heart as she’s just going to tell you to get lost.

Are You Down” and “Essence” appear about midway through the album and signal a shift from the folk-pop elements the record opens with and into a deeper blues groove. Things tend to slow down from here, with meandering romantic crooners and languid narratives about people and places that take their time getting where they’re going.

These songs are beautiful, but overall I think they lose a little in their emotional impact when compared to the insight, sex and vengeance that comes before.

If you like Lucinda Williams’ sound this may not be the first record you buy, but you shouldn’t pass it over for long.

Best tracks: Lonely Girls, Steal Your Love, I Envy the Wind, Blue, Are You Down, Essence

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1104: King Diamond

On the walk home today I had a musical accident when my MP3 player slipped through a hole in my pocket into the lining of my coat. I stayed cool under pressure, though, playing out headphone wire until it went slack so I could just let it keep playing. At first, that is.

About a block from the house I couldn’t resist futzing with it any longer, and in attempting to recover the player managed to unplug the headphone jack and plunge it even deeper into the lining. I spent the last few steps on the journey in horrific silence, the terrible realization that the player continued to play from the bowels of my overcoat, with no one to hear its screams.

Why was it screaming, you ask? Well…to understand that you have to know what I was listening to.

Disc 1104 is… The Spider’s Lullabye
Artist: King Diamond

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? I’m not familiar with this species of spider. The King Diamond Widow? The Danish Recluse?

How I Came To Know It: I went a little crazy recently and bought a whole bunch of King Diamond albums. This was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight King Diamond albums. Of those eight, I put the Spider’s Lullabye at sixth.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Well here we go again…more King Diamond  - the Danish metal band that shrieks, freaks and goes all out in its quest for metal glory. It may have come out in 1995, almost ten years into King Diamond’s career, but their commitment to playing traditional symphonic heavy metal, fast and furious and grandiose, remains undiminished.

Yeah, but is it any good? The answer to that is complicated, because there are moments on “Spider’s Lullabye” that are great and had me convinced that it would be remaining in my collection for many years to come. Then I’d hear something that just felt like a tired reworking of stuff I’d heard them do on earlier records and want to turf it.

A lot of King Diamond albums are concept albums, but “Spider’s Lullabye” is a hodgepodge of horror topics. Along the way the band tells the story of out-of-body experiences, ghosts, serial killers, nightmares and a disturbing sanitarium that tortures people with spiders and calls it “therapy.” As a horror writer myself I like this sort of creepy stuff, even if King Diamond handles it with varying degrees of skill.

The album starts on a strong note, with “From the Other Side” describing someone floating above their own body and then realizing to their horror it has been reanimated, but is now possessed by a demon. The music is a galloping Iron Maiden-esque drumbeat and a charging guitar riff that adds urgency to the dreamer’s efforts to return to the world – alas, too late. Such is horror. If you wanted it to end with a bunch of laughs and a wedding, try comedy.

There follows some forgettable songs that feature a combination of amazing guitar work from master Andy Laroque but also Laroque just playing fast without purpose. It can be technically impressive, but on songs like “Dreams” detracts from the churning energy he builds with his riffs. The solos vary between inspired and integral to just tacked on and unnecessary.

Like King Diamond’s scream-style vocals, Laroque’s guitar is an acquired taste and for those who have acquired it will have no problems with some of the musical choices that gave a newbie like me pause.

As on other albums, the lyrics on “The Spider’s Lullabye” can feel a bit forced and literal, but I was impressed with “Six Feet Under,” featuring a man buried in a coffin made of glass. Best line: “My hands are turning blue while my nails are turning red.” Basic stuff, but it does a great job of capturing both the victim’s asphyxiation, and the damage he does to himself as he desperately tries to claw his way out.

The album’s final four songs tell a mini-epic of a man afraid of spiders and gets a lot more than he bargained for from the aversion therapy of the crazy Dr. Eastmann. The eight minute torture sequence in “Room 17” goes on a bit long but otherwise this is a pretty solid short story ending…spoiler alert…in a morgue full of corpses and spiders.

The record benefits from a strong remastering effort by guitarist Larocque. It sounds crisp and loud, but not shouty. Except of course for King Diamond’s vocals, those are a bit shouty, but they are supposed to be.

This was my third King Diamond review in the last eleven albums and at first I was prepared to get rid of it due to fatigue alone. It is a lot of new music to grok in a short period of time, particularly music this dense and complex. However, by the end of my second listen “Spider’s Lullabye” had won me over just enough for me to decide to keep it around…for now.

Best tracks: From the Other Side, Six Feet Under, Eastmann’s Cure

Friday, February 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1103: Whitehorse

I kick-started a four day weekend last night with a night out on the town and today I am paying the price for one too many vodka shots.

Disc 1103 is… The Road to Massey Hall
Artist: Whitehorse

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? I guess this is supposed to represent a road? It also looks a like a plate of eggs with ketchup. Hmmm…I think hunger is finally breaking through my hangover. I’m going to get lunch when I’m done this review.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a fan of Whitehorse for quite a while, and knew both Melissa McClelland and Luke Doucet as solo artists before they formed the band. This was just me buying their new album when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have seven Whitehorse albums (four full length albums and three EPs). Of those seven, “The Road to Massey Hall” is the worst.

Ratings: 2 stars

The Road to Massey Hall is a collection of six cover songs. Recording a cover can be a tricky thing. You want it to sound sufficiently different from the original, but you also want to capture the magic that made it a great song in the first place. On “The Road to Massey Hall” Whitehorse falls short on both counts.

The best thing about the record is the guitar work. Both Doucet and McClelland are accomplished players and on the opening track, a cover of Neil Young’s “Winterlong” Doucet’s guitar is big, bold and evocative. I’m also a fan of McClelland’s voice, and those parts of “Winterlong” where she sings solo are solid. Unfortunately for most of the song they sing in a loose harmony that buries her in the mix.

There isn’t anything terrible about any of these songs (hence the 2 stars) but I didn’t feel like I got anything new out of them either. Whitehorse attempts to strip them down, which is often a good thing, but the effect here is to make them drag. Everything seems just a little bit slower, but the gravitas they’re going for doesn’t translate.

Ironically, the fact that these are some of my favourite songs made me like hearing them less. “Dark Angel” is one of my absolute favourite Blue Rodeo songs. Whitehorse sings it OK, but it feels more like a rehearsal than a polished cover. Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind” is better than that risible dance remix that came out a few years ago, but that’s not saying much. In both cases, it just made me want to hear the originals.

Bob Dylan’s “It Ain’t Me Babe” is a highlight on the album, with some stellar singing from McClelland. The slower pace here make the lyrics a little less nasty, and even infuses them with a hint of romance that is less evident when Bob’s running the show. The guitar solo wasn’t great (too much focus on reverb) but it didn’t wreck it either.

Un Canadien Errant” was also good, but I have it on their all-French EP, “Ephemere Sans Repere” so I was really just buying it twice at that point.

The album has a sub-title of “A Salutation to Six Stellar Songs” which is a bit odd. Are they really saying hello to these songs, or are do they mean to pay them homage (which would be a salute, not a salutation). However, I’m currently reading Rebecca Gowers’ “Horrible Words: a Guide to the Misuse of English” which notes it is OK to morph the meaning of words if you do it with a purpose, so I’m feeling less prescriptive than usual. I’m going to assume two smart people like Luke and Melissa deliberately used salutation to suggest both a greeting and a tip of the hat. Why not?

While there are a couple of solid covers on “the Road to Massey Hall” I mostly wanted to hear the originals, or to hear Whitehorse do their own music instead (which is awesome). If an album’s main effect on you is to inspire you to play a different album, it isn’t a good sign. As a result, I’m going to send this record off to a home that will appreciate it more than I do.

Best tracks: Winterlong, It Ain’t Me Babe

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1102: The Mountain Goats

I’ve had a good week of musical discovery. In the last few days I’ve checked out Brandi Carlile (loved it!), Weyes Blood (liked it, but not quite enough to buy) and finished things off listening to the Heavy Metal soundtrack (bitchin!).

This evening I had a lovely meal out with my friend Andrew, and came home to write this review. Sheila was still using the computer so I lay down on the couch and listened to the Stray Birds debut album. Now I am feeling refreshed and whole. Yay, music!

Disc 1102 is… All Eternals Deck
Artist: Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? A whole lot of nothing. This is actually one of those cardboard sleeves that goes over the jewel case but I can’t leave it off because underneath is this graphic, which is even more boring.
I believe this is supposed to look like the back of a deck of cards.

How I Came To Know It: In the last couple of years I’ve taken a deep dive into the Mountain Goats, buying 8 albums. “Heretic Pride” and “All Eternals Deck” were the last to enter the collect because both were difficult to find. I eventually broke down and ordered them through Amazon. Sorry, local record store. I tried…

How It Stacks Up:  I now have 8 Mountain Goats albums, which is only half of the discography, but the best half. Of those 8, I put “All Eternals Deck” at 8th. Hey, someone had to be last, but I still like it.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

By the time I found “All Eternals Deck” my esteem for singer/songwriter John Darnielle (stage name, the Mountain Goats) was already so high that there was a lot to live up to. So if I say some less enthusiastic things in the next few hundred words please don’t judge Darnielle too harshly.

“All Eternals Deck” sees Darnielle sticking to what he knows; sparsely produced indie pop songs with clever lyrics. These lyrics are sung with passion and a fearless conviction to speak the truth, even when that truth is raw and awkward. This album may only be his eighth best, but most artists wish they could write this well.

Darnielle often builds his albums around a concept or theme, using the cohesive set of imagery to draw out observations about himself and, by extension, the human race. The thematic thread for “All Eternals Deck” is a mythical tarot card deck that Darnielle has invented. The liner notes eschew printing lyrics in favour of an imagined card reading, and a short history of this deck of cards. The history of the deck isn’t terribly interesting, but the bigger problem is that the songs don’t convey the notion that these songs involve tarot cards at all.

On “Beat the Champ” Darnielle incorporates wrestling imagery to explore notions of identity and honour, and on “Goths” he relives the reckless glory of youth through the musical forms of his own early years. On “All Eternals Deck” if the theme is there, it is buried so subtly that I missed it entirely. It becomes a loose collection of songs that invoke a lot of imagery of California, but tarot cards don’t feature. It is a promise of connectivity without a payoff.

Musically the album could be more interesting, featuring a lot of basic beats and bass lines that serve as a backdrop to Darnielle’s vocals. The lyrics are solid and the imagery evocative in places, but the music didn’t draw me in as consistently as some of his other work.

He tries some new musical forms, such as on “High Hawk Season” where he has a strange chorus echoing lines behind him in a lower minor key throughout the song. It creates an off-putting weirdness (which I liked) but it also detracted from what was otherwise one of the album’s better songs (which I didn’t).

That said, Darnielle is simply too brilliant to keep himself down entirely. The album opens with “Damn These Vampires” a song where I’m not sure what is happening (although I suspect sure there aren’t any actual vampires). Even not knowing, the tortured rebellion of the track is evident from the opening stanza:

“Brave young cowboys of the near North side
Mount those bridge rails, ride all night
Scream when captured, arch your back
Let this whole town hear your knuckles crack.”

And the dread on “The Autopsy Garland” is palpable, with an urgent and anxiously played guitar strum, coupled with a deep bass rumbling that feels like a gathering thunderstorm. And when Darnielle half whispers, half sings:

“You don’t want to see these guys
Without their masks on.”

You feel legitimately afraid. You don’t know who those guys are, but you’re pretty sure if you ever see their faces you are finished. You have either accidentally IDed them, or they already know it won’t matter. Yeesh.

Many of the other songs are also clever and powerful in their own right, but for the most part not enough to pull me in and transport me like the Mountain Goats so often do when I listen to them. Like I said, it’s a good album, drained of some of its vigor by the brilliance of Darnielle’s other work that surrounds it. Feel free to damn those vampires, as long as you remember to buy them first.

Best tracks: Damn These Vampires, The Autopsy Garland, Sourdoire Valley Song, Never Quite Free

Monday, February 5, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1101: Tom Petty

Aah, Tom…I miss you so bad it hurts. At least your music is still here and that’ll have to be enough.

Disc 1101 is… Damn the Torpedoes
Artist: Tom Petty

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? A man and his Rickenbacker. How do I know it’s a Rickenbacker you ask? It’s written on the head.

How I Came To Know It: Years ago I decided I needed more Tom Petty in my life. Once I decided that, “Damn the Torpedoes” was one of the first albums I bought. This copy is remastered, and I expect I bought it shortly after its 2001 re-release.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 16 Tom Petty albums. This one and “Wildflowers” (reviewed way back at Disc 385) are essentially tied for the best, and I tend to lean to whichever one I’ve heard last. Since “Damn the Torpedoes” was heard last, I’m putting it at #1.

Ratings: 5 stars

“Damn the Torpedoes” is one of rock and roll’s greatest albums. It is so massive in our collective consciousness that people think it was Petty’s debut, its collective brilliance somehow temporarily scrubbing our minds of classics like “American Girl.” It shouldn’t be that easy to forget about her, but albums like “Damn the Torpedoes” just don’t come around very often.

The clever mix of boogie woogie, country, new wave and Buddy Holly-esque rock that Petty created on his debut record three years earlier is all still here, but he has learned to boil it down and blend it to the point where it has become something new. If his debut record was the dawn of the Iron Age, then “Damn the Torpedoes” is the invention of steel; stronger, suppler and just prettier to look at.

That’s not to say Tom has lost his edge here – he hasn’t. The opening bars of “Refugee” is sublime and polished, but Petty’s vocals are greasy and hurt-filled, the perfect counterbalance, holding your ear in that middle space until the band kicks into full gear and bridges the gap with the sweet, sweet sounds of rock and roll.

The next track is a romantic crooner of a rock song. With “Here Comes My Girl” the “American Girl” is returned but is now grounded in personal connection. It’s when you realize that the perfect girl is your girl, looking so right and all you need tonight. Ain’t love grand?  Half of this song is Petty just talking, but his jam is so compelling it sounds as artful as the finest crooner.

On “Even the Losers” Petty creates a timeless ballad for everyone who has ever felt like they were on the outside looking in. The song opens grounded in the desires of every person who ever found himself alone with the girl of his dreams, and screwed up his courage to make a move:

“Well it was nearly summer, we sat on your roof
Yeah, we smoked cigarettes and we stared at the moon
And I showed you stars you never could see
Baby, it couldn’t a been that easy to forget about me.”

Maybe it didn’t work out in the long term, but Petty chooses to see the glory in the moment, not the failure that follows. Never has a break up song been so damned positive.

All three of those songs are hits, but the record is packed with deep cuts that will draw you in, like old friends that you are happy to hear from again and again. “Shadow of a Doubt (A Complex Kid)” has a melody that soars in the high notes at the front end, and then walks down on the back end. It tells the tale of a complex kid with a complex arrangement, but never feels forced or busy.

Don’t Do Me Like That” incorporates New Wave and a Springsteen-like organ run. Or does Springsteen incorporate Tom Petty-style organ? When you’ve got giants of that magnitude it’s hard to get the perspective needed to see who is taller.

When that song ends Petty immediately switches to a slow moving blues track, “You Tell Me,” and it feels as natural as breathing. It helps to have Mike Campbell on guitar and Benmont Tench on organ, mind you. These guys are also giants on their instruments and both are at the height of their powers on “Damn the Torpedoes.”

The record ends with “Louisiana Rain” a six-minute road trip track that starts with a weird synth sound that reminds you of the Eurythmics, before shifting gears to a slow ballad of a man in the rain, struggling with heartache and bad habits in equal measure. If there is a better song for taking a walk in the rain, I can’t think of it right now.

“Damn the Torpedoes” is a perfect piece of art, wrapped up artfully in nine songs and 36 minutes. It was so short it always leaves me wanting more, but only for the few seconds it takes to skip back to the beginning and push ‘play’.

Best tracks: all tracks

CD Odyssey: The Road to 1,100

I’ve reached another (albeit lesser) milestone with 1,100 reviews written so it is time to check in and see what was notable over the past 100 reviews.

I’ve been doing a lot of “new (to me)” reviews under Rule #5 and because a lot of those new (to me) albums are new to the world there is a slight skew toward newly released music of late. 39% of the last 100 albums reviewed were from 2010-2017, compared to just 13% overall. 20% of the last 100 were from 2016 or 2017 only. I expect those numbers to all climb as a) less and less albums remain in my back catalogue and b) I buy more and more new music.

There were 11 5-star albums in the past 100, which is about even for the entire Odyssey overall. Here are the eleven albums that scored the full 5-stars from Discs 1001-1,100:

·         Paul Ngozi – The Ghetto
·         The Pogues – Rum, Sodomy and the Lash
·         Jason Isbell – The Nashville Sound
·         Indigo Girls – Rites of Passage
·         Josh Ritter – The Animal Years
·         Mandolin Orange – Blindfaller
·         Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP
·         Conor Oberst – Ruminations
·         Frank Turner – Tape Deck Heart
·         Courtney Marie Andrews –Honest Life
·         Rush – Moving Pictures

These albums represent folk, country, rock and rap which is proof-positive that people who listen to only one kind of music are just limiting themselves.

Three were no 1-star reviews of late (which is too bad, because they are fun reviews to write) but I did give 15 albums only 2-stars. Eight of those (plus one 3-star album) got sold or given away to friends. Here’s the full list of albums that were dismissed from the collection out of the last 100:
  • Hard Working Americans, “Rest in Chaos” – I had originally planned to buy this album then gave it a second listen and took it off my “to get” list. Then I saw it in the store and in a moment of weakness bought it anyway. Mistake.
  • Seasick Steve, “You Can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks” – An OK record by the blues master, but I just have better ones I’ll always pick first.
  • U2 “Boy” – U2 has a small number of great records and a whole ton of average ones. This is one of the latter.
  • Tami Nielsen “Don’t Be Afraid” – Not even a great live show could save Nielsen’s underwhelming latest album, but I’d go see her again.
  • John Prine “The Missing Years” – I binged on Prine’s back catalogue last year, and this was the inevitable purge.
  • Daniel Romano, “Modern Pressure” – I came close to keeping this one but again, I just have a lot better options in the Daniel Romano section of my collection.
  • The Wooden Sky, “Swimming in Strange Waters” – Another close one. I love everything else these guys have done and this one just suffered by comparison more than anything.
  • Hawksley Workman, “The Delicious Wolves” – We owned this album for years and never played it. The Odyssey reminded me why.
  • Eric Clapton, “461 Ocean Boulevard” – the only 3-star album to leave the collection so I obviously liked it, but I also realized there was nothing on it I couldn’t live without.

In terms of overall reviews, little changed other than Alice Cooper increasing his overall lead. I’ve now reviewed 28 albums by him, which is all of them at this point. Steve Earle stays in second place with 19 albums. The only change is that Tom Waits added a review and is once again tied with Bob Dylan with 18 albums.

Thanks for reading!

Saturday, February 3, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1100: Heart

After a very fun night out with friends at the Victoria Film Festival gala, I awoke this morning to a mild hangover but a sunny disposition fueled, in part, by the revelry of the night before. If you’re going to have a hangover, make sure the event was memorable.

I’m now off to CD shop and (hopefully) get as many as I can by my new obsession: Minnesota rapper/singer Dessa. This stuff is great and I MUST have all of it. Such is my sickness.

I don’t feel that way about this next band, although I do have a few so obviously I like them.

Disc 1100 is… Dreamboat Annie
Artist: Heart

Year of Release: 1976

What’s up with the Cover? A double Giant Head cover featuring Ann and Nancy Wilson looking dreamy. Ordinarily I’d think a cover like this rather boring but for some reason it appeals to me…

How I Came To Know It: A while back my buddy Chris was playing Heart’s 1977 album “Little Queen” and it appealed to me. Remembering all the Heart songs I liked when I was a kid I decided to dig into their back catalogue. Debut record “Dreamboat Annie” came out as one of the highlights.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Heart albums. I used to have four but I got rid of “Bad Animals” after reviewing it. Since this is my last Heart review, here is a full recap, including the one I sold:

  1. Little Queen: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 970)
  2. Heart (Self-Titled): 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 960)
  3. Dreamboat Annie: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  4. Bad Animals: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 827)
Ratings: 3 stars

Heart gets thrown into the category of Hard Rock with dismissive regularity, but Sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson are a lot more than just two more Zeppelin disciples. On “Dreamboat Annie” they demonstrate a lot of influences, not so much blending them as artfully pinning them together.

For all that the album’s opener (and best known song) “Magic Man” is more of a Zeppelin fueled guitar riff, with a chunky sound and Ann Wilson’s vocals climbing into the stratosphere before dropping back down to a bluesy resolution of the melody. Nancy’s guitar is blues-rock excess in all the good ways and on an atmospheric solo in the middle of the song she shines like a bright star.

Fun fact – there is a crazy guitar lick at the 3:53 mark of “Magic Man” which is sampled by Ice T on the song “Personal”. On “Personal” that little riff is core to the song’s awesomeness but on “Magic Man” Nancy throws it out there, then immediately moves on never to return. She’s got other musical fish to fry.

However, this album is about more than just “Magic Man” (and its other classic rock song, “Crazy On You”). Heart incorporates dreamy pop elements and a proto-disco sexy groove that gives the album balance and depth. “(Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song” has a smooth almost yacht rock quality, but also could be played as a slow dance at Studio 54. It feels slick and silky but never artificial, grounded as it is in exceptional and honest musicianship.

It can be taken too far, mind you. The title track is a meandering bit of treacle that predictably became the song that got overplayed on AM radio to the detriment of the record’s better songs. “Dreamboat Annie” is not even that good of a song, and it doesn’t help that there are three versions of it (the second and last track on Side One, the last track on Side Two).

There are a lot of prog elements on “Dreamboat Annie”, something I don’t think Heart gets enough credit for. Everyone is obsessed with the fact that two beautiful women are rocking out, and tend to overlook how cleverly they are doing it. “Magic Man” has early synthesizer sounds in that would be equally at home on a Rush album. “Soul of the Sea” is six and half minutes of constant shifts that feels like it could be the soundtrack for a contemporary dance number. “Sing Child” drops some Jethro Tull style jazz flute into the middle of its rock groove.

“Dreamboat Annie” is at its best when Heart feels like they are trying to be two totally different bands at the same time, fusing styles and production choices from multiple influences into an amalgam that is something new. It is hard to pull off, but for the most part, they totally get away with it.

In fact, songs like “White Lightning & Wine” which are just straight up blues tracks suffer by comparison, coming off as derivative. It can’t even be saved by cowbell, which is usually a sure fire musical cure for what ails you.

Despite a couple of these misses, overall, “Dreamboat Annie” is a solid record that for a debut shows incredible maturity and complexity.

Best tracks: Magic Man, Crazy On You, (Love Me Like Music) I’ll Be Your Song, Sing Child

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1099: Cake

It’s always bittersweet when I review the last album in my collect from a particular band, because it means I won’t be reviewing them again until they release something new. This next band hasn’t released anything since 2011 so I might be waiting a while.

Disc 1099 is… Motorcade of Generosity
Artist: Cake

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? Cake love their one colour covers, and here’s the one that started them all. It looks like a collection of people you’d see at a wedding. Assuming there was a live band, that is. Is it just me or is the trumpet player overdoing it a bit? Just calm down and play hits from the eighties, buddy.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila introduced me to Cake originally around 1999/2000, and this was just us digging into their back catalogue. We’ve had this record for a long time – at least since the early oughts.

How It Stacks Up:  We have seven Cake albums which is all of them. I had saved spot #3 for “Motorcade of Generosity” but it didn’t live up to the hype so I’m dropping it down to fourth, behind “Prolonging the Magic”. Since this is my last Cake review, here is a full recap:

  1. Comfort Eagle: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1044)
  2. Fashion Nugget: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 781)
  3. Prolonging the Magic: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 101)
  4. Motorcade of Generosity: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  5. Pressure Chief: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 431)
  6. Showroom of Compassion: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 666)
  7. B-Sides and Rarities: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 865)
Ratings: 3 stars

Nowadays Cake would just be another indie rock band but coming out in 1994, “Motorcade of Generosity” seems innovative and ahead of its time.

The signature sound of Cake is already being formed: a combination of quirky but emotionally honest lyrics, garage rock edge and funky guitar and trumpet riffs. It is a combination that I don’t recall anyone else doing back in the mid-nineties, an era where most bands trying to make it big were trying to invent some bastardized child of grunge. What’s a good verb for that? Temple piloting? Creeding?

Anyway, against this backdrop came a slick bunch of musicians with immaculate timing to drop some grooves that were equally good for dancing or sinking into the couch with your friends and complaining about the sad state of music (it is never that sad, by the way – just look harder).

I find this album uneven, with songs like “Comanche” and “Up So Close” and a few others emotionally detached and obsessed with their own cleverness, but others like “Jolene” and “Haze of Love” visceral, with just the right amount of sad. Fortunately the good outweighs the bad.

Unlike most records the true gold on “Motorcade of Generosity” comes near the end of the record. My favourite song is “Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle” even though it is basically sending up people like me, who are obsessed with music and concerts. Some of these aging rockers go to such lengths as to blog about it. How very self-absorbed such people must be. Best stanza from the song:

“Now tickets to concerts and drinking at clubs,
Sometimes for music that you haven't even heard of.
And how much did you pay for your rock 'n' roll t-shirt
That proves you were there,
That you heard of them first?”

Guilty as charged – mostly. I don’t randomly go to any show, and I only get a t-shirt if I like the design but the point is made. Later the song admonishes that “excess ain’t rebellion” which with all these damn CDs in my collection rings harsh, but fair. If you didn’t want me to buy all your stuff, Cake, then you shouldn’t have made such catchy music.

I Bombed Korea” is a song about PTSD that creates a juxtaposition between a funky guitar riff and troubling lyrics like:

“Red flowers bursting down below us.
Those people didn't even know us.”

And then from a worn out soldier recalling wartime horrors, Cake switches to “Mr. Mastodon Farm” a song about our need for closure and connection. In it, a man sits watching birds falls past his window, filled with the irresistible urge to get up and look, just to make sure they are safely flying away before they hit the ground. The song is equally funky, even as it instills a lurking sense of anxiety.

These two songs are when “Motorcade of Generosity” is at its best; mixing reassuring grooves laced with discomfort and uncertainty. You can just dance around, or you can be brave and pay attention to the underlying themes.

The album mixes very sparse (dare I say cheap?) production with slick arrangements, and the bright sharp sound on later records still seems far away. This lends a rawness to the songs, but it also annoyed me because it was recorded too low, and the lack of crispness made my ear have to strain to hear individual instruments.

And while the record can feel unfinished and haphazard in places, the high points more than make up for it. In 1994 Cake’s sound was still forming, but they were already pushing boundaries, and already plenty good.

Best tracks: Jolene, Haze of Love, Rock ‘N’ Roll Lifestyle, I Bombed Korea, Mr. Mastodon Farm

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1098: Hem

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! Did you take a break and watch the Grammys? If so…my condolences. I didn’t watch because for the most part I don't like the music that gets nominated. However, here are some of the very few highlights for me – none of which I saw live:
  • I was pleased to see Aimee Mann get a Grammy for “Mental Illness”.
  • The greatest album of last year, Jason Isbell’s “The Nashville Sound” won not one, but two Grammys. That felt good.
  • Also great that Leonard Cohen who won a Grammy for “You Want it Darker” in the…rock category? Are these Grammy voters hearing the same records I’m hearing?
On the performance front I was lucky enough to see inspired performances by both Kesha and Lady Gaga. I expect Gaga to blow me away live and she didn’t disappoint, but Kesha was a nice surprise. I hope to see more from both of them down the road.

Disc 1098 is… Rabbit Songs
Artist: Hem

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a rabbit! Not just a rabbit either, because with the space they saved by putting the song listing on the front of the jacket they were able to expand that rabbit into…
Two rabbits! Don’t be surprised by this. Reproducing is the thing rabbits are best known for.

How I Came To Know It: This was record 94 on Paste Magazine’s “100 Best Indie Folk Albums of All Time.” I did a full tour of that list last year, buying the albums that tickled my fancy. I got lucky with this one. Maybe it was the rabbit’s foot on the cover.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Hem album so it can’t really stack up. They have six out there and I checked out the other ones but none of them appealed to me like “Rabbit Songs”.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Rabbit Songs” has the whimsy and heart-worn wisdom of a fairy tale and just enough darkness around the edges that you think it likely it was written by the Brothers Grimm.

Hem walks a fine line between folk and contemporary pop, but it is anchored by the solid songwriting of piano player Dan Messe. Messe clearly understands standard folk progressions and can employ them in the timeless way they are intended, or put subtle twists on their melodic resolution with equal skill. Not knowing what kind of song you are going to get keeps your ear interested. That curiosity lasts into multiple listens, which is the hallmark of a good album.

The other anchor is the soft and sweet yet powerful vocals of Sally Ellyson. Ellyson has a voice that can alternate so subtly between poignant and atmospheric you don’t notice the shift. Instead you’re left with a lot of confused and complicated emotions. That’s OK though, because emotions are supposed to be complicated.

Together the blend of traditional and modern, both in the writing and the delivery, has Hem hanging somewhere between the Wailin’ Jennys and Sarah McLachlan. It isn’t a tense balance so much as a pendulum that swings lazily back and forth between styles, hypnotizing you until you realize it is all just one thing.

My favourite song on the album is “When I Was Drinking,” a song that is part breakup song, part celebration of youth and part AA confessional. When Ellyson sings:

“When I was drinking
When I was with you
Living it up when the rent was due
With nothing and no one to live up to”

She takes you right back to every wild and reckless youthful moment you lived, and maybe a few you wished you’d enjoyed better in the moment. Except you couldn’t, because you were broke. As Hem reminds us, youth isn’t all gold and roses.

Betting on Trains” showcases Hem’s ability to combine traditional Americana forms and guitar picking with a lounge-style vocal that fills an old-fashioned road song with the hum of the modern world.

Songs like “All That I’m Good For” stray a bit too far into smooth lounge jazz for my liking, ironically losing a bit of the mood by working too hard to evoke it. Fortunately, these moments are few and far between.

Mostly, this record feels relaxed, unfolding at a slow and even pace even, slipping in more than a little wistful regret. Yet you feel happy to have those regrets. Like I said earlier, it’s complicated.

While this album is a tasteful 45 minutes long it is a distasteful 16 tracks, and I think if three or four more had been shaved off the record would be even better.

However, this is more than made up for by a great CD booklet. I give this album’s booklet an A+. Glued into the inside cover, it opens like a book. Inside are the lyrics of every song, neatly typed, along with the songwriter and any additional musicians that performed on it. “Rabbit Songs” features a small army of guest musicians who are a big part of the magic. Thank you for those subtle flourishes of pedal steel on “Stupid Mouth Shut”, Bob Hoffnar. Thank you for that haunting cello in the background of “Sailor”, Hannah Emlen. I appreciated them!

Near the end of the record Hem throws in a traditional number with “Cuckoo” and show that if they just wanted to do a whole record of straight up folk or bluegrass they could. Instead they add a lot of touches to the form, some swelling salient into the melody, others happy to just be a well-placed string or horn section adding subtle brush strokes in the background. It all works.

Best tracks: When I Was Drinking, Half Acre, Betting on Trains, Idle (The Rabbit Song), Stupid Mouth Shut, Night Like a River