Monday, October 17, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 925: Shane MacGowan and the Popes

I spent Friday getting a new tattoo (or at least half of one) taking up the last available real estate on my arms in the process. It is only half done (colouring to come in December) but I already love it. Kudos to Leroy at Union Tattoo for another great piece of body art!

Now I just need to grow a third arm…

Disc 925 is….Crock of Gold
Artist: Shane MacGowan and the Popes

Year of Release: 1997

What’s up with the Cover? It is a painting done by frontman Shane MacGowan himself. The title is not provided but I call it “Four Homeless Leprechauns”. Kudos to MacGowan for trying other art forms, but this picture doesn’t work for me.

How I Came To Know It: When Shane MacGowan left the Pogues I did too (they weren’t the same without him) and I assumed he would drift off into obscurity. Then many years later my friend Greg played a song by “Shane MacGowan and the Popes” and I realized he’d resurfaced. This particular album has eluded me for years but I found a used copy out of the blue at a local record store a couple of months ago. Please keep selling off your music collection, digital people!

How It Stacks Up:  I have both studio albums by Shane MacGowan and the Popes as well as a best of/rarities collection. I also have a Popes album where MacGowan is no longer a full time member of the band, but appears on three tracks. Of the three studio albums, I put “Crock of Gold” second. The ‘best of’ album doesn’t stack up, as long time readers will know.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Crock of Gold” doesn’t live up to the lofty promise in its title, but it is nevertheless a good record. It’s more a crock of well-polished copper, which could’ve been a crock of silver if it had been a little more focused.

This is the second album that Shane MacGowan made with his new band the Popes, after he was turfed from the Pogues and while you can say what you want about what he’s like as a band mate, his talent is undeniable. Of the 17 tracks – more on that in a moment – MacGowan wrote or co-wrote all but five.

If you know the Pogues then you know the Popes, as MacGowan does not branch far from his roots on “Crock of Gold.” This is a collection of lilting Irish folk/rock songs that gently roll along like the swell of the Atlantic. There are few surprises, but that is OK because while the Popes may not switch it up much, they are very good at what they do. The band is tight and provide a lively backdrop upon which MacGowan can deliver his unique slurring style.

MacGowan is in fine form, by which I mean he sounds both brilliant and drunk in equal measure. He has always had the skill of sounding like he’s making it up as he goes along while keeping perfect time. It must be hard work to sound so perfectly casual. However, the age old problem of not being able to understand him half the time continues.

Many of the penny whistle and fiddle riffs providing colour for the songs sound very traditional, but it is pretty common practice in Irish folk music to throw in a bit of something old and I took no offence. On “Back in the County Hell” the tune is unmistakably “Me and Bobby McGee” and lest there be any doubt, MacGowan even sings a few lines right out of that song in the middle of it.

B&I Ferry” channels some Clash-like reggae beats and “Ceilidh Cowboy” tries to add some western flare, but neither song really worked for me. Both felt like they were pressing too hard to be different amid a sea of very cohesive sound on the record.

That sea is pleasant but a bit too deep; “Crock of Gold” has 17 songs and a running time just shy of a full hour. The songs are all OK, but there are just too many of them. Musicians take heed; just because a CD can hold a lot of music isn’t an excuse to put more on it. This was a common problem in the nineties that more recent artists seem to have finally gotten over (maybe too over given the number of 30 minute records being released lately).

The album features three traditional songs, the best of which is “Spanish Lady,” a song about a man walking the streets of Dublin at midnight and catching a glimpse of a Spanish woman washing her hair by candlelight. I’m not sure what she was doing washing her hair at that hour, but the song makes you appreciate the moment.

Another favourite is “St. John of Gods” which features a character who goes around drunkenly telling everyone (including the courts) “F’ yez all”. At 7:17 this song goes on too long, and it’s impressive that it remains enjoyable throughout, despite spending a majority of the time telling you off. If you don’t like songs taking that long to tell someone off, well, you know what to do.

With six of the seventeen tracks also appearing on my “best of” compilation (including three of my top six listed below) I was sore-tested to give up on this record and clear up space, but there is enough other good stuff that I’m sticking with it for now.

Best tracks: Paddy Rolling Stone, Rock N’ Roll Paddy, Paddy Public Enemy No. 1, Lonesome Highway, Spanish Lady, St. John of Gods

Friday, October 14, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 924: Rush

For many months I’ve been having a hard time reading the fine print on the back of CD cases (usually I’m looking for the release date). I attributed the problem to poor light or that I needed to clean my glasses. Turns out is just that my eyesight has gotten worse. Cognitive dissonance is a bitch.

Now that I know, everything looks fuzzy and I’m waiting impatiently for my new lenses to come in.

Disc 924 is….Power Windows
Artist: Rush

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? A teenage David Bowie dreams of becoming a starman. Actually it is some kid named Neill Cunningham. Maybe he was dreaming of being David Bowie? Maybe he was just dreaming that he could get a new television. He’s got three there and they all look pretty outdated.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me filling out the last of my Rush collection as I drilled through their discography. I admit I totally missed this album when it came out in 1985, despite being totally into hard rock at the time.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 19 Rush albums. “Power Windows” isn’t my favourite. I’ll put it #18.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Power Windows” is right in the heart of the synth-storm that Rush experimented with through the 1980s. Don’t expect Alex Lifeson to wail out a bunch of guitar solos, and if you’re searching for the melody then you best be looking to Geddy Lee’s keyboards. This is not your older brother’s copy of “Moving Pictures.”

Some Rush fans reject this period of the band’s development, while others love all things Rush. I’m somewhere in the middle on that subject. “Hold Your Fire” is one of my favourite Rush albums, whereas “Grace Under Pressure” and “Signals” are OK, but I feel like the production lets them down.

“Power Windows” is my least favourite of the four. I don’t hate it, but it is lacking the melodic brilliance of “Hold Your Fire” and the songwriting strength of “Signals”. It is about on par with “Grace Under Pressure.” It doesn’t have the brilliance of “Red Sector A” but overall the quality of the songs is higher.

One nice side benefit of not being so guitar-driven is that you get to appreciate the Geddy Lee’s bass playing. On the opening track, “Big Money,” he is in fine form, flowing through series after series of groovy and difficult bass riffs, all the while faithfully serving the rhythm of the song. Beyond Geddy’s bass, though, I don’t love the song. The lyrics are a bit hokey and the bridge is this weird combination of bells, beeps and a bit of Lifeson guitar that is good but seems to hang in digital space due to the production.

Middletown Dreams” feels a lot like Signals’ “Subdivisions” in terms of theme, but is not executed as well. It is almost the sequel, replacing the restless youth of teenage dreams in “Subdivisions” with the more seasoned understanding of characters in their twenties and thirties. These are the kids who never got out of the suburbs but are finding ways to reconcile that within themselves. Again, an interesting theme (one Springsteen explores often as well) but in terms of execution the song is just a bit too jazzy in places for my tastes.

The record came out in the middle of the Cold War, and this is evident in songs like “Manhattan Project” and “Territories”. “Manhattan Project” tells the story of the first atomic bomb and while the subject matter is about the bomb’s development and the bombing of Hiroshima it is clear that the song is viewing that event from 1985 and everything that had resulted from a nuclear age. “Manhattan Project” is one of my favourite songs on the album. The lyrics aren’t overwrought, and the music walks the perfect line between the excitement of scientists in the throes of discovery and the ominous nature of what they were about to create.

Another favourite is “Marathon” which is about running a marathon, but also a lot more. On “Marathon” Rush perfects the use of their new keyboard-driven sound to capture the drawn out endurance of the race but also the triumph and exultation of completing the race. And here, when Lifeson’s guitar solo enters, it nestles in nicely and feels like it belongs.  The ‘more’ of “Marathon” is its reminder that life itself is a long race, and you’ll be just fine if you just keep at it. It is an overused metaphor, but the boys do a fine job of recycling it, and I feel genuinely inspired each time I hear this track.

As an aside, this song pairs nicely with Iron Maiden’s “Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner” as rock songs about marathons. Maybe throw in the Popes’ “Loneliness of the Long Distance Drinker” for a lark at the end to represent the trip to the pub at the end of the race. But I digress…

The album ends with “Emotion Detector” and “Mystic Rhythms” which are both songs that are as awkward and overwrought as their titles would indicate. These songs are swamped by the new production values. “Emotion Detector” is the worst of the two, which has a tune that sounds like it belongs in an early eighties movie soundtrack: something about bike couriers or moving to a city. “Mystic Rhythms” would actually function better as a New Age Celtic folk song. As a rock song, the mystic rhythms just didn’t resonate.

“Power Windows” doesn’t have enough high points to work its way into my regular music rotation. I don’t hate the record though, and the musical genius of Rush is still shining through in places. I’ll hold onto it a little longer.

Best tracks: Manhattan Project, Marathon

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 923: Red Tail Ring

This next album was one of a number of obscure albums I ordered on line after despairing to ever find them locally. My apologies to the local record stores, but they have received (and will continue to receive) lots of my money, so they don’t have anything to worry about.

What I do worry about is the rising cost of low production CDs. As the CD market dwindles mass produced albums are becoming cheaper and cheaper. However, low production runs of little folk bands like Red Tail Ring have a few copies printed and once they supply is depleted (within a year or two) the cost quickly skyrockets. Anyway, I got this next one in time, and here’s how it turned out.

Disc 923 is….The Heart’s Swift Foot
Artist: Red Tail Ring

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Band members Michael Beauchamp and Laurel Premo continue the time honoured tradition of awkward folk album covers.

How I Came To Know It: I found this article from Paste Magazine called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection” and Red Tail Ring was prominently featured. I liked the sound and so I ordered this album online (when the article said the albums were obscure he wasn’t kidding).

Of the ten albums noted in the article I only have this one, but I am on the lookout for three more, so it was a pretty sweet musical lead. I then went on to read his earlier article, “20 Great Folk Albums to Add to Your Indie Rock Collection” and found five more albums I’m now on the lookout for. Also, note the title of this second article, hipsters. Yes that stuff you call indie rock is very often what us old timers call ‘folk’. Everything old is new again.

How It Stacks Up:  I’m still searching for Red Tail Ring’s 2011 release “Mountain Shout” (missed the release window) so I can’t really stack this up against anything.

Ratings: 4 stars

Every now and then I warn readers that an album is “very folk” meaning if you don’t like folk, it isn’t for you. “The Heart’s Swift Foot” is one of those albums.

This record is folk down to the bones, and unashamedly so. I’ve become so accustomed to the pop production on modern folk music that hearing it stripped down again felt too raw at first. However after a few listens the record soaked in nicely.

The band is a duo with Michael Beauchamp singing and playing guitar, mandolin and banjo. His partner Laurel Premo sings, plays fiddle, banjo, dobro and something listed as “feet” which I assume is stomping. Obviously they don’t play everything at once (that would just be silly) but they manage to create a surprising amount of layers by creatively latticing in the instruments of the moment alongside their voices.

Neither is the most powerful singer, but they have very sweet tones. When they sing harmony they have a nice loose quality with enough separation that you can sway your focus from one to the other, or experience them as a single experience.

In terms of singing style, Premo reminded me a bit of a cross between a Rankin and a Wailin’ Jenny. She has the phrasing and sharpness of lyrics of a Rankin, but the sharp edge and understated authority feels like a Jenny. When she sings “A Clearing in the Wild” that voice takes you for a walk in the wild, where you lose yourself so completely that you’re sure she could break your heart with one unkind word. Of course, she doesn’t.

Beauchamp is no slouch either, with a natural storyteller’s tenor on songs like “Katy Came Breezing” and “Queen of the West and Other Stories.” The latter song is a series of thoughtful examples of how people change over time, and that this is OK. Drunks sober up, couples drift apart, life goes on.

There are a couple of instrumentals on the album, both of which showcase Premo’s skill on the fiddle. “J In the Broom Straw” is a lively jig that could probably develop a little further but developed just far enough to keep me interested. “Ladies Choice Waltz” is a slow waltz that evokes country dances and beautiful down-home country girls who can make you feel calm just looking at you. Hearing “Ladies’ Choice Waltz” will make you feel like you are dancing across a bare-wood floor with the most beautiful woman at the ball. In my youth I was a bit of an insomniac and I’d play certain songs right before I went to bed to help calm my spirit. “Ladies’ Choice Waltz” would have definitely been one of them.

The traditional “St. James Hospital” didn’t grab me, but I think it is because I’ve heard a hundred variants of this particular tune over the years and it has caused me to get very picky about how it ‘should’ go. The other cover song is “My Heart’s Own Love” originally by Hazel Dickens, a folk and bluegrass singer who played through the fifties, sixties and seventies. I don’t know the original, but Red Tail Ring do a hell of a good cover. On a very traditional sounding record, it was a fitting song to finish up with.

“The Heart’s Swift Foot” is an album that takes some getting used to, but is worth the effort. On every listen I got something new out of it, even to the point where songs I initially overlooked became favourites. On “Katy Came Breezing” Beauchamp sings “I’m flesh and bone with nothing to hide” and hearing his exposed soul hanging there on the edges of his partner’s sustained fiddle note, it is easy to believe. Don’t be fooled, though; this record has plenty to hide. Delving into all those tucked-away secrets makes it more and more enjoyable on every listen.

Best tracks: Katy Came Breezing, Queen of the West and Other Stories, A Clearing in the Wild, Ladies’ Choice Waltz, My Heart’s Own Love

Friday, October 7, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 922: Frank Sinatra

I was going to save this next entry for tomorrow, but I need to fill some time before I head downtown for some shopping and appointments. If I go too soon I could be trapped in some waiting room without a book! This will not do.

Disc 922 is….A Swingin’ Affair!
Artist: Frank Sinatra

Year of Release: 1957

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a collage! Frank’s giant head is superimposed on top of a bunch of swingin’ dancers! Ring-a-ding ding!

How I Came To Know It: I’d like to pretend I was on a mission to buy more of Sinatra’s studio albums but the truth is “The Lady is a Tramp” wasn’t on either of my greatest hits records, but it was on this album. O, the embarrassment…

How It Stacks Up:  While I have a live album and two greatest hits records, this is my only studio album by Sinatra. However, I’m about to embark on a bit of a research project and I expect that will change.

Ratings: 5 stars

It’s been over six years since I reviewed a Frank Sinatra album, and in the intervening time I’ve come across a lot of classic vocalists. Dean Martin, Bobby Darin and Louis Prima to name just a few. Listening to “A Swingin’ Affair” was a timely reminder that when it comes to this style of music, there is Frank Sinatra and then there’s everyone else. Old Blue Eyes, The Chairman of the Board - call him what you will - he’s the best.

“A Swingin’ Affair” was one of four Frank Sinatra albums released in 1957, a rate so prolific that today it seems unthinkable. Of course, today we expect our singers to also be our songwriters whereas in Frank’s days you had songwriting specialists sitting in a room cranking out classics. When Frank went to record the tracks I expect he was greeted by a bunch of studio musicians that were masters of their respective instruments.

Frank Sinatra was a big deal in 1957 and I expect he had his pick of the best songs and the best players. That freedom is evident on “A Swingin’ Affair.” The musicianship on this record is exceptional, with every note perfectly timed, and delivered with grace and elan. The band pretty much plays it straight and lets Sinatra be the star, but there is just enough jazzy nuance amid the easy listening to give the songs edge.

Similarly, the songwriting on this record is exceptional. Frank covers a few Cole Porter tracks (coincidentally the one vocalist who can match his brilliance), a Gershwin tune (“Nice Work If You Can Get It”) and a bunch of other guys that I expect are famous in the easy listening jazz scene if I knew that scene well enough to recognize them.

The songwriting excellence isn’t just the tunes (although those are amazing) but also some of the cleverest lyrics I’ve ever heard. The album is generally themed around playful topics that are up-tempo and fun. Even when they delve into unpleasant topics like relationship breakdowns (“I Wish I Were in Love Again”) they do it in a lighthearted way. Whether it is the turn of the joke on the third rhyme like here:

“The broken dates - the endless waits
The lovely loving - and the hateful hates
The conversation - with the flying plates
I wish I were in love again”

Or the complex metaphor and double-meaning here:

“When love congeals - it soon reveals
The faint aroma - of performing seals
The double-crossing - of a pair of heels
I wish I were in love again”

This line plays off of the idea of being ‘hot-blooded’ in love and what happens when that love cools off. Later the double meaning of ‘a pair of heels’ evokes both two contemptible people out to hurt each other, but also the sexy image of a woman’s heels, delicately crossed at the ankle. That is some clever shit.

Another favourite is “I Won’t Dance” which features fun rhymes like “for heaven rest us/I am not asbestos” to signify that a woman that is so hot the man can’t trust himself to dance with her unless he’s made of asbestos.

Making all these great lines and great music work is Frank himself. Sinatra has an effortless ability at phrasing a lyric, landing every punch line and swaying on and off the beat without ever losing the melody. He can tell you the same two and half minute story a hundred times and make it interesting every time.

On top of this, the man is pitch-perfect, with an easy, even power in his voice regardless of what note he’s landing. On many songs he shifts key and never loses a beat (except those beats he’s deliberately letting hang for a fraction of a second). Like Amy Winehouse or Patsy Cline he routinely hits notes that seem impossibly placed in the progression of the music and makes it sound sublime. I don’t know enough about music to know what’s going on, but I can tell it ain’t easy to do (just try to sing along on some of these songs and see how far you get).

Although I must’ve listened to this record four times in a row while preparing to review it I never got tired of hearing a single one of the songs. It’s a happy accident that I bought “A Swingin’ Affair” for a single song and ended up liking all 16. If that’s not perfection, I don’t know what is.

Best tracks: all the tracks, but I particularly like I Wish I Were In Love Again, I Won’t Dance, I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good and The Lady is a Tramp

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 921: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

Sheila was out for dinner tonight and I had to fend for myself. I’m not much of a cook and I could’ve had soup or canned ravioli but I gave in to temptation on the walk home and stopped for pizza instead. I regret nothing.

Disc 921 is….Colvin & Earle
Artist: Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle take a walk together. This is the most dressed up I’ve seen Steve Earle in a decade. Shawn must’ve called and reminded him it was picture day.

How I Came To Know It: I didn’t even know this album had happened until I saw it on the new arrivals shelf at a local music store. Steve Earle has rarely steered me wrong, so although I knew Shawn Colvin only in passing I decided to give it a shot.

How It Stacks Up:  I have no Shawn Colvin albums but many by Steve Earle. None of that is relevant here, as this is a one-off duet record, and so stands alone.

Ratings: 2 stars

As I noted earlier Steve Earle has rarely steered me wrong, but on “Colvin & Earle” I certainly didn’t feel steered right. This album isn’t bad, but I spent most of my multiple listens wishing it was better.

The record is a blend of Colvin and Earle’s respective folk styles, and they sing harmony on almost all of the tracks. The harmonies were so loose I found them discordant and distracting, however. It was so distracting I took to the internet to find out what those kind of harmonies are called so I could avoid them in future.

Apparently it is called “cross harmony” and the discordance is intentional. In an interview for the Guardian, Earle is quite proud of the fact that they happen “naturally” when he sings with Colvin. That may be so, but it wasn’t for me. If that means I’ve got an unrefined ear, so be it, but I like my harmonies to get along better. By the way, I’d link to the Guardian article but the writer claims the album has only two cover tracks on it and there are four. That’s just something you’ve gotta fact check, people. But I digress…

The tracks that are written by Colvin or Earle (or both) didn’t have the emotional oomph that I expect, at least from my experience with Earle’s songwriting. Also, while I could tell they were trying to do the album in a very traditional style the result was that a lot of the tracks feel stale. “Tell Moses” is full of religious metaphor but I couldn’t tell if they were paying homage or just trying the style on for size. The musical exercise didn’t translate to the album and made the whole song feel disingenuous.

As folk albums often do, the record has four covers (five if you count the Beatles song in the bonus tracks). Two of these (John Loudermilk’s blues-rock classic “Tobacco Road” and the sublime “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones) had me wishing I could hear the originals instead. Colvin & Earle don’t do a bad version of either, but in converting them to a more traditional style the energy of the original didn’t translate. At least “Tobacco Road” has a more traditional tight harmony which was a welcome break from the “cross harmony” everywhere else.

The other two covers are very good, and are standouts on the album. Emmylou Harris’ “Raise the Dead” is excellent. When I first heard it I thought “this would sound great sung by Emmylou Harris!” which is how I found out it was her song. It is from a 1999 duet album with Linda Ronstadt called “Western Wall” which I am now looking for.

You Were On My Mind” is a very pretty cover of an Ian and Sylvia Tyson song. Not only are Colvin & Earle up to the task, I think they give this song even more emotional impact than even the legendary Tysons managed. Kudos!

One original song really stood out as well. “The Way That We Do” has strong songwriting and it helps that Earle and Colvin take turns on the verses rather than trying to sing harmony at first. This strangely helps the discordant harmonies work better later on when they are introduced halfway through.

There are some pretty tracks on this album for sure, and it gets better as it goes along but not enough of it resonated with me, or it resonated in a way that didn’t feel comfortable. Despite this record being new to my collection, I must reluctantly bid it an early adieu and send it to a home where it will be better appreciated.

Best tracks: The Way That We Do, You Were On My Mind, Raise the Dead, That Don’t Worry Me Now

Monday, October 3, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 920: Molly Hatchet

Will this CD Odyssey ever end? Not if I keep buying music, I suppose, and this weekend I bought five more albums.

They were (in no particular order): Kishi Bashi’s “Sonderlust”, Angel Olsen’s “My Woman”, the Drive-By Truckers’ “Decoration Day”, Daniel Romano’s “Mosey” and Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On.” The two early winners out of that collection were Kishi Bashi and Drive-By Truckers, but that’s all I’ll say for now – I’ll say more when I roll ‘em.

Disc 920 is….Flirtin’ With Disaster
Artist: Molly Hatchet

Year of Release: 1979

What’s up with the Cover? Frank frickin’ Frazetta, that’s what. The fantasy world’s undisputed art godfather did a bunch of album covers for Molly Hatchet and this is one of the best. This cover has everything the 12 year old boy in me could ever want: skeletons, snakes and a badass Viking warrior with an axe dripping blood. Even the ubiquitous Molly Hatchet banner looks cool.

How I Came To Know It: I grew up with this record (my brother had a few Molly Hatchet records). He liked Molly Hatchet well enough, but I strongly suspect he was influenced to buy this album for the cover art – and who could blame him? I got the CD version as part of a set containing Molly Hatchet’s first five albums about a year ago.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Molly Hatchet albums. “Flirtin’ With Disaster” was the band’s biggest seller, but for me it only ranks third.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes an artist can find their sound a bit too perfectly, and that’s the case with Molly Hatchet’s second album, “Flirtin’ With Disaster”.

On their debut record, the band showed their boogie woogie and blues-rock roots with something that fell somewhere between Little Feat and Allman Brothers. On the album that would follow (1980’s “Beatin’ the Odds”) they are a bit harder, as they begin to sidle up to early eighties metal.

But in 1979 Molly Hatchet was content to just lay down a straightforward riff and groove away. No complicated guitar solos. No fantastical topics (well a bit of western outlaw track with “Gunsmoke” but that’s about it). This is just southern rock, blasted out with gusto and damn any frills that might distract you from the core of the song.

With that disclaimer in mind, the songs on “Flirtin’ With Disaster” are solid and played with energy, and probably exactly what you’d want to hear in some rough-as-hell small town bar where the band is protected by a chicken-wire cage, a la the Blues Brothers.

When they hit the sweet spot within the sweet spot, as they do on side one tracks two and three with “It’s All Over Now” and “One Man’s Pleasure” it is a toe-tapping good time. When they go on a bit too long (as they do on the six minute “Boogie No More”) the limitations of the songs become apparent.

On the title track it feels like they are trying to write a hit, but the effort seems to suck out the grit established on the album’s more organic deep cuts. In fairness, the live version of the same song later on the record (my CD has four bonus tracks including live material) works a lot better.

In fact, when they play live it made me wish I’d seen them in some dive bar during their prime. I think it would have been one hell of a show, replete with fistfights, cheap bourbon and broken glass. Actually, probably just as well that I missed it; I only like a third of those things. I’m looking at you, Jim Beam. But I digress…

The album is a bit of a reverse bell curve, with two of the first three songs being strong and two of the last three (“Gunsmoke” and “Long Time”) bringing the level up again after a lot of uninspiring filler through the middle of the lineup. Despite this, the opening track “Whiskey Man” and the closer “Let The Good Times Roll” are mirror images of the same boring song, chugging along in a workmanlike but uninspiring way.

I can’t fault Molly Hatchet for doing what they do, and their fans were happy with it for sure. “Flirtin’ With Disaster” was their biggest selling album ever, going triple platinum and achieving the lofty heights of #19 on the charts.

But if I am being honest, I like them when they are either just a bit more raw, or a bit more heavy. The album that precedes this one marries the sixties into the seventies with electric boogie woogie, and the one that follows has an edge of metal that makes them a bit of a trendsetter. “Flirtin’ With Disaster” is still Molly Hatchet in their prime, and has its moments, but if it had taken more risks I would have liked it even better.

Best tracks: It’s All Over Now, One Man’s Pleasure, Gunsmoke, Long Time

Sunday, October 2, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 919: Daniel Romano

After a stressful and frustrating week, I’ve been enjoying a fairly relaxing weekend. There is no Dolphins game this week - we got our losing out of the way earlier than usual during a Thursday night game - but I’m still going to spend the day watching football.

Before I do that, let’s write a music review!

Disc 919 is….Come Cry With Me
Artist: Daniel Romano

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Everything old is new again, and hip(ster) new bands love evoking the artistic feel of old sixties records. I love it too, and find this album cover both awesome and ironic in equal measure, as I expect Daniel Romano intended.

I suspect the jacket is by famous designer Manuel Cuevas. Sheila and I went to Manuel’s shop in downtown Nashville last year and I could have bought half the store…except that the jackets cost thousands. Maybe one day…

How I Came To Know It: My coworker Sam told me about Daniel Romano and recommended 2011’s “Sleeps Beneath the Willow”. I listened to it and still wasn’t sure, but then I saw this album at a discounted price at the local music store and decided to take a chance. Support your local music stores!

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Daniel Romano albums so far, all bought in the last couple of months. Because they are all new to me, it is hard to stack them up but I’ll take a chance and say “Come Cry With Me” is the best…for now.

Ratings: 4 stars

Sometimes an album is so reminiscent of an earlier era it is hard to tell if it is a clever throwback or a tired derivative.

I wrestled with this question while listening to “Come Cry With Me.” It sounds a great deal like Gram Parsons, from the song construction through the arrangements and even Romano’s vocal style. The more I listened, the more I realized this record is a love letter to that sound, not a rip off. The songs are in the same style but they are thoughtful, creative and original. If you were to mix them into a playlist featuring the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Byrds and Gram Parson’s solo work it could hold its own, which is high praise indeed.

Romano’s voice isn’t the strongest, but he knows how to write songs that stay within his range in a way that you generally don’t notice. In this way he reminds me of John Prine or Steve Earle, both accomplished masters at the same compositional sleight-of-hand.

A lot of the songs speak to heartache and loss, most notably the opening track, “Middle Child” which is a song about a child mourning that his mother never loved him. The echo in the production and the angst in Romano’s voice serve the topics well. Even on “Two Pillow Sleeper” which employs the overused metaphor of the empty pillow, Romano makes it work as he draws you in to country music’s oldest theme: broken hearts.

This sadness is juxtaposed against humour in other tracks. On “Chicken Bill” Romano tells the tale of a drifter getting a temporary job killing chickens on a chicken farm. The song is actually a two-parter, flowing from a Johnny-Cash like bass line on “Chicken Bill” and then flowing into the next track, “When I Was Abroad.” The song is an old country waltz in which Chicken Bill tells how much better his life was when he traveled abroad…or lived as a woman. Probably the former, but I think it is open to interpretation.

A highlight on the album is “I’m Not Crying Over You” where Romano crosses the album’s two themes, telling the story of a heartbroken man who insists he isn’t heartbroken at all, but just practicing for an acting role:

“When she left me, she thought that I was hurting
She heard that I was crying to her friends
But the truth is I just got a new job acting
So any tear that rolls my cheek is just pretend.”

The album ends with a live performance of “A New Love (Can Be Found)” and it is a standout track. Here’s the stark but affecting opening:

“Some stranger is with her for the first time tonight.
What’s a man to do, when he just can’t win?
And all the voices in my head are saying ‘cry your days away’
Why can’t somebody call to me and say:
‘Hey, mister, don’t let it bring you down
A new love can be found
Just open up your eyes
I wasn’t meant to be
No, not this time around.
A new love can be found.’”

The quaver in Romano’s voice is beautiful here, accompanied by a single acoustic guitar. This song is equal parts hope and heartbreak.

I’ll end with a couple of disclaimers. First, “Come Cry With Me” explores a very traditional and old-school country music sound. I happen to love that music, but if you don’t you aren’t going to like this record either.

Second, every Romano album is very different from the others. I just finished listening to his new release “Mosey” for the first time and it is full of horn sections and early disco. Romano does his own thing, and when he does it he delves deeply. You won’t always want to go that far into a single musical idea, and when you don’t he runs the risk of coming off disingenuous. All I can say is, give his records multiple listens because the more times you hear them the more you will notice that he is the real deal: a singer-songwriter that deserves a lot more fame than he’s achieved so far.

Best tracks: Middle Child, Just Between You and Me, I’m Not Crying Over You, A New Love (Can Be Found)

Monday, September 26, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 918: Gogol Bordello

The stitches from my gum surgery came out today, and while my teeth are still tender it feels good to have that procedure in my rear-view.

That was, of course, until the dentist said we gotta do the bottom half next. Yeesh. Thankfully it’s not scheduled until December. I can amuse myself with less painful activities in the meantime, like getting another tattoo.

Disc 918 is….Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike
Artist: Gogol Bordello

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? The ultimate weapon of revolutionaries and 12-year olds the world over: the slingshot. Also, a lot of yellow.

How I Came To Know It: Our old friends Sherylyn and Joel bought me a later album “Trans-Continental Hustle” (reviewed way back at Disc 482). I liked it and so I sought out some more stuff by the band, and “Gypsy Punks” is where I landed, for no particular reason at the time.

How It Stacks Up:  Gogol Bordello has nine studio albums, but I’ve only got two. Of the two, “Gypsy Punks: Underdog World Strike” is the weaker partner, so #2.

Ratings: 3 stars

Raw energy is what Gogol Bordello is all about as a band, and “Gypsy Punk” captures the experience well, even if it is a bit too much of a good thing by the time you get to the end of it.

The album does a fine job of mixing punk and Eastern European folk music into a stew of sound. This is raw rock and roll, with accordion and violins played so hard that they must finish the show with stress fractures. Punctuating the frantic beat and thrashing guitars are bells, shrieks and screams. The whole thing is like an out of control house party where no one seems to know who the host is and that always ends with a police raid.

The music has a revolutionary fervor to it, even if you’re never sure what kind of revolution Gogol Bordello is after (one of the songs on the album is “Think Locally, Fuck Globally” so take that for what it’s worth). Music is their common tonic for helping them through difficult times.

This is particularly true on “Immigrant Funk.” This is the album’s entry into Gogol Bordello’s abiding interest in immigration, and the combination of excitement and frustration that is felt by new immigrants. “Immigrant Punk” is a punk classic, and band frontman Eugene Hutz starts the song off with a little vitriol, observing:

“Upon arrivin’ to the melting pot
I get penciled in as a goddamn white
Now that I am categorized
Officer gets me naturalized.”

With its almost reggae bass line, “Immigrant Punk” has traces of the Clash, but as with everything Gogol Bordello touches, it is with an eastern twist. There are also occasional splashes of Spanish musical forms, presumably because nothing exceeds like excess.

As I worked my way through my first listen my first thought was “oh, this stuff is all going to sound the same” but I was pleasantly surprised at how many different ways Gogol Bordello can employ so many subtle variations on similar rhythms and keep things interesting without compromising their sound.

Dogs Were Barking” is a vision of the wildest wedding ever (Gogol Bordello can find inspiration for a song in every kind of party). In addition to the titular dogs, this weddings has monkeys, bears, girls cutting loose, cops lurking and kids ‘snarking’ There’s nothing worse than a snarky kid at a wedding.

One of the most melodic songs is “Undestructable” which shows the band is capable of reining it in just a bit and delivering something almost (but not quite) worthy of being a radio single. It is a beautiful track, marred by the unfathomable decision to repeatedly say ‘undestructable’ instead of indestructible. It isn’t just the accents either; the liner notes make it clear the spelling is deliberate.

Sometimes the songs tend to get a bit repetitive and need to end sooner. This is a general malaise of the album, which at 15 songs and 63 minutes is just too long. Taken all at once it wears you out, and you’re done with it 15 minutes before it is done with you. It is the musical equivalent of the party that goes on a little too long, where you stay for an extra hour after you ceased having fun, wishing you’d shared that final cab with your buddies after all.

Overall this is a pretty fun record, from a band who create a unique blend of west and east; of rock and tradition, and then make the resulting goulash sound great. It’s a bit rough around the edges, but I suspect Gogol Bordello would have it no other way.

Best tracks: Not a Crime, Immigrant Punk, Avenue B, Dogs Were Barking, Start Wearing Purple, Undestructable

Friday, September 23, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 917: Rush

I had the day off today and I took advantage of it by sleeping in and then doing some chores. I went to the music store as well but nothing grabbed me and I left empty handed.

My teeth still ache from Wednesday’s dental surgery, but not as bad as I expected. As I was writing this blog entry, my dentist called to see how I was recovering. Needless to say this was above and beyond the call of duty so a tip of the hat to Dr. Grady O’Neill.

And now we return you to regular music review scheduling, and my first Rush review in almost two years.

Disc 917 is….Hemispheres
Artist: Rush

Year of Release: 1978

What’s up with the Cover? Walking upon the surface of the brain are a businessman and a naked dancer. The ego and the id, perhaps? John Steed and Mikail Baryishnikov? We don’t know. What we do know that this is one of rock music’s worst album covers ever. Just put a dragon and a castle like every other prog band, Rush!

How I Came To Know It: When Rush issued remastered editions of their classic albums it seemed like a good time to catch up on some of the albums I was missing. “Hemispheres” was one of them.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 19 Rush albums, which is all of them except their 2004 cover album, “Feedback.” “Hemispheres” isn’t my favourite, but there is no denying its greatness. I put it 7th, just behind “Fly by Night” and just in front of “Farewell to Kings.”

Ratings: 4 stars

“Hemispheres” is Rush at their proggiest. After this record they had to take a step back and simplify with 1980’s “Permanent Waves.” Going any further down the progressive rabbit-hole would have been the musical equivalent of gazing upon mighty Cthulhu. Their minds (and our ears) would have exploded.

It is a testament to Rush’s greatness that they can make music this complex and ambitious and it is still not only listenable, but enjoyable and inspiring.

The record only has four songs and like “2112” before it, the first side is consumed by a single track, “Cygnus X-1 Book II”. (Rush devotees will know that Book I appears on the end of the preceding record, “Farewell to Kings.” Book II is about how we need both logical thought (represented by Apollo) and emotional inspiration (represented by Dionysus) in order to be whole. I have two tattoos representing this concept, so it has long appealed to me.

The song itself is not for the faint of heart. Over 18 minutes long, it ranges through a variety of movements that demands your attention and quickly loses you if you don’t provide it. It makes this album a good one for lying down and listening to, but not that great in the background while you do something else.

Side Two has three songs of more temperate length, and because of this they are easier to wrap your ear around. The best of these is “Circumstances” which is a pretty kick ass rock song, thick and grounded in the world’s greatest rhythm section, with a crazy little detour into keyboard about two-thirds of the way through to cleanse your palate.

This is followed by “The Trees” which has the feel of a medieval folksong at the beginning, before cascading into full rock glory a couple of bars in. The song explores the concept of equality through an imaginary conflict between two types of trees, the Maples and the Oaks. The song is unlike a lot of other rock songs, in that it is a dissertation on the dangers of revolution, rather than a call to it. It has a distinct anti-communist flair to it as well which is notable given the album’s release date.

The final song is the nine and half minute instrumental “La Villa Strangiato.” This is an inspired track, exploring multiple musical themes while stitching them together seamlessly. The song also features some of the greatest guitar work by Alex Lifeson you will ever hear. Lifeson conducts a clinic on how a solo is supposed to work, exploring a theme with grace and power but never falling into a pointless noodle. After a record filled with complex imagery and thoughtful themes, “La Villa Strangiato” is a balm for the mind. It brings your logical appreciation for song construction and your emotional reaction to great music together, just as Cygnus X-1 intended all along.

This is not a record for everyone, and for the most part only lovers of seventies progressive rock will fully appreciate it. However if that’s you, “Hemispheres” is a must-have.

Best tracks: Circumstances, The Trees, La Villa Strangiato

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 916: Billy Joel

I’m just back from dental surgery and my freezing is wearing off. I’ve taken a painkiller but now I’m nervous it’ll impact my writing ability. I promise to do my best to walk the line between “ouch!” and “huh?” as carefully as possible.

That said, if I sound a little overly harsh during this next review, it is because my mouth hurts. Also, the album sucks. If I begin to ramble, that is the painkiller kicking in. Also, the album bored me. Feel free to ascribe motivations for the writer’s voice as best humours you.

Disc 916 is….Storm Front
Artist: Billy Joel

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? As you may know, mariners have long used flags to pass signals between ships. This black square inside a red square is a storm warning. In the case of this album, it is also a warning that there is one good song amid a sea of content that will mostly make you angry. Hence the red.

How I Came To Know It: I bought this album against my better judgment because it had the song “The Downeaster Alexa” and I am a sucker for a sea shanty.

How It Stacks Up:  I have a greatest hits package by Billy Joel (which tragically does not include “The Downeaster Alexa” and hence this review) but that doesn’t stack up. I have one other studio album, “The Stranger” which is so far above “Storm Front” that ranking “Storm Front” only second is kind of insulting.

Ratings: 2 stars

Billy Joel’s got nothing much to say on “Storm Front” but don’t worry, he compensates for it with a lot of bombast. Joel is a natural songwriter and storyteller with a bevy of American classics to claim as his own, but sadly they don’t appear on this record.

OK, that was unkind. There is one song I consider a Joel classic on this record, and that’s “The Downeaster Alexa” so before I get back to hammering away at the other nine tracks (and before the freezing is completely gone from my gums), let’s give the man some well-deserved credit.

The Downeaster Alexa” is a song about a commercial fisherman, trying to make a living off the coast of New England in the face of dwindling stocks and rising personal debt. This song is filled with the mix of despair and defiance that comes when a man knows his life’s work is collapsing around him, but steadfastly sticks to it. The captain of the Alexa fishes deeper, travels farther, mortgages his home and does whatever he can to continue to do the job he loves.

The melody undulates like a proper sea shanty, and the heavy bass drums in the background are evocative of a million different commercial fishing sounds: the thump of the engine, the crash of the waves and the general sense that the bottom of the ocean is very far down indeed. Yes, I’ve been commercial fishing and felt/heard all of that. My brother has done it far more often, and this song always makes me think of him (and worry about him when he’s at sea).

Unfortunately, that’s almost it for the good stuff on “Storm Front.” The production is full of pointless flourishes that make everything sound busy and the songs try to be bigger and more important than they are.

This is right in the middle of Joel’s marriage to Christie Brinkley and the record suggests things aren't great at home, but those suggestions are vague and deflected. Songs like “That’s Not Her Style,” “Shameless” and “State of Grace” all overreach and feel like Joel is trying to convince himself of something rather than just speak from the heart. “I Go To Extremes” is some kind of apology for the over-reach, while simultaneously doing more of it. Maybe these songs would work if it weren’t for all that goddamn excess production everywhere, but I doubt it.

I usually love the way Joel sings a song, but on most of “Storm Front” it sounds like he’s trying to channel Joe Cocker and falling short. His strength is heartfelt storytelling, not bombastic blues-inspired rock. Apart from “Downeaster Alexa” the album just plays again and again to his weaknesses.

“Storm Front” was Joel’s most successful record since “Glass Houses” going all the way to #4 in Canada, and #1 in the U.S. Maybe it is fitting that the worst track on the record is also the most commercially successful. “We Didn’t Start the Fire” is just a laundry list of headlines from the previous four decades. The best you can say about this song is that Joel strings them all together so that they rhyme in a clever way. But so what? This song is nothing more than sitting around saying “’member when?” to your drunk buddy, when he’s already passed out. It is like sitting in front of the TV, drool at the corner of the mouth, clicking through the channels.

Joel attempts a story later with “Leningrad” and this approach is at least more of what makes him interesting (delving into the struggles of the individual caught in the tide of history, rather than the tide itself). Unfortunately, “Leningrad” isn’t that great of a song. Not bad, but just not good enough to rescue a record this forgettable.

The album ends with “And So It Goes” which I have a soft spot for. It’s just piano and Joel’s mournful voice but it captures a bitter honesty lacking earlier on the album. Here Joel strips things down to some painful truths of a love about to be lost. In some ways “And So It Goes” is an apology (lyrically and stylistically) for the earlier tracks. The lyrics are a bit maudlin, but having poured out my soul to a woman more than once in my life, I can attest that maudlin is called for sometimes.

I like “Downeaster Alexa” and “And So It Goes” but I’ve got a large music collection with a lot of songs that do a better job of dealing with their respective topics. I’d run through the long list of them by decade, but as “We Didn’t Start the Fire” teaches us, that would just be annoying. Instead I’ll talk about those albums when I roll them, even as I bid this one a not-so-fond adieu.

Best tracks: Downeaster Alexa, And So It Goes