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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 915: Patti Smith

This next disc is another new one (to me). I’ve been really into this artist since Sheila introduced me to her a few months ago.

Disc 915 is….Horses
Artist: Patti Smith

Year of Release: 1975

What’s up with the Cover? Patti Smith looks sexy and dangerous, even when all she’s wearing is a man’s suit.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila introduced me to Pattis Smith when she bought me this album and her 1978 album “Easter” for my birthday this year.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Patti Smith albums now (obviously, I liked what I heard). Of those five “Horses” is second or third, depending on how I feel about “Waves”. They are so different it is hard to decide, so I’ll leave them in a dead heat until I review that record.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

I try to avoid over contextualizing albums, since I feel the music should speak for itself. However, listening to Patti Smith’s debut record “Horses” it is hard not to feel the weight of musical history bearing down on you. Listening to it I could hear the echoes of Smith’s brilliance echoing through Concrete Blonde, Sleater Kinney, The Clash, Nick Cave and countless more. If you love exploring the roots of modern rock and roll, this is a must-listen.

This record is visceral, powerful and musically brave. We’re lucky it came out in 1975, because I’m not sure record labels would take a chance on it now. Patti Smith is punk before punk was even fully formed as a concept, but to call this music simply punk would be to grossly oversimplify it. She brings in elements of new wave, spoken word poetry, pop and blues rock to name just a few.

Listening to “Horses” I felt like I was standing at the headwater of all music, before it had a chance to divide itself into separate sounds; before it had to pick sides. Patti Smith just does whatever the hell she wants, and borrows from whatever music she wants to borrow from. Is that a smoky bar crooner persona on “Birdland”? Maybe at first, but it is also performance art piece floating in a soup of progressive rock sounds.

Birdland,” which is only one of two meandering nine minute monsters on the record, isn’t even one of my favourite songs on this record. For that I’ll take its Side B sister track, the abominably named “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(De)”. Seriously, that’s the song’s name. Did I mention that Patti Smith does whatever the hell she wants?

Horses…” is a powerful track, drawing in fifties and sixties dances like the twist, the watusi and the mashed potato. It makes you either want to dance or incite a revolution, and from moment to moment you’re not sure which one you want more. In short, it’s rock and roll, baby!

Both “Birdland” and “Land…” are such complex and layered songs I could probably write a whole review on just them but the album has a lot to offer.

The record opens with Van Morrison’s 1964 song “Gloria,” but in Smith’s hands the anthemic party pleaser of Van Morrison becomes something larger and darker. Apart from the chorus, the song is largely reinvented, starting the record off with the slouching, sneer of an opening lyric:

“Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”

The record ranges all over from here. In addition to long meandering tracks, there are powerful songs about fraying dreams like “Free Money” and groovy new wave backbeats on the lyrically drenched “Kimberly” (which is co-written by Blue Oyster Cult keyboardist Allen Lanier). “Kimberley” is expressing love for someone, but truthfully it is going to take years to even begin plumbing the depths of this album. For now I’ll just share a bit of the song’s lyrics for your consideration:

“So I ran through the fields as the bats with their baby vein faces
Burst from the barn and flames in a violent violet sky,
And I fell on my knees and pressed you against me.
Your soul was like a network of spittle,
Like glass balls movin' in like cold streams of logic,
And I prayed as the lightning attacked
That something will make it go crack, something will make it go crack.”

The original recording ends with the soft piano track “Elegie” which sounds like what a depressed walk in the rain feels like. My version is a re-issue that ends with another cover, this time of the Who’s “My Generation.” Unlike the experimental treatment given to “Gloria” on “My Generation” Smith opts to play it straight, albeit with three times the ferocity present in the original. Listening to it, I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the original, now that I’ve heard the cover done in all its punk glory.

Most of what Smith does here has no business working, and yet it does. “Horses” is a fearless record that inspired generations of musicians to follow. Yes, you should buy it.

Best tracks: Gloria: In Excelsis, Redondo Beach, Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer(De), Free Money, Kimberly

Saturday, September 17, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 914: Neil Young

I’m having a much-needed relaxing Saturday. Sheila and I are just back from town where I stopped in at the book store (buying four Edgar Rice Burroughs paperbacks) and the music store. At the music store I bought four albums: the new Nick Cave, “Skeleton Tree”, Daniel Romano’s “Sleep Beneath the Willow”, The Drive-By Truckers’ “Brighter Than Creation is Dark” and Twisted Sister’s “Stay Hungry” (the latter of which I have on vinyl from back in the day).

I’m looking forward to all of them, but for now let’s focus on the last random selection in the CD Odyssey.

Disc 914 is….Everybody’s Rockin’
Artist: Neil Young and the Shocking Pinks

Year of Release: 1983

What’s up with the Cover? Neil strikes his best Elvis pose as he rocks out in a white suit. No sign of the Shocking Pinks on the cover, although the walls speak for them in their absence.

Also, glory in the technological wonders of…the full digital recording!

How I Came To Know It: I remember being intrigued when this album was released, but back then I was pretty much exclusively into heavy metal. Years later I found a used copy at a good price while I was fleshing out my Neil Young collection and snapped it up.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 18 Neil Young albums (having recently parted with two). Of those 18 I put “Everybody’s Rockin’” in at an arbitrary16th spot. I say arbitrary, because there isn’t much separating 11 through 16. They are all solid records.

Ratings: 3 stars

In my last review I talked about Jaymz B and the Royal Jelly Orchestra sending up an old genre of music, and seeing just how far they could paint outside the lines in the process. On “Everybody’s Rockin’” Neil Young shows what you can do when you throw your heart into an old style and approach it without a hint of irony. The results are a lot better.

“Everybody’s Rockin’” is Neil Young’s love letter to the musical stylings of fifties and early sixties rock and roll. It is completely unlike anything else Neil Young has ever done, and yet listening to it you can hear the early influences that have helped to shape his sound over the years.

Don’t expect a lot of Neil’s tortured rock guitar, and don’t expect to hear Neil’s thoughtful folk singing. This record does not stray off the path of old school rock and roll at any point, nor will you want it to.

The songs have a finger-snappin’ swing to them, with Neil channeling Buddy Holly and Dick Dale among others. Behind him his backup singers, the Shocking Pinks, deliver tight harmonic doo-waas and other refrains. The whole album feels like a high school dance filled with poodle skirted gals and boys in white t-shirts with smokes rolled up into the sleeve (this latter trend was still kicking in the seventies when I was a kid, and I hope it comes back one day).

Half the songs are originals and the other half are remakes that preserve the classic feel of the originals, while managing to put Neil’s own unique spin on them.

The album opens with “Betty Lou’s Got a New Pair of Shoes” which is a classic originally performed by Bobby Freeman in 1958. I also have a version by Blue Oyster Cult recorded in 1969. The song is gritty and fun and while the more up-tempo BOC version is my favourite, Neil does a solid job and stays more faithful to the original.

The fifties classics and Neil’s new material blend seamlessly, and I didn’t know which ones were old and which ones were new until I looked them up. Of the Neil Young originals, the best is “Wonderin’,” a classic track about going out for a late night walk and pining for your girl. Neil’s frail warble shouldn’t work for this kind of song but somehow it does. He delivers it with such a straightforward and heartfelt love for the material that he completely draws you in. The song has a delightful amble and as the song fades out Neil repeats “I’m wonderin’” the Shocking Pinks reply with a chorus of “Knowing that I need you to save me”. It is so sublime you wish it could go on forever.

Instead it ends in a tightly wrapped 2:59, leaving you wanting more. The entire album is faithful to the three minute single standard of the original source material. Only two songs exceed three minutes and the longest is 3:09. The album is 10 songs and yet it’s over in a crisp 25 minutes.

The production on the record is a bit tinny, but the effect is only to make it feel a bit more like songs sounded in the fifties. With the exception of “Wonderin’” there aren’t a lot of standouts, but neither are there any songs that fall flat. The whole effect is a wonderful homage to an earlier, simpler time and if it sounds a little dated, that’s because it’s supposed to.

The record peaked in 1983 at #22 on the charts, but deserved a better fate than that. While Neil Young’s full catalogue has plenty of classic albums that are rightfully held in higher regard overall, “Everybody’s Rockin’” is an oft-overlooked gem that deserves a little love of its own.

Best tracks: Betty Lou’s Got a New Pair of Shoes, Wonderin’, Kinda Fonda Wanda, Cry Cry Cry

Thursday, September 15, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 913: Jaymz B and the Royal Jelly Orchestra

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey. Let’s get a little silly, shall we?

Disc 913 is….Cocktail: shakin’ and stirred
Artist: Jaymz B and the Royal Jelly Orchestra

Year of Release: 1996

What’s up with the Cover? It appears to be the lounge version of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster. The Atomic Martini, I suppose.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Chris introduced me to this back in the heyday of lounge revival. I don’t know where Chris found it. I only know that once he did he knew he had to share it.

How It Stacks Up:  Jaymz B and the Royal Jelly Orchestra made eight albums from 1995 through 2006, but I only have this one.

Ratings: 2 stars

The mid- to late-nineties saw an explosion in lounge music, and whenever you get that kind of explosion there is bound to be some weird stuff around the edges of the resulting crater. This record is one of those.

I’m not sure what possessed Jaymz B and the Royal Jelly Orchestra to record an entire album of bizarre lounge versions of Canadian rock classics. I guess when you have a band name like they do, recording off-the-wall music is just what you do.

This album has all your favourites, and if they aren’t your favourites chances are they are someone else’s. Every one of them has been lounge-ified in the most ridiculous manner possible. If you just imagined how ridiculous they must sound, add at least two more steps up your ridiculous meter.

Some would say it would be hard to make “Safety Dance” weirder than it already is, but Jaymz B and his orchestra know better. Not content with lounge music and a saucy horn section, they throw in a sitar for good measure. Does it work? Ehhh…kind of. Let’s just say it works at first.

And that is the charm of this whole album; it’s fun the first few times you hear it. It is one of those records you put on while your friend is over and then smile like a total dork at them until they realize what song they are listening to. Then you say something like “I know, right!” and play a few more, not stopping until it is clear from their pained faces that you’ve played at least one too many.

This record features songs by Loverboy, The Who, Prism, Bryan Adams and the Crash Test Dummies, to name just a few. If you’re wondering what song they choose for each just think of the first song by that band that comes to mind. That’s probably it.

One of my favourites is Alanis Morisette’s “You Oughta Know” if for no other reason that it sounds like something from Sesame Street until the sing-songy vocal asks if your new girlfriend goes down on you in a theatre. Not the sort of thing Oscar the Grouch asks Big Bird. At least not on camera.

I also enjoyed Rush’ “Closer to the Heart” which has a crazy dragnet intro before the singer of the moment (the songs feature different vocalists) begins lounging it up, taking the philosophical musings of Neil Peart and belting them out for maximum camp. When you think the song can’t get any weirder, they add in the trill of an old school bicycle bell. Why? Why not!

While all the songs have their own…er…charm, not all appealed to me. The band tries to do “Takin’ Care of Business” with a Tom Waits style vibe, but it just came off as a cheap knock off. Do your own crazy thing, Royal Jelly Orchestra, don’t do Tom’s.

And on and on it goes, with each singer trying to outdo the last with the level of schmaltz they can inject into these classics. It is all done in good fun, but after the first few listens the joke has been had and you’re left with a comedy routine where you already know all the jokes.

That said, these songs are fun and Jaymz B works hard to make each one very different from the last. Ordinarily I’d complain with the sheer volume of ridiculous sounds and instruments thrown into each track but that’s sort of the point. It isn’t about great music, it’s about pushing the envelope.

These are great songs to throw into a playlist you make for someone else because it’s guaranteed to make them have a laugh. Even after the laugh, the bones of most of the tracks are good enough to make them listenable. But if you try to listen to the whole album a couple of times through (like I just did) you’ll find the experience wears thin pretty quickly.

On this CD Odyssey I’m on some albums are great, some are bad and some are just too strange to part with. “Cocktail: shakin’ and stirred” is one of the latter. It is weird as hell, and only occasionally good, but damn it, I’m keeping it.

Best tracks: American Woman, You Oughta Know, Closer to the Heart

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 912: Lucinda Williams

I’m back from watching my beloved Miami Dolphins lose their season opener. The Dolphins continue to find new and interesting ways to disappoint me, and this was no exception as they gave up the lead with 30 seconds to go.

Here’s an album from a woman who seems to know a thing or two about disappointment.

Disc 912 is….The Ghosts of Highway 20
Artist: Lucinda Williams

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? In the United States, Highway 20 runs across the northern USA from coast to coast. In British Columbia it runs from Williams Lake to Bella Coola. I suspect Lucinda is writing about the American version but either way you’re liable to encounter long lonely stretches that feel like they go on forever. Kind of like this record.

How I Came To Know It: I love Lucinda Williams, so I bought this album unheard expecting great things.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 12 Lucinda Williams albums. Apart from a couple of very early albums full of blues covers, “The Ghosts of Highway 20” is my least favourite. This puts it in 10th place.

Ratings: 3 stars

When you release four albums’ worth of music in two years and you’re not named Bob Dylan, you are tempting fate. Technically, Lucinda released two double albums, but the effect is the same: on “Ghosts of Highway 20” fate starts to catch up with her.

Despite many flashes of brilliance, there is just too much material on “Ghosts…” and that material just goes on too long. There are only 14 songs but it takes Lucinda two albums and over 85 minutes of playing time to tell those 14 stories. It isn’t that these songs are bad, it’s that they go on too long.

All but three of the 14 songs are over five minutes long, and many are a long way over. I think Williams is trying to capture a live bar-band kind of feel, with a lot of repeat sections and long, meandering blues/rock guitar solos. The effect is that you get tired of listening to the set long before it is over.

This is a hard thing to complain about, because these solos are fantastic, and most songs are packed with both them and plenty of blue notes spicing up the melodies besides. Guitar legend Bill Frisell is amazing and a highlight of the record throughout, but there is just a bit too much of everything, even him. It is a guitar sound that grows on you and sinks into your bones, but I could’ve used just 15 minutes less of it by the time I reached the end.

Lucinda’s voice is not for everyone, but one of its great features is the amount of hurt she can pack into it. That hurt is like an open wound, bleeding and broken, and strangely beautiful. On “Ghosts…” she’s still got it, but she takes the tortured quality one step too far at times. Coupled with Frisell’s guitar there were times when I felt my head had been held under water just a little too long. I’d complain to Lucinda but she’d probably just take a drag on a cigarette, blow smoke in my face and tell me to stop being such a baby.

Lyrically, the record is raw as well, and it feels in places like Lucinda is just sitting on a porch, drunk on bourbon and lamenting all those she’s lost along life’s journey, whether through abandoned love or (just as likely) death. Few cozy up as close to death as Lucinda and her singing is bleak and truthful as she confronts the eternal dark. When religion enters the fray you get the sense that she finds the whole thing…complicated. She’s not angry at the universe dishing out heartache, she just finds it a little confusing.

Lucinda also gets into the hard-scrabble lives of the lower class whether they be prostitutes (“House of Earth”) or mill workers (a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Factory”). “Factory” is one of the few songs I’ve taught myself to play on the guitar and has a soft spot in my heart. I prefer the Springsteen version to Lucinda’s cover, but it is one of those songs that has bones so beautiful you can’t wreck it.  Believe me, I’ve tried.

There are lots of things to commend “Ghosts of Highway 20.” If there had been just a little less of it, I would’ve liked it more. If you do decide to give it a try I recommend both headphones and whiskey – both’ll help you sink down deep enough to appreciate it.

Best tracks: House of Earth, Death Came, Doors of Heaven, Louisiana Story, Ghost of Highway 20, Factory, Can’t Close the Door on Love

Friday, September 9, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 911: Sheryl Crow

A long week is finally over and I’m looking forward to soaking up the sun…just like this next artist recommends on the album’s single. That’s known as a segue, folks.

Disc 911 is….C’mon, C’mon
Artist: Sheryl Crow

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? Sheryl Crow plays guitar, looking sexy as hell. Sheryl Crow could do needlepoint and look sexy as hell.

How I Came To Know It: I saw the video for “Soak Up the Sun” and liked the sound of it, so I took a chance on the record.

How It Stacks Up:  Sheryl Crow has eight studio albums but I only have two of them. Of those two, “C’mon, C’mon” is by far the weakest.

Ratings: 2 stars

Sheryl Crow’s 1993 debut, “Tuesday Night Music Club” featured a cool indie-rock vibe that was fresh and interesting, and Crow showed off a set of pipes that were deceptively powerful. Unfortunately, neither of these great qualities are in much supply on “C’mon, C’mon”.

The album starts out pretty strong with “Steve McQueen” which has a rockin’ chorus that evokes a free spirited vibe that its titular character would be proud of. The song isn’t about Steve McQueen so much as he’s a metaphor for the type of movies he used to make. It mostly works, but it is missing some of the growl the topic needs. The worst example is when Crow sings “I ain’t takin’ shit from no one” the line is stripped of any power with the inexplicable decision to put some kind of echo/squawk-box effect on the line. It is supposed to be edgy, but it just feels affected.

The second track is the mildly successful radio single, “Soak Up the Sun” which has a relaxed hippie vibe that suits Crow’s voice well. The hook is pretty fantastic and Crow seems more at home singing about hanging out in an RV than she does pretending to drive a Dodge Charger. This is by far the best song on the album, and despite a lot of unnecessary bells and whistles in the production it works pretty well. Even so, there is lazy songwriting halfway through with risible lines like:

“Every time I turn around
I’m looking up, you’re looking down.”

The song has a fun summer vibe, but by the time this line appears I’m not sure there is much of a narrative to be found as everything is subsumed to the pop hook.

That pop hook focus is most of what is wrong with the rest of the record, which after the first two tracks is largely forgettable. Crow can still sing beautifully but a lot of the power and emotion in her voice is buried in overly polished production decisions. Track Three’s chorus is:

You’re an original baby
Turn around and you’re looking at a hundred more.”

This line seems like a critique of most of the album, which is focused on radio friendly beats and saccharine lyrics which are not bad per se, but very obvious. They didn’t inspire me to keep listening either.

There is definitely an audience for this type of record, and if you like inoffensive pop this is as good as anything else that did a lot better the same year. It isn’t for me, though.

The album is only 13 songs but it is 56 minutes long and it really drags. From track 3 through 12 nothing caught my attention except on those occasions when I thought the fadeout was taking too long.

Fortunately, the final track, “Weather Channel” ends the album on a high note. This song is stripped down to just guitar and Crow’s voice and does fine work capturing what it is like to battle depression. Crow’s voice is evocative, and the folksy guitar playing balances off of it perfectly.

Weather Channel” is easily the best song on the record, but it comes too late to save the record as a whole. Much as I admire Sheryl Crow’s body of work, I can’t bring myself to keep this particular record in my collection just for two passable pop songs and a good folk track.

Best tracks: Steve McQueen, Soak Up the Sun, Weather Channel

Thursday, September 8, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 909 and 910: Green River

This next album (actually two albums on a single disc) is a new purchase and so I took my time getting to know it.

Disc 909 and 910 are….Dry as a Bone and Rehab Doll
Artist: Green River

Year of Release: 1986 (Dry as a Bone) and 1987 (Rehab Doll)

What’s up with the Cover? It’s an amalgamation cover that includes the band’s name only but not the title of the EP (Dry as a Bone) or the LP (Rehab Doll) it contains.

How I Came To Know It: I was visiting my friend Spence a couple of years ago and he put this album on. I liked it but I didn’t find it for quite a while. When a cheap used copy popped up about a month ago I pounced.

How It Stacks Up:  I have just these two Green River albums, combined onto a single disc (and into a single review). Of the two, “Rehab Doll” is my favourite.

Ratings: 2 stars (Dry as a Bone) and 3 stars (Rehab Doll)

Green River represents the seeds (headwaters?) of the band that would eventually become Pearl Jam. It features Pearl Jam bassist Jeff Ament and guitarist Stone Gosssard and with its mix of fuzzy melody, punk and metal it is an early example of what would become the Seattle grunge scene.

Back in 1986/87 I’m not sure that movement even had a name, and Green River is the kind of hardcore band that would reject labels anyway. However, since it is 2016 and I’m a music reviewer not an indie band, let’s resort to categories anyway, and call it grunge.

Green River is a raw band, and since they broke up shortly after these records were recorded never had a chance to evolve. Half of them didn’t want to anyway, and the half that did (Ament and Gossard) would do just that and make a fine living in the process.

Listening to these records you can hear a lot of musical influences. While I will leave it future biographers to ask exactly who, I heard vestiges of Motorhead, Cirith Ungol, Alice Cooper, The Dead Milkmen and even…Blue Oyster Cult! I like all these bands, and so it is no surprise that Green River appeals to me as well.

Vocalist Mark Arm is no Eddie Vedder or Chris Cornell, but he isn’t trying to be. His voice has heavy punk influences and on songs like “Unwind” he sounds a bit like Joe Genaro from Dead Milkmen. When Arm gets his metal on (which he does often) his punk deadpan morphs into a strangled growl similar to Cirith Ungol’s Tim Baker. Baker’s voice is an acquired taste but fortunately for me I had already required it, and I liked Arm’s delivery just fine. It is also worth noting that Arm attacks the songs on both records with an energy that feels like a live recording which holds up well even after repeat listens.

Of the two albums, “Dry As a Bone” is an EP rather than a full record. It is more unrefined, which is usually a good thing with a band like this but I found it a bit too hardcore for my tastes. When they did take time to develop the song a bit (like on “Unwind”) it caught my attention a bit more. “Searchin’” is also a good song that has a strong Motorhead vibe to it, and would fit well with the mid-eighties metal scene.

“Rehab Doll” is the full length album (their only one as it would turn out) and is a big step up with the same energy as “Dry as a Bone” but with better musicianship, production and songwriting.

The record features a fistful of simple but effective guitar riffs that don’t become tired just because they don’t develop into something more complex. This is simple music, well expressed and the guitar riffs are the structure upon which the rest of the song hangs. Around them Arm can scream and groan and the drums can crash around with delightful abandon. You get the feeling that at any moment Green River is going to smash the kit, light the guitars on fire and let the songs explode into a conflagration of feedback and static. It never quite happens, but the tension is ever-present.

The highlight for me was “Swallow My Pride.” Soundgarden does a cover of this song but I prefer the Green River original for one simple reason: Blue Oyster Cult. The song has a lot of similarities with BOC’s 1976 song “This Ain’t the Summer of Love”. That similarity is confirmed when halfway through “Swallow My Pride” Green River strips the song down and actually sings portions of the BOC track. It is a mashup – Anna Kendrick would be proud! They could perform it (to Green River’s horror) at an a capella championship!

Although appearing early on the CD version, “Queen Bitch” is a bonus track that was originally only available on cassette. This dates the year the album was released: “buy our album on the new cassette format!” Vinyl lovers would have felt rightfully cheated, because “Queen Bitch” has a driving energy that is irrepressible (and un-pressable too, as it turns out).

As is usually the case with double albums, I would have preferred these be issued on two different discs, but it is a minor quibble and while “Dry as a Bone” is the weaker partner, I still like it enough that I’m glad to own it.

Best tracks:
(Dry as a Bone): Unwind, Searchin’

(Rehab Doll): Queen Bitch, Rehab Doll, Swallow My Pride, Together We’ll Never

Sunday, September 4, 2016

CD Odyssey Disc 908: Bob Dylan

After a couple of late nights out with friends I woke up today to my body reminding me that I’m no longer 20, and that I can’t pretend I am without some consequence.

I regret nothing. There’s plenty of time to sleep in the grave.

Disc 908 is….Infidels
Artist: Bob Dylan

Year of Release: 1983

What’s up with the Cover? Another Giant Head cover. Bob looks remarkably youthful here, more than twenty years after his first record was released.

How I Came To Know It: In recent years I’ve been trying to flesh out my Bob Dylan collection, and my friend Brennan recommended this one. He sent me a clip of “Sweetheart Like You” and I was convinced.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 19 Bob Dylan albums. “Infidels” is pretty awesome, but Bob Dylan has made a lot of awesome albums in his time. I’m going to slot “Infidels” in at #9, just behind “Another Side of Bob Dylan” (reviewed back at Disc 414) and just in front of “Bringing It All Back Home” (reviewed way back at Disc 159) – two classics.

Ratings: 4 stars

After three straight albums exploring his faith, “Infidels” brought Bob back to more secular interests. Not that I mind those faith albums, but it is good to have you back, Bob.

It is a glorious return, showcasing a softer more, more rounded sound in the production. Bob manages to avoid a lot of the synthesizer and drum machine mistakes that so many established artists were starting to try on for size around this time. Instead Dylan sticks to traditional arrangements and it pays off.

The album is significantly buoyed by the genius of Mark Knopfler’s guitar. His signature sound (and production assistance) are big parts of what makes “Infidels” a beautiful record. Knopfler’s guitar is instantly recognizable and his soft, full sound is a perfect counterpoint to Bob’s raspy delivery. Knopfler doesn’t dominate the songs, but his little flourishes here and there add colour and texture in just the right proportion.

Most of those great songs are on what us old rockers (and now young hipsters) refer to as “Side One.” The song that got me hooked on the album, “Sweetheart Like You” is an absolutely beautiful piece of work. On the surface it is a series of pick-up lines but just underneath it is a very intricate and subtle character study of a pretty woman who is outclassing the bar she’s in, but is obviously there for a reason. Bob lets the question as to why stay unanswered, and this unresolved quality is what keeps you coming back for more.

The other standout on Side One is “Neighbourhood Bully” which features an infectious mid-tempo guitar riff that gets down into your spine. The song is an unapologetic defence of Israel and an indictment of those who would deny its right to exist. Dylan does a good job of capturing the mindset of a nation with its back to the sea, surrounded by enemies. Whatever you think of the quagmire that is Middle East politics, this is a song worth hearing.

Dylan then takes it down again, with “License to Kill” which explores both the individual tragedy of a man who has been stripped of his empathy, and more generally our propensity as a species to destroy. The song’s melodic structure has a falling quality which casts a pall of sadness and hopelessness over the topic. Hey – music isn’t always sweetness and light, people!

Side Two doesn’t have the same quality song structure or thoughtful lyrics, but it is still pretty good. “Union Sundown” has Bob singing about our desire for cheap consumer goods, and how this impacts workers both at home and abroad. “I and I” has a bluesy groove which is beautiful, but I find the refrain of “I and I” to be an awkward phrase, that makes it hard for me to enjoy the song like I should.

The album ends with “Don’t Fall Apart on Me Tonight” which has strong influences from Knopfler. For this reason alone I should love it, but there is something about it that feels a little schmaltzy. It is probably Bob’s vocal delivery. It sounds like he is trying to channel seventies crooners like Curtis Mayfield or Marvin Gaye, and it just doesn’t work. Other than that, the song is brilliant and I would like to hear it redone by an actual crooner. I don’t usually get down on Bob’s voice, but here it is noticeable.

Musically “Infidels” is a strong start to what would become yet another phase of Bob Dylan’s ever changing style. This would eventually culminate in the brilliant “Oh Mercy” (reviewed at Disc 843). While it doesn’t achieve that level of excellence, “Infidels” gets that journey off to a strong start.

Best tracks:  Jokerman, Sweetheart Like You, Neighbourhood Bully, License to Kill