Thursday, February 23, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 973: Emmylou Harris

I’ve been sick all week and on Tuesday I even took the first sick day off work I can remember in years. Today is the first day I woke up and felt like I’ve almost got this thing beat. Good thing, too, because the weekend is arriving early for me and I don’t want to waste a single moment of it.

Let’s get it started with a music review!

Disc 973 is…Bluebird
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? Emmylou, making an ordinary eighties country dress look elegant.

How I Came To Know It: About a year ago I undertook to listen to all the Emmylou albums I didn’t have. I then started purchasing all the ones I liked. “Bluebird” was one of my most recent finds.

How It Stacks Up:  My journey through Emmylou’s discography has been fruitful. When I last reviewed an Emmylou album back in May 2016 I had 11 of her solo albums. I now have 14 and I’m only on the search for one more (1990’s “Brand New Dance”). Of the 14 I have, “Bluebird” is just out of top tier, but not by much. I’ll put it 7th.

Ratings: 4 stars

The eighties weren’t the greatest decade for Emmylou Harris. Of the eight records I’ve listened to from that era only three hold any interest for me: 1980’s “Roses in the Snow”, 1985’s “The Ballad of Sally Rose” and “Bluebird.” Coming out in 1989, “Bluebird” left the decade on a high note.

Emmylou’s early career is strongly bluegrass, and through the eighties you can feel her exploring other aspects of country music. Her creativity is fearless, with mixed results, but on “Bluebird” you can start to see the emergence of a new sound.

The bluegrass chord progressions are still notable here and there, but there is a contemporary folk feel creeping into the music, and a willingness to go a little more electric and orchestral.

Emmylou’s incredible ear for a good song is on full display. She only writes two songs (one is co-written with then-husband Paul Kennerley). Both are solid break up songs. “Heartbreak Hill” delivers a jaunty slice of break-up pie and “A River For Him” is a slow processional which feels like a church hymn, until you realize it is a parting song of an earthly love, made transcendent through Harris’ voice.

Most of the record is occupied with other great songwriters, from which Harris has curated similar songs of loss. All of them are sung in a quiet reverent tone, and that ever-present and instantly recognizable Emmylou quaver that has broken a thousand hearts, including mine.

The best and bluest of the bunch is “Icy Blue Heart,” a John Hiatt cover about broken people trying to find a spark after years of disappointment and solitude. When Harris sings it she takes it a whole new level, making you feel the vast emotional devastation of all the years these two sad people are trying to overcome just to reach each other:

“She came on to him like a slow moving cold front
His beer was warmer that the look in her eye
She sat on the stool, and she said ‘What do you want
She said ‘Give me a love that don't freeze up inside’

"He said, 'I have melted some hearts in my time dear
But to sit next to you, Lord I shiver and shake
And if I knew love, well I don't think I'd be here
Askin' myself if I had what it takes
To melt your icy blue heart'”

It sounds like a cheesy seventies movie, but when Emmylou sings that final line her voice climbs up into the top of her range like a bird set free from gravity and damn it if you don't believe the scene.

Later on the record Emmylou will similarly remake the McGarrigle Sisters’ “Love Is” and Johnny Cash’s “I Still Miss Someone” in her own image; frail and proud and powerful.

The arrangements on the record are a little busy, but they work. Some of the solos sound very eighties but they are muted and laid back enough that they don’t detract from the strong bones of these great songs.

The only thing preventing “Bluebird” from soaring higher is the production, which sounds tinny and distant throughout. There are sections where the shake of a tambourine sounds so thin I thought at first it was static or water in my headphones.

Fortunately even bad production can’t hold back the emotional honesty with which Emmylou Harris approaches a song. She doesn’t attack it so much as lets it take her over and then speaks its truth. With all those hints of a big sound that isn’t quite big enough, it is no surprise that Daniel Lanois would connect with her three albums later to make the classic “Wrecking Ball.” That is a slightly better album with much better production, but the seeds of Emmylou’s modern sound can be found on “Bluebird”.

Best tracks: Heaven Only Knows, You’ve Been On My Mind, Icy Blue Heart, Love Is, No Regrets, I Still Miss Someone, A River for Him

Monday, February 20, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 972: Pearl Jam

After thinking this season’s round of the plague missed me, last night I came down with something hard. It ain’t good, so let’s get this review out of my system while I can still (sort of) function.

For the second straight review, the Odyssey has landed on an album from 2013. For those who like statistics, this is my fourteenth review of an album released in 2013. So far they have averaged 3.3 stars.

Apologies – I’ve been working with numbers a lot at work lately.

Disc 972 is…Lightning Bolt
Artist: Pearl Jam

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Some sort of infographic? Maybe a riddle embedded in pictograms? I’m going to interpret this one as “Playing music at night is like a lightning bolt to the eye!” I love music at night, but I don’t think I would enjoy a lightning bolt to the eye. This leaves me in quite a quandary.

How I Came To Know It: I have been a Pearl Jam fan for a long time, and this was just me buying their latest album when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 Pearl Jam albums. “Lightning Bolt” is pretty solid, but I like those other records a lot as well. I’ll put it 7th, displacing their 2006 self-titled album from that spot in the process. Still bottom half, but respectable. In many ways it is consistently better than “Vitalogy” but because that album has a few absolute classics, I’m going to give it the slight edge for 6th.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

After 2009’s “Back Spacer” (reviewed back at Disc 45) was such a big disappointment, I was pretty nervous about buying their next release. I’d only heard two singles off of it, and only liked one of them. Still, Pearl Jam had given me so much happiness over the years that I decided to give them a chance. They did not disappoint.

“Lightning Bolt” is a return to form in a big way and a reminder on why Pearl Jam is one of rock and roll’s great enduring bands.

The production is layered, but never interferes with the song nor sounds busy. Both McCready and Gossard sound powerful and rejuvenated on guitar and if Eddie Vedder’s signature voice has lost anything over the years, it hasn’t been much. The album consistently rocks out and has an energy that is – dare I say it? – electric.

The record opens guns-blazing, with “Getaway” a song that feels like a throwback to nineties Pearl Jam: full of restless energy, soaring melodies and more than a little groove around the edges. This should have been the single for the album but band went with “Mind Your Manners” instead, maybe because it is a bit more punk?

My Father’s Son” is a song about blaming your less-than-ideal father whenever you screw up. The song walks the fine line of recognizing you gotta own your decisions in this world, and claim your own shadow even as you try to step out of someone else's. The frustration and self-loathing of the song is real and powerful, and while daddy issues have been so done, Vedder manages to add a fine entry to the canon.

Sirens” is a slow love song with an ambient energy that slowly builds as it progresses. The song is half apology and half plea to stick with it one more time and work to make it better. Vedder’s vocal here is the rock equivalent of soulful crooner, and his deep sense of romanticism shines through even in a song where he is essentially admitting to being an over-analyzing jerk.

The record ends with “Future Days,” another love song, this one the perfect book end to the unsteady ground of “Sirens.” If “Sirens” is power and majesty wrapped around frailty, then “Future Days” is stark production wrapped around strength and certainty. First piano, then guitar take their turn playing solemnly under Vedder’s trademark croon. Listening to Vedder sing:

“I believe
And I believe ‘cause I can see
Our future days
Days of you and me.”

You will be convinced there is no hurricane, cyclone or demon - and the song references all three - that is powerful enough to cleave a man from the girl he’s meant to be with. The sirens can’t call you to the rocks if you hold each other back.

Listening to this song I found myself thinking fondly of all those lovers out there for whom this is “their’ song. It won’t be many people – that kind of romantic song commitment made when you're young, and “Lightning Bolt” is an album that is likely getting listened to by a lot of folks who selected “their” song long ago. It’s a nice thought though, and as romantic a song as you’ll hear, young or old.

Back at Disc 651 I marveled that Soundgarden was able to come back so strong so late in their career with the amazing “King Animal.” To see grunge’s other surviving elder statesman match that effort with “Lightning Bolt” is a reminder of just how lucky we’ve been to have these bands in our lives for the past quarter century.

Best tracks: Getaway, My Father’s Son, Sirens, Swallowed Whole Future Days

Thursday, February 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 971: Bleached

For the second straight review, the CD Odyssey features a rock band featuring two sisters.

Disc 971 is…Ride Your Heart
Artist: Bleached

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A young woman looks back wistfully, artfully, maybe even poignantly – it’s hard to tell. What does she see? I’d say nothing given all the hair in her face.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review for the band’s new album “Welcome the Worms” and in the process discovered this earlier record. I ordered them both through a local record store. See – despite my online purchases, I support my local record store.

How It Stacks Up:  Bleached only have two full length albums and I have them both. It is pretty much a dead heat between them, but if I had to choose I’d put “Ride Your Heart” second, but only by a narrow margin

Ratings: 3 stars

“Ride Your Heart” is a modern record but with both feet planted firmly in the past. It isn’t steeped in innovation, but it did make me tap my toe and enjoy myself, and sometimes that’s all you want from music.

“Bleached” consist principally of sisters Jennifer and Jessica Clavin, who play a form of music I call Fuzz Rock. Fuzz Rock is like rock and roll that has more buzz than gravel and the vocals feel like they’re being sung just a little too far away from the microphone. The guitars have lots of distortion and the whole thing is just a little…fuzzy. But it works.

“Ride Your Heart” has an ambient, back-of-the-room feel that takes the edges off of everything, while still staying firmly and aggressively rock and roll. The songs have simple structures, and melodies that are predictable but enjoyable, played in a lively upbeat way that reminded me of sixties pop acts with names like the Ronettes or the Shirelles. Like them, “Ride Your Heart” is a combination of Pollyanna optimism and disappointing heartbreaks. Those heartbreaks feel more unbearable because they’re happening for the first time, but you know everyone’s young enough that they’ll eventually recover.

Guy Like You” is particularly schmaltzy and sixties high school sock-hop, but it so infectious it is irresistible. This is music so cute you want to pinch it on the cheek and tousle its hair. Of course, you don’t. These girls are rock musicians and would be liable to punch you in your mouth for it.

The influences cross through multiple decades, with the infectious punk-tinged pop of the Go-Gos evident on “Next Stop” and multiple songs that reminded me of Blondie (including “Waiting by the Telephone” that had me thinking heavily of  Blondie’s “Hanging on the Telephone”). The Blondie influences are so strong that at times they stray dangerously close to making the record feel derivative, but for the most part I just welcomed the reinterpretation of some great rock concepts.

 And besides, a lot of this stuff is incredibly catchy. “Dead In Your Head” is four minutes of glorious bass line and well placed neo-New Wave guitar flourishes. If you can’t find it in your heart to groove along to this song you are probably dead in your head yourself.

The record is a comparatively short 36 minutes and over two days I got four full listens in. While there are no terrible songs, by the third listen I was ready to move on to something else. All the songs are good, but apart from “Dead In Your Head” few stood out. This is an album that establishes a mood well, but needs more peaks and valleys, and a willingness to explore the nooks and crannies of their stylistic influences.

Also, while the production is deliberately fuzzy, it also lacks oomph. On their follow up album, they solved this problem, getting a bit more crunch. Here I found I was perpetually tempted to turn it up louder, but knew that would just anger the people on the bus beside me and still not deliver the sound separation I craved.

Also, there isn’t a lot to say about this musically. It is fun and upbeat, and likely great for a summer drive in a rented convertible, but I didn’t feel emotionally invested. Sometimes music is just about having a good time. If that’s the mood you’re in then there is enough edge on “Ride Your Heart” that you can get your fix here and not feel guilty.

Best tracks: Looking for a Fight, Outta My Mind, Dead In Your Head, Guy Like You

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 970: Heart

The CD Odyssey is random, but sometimes the Gods of Chaos have a killer sense of timing. Today is Valentine’s Day, and the next album is by…Heart.

Disc 970 is…Little Queen
Artist: Heart

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? There are so many Ren-fair jokes I could make here, but I’m not going to make a single one. Why not? Because for a couple of years I belonged to the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) and dressed up like a 15th century pirate named Roger Bloedlaeter once a month. I had a great time and regret nothing, so if Ann and Nancy want to hang out in medieval costumes, comb each other’s hair and speak forsoothly, all the power to them.

How I Came To Know It: Everyone knows the hit single “Barracuda” but I was introduced to the album by my friend Chris. He brought a vinyl copy to a music listening night and I liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Heart albums, this one and their self-titled eighties comeback record that I reviewed back at Disc 960. I used to also own “Bad Animals” but it was…bad. Anyway, of the three albums, I put “Little Queen” first. I meant to stick by my teenage crush album, 1985’s self-titled comeback, but critically I can’t deny that “Little Queen” is the better record.

Ratings: 4 stars

On “Little Queen” hard rock ‘n’ roll meets swords ‘n’ sorcery and the result is magical, powerful and just the right amount of weird.

“Little Queen” is only Heart’s second record, which makes the brave and crazy decisions on it all the more impressive. For every sophomore record where a band successfully expands their sound, there are five that lose their way in directionless excess. This record is excessive, to be sure, and sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson definitely push the boundaries, but it is all mounted on a solid foundation of rock.

Once again, it is the vocals of Ann Wilson that first hold your attention, with that effortless rock power, and an innate sense of just when to throw in a well-timed ‘ooh’ or ‘aah’. Juxtaposed to this is sister Nancy’s solid guitar, dependable and always down in the groove; a home port for her sister’s stormy vocals to return to whenever she needs it.

The album opens with “Barracuda,” and with it one of rock’s most instantly recognizable guitar riffs. The furious and insistent chugging of electric guitar played low and reverbing into your lower spine would send you to the chiropractor if it weren’t so evenly balanced.

That is immediately followed by an almost folksy “Love Alive” a gentle pastoral number, punctuated with whimsy and plucked guitar strings, with Ann’s vocal trilling along effortlessly above it. Then halfway through, the song finds electricity and takes you down an anthemic journey that would make Led Zeppelin proud.

The album owes a lot to Led Zeppelin, and they are clearly an influence on the song structures, but it avoids being derivative. This is new music, taking some of Zeppelin’s ideas and shifting them one step away from the blues (but only a small step) and one step closer to fantasy theme park.

Sylvan Song” sounds like it is being played by elves (I think that’s the point) and fades directly into “Dream of the Archer” which I’m pretty sure is just the ladies telling us about their last Dungeons and Dragons session. If I had known this album as a kid I would have eaten this stuff up. Now I prefer the songs that rock out, but I won’t lie; the fantasy elements are still appealing (both to me and that alter ego pirate guy I mentioned earlier).

The title track launches Side Two with jaunty flair, that side-skips its way across the stage in a way that had me thinking of Steven Tyler and his scarf-swathed microphone. For all its party atmosphere, the song is about a girl who deep down is struggling. As Ann Wilson sings “no one knows your melancholy mind” while simultaneously giving us all a backstage pass to it. Later on the album, “Cry To Me” serves as the perfect book-end to the moment. Gone are the up-tempo grooves, replaced with a slow confessional as Ann sings:

“You better not hide it
Let it come, let it bleed
I ain't laughing, reach in and get it
And set it free
Cry to me, cry to me”

Despite the sadness in the lyrics, the song’s structure is full of a fierce resoluteness. You get the feeling this album was the soundtrack for a thousand small town girls who wanted to be tough and vulnerable. “Little Queen” is an album that lets them be both.

The record isn’t perfect, and “Cry to Me” is followed by the pointless meandering of “Go On Cry” which is more like a cry that goes on a little too long, leaving you feeling a bit dried out and suffering from a pressure headache. The musicianship is good, but the song doesn’t really go anywhere and it is a bummer of a way for the original album to end.

Fortunately, my CD copy has two bonus tracks that follow it. The first is an early demo version of “Love Alive” called “Too Long a Time” which is pretty sweet (if a bit heavy on the noodling). The second is a cover of “Stairway to Heaven” that is so good it has become an underground classic in its own right. Both tracks are not only solid, they make the album better, and that’s a rarity.

Best tracks: Barracuda, Love Alive, Little Queen, Treat Me Well, Cry to Me, Stairway to Heaven

Saturday, February 11, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 969: Ice-T

I’m in the middle of a glorious four day weekend, where I’m mixing in liberal amounts of hanging with friends, chilling at home, and enjoying some of my favourite hobbies (including listening to a lot of music).

I’ve also been doing a lot of music purchasing, and yesterday I may have overdone it. First, I bought three albums at local record stores (new releases by P.O.S. and Mother Mother, plus an album from 1999 called Western Wall by Linda Ronstadt and Emmylou Harris).

Then, still not sated and emboldened by some Christmas money sent from my mom, I ordered another 11 albums online. These are now winging their way to me through the magic of the internet. They are:
  • Courtney Marie Andrews “Honest Life”
  • Birds of Chicago’s self-titled debut and also their latest, “Real Midnight”
  • The Handsome Family’s “Singing Bones” and “Unseen”
  • Conor Oberst’s “Ruminations”
  • The Stray Birds self-titled debut and their latest, “Magic Fire”
  • Three Warren Zevon albums: “The Envoy”, “Mr. Bad Example” and “Mutineer”
If you don’t know these albums, do yourself a favour and check them out. Alternatively, you can wait however many years it will be until I’ve randomly rolled and reviewed each one.

Disc 969 is…Rhyme Pays
Artist: Ice-T

Year of Release: 1987

What’s up with the Cover? Ice-T and his buddy appear to be taking that nice girl to the beach.

This convertible looks a lot like the one from the cover of the Thompson Twins album I reviewed back at Disc 963. I like to think it was an eighties car share and each time the other group picked it up they were horrified to discover what had been left in the tape deck.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Ice-T for a while, originally through my friend Chris. “Rhyme Pays” was hard to find, and very expensive to buy online. For that reason I was pretty happy when it showed up used at my local record store at a more reasonable price a few months ago.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Ice-T albums and I like them all, but I must reluctantly put “Rhyme Pays” as my least favourite so…fourth.

Ratings: 3 stars

Some albums are just better because of their place in music history, and “Rhyme Pays” is one of those.

While this is the weakest of the four Ice-T albums I have, it is the beginning of a sound that was a major inspiration for whole new directions in rap music. Songs like “6 ‘N the Morning” tell stories of actual people committing actual crimes, making it one of the earliest occurrences of Gangsta Rap. There is a lot of bad music in that genre, but you can’t blame Ice-T for that; his work here has stood the test of time.

Yes, the beats are basic on this record (it was 1987, after all) but that stark approach is the perfect fit for Ice’s on-the-beat, machine gun staccato rap style. Ice-T is a natural storyteller and he injects large doses of fury into his delivery style, restraining himself just enough to show while his style is aggressive, it is equally thoughtful.

The samples are inspired, “Make It Funky” samples from the James Brown song of the same name, but my favourite is the use of the classic doom-filled guitar riff from Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs” on the title track. Later Ice-T would fully commit to blending rap and metal on his side project Body Count (reviewed back at Disc 665). Here the concept is still in its infancy, but Ice instinctively knows how to use it to increase the danger and ominous undertones to his rap.

Ice-T is at his best on this record when he is singing about the gangster life style like on the now classic “6 ‘N the Morning”, or just talking about the most traditional early rap topic; rapping better than his challengers. When he tries to be a bit ‘romantic’ (and I use this term loosely) on “I Love Ladies” and “Sex” I found myself wishing for some LL Cool J instead.

The CD version of the album has two problems. First, the bonus tracks take the record from 9 to 13 tracks, and add about 20 minutes of music. For the most part these bonus tracks are just remixes of songs you’ve already heard. While they might be welcome on a party mix, I didn’t think they added much and make the album feel too long.

The second problem is that late eighties CD production, where no matter how loud you turn the volume you can’t seem to get any depth of sound. It is like the songs are being playing in another room; out walking around with headphones I would miss lyrics if the wind blew a little too hard.

If you want a better appreciation of classic Ice-T rap albums like “Power” or “O.G. Original Gangster” then “Rhyme Pays” is an album that will open your eyes to how Ice-T found his sound. Even if you aren’t a music historian, this is a record with enough strong and memorable tracks that it is worth checking out purely for its own merits.

Best tracks: Rhyme Pays, 6 ‘N the Morning, Squeeze the Trigger

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 968: Annabelle Chvostek

It’s a blizzard out there! At least what counts for a blizzard here on southern Vancouver Island. I enjoyed the walk home in the snow with coworkers, but it took away listening time, so I sat quietly and finished that process at home so I could write this review tonight.

Disc 968 is…Resilience
Artist: Annabelle Chvostek

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a Giant Head cover – so traditional! As Giant Head’s go, Annabelle’s is nice.

How I Came To Know It: I knew Annabelle Chvostek from the Wailin’ Jenny’s album “Firecracker” (reviewed back at Disc 450). I liked that record so when she went solo on “Resilience” I bought it hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Annabelle Chvostek album I have, so it can’t really stack up. Compared to other Wailin’ Jennys solo projects, it is not my favourite.

Ratings: 2 stars

“Resilience” is a mix of contemporary folk, Canadian-flavoured pop and a bit of jazz. There isn’t anything objectively wrong with this mix, but I found it a bit unsettled; like a gourmet meal with too many ingredients to appreciate any single one. Maybe I’m just a meat and potatoes guy, musically speaking.

Chvostek is supremely talented. She writes or cowrites all but one of the songs on the record, and plays the fiddle, guitar, mandolin, accordion and piano. On the title track she even does something called ‘beats’. I don’t know what it is but it feels like some kind of folk version of hip hop. I couldn’t pick it out, but “Resilience” is a good song, with a nice slow building power and Chvostek showing off her vocal range.

Another standout, is “The Sioux,” an old school sounding track which offsets the title track’s florid production with a starkly sawed fiddle capturing the rustic nature of the local First Nations’ reserve, and how it juxtaposes with the modern city of Sault St. Marie. It is a thoughtful song, and a pretty one, with a timeless quality that makes you feel like you’re standing outside of a log cabin despite the many modern references woven through it.

Unfortunately, most of the album didn’t capture my attention the way these two songs did. The jazz flourishes around the edges of the songs take me out of the emotional core which is so much a part of what I like about folk music. The choices aren’t wrong for the songs so much as these songs just aren’t for me.

The core melodies are pretty, and Chvostek sings it all beautifully, showing a good understanding of how to come on and off the beat without losing the song’s plot. Again, it wasn’t for me, but I can’t point to it as a fault so much of a lack of preference.

On “Piece of You” and “Racing With the Sun” Chvostek sounds a bit too much like a lounge singer, and when this happens I was drawn out of the record. Since I was having a hard time emotionally connecting anyway, these tracks (which should provide interesting range) instead felt like unwanted intrusions.

There are jumpy songs that make your toe tap, like “Wait For It” and atmospheric dirges like “Firewalker” both of which are good songs, but made me think of other albums I wanted to put on in their place.

The album ends strong with “Nashville.” I could hear a hundred songs dissing the Nashville experience and never get tired of it. Chvostek’s entry into that welcome cannon is a good one. When she sings “oh, the grind” you can feel the sheer weight of all the crushed dreamers playing for tips up and down Honky Tonk row.

Despite this, I have to face up to the fact that I’ve had this album for at least eight years, and I almost never think to put it on. I occasionally play “the Sioux” as a one-off, but that’s about it. An artist like Chvostek deserves better, so I am going to reluctantly part with this record and let it go to a home that will love it better than I do.

Best tracks: Resilience, The Sioux, Nashville

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 967: Drive-By Truckers

This week I discovered a whole slew of new (to me) artists, including Sarah Jarosz, Aiofe O’Donovan, the Stray Birds (all folk or country) and rapper P.O.S.

They were all great, but eclipsing all of them were murder balladeers the Handsome Family. I listened to ten Handsome Family albums this week and liked every one. I only own one, but that’s because that is all the record store had in stock.

Speaking of murder ballads, this next album has more than a few of its own.

Disc 967 is…Go-Go Boots
Artist: Drive-By Truckers

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? More awesome album art by long-time Truckers’ collaborator Wes Freed. Here we have the titular Go-Go boots, looking not so much titillating as creepy and awkward. It gets even worse when you fold it open, revealing the rest of the scene:

Creepy alcoholic (note the bottle) reclines in the shadows, presumably getting a private show in a cheap motel room. What’s that? Not creepy enough? – how about the corpse river on the inside of the fold:
Never change, Wes.

How I Came To Know It: Just me drilling through the Drive-By Truckers back catalogue buying all the albums that agreed with me.

How It Stacks Up:  With my recent acquisition of “Dirty South” I now have all six Drive-By Trucker albums on my list – at least for now. Of those six, “Go-Go Boots” is pretty solid but I can’t dislodge everything ahead of it, and I can’t get it ahead of fourth overall.

Ratings: 4 stars

When it comes to storytelling, there are few better than Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood, the two musical geniuses behind the Drive-By Truckers. “Go-Go Boots” is just another tour de force of them telling ordinary stories about ordinary people and making those tales so compelling you can’t hear them often enough.

I’ve said lots about these guys over the previous three reviews, so I’ll quickly note that they are a blend of southern rock and alternative country, who keep the music simple and well-matched to the stories they tell. Those stories are simple as well, at least on the surface, but the Drive-By Truckers have a powerful ability to see into the nooks and crannies of their characters. They understand how people tick in a way that reminds me of Shakespeare, with similarly tragic storylines.

This album features plenty of marital infidelity and a fair bit of murder to go along with it. Two of the best songs – the title track and “The Fireplace Poker” – feature both, with a preacher hiring some thugs to murder his wife in both songs. “Go-Go Boots” has a bluesy feel that evokes sleazeball dancing as the album cover suggests, and “The Fireplace Poker” is a slower meander that focuses less on the dancing and more on the murder. As is ever the case with great storytelling, the specific is terrific. On the latter song the titular fireplace poker doesn’t make an appearance until the song is more than half over, but it enters with a bang:

“The Reverend came home from work and found the Mrs. dying
Life was falling from her grasp but still she was there trying
No one will ever know what she told him or know what he told her
Cause the Reverend did his wife in, fifteen whacks, fireplace poker.”

Later that poker is the only object in the room with no fingerprints on it. Nice touch.

Elsewhere, the band covers the issue of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (“Ray’s Automatic Weapon”), breakups without the murder (“The Weakest Man”) and the music industry (“Assholes”). Every one of them makes you feel like you are there, shaking with fear, sadness or fury as the subject matter demands.

Long-time readers will know what joy I take poking fun at the Soulless Record Execs of the music industry, but nothing I’ve ever written holds a candle to the derision and dismissal these guys deliver to what (I presume) is some old label or manager on “Assholes”. I don’t know the details, but the song is great. If I were the Soulless Record Exec that inspired it I think I’d just shake my head and smile knowing it was another great song, even if a piece of it was no longer mine. I doubt that was the reaction, but I like to think it would have been mine.

The various tragedies on “Go-Go Boots” rarely let you up for air, but the songs have such a gentle forward motion you don’t mind being rocked to sleep by all the sadness. A drunken cop bemoans losing his career, and a small-town Tennessee girl moves to California and loses all hope, but we, the voyeuristic listener, can’t look away; the songs are just too good.

Third singer Shonna Tucker throws in a couple of songs from a slightly different perspective; namely women chasing after their no-good men, and leaving you to wonder why they bother. I love the mix of sweet girl and biker chick in Tucker’s voice, which is a nice offset to Hood and Cooley.

The main downside to “Go-Go Boots” is its length, which at 14 songs and 66 minutes is just a bit too much of a good thing but this is a minor quibble about a record that is well worth your time and money.

Best tracks: Go-Go Boots, Cartoon Gold, Assholes, The Weakest Man, I Used to be a Cop, The Fireplace Poker, Pulaski

Saturday, February 4, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 966: Great Lake Swimmers

I’m in the middle of a weekend full of fun social events. Things began with the Victoria Film Festival’s opening gala, where I met a documentary film maker, a horror film maker and a music promoter and learned something from every one of them. I wanted to meet actor/writer/director Don McKellar but I knew I would just go on about “Highway 61” (soundtrack reviewed way back at Disc 230) and he was going to want to discuss his latest film. We creative types are always occupied with whatever we’ve got on the go right now. For me, that’s this next review. Shall we?

Disc 966 is…New Wild Everywhere
Artist: Great Lake Swimmers

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Birds on strings? This cover doesn’t feel new, wild or everywhere, but I find the colour scheme soothing, so that’s nice.

How I Came To Know It: I was introduced to the band by my friends Cat and Ross who put one of their songs on a mixed tape of new music they thought I’d like. That song is not on this album though. Instead, “New Wild Everywhere” was just me getting excited that there was a new release and buying it on a whim when it came out.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Great Lake Swimmers albums. Of those two, “New Wild Everywhere” is my favourite.

Ratings: 3 stars

Great Lake Swimmers are a band that I want to like more than I do. I’m drawn by their thoughtful melodies and lyrics, but every now and then the fuzzy production decisions keep me from becoming emotionally engaged.

“New Wild Everywhere” features what I consider some of band leader Tony Dekker’s strongest work, with dreamy melodies that have a stark quality that is evocative of the windswept Canadian north. The songs feel cold and stretched, as if all the emotions Dekker’s got bottled up inside become spread out, thin and vulnerable when he finally lets them out.

There are other times, when Dekker’s voice (naturally high and wispy) stretches too much, at the expense of what are generally thoughtful and honest lyrics. Your mind wanders a bit into the ether and loses the story. It’s like a warm bath, but where sometimes there isn’t quite enough water in the tub.

Unhelpful in this regard are production decisions that create a wall of sound (albeit a very ghostly almost insubstantial wall). At its worst, it felt like a third person in the room having Dekker whisper the lyrics in their ear and then whispering them in mine, with some of the emotional impact getting lost in the translation. Dekker isn’t a powerhouse singer, and anything that gets between him and you is that much more noticeable.

However, the production is not all bad. When it works it feels intimate, serving as a fog bank that encourages you to listen to the stillness and feel safe while doing it. Introspective songs like “The Great Exhale” and “On the Water” just sound better in the fog. It even works on the album’s most up-beat track “Easy Come, Easy Go” which doesn’t feel like it would work as well without the fuzz.

The best song on the album is “Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife” which I believe is a song about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Despite being only the second best song about this event (#1 goes to Steve Earle’s “Gulf of Mexico”) this song is a hell of a heartbreaker. It features frequent musical shifts that help underscore the range of emotions (grief, anger, bewilderment) that go through a woman’s mind as she tells the tale of how her livelihood has been destroyed in a single ecological disaster. As she notes:

“The papers said this knocked us on our knees
But we were already on our knees
They said the gulf was dead
And it was never going to come back.”

Despite all the tragedy and anger, the song ends with a message of hope, as the narrator stops addressing her audience and turns her focus to her partner:

“You better hurry up and know it
I want to love you ‘til the end of the line.”

By the end the music is lively, and punctuated by a joyful banjo solo. The song manages to find optimism in the love of two people, while never downplaying just how terrible the event was for these people, and thousands like them. That combination of the specific and the general is folk music at its best.

My album ends with a ‘bonus’ track (which I’ll never understand – I guess you don’t get it if you download it?) sung in French. It is pretty enough, but I think the record would end best with “On the Water” a song about someone having a mystical experience while battling a storm at sea. The lyrics on this song are inspired and thoughtful, and remind us that we’re not just one with each other, we’re one with the earth and all its creatures as well. It felt a bit like the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner, if the mariner hadn’t shot the albatross.

“New Wild Everywhere” is a solid record, and while I don’t put it on that often, it has a quiet beauty that I appreciate, even if my preference would be to turn down the fuzz so I could hear it better.

Best tracks: New Wild Everywhere, The Great Exhale, Easy Come Easy Go, Ballad of a Fisherman’s Wife, On the Water

Thursday, February 2, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 965: Dar Williams

I started off the week a bit in the doldrums, but as the weekend approaches I can feel my energy levels rising. It is the perfect time for an inspiring music review!

Instead, I give you this one.

Disc 965 is…End of the Summer
Artist: Dar Williams

Year of Release: 1997

What’s up with the Cover? Commenting on this cover so soon after reviewing “Promised Land” at Disc 907 I’m starting to think Dar has a thing for gardening. Whatever she’s doing she should have changed out of that party dress and worn gloves.

How I Came To Know It: This was one of a glut of four Dar Williams albums I’ve bought in the last year as I worked my way through her back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Dar Williams albums. Of these I had held out hope that “Promised Land” would be the worst, given that it barely cleared the bar to stay in my collection. Sadly, it has now been displaced by “End of the Summer” which I am going to part ways with, scant months after purchasing it. Not all relationships work out, I guess.

Ratings: 2 stars

I bought this album because I liked a couple of the messages, but after listening to it a few times I’ve come to the conclusion that a good message isn’t enough; you need to like the songs.

Listening to Dar Williams I always get the impression that she is a thoughtful and self-examined person, and as she goes through these inner journeys she helps shepherd me through some of mine as well. This album didn’t connect that way, and the fact that it tried hard to do so just made it all awkward.

One message that appealed is “Teenagers, Kick Our Butts.” So much protest folk takes aim at the establishment. Dar released this album at the age of 30; hardly the establishment, but old enough to realize it is just around the corner. Instead of straining youthful metaphor and messages of rebellion she takes on one of the biggest challenges of aging; becoming mentally inflexible. On “Teenagers…” she welcomes the generation behind us to both push us and do better than us, exhorting:

“I’m sure you know there’s lots to learn,
But that’s not your fault, that’s just your turn
Teenagers, kick our butts, tell us what the future will bring
Teenagers, look at us we have not solved everything.”

That’s for sure, and bonus points for using a fuddy duddy word like “butts” in the song, underscoring her point. The song is a reminder that wisdom can come at any age and it doesn’t just arrive and permanently hang around; it’s an ongoing process.

The other strong track is “If I Wrote You” a heartbreaking song of regret and self-doubt. This is also the strongest songs on the record melodically, with a gentle trill like a forest stream, and a chorus sung high up in Dar’s range, cascading down at the end in a waterfall of sadness. This is the Dear John letter never sent, but quietly sung instead.

Unfortunately, “If I Wrote You” was the exception for me, as I found a lot of the musical decisions on this album hard to enjoy. A lot of them have the same rolling quality, but most don’t have a strong melody to support it and feel a bit more like a back eddy than a river. To get away with it, the lyrics need to carry the songs.

Usually that’s no problem for Dar, but I didn’t dig those either. “What Do You Hear in These Sounds” is set up as a therapy session, which feels contrived, particularly compared to the genuine pathos of “If I Wrote You”.

And one of the songs that drew me in the first place – “Party Generation” – progressively started to bug me on repeat listens. It has a catchy rhythm and I liked the idea of someone wandering in search of a party, but the lyrics began to irk me. It begins:

“When he turned 34 but who’s counting
He couldn’t find anyone who wanted to party
So he walked around a playground with a bag of Mickey’s tallboys
And he heard the sound of laughter
And he followed it for fifteen blocks.”

So much wrong here. If he turned 34 then you’re counting Dar, but more importantly who at the age of 34 can’t find a party? And of those people who (other than the homeless) walks around the park with a bag of tallboys looking for one? Not the kind of guy I would invite in from the porch, but the party he finds is full of people playing quarters (seriously) so I guess any new guest was an upgrade at that point. Also, how does a party full of people playing quarters make enough noise to be heard 15 blocks away?

Anyway, the point is that a song called “Party Generation” that is about partying should feature a reasonably good party.

On my walk home today (and on my third consecutive listen) my mind wandered a little at one point and the record ended and skipped to the next song on the device, the Rankin Family’s “As I Roved Out”. This is not the Rankin’s greatest song, but it took me until the second verse before I realized I was no longer listening to Dar Williams.

Much as I’d like to say it was the power of the Rankin Family, I’m not much of a fan of “As I Roved Out.” I had just lost interest in the record I was supposed to be listening to.

I have a lot of time for Dar Williams. Hell, I own five of her other albums and am on the lookout for one more, so that says something. But apart from a couple exceptions “End of the Summer” didn’t grab me. It isn’t a terrible album it just isn’t an album for me. I will now work to find it a better home than mine.

Best tracks: If I Wrote You, Teenagers Kick our Butts, 

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 964: Iron Maiden

Bands you grew up with are like old friends; even when you haven’t seen them in a while it feels like you can just pick up where you left off as soon as you connect again. Evem though this next album only came into my collection in the last five years, the band is an old friend making everything feel comfy and familiar.

Disc 964 is…No Prayer for the Dying
Artist: Iron Maiden

Year of Release: 1990

What’s up with the Cover? This is actually the alternate cover for the remastered edition. The original is set a bit farther back and Iron Maiden mascot Eddie is using that free hand to choke some guy. Here he is reaching for you, which is equally disconcerting.

This cover also reminds me that over the weekend I bought a couple of new undershirts. There is nothing quite as pleasant as a fresh undershirt. Maybe if someone had replaced Eddie’s undershirt before he was entombed he might not have been so grumpy and grabby when he burst out later.

How I Came To Know It: As a teenager Iron Maiden was my favourite band but by the time this record came out in 1990 I had moved on to folk music and so I missed it. A few years back I was down at one of my local record stores (Ditch) talking metal with one of the staff, and he noted how much he loved the song “Tail Gunner” This led me to check this album out online and I liked what I heard. I also checked out 1992’s “Fear of the Dark” but it didn’t grab me the same. I think my Maiden collection is now complete going to want it. Of course, I thought that once before, so you never know.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight Iron Maiden albums. Of those eight “No Prayer for the Dying” can’t crack the top half, but it comes close. I’ll say it is just shy of “Killers” at #6.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

It isn’t often that a heavy metal band can trade in either a lead singer or lead guitarist and not miss a step, but Iron Maiden has managed to do both through their career. On “No Prayer for the Dying” vocalist Bruce Dickinson is already well established, so the newcomer is guitarist Janick Gers, replacing Adrian Smith.

It feels like sacrilege to even say that anyone can replace Adrian Smith, who gave me ten years of inspired music with Iron Maiden and who alongside Buck Dharma was my principal air guitar muse over the eighties. Fortunately when you have the brilliant songwriting and compositional inspiration of bassist Steve Harris, you can get away with things that would lay a lesser talent low, and such is the case with this record.

All of the core elements (save Smith) are there: Bruce Dickinson’s powerhouse vocals, great bass lines, a furious and rising energy and songs about humanity’s storied past and an imagined dystopian future.

Harris has long held a fascination with the Second World War and this continues on this record. He sings about a submarine crew on “Run Silent, Run Deep” and the opening track, “Tail Gunner” which celebrates the most dangerous job on a bomber. The song captures the recoil of the gun as Dickinson barks out “Tail gunner! You’re the tail gunner!” in time with the beat. You can almost feel the reverberation of each shot, and the visceral mix of excitement and fear of the gunner.

In terms of production and arrangement, the record is more stripped down than earlier Maiden, particularly the previous two records (1986’s “Somewhere in Time” and 1988’s “Seventh Son of a Seventh Son”). It creates space for introspective ballads such as the title track, which explores faith amid a world that feels increasingly detached. It is a lack of meaning that fits well in a time when the Soviet Union was collapsing around itself and we were all wondering “what’s next?”

Public Enema Number One” is terribly titled, but its disturbed vision of the world’s ills is brilliant, as is the way the verses have furious guitar licks, only to descend into a thick and plodding doom of the chorus as Dickinson goes deep into his range to warn:

“Fall on your knees today
And pray that the world will mend its ways.”

The album loses a little steam near the end, with the sexually deviant “Hooks In You” and the dirty old man-inspired “Bring Your Daughter…to the Slaughter.” Both songs are on the wrong side of creepy, which on a metal album could be forgiven, but they aren’t that musically interesting either. The boys would’ve been better off adding a couple more history and science fiction tracks.

The record ends with “Mother Russia” a song that musically evokes both a military march and a ghost story in one place, which is fitting given it tells the story of how Russia is emerging in its new freedom, unsure of what comes next.

As Maiden albums go “No Prayer for the Dying” is not a classic great like “Powerslave” or “Piece of Mind” but few records are. It is however a solid entry into their discography and a demonstration that you can get back to basics and still sound fresh and vibrant.

Best tracks: Tail Gunner, No Prayer for the Dying, Public Enema Number One, Run Silent, Run Deep, Mother Russia