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July 24, 2017

Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World


Rumble Poster.jpg It's common knowledge popular music in North America has deep roots in Africa and other countries around the world. What probably isn't so well known is the influence the indigenous people of the continent have had on the music we've listened to and continue to hear on our radios. A new documentary, Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World, from Rezolution Pictures, being released in select theatres across North America on July 26 2017, is a big step towards opening people's eyes to this massive omission in the history of popular music.

Taking its name from the infamous song "Rumble" by Link Wray through interviews and film footage the movie traces indigenous influence on popular music from its earliest beginnings to today. The first rock and roll song by a Native American, "Rumble", as well as being one of the songs which inspired Pete Townshead, Jimmy Page, and countless others to pick up a guitar, was also one of the first instrumental songs banned from the radio. Maybe it was the title or maybe it was the sheer threatening sound of the guitar, but somehow it was deemed too dangerous for the delicate ears of the American radio audience of the 1950s.

However, although the movie starts with rock and roll, it also reveals the roll indigenous people have played in the development of country, blues and jazz. Blues musicians Charlie Patton and Howling Wolf had native blood. Not only did the latter create great music in his own right, but he was one of the musicians who influenced bands like the Rolling Stones. In fact, aside from the obvious like Robbie Robertson and Buffy St-Marie, what will really surprise you is how many musicians from across different genres are Native American or First Nations from Canada.

The movie travels across North America from the Grand River Six Nations reserve, home to Robertson, in Southern Ontario Canada to the Mexican Native roots of Black Eyed Peas vocalist Taboo. It takes us down to New Orleans where it reveals the Choctaw roots behind the elaborate Native style costumes seen in Mardi Gras parades each year. Cyril Neville, of the Neville Brothers, (Choctaw himself) put it simply; run away slaves were given shelter on reserves and the next thing you know - black Indians.

We also travel up to the Carolinas where we talk to Pura Fe Crescioni (Tuscarora) about her group Ulali and the influence her people had on early country and bluegrass music. Over in Idaho is the home of early jazz singer Mildred Bailey of the Coure d'Alene nation.

We hear a native woman singing a traditional Coure d'Alene song and then listen to Bailey and hear where her vocal styling and intonation came from. Everyone from Tony Bennet to Frank Sinatra have talked about Bailey being an inspiration to their singing careers. Listen to any Billie Holiday song, her vocal trills in the high registers, and you're hearing Mildred Bailey and by extension the Coure d'Alene.

Some of the names mentioned in the movie are probably not going to be familiar to contemporary audiences. But guitarists like Jesse Ed Davis played with everyone from Taj Mahal to Rod Stewart and the Faces and sat in for Eric Clapton at George Harrison's concert for Bangladesh. He also was the one who convinced the late activist and poet John Trudell to set his words to music on albums such as Graffiti Man. While Trudell appears in the movie, to talk about Davis and other musicians, his influence can't be underestimated either as he went on to inspire a new generation of bands including A Tribe Called Red.

Of course no movie about indigenous rock and roll musicians would be complete without mentioning Jimi Hendrix and the first Native American band to have a hit single, Redbone. While the connection between the band who recorded "Come and Get Your Love" (One of the first songs heard in Guardians of the Galaxy) and the guy who seared people's ears with his version of "The Star Spangled Banner" might not be obvious it was there.

For it was Hendrix who advised them to "Do the Indian thing", which resulted in Redbone showing up on television shows like The Midnight Special in full regalia and starting their set with traditional dancing. There's a lovely moment in the movie where Taboo and Pat Vegas of Redbone meet up and the former tells the latter how the beat from "Come and Get Your Love" influenced a Black Eyed Peas track.

With contributions from Buddy Guy, Steven Van Zandt, Wayne Kramer, Iggy Pop, Steven Tyler and other non-Native musicians, the picture developed by this movie is of a population widely unrecognized for their contributions to popular music. Not only have indigenous musicians been some of the most influential of their times, but so much of "our" music has its origins in Native traditions.

Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World is an exhaustive and exhilarating ride through the music of the modern era. While there have been other movies and TV shows which have taken us on this journey, this movie tells a familiar story from a perspective we've never seen before.

By times heartening and other times heart breaking for a variety of reasons, this movie will open your eyes and ears in a way few music documentaries have done in the past. If you have any interest in the popular music of the last hundred years, than this movie is a must see. It will make you listen to everything from country to jazz, blues, and rock in a whole new way.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Movie Review: Rumble: The Indians Who Rocked The World)

March 30, 2017

Music Review: David Broza - The Set List


Cover The Set List David Broza.jpgAfter 40 years of performing music David Broza has a problem. It's really difficult searching through the amount of material he's produced to come up with a set list for any given tour. Titling his new greatest hit package The Set List, being released March 31 2017, is therefore rather appropriate. One could only assume this collection would contain the songs, and or performances, he would like to include in all of his shows.

For those who don't know Broza is an institution in his home country of Israel. However a good part of his early life was spent in Spain and England with his family and these influences show up in his music, especially the former. You can't help but hear the Flamenco influences in his guitar playing. It also won't be much of a surprise to know one of his most recent recordings was a collection of songs from Andalusia dating back to the days prior to the expulsion of Jews and Muslims from Spain.

Unfortunately for Broza this greatest hits collection could never be a set list. For there are performances included in here which would be very difficult to reproduce ever again. Take for example the live recording of the song he first became famous for "Yihye Tov" (Things Will Be Better). While it was written in 1977 during the peace talks between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and has become an anthem of the Israeli peace movement, the version he has chosen for this release was recorded live at the biblical fortress of Masada in 2007 with special guests Jackson Browne and Shawn Colvin.

Broza is obviously held in high esteem by his fellow musicians around the world. Even though they had only met twice, and that on stage, after his death the late American country iconoclast Townes Van Zandt bequeathed Broza two shoe boxes of lyrics. Ten years later Broza released Night Dawn: The Unpublished Poetry of Townes Van Zandt and has included the title song from that album on this release.

The second indication of the respect he's held in comes from the tracks included from the 2013 release East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem. Produced by Steve Earle and recorded over eight days in a Palestinian recording studio in East Jerusalem, Broza brought together musicians from both sides of the Jewish Palestinian divide to create this record of covers and original material. (As an aside a great documentary of the same name on the making of the album is currently showing on Netflix - a quick search of the service, no matter what country you're in, should bring it up)

The three songs included from those sessions on this disc include "One to Three", a powerful indictment of the war mentality that exists in Israel; "Ramallah/Tel Aviv", an homage to two of the largest cities in Palestine and Israel respectively sung by Broza and Palestinian singer Mira Awad; and the title song "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem" sung with Haiti's Wyclef Jean. Each of these songs represents another effort on his part to build hope for a better future for the two people of his country.

Whether the lyrics are in Hebrew, English, or Spanish Broza's songs are wonderful to listen to. Even if you don't understand the words the music itself is a wondrous mix of the Middle East, Spain, and points further afield. On this collection you'll hear everything from Oud players to Steve Earle's mandolin accompanying songs.

The Set List may never be performed in concert, but it offers a great retrospective of an amazing musician's career. If you've never heard Broza before this is a great opportunity to get to know the music and the man. If you're already a fan, this is a chance to at least listen to what he would consider his ideal concert.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: David Broza - The Set List)

November 1, 2016

Music Blu-ray/CD Review: Iggy Pop - Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall


Cover Post Pop Depression Live Royal Albert Hall.jpg Watching Iggy Pop strut his stuff on the Blu-ray/CD package Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall from Eagle Rock Entertainment and Universal Music, is to remember why real rock and roll scares the crap out of the establishment. With a band fronted by Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme Pop generates enough energy to power all of London. They don't just blow the roof off - they knock down walls and shake foundations.

While at 69 Pop might not be quite as insane as he once was, he doesn't deliberately cut himself on stage anymore (although he did manage to cut himself during his first dive into the crowd) he still bounces around the stage like his legs are springs. This is a guy who takes the concept of putting body and soul into something literally as he flings himself into song after song. For nearly two hours he sings and throws himself around the stage and into the audience with only a small break between the main set and the encore.

Even more incredible is the fact his voice hasn't lost any of its power or its versatility. There's a misconception of Pop being primarily a screamer of lyrics. However, the truth is, while his range might not extend easily into the upper reaches, he can and does utilize the mid and lower ends of the scale beautifully. He can switch from near crooning lyrics in a strong baritone to growling out invective in the blink of an eye. This prevents his songs from becoming exercises in trying to overpower the audience, and becoming droning, boring noise.

While the concert was obviously designed to showcase what Pop and Homme wrote for the Post Pop Depression CD released in the spring of 2016, it also features material covering the span of Pop's solo career. With the exception of "Repo Man" (his contribution to the cult movie hit of the same name) and "Sixteen", the majority of songs not from the new album were from his collaborations with the late David Bowie.

From the show's opener, "Lust for Life", to the song you forgot he co-wrote, "China Girl", this concert could also be taken as Pop's tribute to his old friend. Without his name ever being mentioned at anytime during the performance, Bowie was an undeniable presence throughout.
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However, this wasn't some guy trotting out a collection of his past hits trying to relive old glory. The new material was every bit as powerful and inspired as anything Pop has done in the first fifty years of his career. Songs like "Sunday", "American Vahalla", and "Chocolate Drops", with their musings on his time spent in the trenches of the pop music wars, are intelligent reflections on a long and tumultuous life and career.

This three disc set, one Blu-ray and two CDs, are an amazing record of nearly two hours of magic. While the CDs contain the audio of the concert and are great to listen to, the real treasure is the Blu-ray. Not only are the audio and visual perfect, director James Russell has provided us with a perfect mix of camera angels and shots to capture the event. We are on stage with the band as Pop rumbles across the stage and Homme and company play like men possessed. The lasting impression one takes away from those moments is how much fun they are all having doing this show.

Their spirit is obviously infectious as we see whenever the camera follows Iggy on one of his forays into the crowd. Whether the crowd is supporting him while he body surfs or he simply walks amongst them, everyone is invariably smiling. It's not the usual adulation of fans either. For while there are signs of the ubiquitous selfie taking which plagues any public event, most people seem content with reaching out to touch or hug Pop. It's like they are saying thank you, or perhaps good-bye.

This may or may not be Pop's swan song. If it is he's definitely going out the same way he came in - being true to himself and his music. Pop has never taken any prisoners in his life or his art and this concert is no exception. He might be older, and probably a lot wiser, then he was when he first came on the scene in the 1960s, but he still gives himself body and soul to his music. If you've never seen him in concert Post Pop Depression Live at the Royal Albert Hall is the next best thing.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Iggy Pop -Post Pop Depression Live at the royal Albert hall [Blu-ray/ 2 CD set])

October 21, 2016

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation


Cover We Are The Halluci Nation - A Tribe Called Red.jpgWith their latest release, We Are The Halluci Nation on the Pirates Blend label, the three man DJ crew/producers known as A Tribe Called Red continue to redefine the music of the First Nations people of Canada. Already well known for their inspired work mixing traditional native drum groups with dance beats, hip-hop, and electronics, the latest release expands on this base by reaching out to international indigenous and rap artists.

Aside from incorporating the Northern Voice and Chippewa Travellers drums, the three man crew (Ian "DJ" Campeau, Tim "2oolman" Hill, and Bear Witness) have used tracks contributed by artists as diverse as Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq, rap stars Yasiin Bay (Mos Def), Narcy, Black Bear, and Shad, and the voice of the recently deceased poet/musician/Native American activist John Trudell. It was Trudell who provided the lyrics for the title track, "We Are The Halluci Nation", and the inspiration for the album as a whole.

So it's only fitting the first voice you hear on the disc is Trudell's. Before he died he sent the band a tape of him reading the words for both the opening track and the release's second last song, "ALie Nation". It doesn't take too much imagination to understand who Trudell is referring to when he talks about the "Halluci Nation" and the "ALie Nation". Yet it's not as cut and dried as the First Nations European division as you'd think.

While the lyrics of the former makes no bones about the fact the song is about how indigenous people are viewed ( "We are the Halluci Nation/We have been called the Indians/We have been called Native Americans/We have been called hostile/We have been called pagan/We have been called militant/We have been called many names/We are the Halluci Nation.") the latter implies the split between peoples is not necessarily along racial lines. Rather it's between those who see the world as something to exploit and those who see it as something to celebrate.

While even that might be too radical a thought for most to get their heads around (after all we've been taught we were given dominion over the beasts and the land) the band knows a message has to be delivered in a way to make it palatable. So on the majority of the tracks the bitter pill of reality is sweetened with a musical mix that is not only infectious but brilliantly mixed. It seamlessly blends elements of traditional drums with electronics and the contributions of the guests.
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"R.E.D.", the track featuring Yasiin Bey, Narcy & Black Bear is a great example of this. The core of the song's music is a drum group laying down the beat. (If you've ever wondered why its called the heartbeat drum you'll understand after listening to this song) Mixed overtop are the lead vocals and various electronic effects. However, what's amazing is that instead of this creating an impenetrable wall of sound making the music sound like mush, you can hear every layer distinctly and how they work together.

On "R.E.D." in particular you'll notice how the song is built around the drum. During a drum's performance there are various breaks from the heart beat, either when the drum stops altogether and there's only singing, or when the rhythm and speed are suddenly increased. On this track, we hear the same pattern, in both the drum and the other elements - from voice to electronics. It's a perfect merging of the traditional and the modern.

There are two tracks, four "BEFORE" and 15 "SOON", which aren't really songs. They are recordings of a phone conversation from prison. They are heartbreaking in their reality and pain and bring up topics which most people don't really want to know about: the damage suffered by First Nations people in Residential Schools and the unsolved murders of thousands of indigenous women across Canada. Simple and direct, they go to the heart of what's wrong with Canada's relationship with the original people of this country.

I was fortunate enough to interview John Trudell about 8 years ago. What I came to realize from reading his poetry and talking with him is how much your mindset is changed by living as a conquered people in your own land. I could barely even begin to get my mind around how that must feel. We Are The Halluci Nation from A Tribe Called Red explores similar territory while at the same time trying to show all of us there is a way forward from this state of mind.

Musically this CD will knock your socks off as it blows a hole in your sternum and gets your feet moving. It will do the same thing to you intellectually and emotionally if you let it. That's the power of great music.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - We Are The Halluci Nation)

July 28, 2016

Music Review: Steve Conte - International Cover Up


Cover International Cover Up Steve Conte copy.jpgIn some ways Steve Conte is the quintessential rock and roll musician. He lives in New York City (NYC), (well he summers in the Netherlands with his wife's family) has played with everyone from the New York Dolls to the late Willy DeVille, released his own work, and is an unabashed admirer of rock and roll in all its many forms and genres. The last is made completely obvious by the choice of material on his latest CD International Cover Up.

As the title suggests the disc's eight tracks are all covers. The international bit of the title comes from the fact he recorded it in Holland with his European touring band - save for the solo acoustic versions of "Play With Fire" and "Working Class Hero" which were recorded in NYC. Now, I'm not normally one for cover albums (I think the last one I liked was David Bowie's Pin Ups) but this recording is an exception.

Not only does Conte manage to invest each song with his passion and enthusiasm for rock and roll, he brings his own interpretations to each of the tracks. However, this doesn't mean he ignores the original recording, he is after all honouring the folk who first brought the songs to our attention. What he does is use their versions as a springboard for creating something which combines his talent for performance and their songwriting.

What I also like about this disc is his choice of material. Instead of songs people are going to be automatically familiar with, he's selected tracks which are from all over the rock and roll canon. For example, the first selection is an older, and I mean 1960s not 1970s Rumours era, Fleetwood Mac tune, "Somebody's Gonna Get Their Head Kicked In Tonight". Now I don't know the original, but Conte and company play this as the hard rock song the title implies and make it work.
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That's the other thing about Conte, the fun he has playing music, any music, is damn infectious. Even the harder stuff I wouldn't normally enjoy, like the aforementioned Fleetwood Mac cover, he makes hard to resist. He and his band, Jeroen Polderman drums and Jozz Verhijen bass, are having such an obvious good time, it's nearly impossible not to be swept up in the moment.

However, what really blew me away about this release was his cover of John Lennon's "Working Class Hero". Now I've heard just about everybody cover this tune from Marianne Faithful to bar bands and I've yet to hear someone do as good a job as Conte. Sparse, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he allows the words to speak for themselves. Imbuing them with the right level of scorn and anger he allows the underlying pathos of the song to be heard.

Being a long time lover of the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Streetalbum, his inclusion of "Happy" from that release was greatly appreciated. For some reason, even though it was one of their most critically acclaimed releases, the songs from this album don't always get the recognition they deserve. Conte's version captures the rawness and energy of the original and is reminder of what made Exile such a great disc.

It was also nice to see he included fellow New Yorker, the late, Willy DeVille's "Venus of Avenue D". What's nice about Conte's version is that he manages to capture its spirit without being a slave to the original version. Those familiar with DeVille's style will hear echoes of how he performed it, but they'll also notice how Conte has expanded on that base to give the song new depths.

It takes a special calibre of rock and roll musician to can pull off an album of cover tunes. Somebody whose love of the material and love of the music allows them to throw themselves body and soul into the songs. Like an actor who brings a new interpretation to a much loved role, they have to be willing to surrender themselves to the original writer while still finding a way to bring something of themselves to the material. Steve Conte is one of those rare musicians who can do this, and International Cover Up is sheer listening pleasure for that reason.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Steve Conte International Cover Up)

July 21, 2016

Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps


Cover Rust Never Sleeps lg copy.jpgIn 1979 Neil Young released the LP Rust Never Sleeps and the double live LP Live Rust. Later that same year, the movie Rust Never Sleeps, basically the visual record of the second recording, was also released. July 1 2016 saw a Blu-ray version of Rust Never Sleeps, complete with remastered sound, released by Warner Brothers Records.

For the record, I saw the original movie when it was released in theatres back in 1979. However, given the years that have passed since, and my state of mind when seeing it, I don't think my memories are reliable enough to make any comparisons between the two. What I can say is I had forgotten the remarkable experience the movie had been. Not only was it far more sophisticated than most concert movies of the time, it also contained a number of theatrical elements not normally seen in a straight ahead rock concert from that era.

At this point in his career Young and his band Crazy Horse (Frank Sampedro guitar & vocals, Billy Talbot bass & vocal, and Ralph Molina drums & vocals) were a seamless unit who could match any rock and roll band note for note and riff for riff. Listening to them now one can't help but hear why every grunge rocker who came along in the late 80s early 90s owes a huge debt to this ensemble. They grind through songs with an intensity and a power that can be a little overwhelming. However, they, unlike many imitators, also know how to pull back and understand the impact a moment of silence can have on a song.

The movie opens much as the audience in the concert hall would have experienced the event. We're treated to the site of Young's stage crew dressed as Jawas, complete with glowing red eyes, setting up. This involves raising tarps to reveal oversized touring crates and erecting a gigantic microphone stand (a la the flag at Iwo Jima) to the sounds of Jimi Hendrix's rendition of the Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock and The Beatles' "Day In A Life".

The last to be revealed is Young himself curled up asleep on top of one of the boxes. He then proceeds to perform a solo acoustic set starting with "Sugar Mountain" and "I'm A Child" while standing on the box. As he performs you realize the songs have been chosen deliberately to show the progression in his music. He travels from the youth and innocence of those early tunes to the person who has been tempered by life's joys and sadness in songs like "After The Gold Rush".
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After he finishes his acoustic set he lays down to sleep in a giant sleeping bag centre stage and the Jawas begin to set up the stage for the full band accompanied by stage announcements from the Woodstock Arts and Music Festival being played over the P.A. system. Once everything is set Young and Crazy Horse proceed into a set featuring some of his most well known songs from the 1970s and excerpts from the recently released Rust Never Sleeps LP.

While the majority of this set is electric he interjects two acoustic numbers, "The Needle and the Damage Done" and "Lotta Love", as a change of pace. The second half of the movie follows along the lines of a more typical concert film from the time period as its mainly shots of the band playing. However, there are a few surprises along the way which prevent it from becoming monotonous.

As the movie was originally shot in the low light atmosphere of a concert hall on film, there's not much even a digital transfer onto Blu-ray can do about the graininess of the image quality. However, the audio transfer is far better than one would have expected. The sound is so clear you can even hear the shuffling of the Jawa's feet as they move around the stage during the set up periods.

When it was released theatrically Rust Never Sleeps was considered to be something of a breakthrough in the genre of concert films. Not only was it more than just head on footage of the artist performing, there was also a semblance of a narrative. Never satisfied with doing the same thing over and over again musically, Young took this opportunity to tinker with a rather staid format and managed to make it more exciting.

Compared to the concert films that came after it in the 1980s Rust Never Sleeps looks rather primitive. However, given the limits the technology of the day imposed upon him, Young and his people created something which still manages to stand the test of time.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Neil Young & Crazy Horse - Rust Never Sleeps)

November 29, 2015

Music Review: Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf


Tinariwen.jpgGiven the recent events in both Paris and Mali there's something very timely about the release of Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf from the Tamashek band Tinariwen on the Anti- label.

Forced into exile from their home in Northern Mali by extremists targeting of musicians in 2013, the band recorded their last studio album, Emmaar, in California. This Paris concert on December 13 2014 was the final stop on their world tour of over a 130 performances. Given Mali was a former French colony, and the band is fluent in French, this was as close to a home coming as they'll have for a while.

The title of the album, Oukis N'Asuf, to take away, forget, or get over heartache and longing, is only fitting for a band in exile - especially a band like this whose music is so tied in with their culture and their native desert environment. Making this title even more poignant is the fact they were joined on stage for this concert by one of the matriarchs of Tamashek music and culture, Lalla Badi. Not only is Badi a singer of traditional tinde, a type of song named for the drum used to accompany it and sung by women, she provided the band with a home base when they were just starting out.

Fittingly the recording opens with a song featuring Badi, "Tinde Tinariwen". Traditionally these songs were performed by women accompanied only by percussion - both drums and hand claps. Here the band's electric bass lays down the initial rhythm and is joined by a chorus of male voices. This is joined by youyous, cries and handclaps, and then, rising over top as rough and ancient sounding as the desert itself, Badi's voice soars into song. For over seven minutes the steady sound of the bass, drum, handclaps and male voices maintain their mesmerizing backdrop as she chants/sings her words.


In this opening we hear the inspiration for Tinariwen's style of desert blues - the steady, almost trance-inducing rhythms overlaid by biting electric guitar and lyrics alternatively sung and chanted. While Badi only joins them twice more during the course of the CD, on tracks six,"Tinde Part 1" and the 12th and final track, "Tinde Final Tinariwen", her influence is felt throughout the whole album.

As Tinariwen are not your not typical rock and roll band, this is not your typical live album from a concert tour promoting a new release. The set list isn't stacked to feature new material, rather the concert feels more like a celebration honouring their music and their culture. From the opening notes there's an intimacy you feel even on the recording which you don't often associate with the modern concert experience.

While the music and the performances are tight and professional as befits a band of their experience and and talent, there's also a spontaneity to the performance which makes it feel as if we've wandered into an impromptu jam session. With founding members - Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, Abdallah Ag Alhousseyni and Alhassane Ag Touhami - having played together since the 1980s, and the newer members, - Eyadou Ay Leche, Elaga Ag Hamid and Said Ag Ayad - having grown up listening to them before joining in the 90s, the band operates as a seamless unit.

Tinariwen have long been repositories of Tamashek culture and their people's ambassadors to the rest of the world. On this night in Paris, the combination of their music and the traditional sounds of Badi, not only showed how capable they are of playing both roles, it also made it an electrifying and captivating experience at the same time. Tinariwen are living proof traditions don't have to be hide bound or museum pieces. They can evolve and grow to meet the challenges of new times. Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf is an album of great music by an exciting band and as good a concert disc as any you'll ever hear.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review Tinariwen - Live In Paris, Oukis N'Asuf)

November 10, 2015

Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live


Cover Kishi Bashi String Quartet Live.jpgEver since I heard the Kronos Quartet do a version of Jimi Hendrix's "Purple Haze" I've been a sucker for well performed string arrangements of popular music. So it's no wonder I was blown away when I heard my first track from Kishi Bashi's new live album from Joyful Noise Recordings, String Quartet Live.

Bashi is not only a gifted violinist he's also an incredible singer - think Rufus Wainwright playing a violin and you'll have a fairly good idea of what I'm talking about. Being completely unfamiliar with his work prior to this release I was taken aback by not only his virtuosity but the versatility he displayed with both his voice and his instrument. He has a wonderful clear voice which can soar above the music into a scale's heights without ever once becoming shrill.

As to his violin work, it's not the usual type of electric sawing you get with most pop music. Instead you have an obviously trained musician whose turned his talents to pop music instead of orchestral. His bowing, his touch on the strings and his ability to evoke a variety of emotions with his instrument are all indications of someone who has worked long and hard to understand its intricaciest.

The aforementioned first track I heard is the lone cover on the CD, the Talking Heads "This Must Bet The Place (Naive Melody)". As a long time fan of the band I'm not easily impressed by others doing covers of their music. However, Bashi and his String Quartet had me from the first notes. Not only did their arrangement sound magnificent, they captured the energy and the spirit of the song. On top of that Bashi's singing lent the song the air of wistful hopefulness it needs to make it work.

The other eight tracks on the disc are all original Bashi tunes reconfigured for string ensemble. The songs are all taken from his previous releases and are each tiny masterpieces of musical perfection. From the uptempo and fun "Mr. Steak", about the star crossed love affair of a steak dinner, to the beautiful and haunting "Manchester". Each song is a new adventure in listening as Bashi and the quartet remind us once again that anything electric instruments can do, acoustic instruments played well can do just as well, if not better.

However, this doesn't mean Bashi has ignored the potential for utilizing modern technology. The third track, "Atticus In The Desert", features his musical partner Michael Savino (aka Tall Tall Trees) on banjo. While you can hear Savino's contributions on most songs, here he comes to the fore. A duet between banjo and violin might sound strange, but don't dismiss it until you hear them together.

First of all, forget any preconceived notions you might have about what a banjo sounds like or what's its capable of doing. Not only does Savino coax sounds out of it, with the aid of foot peddles and electronics, you've never heard the instrument make, he also plays it like a drum. With its hide head the banjo is a natural drum and played with the flair, and subtlety, shown here it becomes an incredibly versatile instrument. The contrast between the sounds of Bashi's violin and voice with the ring of the banjo makes for a stunning aural display.
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As its title suggests String Quartet Live is a live recording. In the past live recordings have sometimes had inferior sound quality as compared to studio recordings. However, not only does this disc sound as good as anything done in a studio, it manages to capture the excitement and emotion of the live concert. Bash's enthusiasm and passion at playing with the string ensemble are obvious in both his playing and his comments in between songs. You can almost hear him feeding off the energy of both those accompanying him and the audience's reactions to the songs.

Kishi Bashi is a phenomenal talent and String Quartet Live is an amazing showcase for both his abilities as a violinist and vocalist. If you know his work already I'm certain you will be impressed by these new interpretations of familiar tunes, and if you've never heard him before this is an incredible introduction to the man and his work.

String Quartet Live will be released on Friday, November 13 2015 - make sure you pick up a copy.

Photo of Kishi Bashi by Bryan Bruchman

(Article originally published at Blogcrtiics.org as Music Review: Kishi Bashi - String Quartet Live - A Violin Virtuoso)

October 21, 2015

Music Review: Made Of Light Tymon Dogg


What do you mean you've never heard of Tymon Dogg? The man's only been playing and creating music for longer then most of you have been alive. Hell, he played with The Clash, for whatever sake you want to insert. (Sandinista, lead vocals and violin on "Lose This Skin") He also played with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros in case you've never heard of The Clash. If, by some chance you've not heard this mad man play, now's your chance, as his first solo album in more than twenty years, Made of Light, is being released October 20 2015 on the Thin Man Music label.

One of the first things you have to know about Dogg is while he's one of those folk who seem to be able to play any and every stringed instrument invented, the violin is his weapon of choice. When he plays on the violin he creates a storm of passion in his listeners. He can break your heart or raise your ire to the extent you'll march off to war. His dragging the bow across the strings can create a banshee wail that will cut a path through any opposition or drag a note from its depths that would wring a tear from a rock.
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Than there's his singing voice. It isn't what you'd call dulcet - in fact some might call it a high pitched screech. However, you can't be listening properly if you say that. Yes his voice is much higher than you'd expect (the first time I heard "Lose This Skin" I thought it was a woman singing) but oh is it compelling. It reaches out and grabs you by the throat and forces you to listen to what Dogg is saying. No one is going to claim that Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen or Woody Guthrie have or had great voices, but that's never stopped anyone from listening to them.

Musically Dogg's influences range far and wide. As you'd expect from his previous associations with Strummer there's plenty of the raw energy associated with punk. However, you can also hear everything from traditional British Isles folk to the most avant garde of jazz in his music. While there's some studio tricks and effects used on the recording, the majority of what you hear on the disc comes from what he is able to accomplish with his voice and instruments.

All of which makes for a perfect underpinning of his lyrics. There's the sarcastic and biting "Conscience Money", track one, which makes fun of those who give a pittance in charity to ease their guilt about their accumulated wealth: "Conscience money, conscience money/I made a million, I'll throw a penny back/I'll give them a crumb from a bursting sack/ When I drink Champagne I offer them the fizz/Conscience money, we all know it is."

The wealthy aren't his only targets though. He also takes aim at society's eating habits in general, specifically they way we produce the meat that we eat with the third song on the album, "Pound of Grain". What's good about this song is the fact he doesn't condemn the eating of meat or act all sanctimonious about being a vegetarian. (no idea if Dogg is or isn't one) Rather, he's simply attacking the waste and cruelty involved with its manufacture. "The hunter doesn't hunt anymore/He gets his meat like a vulture from a corner store/He must feel brave as he goes in for the kill and gets out his credit card and approaches the till."

However, he's not just a satirist, he also writes beautiful and hopeful songs like track seven, "As I Make My Way". As with all the best folk music its deceptively simple both musically and lyrically, which makes its message all the clearer. "When I was a young man my friend said to me/ Remember you're just a part of all humanity/Well I forgot, I strayed, in ego games I played/Now I recall that simple truth as I make my way". Throughout the course of the song Dogg shows how there are plenty of opportunities along the way for all of us to remember this simple lesson of compassion. We just have to listen.
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With Dogg you need to rid yourself of any expectations when it comes to what you're going to hear, because he's going to defy them. He keeps you off balance with both his lyrics and his music as he explores new motifs in both from song to song. What's even better is while he definitely has something to say, he's also a gifted enough musician to blend the music and the message into a seamless package.

Some people may not be overly thrilled with what he has to say or how he says it. But the world needs voices like Dogg's to keep us on our toes and to remind us of how much better we could all be as people. Without preaching or being overbearing, and with a great deal of humour at times, Made of Light does all of those things. If you've never listened to Dogg before, or you just haven't heard him in long time, now's the time - you won't ever forget the experience.

(Photo Credit for picture of Tymon Dogg performing Alison Clarke)

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Made Of Light by Tymon Dogg - (A True Indie))

October 14, 2015

Interview: Xavier Rudd -A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought


Australian musician Xavier Rudd has been singing and performing for more than a decade now. Best known as a kind of one man band, appearing on stage surrounded by an array of yidakis (digeridoos), a guitar across his lap and his feet pounding out the rhythm with a stomp box, his latest album, Nanna, released in May of 2015, saw him working will a full band, The United Nations, for the first time.

While there have always been hints of reggae in his music, Nanna, saw him embrace the genre whole heartedly to great effect. While he's never been shy about throwing his heart and soul into his music before, it seems reggae has given him the means to take everything to a higher level. Anyone who has been listening to his music for any length of time will quickly realize how this album was a natural progression in his musical evolution.
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Currently Rudd is on his second tour of the United States and Canada with United Nations and I was able to catch up with him on the phone on October 12 2015. Considering how some of his material deals with the mistreatment of indigenous people, especially the Aboriginals of his native Australia, the irony of talking to him on what's called Columbus Day in the US (Thanksgiving in Canada) wasn't lost on me.

This is the third time I've talked to Rudd over the course of his career, and each time I've come away impressed by how open and sincere he is. There are plenty of musicians and actors who after they've made it big throw their names behind causes, but those whose output is a organic extension of their beliefs are few and far between. With Rudd you quickly realize the music and the beliefs are one. There's no disconnection between who he is and what he sings about. Even better is how well this translates into music that moves both your heart and feet.

The time constraints of the journalistic interview don't allow for much more than scratching the surface, but hopefully this little introduction to Rudd will encourage you to both check out his recordings and go see him in during his current tour.

How has the transition been from basically a one man show to a band? What have the differences been?

I guess musically the biggest difference was I got use to taking up real estate by myself on stage and in the music; making sound as fat as I could. I had to learn to keep my parts thin but creative - to give enough room for everyone else. The playing in the band, and all the members, such a powerful and interesting experience, something I've always wanted - and this was something, special. The connection to the others while playing was great. It may not last for a long time, probably just this album, but I've felt really honoured to play with these people.

What is it about reggae that appeals to you so much?

I've been always liked it, the bass, the vibrations, and the expressions of unity and all love. I love where it puts people and how brings people together. It's also a good platform for expressing various thoughts and ideas. I've brought people from different cultures together, from all over the world, for this band - our ancestors decided to have a cup of tea together - that music was the right platform for this meeting.

When you're bringing that kind of story, the story of struggle and rising up and displacement in modern culture - bringing that discussion to a musical forum - reggae is a good base for that - a good easy base. It's like being able to talk to grandma because she's soft and easy, while you can't talk so much to grandpa because he's hard and stern.

Where do you draw the inspiration for your songs from?

Life in general, spirit. I never sit down and try to write a song, they just come through me. They'll come through thick and fast and almost write themselves sometimes. I don't write them down, the ones that stay with me are the ones that stay with me and become songs. The same thing with the lyrics. They are usually attached to part of something on my personal journey - or spirit.

Why are the themes of respect for indigenous peoples expressed in your songs so important to you?

Honestly, I think it's because my great grandmother disappeared. No one knows what happened to her- she vanished - we don't know what that story was. It's a big black hole in my father's family. I genuinely feel there's been an old woman with me since I was a little boy. Her spirit rests somewhere inside me.

I went to Canberra (capital city of Australia) to a register of Aboriginal people and I put her name into a computer. The only listing I could find was for a woman who was murdered in 1951, the killer was never found. I don't know if that was her or not. A lot of aboriginal people just disappeared like that.

I think a lot of my music comes from that space. My understanding of Australian society and the oppression of a people.

At this point I mentioned to him how the day before our interview I had come across an article about one of the iconic photos of the civil rights movements in the US from the 1960s, John Carlos and Tommie Smith giving the Black Panther salute upon accepting their medals at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. The picture shows a third man as well, a white man, silver medalist Peter Norman from Australia.

It turns out he supported and encouraged them, and joined them in wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights patch on his uniform. As a result he was shunned by the Australian government when he returned home, and in spite of owning the Australian record for the 200 sprint to this day, he was erased from their history books and never allowed to compete again. It wasn't until 2012, six years after his death in 2006, the Australian Parliament apologized to his family. In 2006 Carlos and Smith travelled to Australia to be pall bearers at his funeral.

Rudd wasn't familiar with the photo, nor did he know who Norman was, but he thanked me for the information. All of which led us to the next question about West Australia and its current treatment of the Aboriginal population

Is the grab for indigenous homelands still going on? Have the people been evicted?

It's still going on, it's all about natural resources. Western Australia - is one of the last great wildernesses areas of the planet - we were able to band together and stop one of the biggest gas operations a while back - but under that same land there's everything you can think of resource wise. The Western Australia (state) government, I got in trouble for saying in a Canadian paper they're corrupt, so let's just say they're dodgy government, is all about resources - all about land grabbing. They've been using political moves to trick or convince aboriginal people to give them their land for development. People were moved forcibly from their homelands, with comments made to the press about rampant alcoholism and abandoned home to make it seem necessary.
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How do you deal with what seems like so much antipathy towards the changes your music expresses? You sing about people coming together and all the time politicians are playing up fear and hatred to win elections

I don't really care. (We laughed) My interests are deeper thing that. My interests are in creation, our earth is a lot stronger and greater than we give her credit for. Politicians and what we do are small little grains of sand in creation. Sure I get frustrated and upset by what's going on around but doing something like sitting with a tree, keeping connected to the planet, helps remind me of what's important.

There was a time when we were energetically connected to the land in order to survive. In a lot of people's minds that seems like a fantasy, but it's what reminds us of our place in existence. If everyday one or two humans connect to the earth and remember this, there's always hope. She will take care of us if we let her, the planet is a big thing - its much bigger than you can hope.

You know I was in San Francisco and was in Golden Gate Park and the Blue Angels were doing an air show. They were doing their fly pass and it was really loud. They were doing their acrobatics, and they're really good, and all these people were standing and watching them. But I couldn't help thinking these things cost I don't know how many millions of dollars and were the types of planes which dropped bombs on people.

They flew through in formation and then flew out again, and while people were waiting for them to come back a flock of birds flew through in perfect formation - one of them dived down to scoop up a fish. I remember thinking, no matter how expensive those planes are, none of them can do that - dive down and pick up a fish. Nobody else seemed to notice the birds.

So I saw Surfer Dude a few years ago, and was surprised to hear your music in it. How did that come about?

Matt (Matthew McConaughey) contacted me and asked if I would do some music for the film. I chose some songs from various places, but to be honest I sort of lost interest in the project. There was this music producer who added stuff to my songs which hadn't been there to begin with and I ended up never even seeing the movie. It was an experience.

(Me:The best part of the movie was Willie Nelson as a goat farmer) I never got to meet Willie, but I do like Matt and Woody (Woody Harrelson who was also in the movie).

And that was all we had time for. We had talked briefly about me having seen Peter Tosh in 1980 and the Toronto reggae scene of the late 70s and 80s and touched on a few other areas of mutual interest, but that was about it. Xavier Rudd is one of the most genuine people I've spoken to, and he believes what he says with his heart and soul. However, in neither his music nor his words do you ever get the feeling he's preaching or trying to convert you. This is just who he is.

Information on the rest of his North American tour can be found at the tours page of his web site, but he's currently making his way up the North American West Coast. He' almost done in the States (Austin, Dallas, Taos, Denver, Park City, Portland and Seattle October 14-21 respectively).

Then he hits Canada going West to East with two shows in Vancouver (October 22 +23rd) and two in the British Columbia interior (Duncan (24th) and Nelson (26th). Then he's on to Calgary (27th), Edmonton (29th) in Alberta, Saskatoon Saskatchewan on the 30th and finishes with the Prairies in Winnipeg Manitoba on the 31st. November sees him in Sherbrooke Quebec on the 3rd, St. Casimir on the 4th and Montreal on the 5th. The 6th and the 7th sees him in Toronto and Ottawa respectively than back to Quebec again to finnish off in Quebec City.

If you have the chance go and see him you won't regret it. The music is great and it will be an experience you won't forget.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Interview: Xavier Rudd - A Musician of Heart, Soul and Thought)

September 9, 2015

Music Review: Public Image Limited - What The World Needs Now


After a nearly 20 year hiatus Public Image Limited (PiL) has just released its second album in three years. What The World Needs Now, on their own PiL Official label, is the successor to 2012's This Is PiL and is everything, and more, you'd expect from one of the most talented, versatile and unpredictable bands in the business.

Fronted by the indomitable John Lydon, the rest of PiL's membership is made up of fellow veterans of the music wars. Lu Edmonds, former guitarist for The Damned, plays guitar and a multitude of other stringed instruments. Bruce Smith has played drums with everyone from The Slits to Bjork and has been with PiL in various incarnations since 1986. Rounding out the band is Scott Firth on bass and keyboards whose career has seen him play with Steve Winwood, John Martyn, Elvis Costello and The Spice Girls.
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While one might expect a certain world weary cynicism to be part of the band's collective conscience, you could never tell by listening to this release. Not only is this disc a refreshing collection of musical styles and genres, lyrically it ranges from the ridiculous to the sublime. Even better is the sense of fun that seems to pervade the entire release in spite of the seriousness of some songs' lyrics.

You only need to look at the disc's cover with its stylized trickster figure (not only painted by Lydon's but wearing his shoes) to have a clearer idea of what's going on inside the sleeve. Tricksters traditionally hold up mirrors to society in order to show us how ridiculous we've become. These images aren't necessarily funny, but if we pay attention to them we can always learn something. Lydon has always been one of pop music's ultimate tricksters and on What The World Needs Now he and the rest of PiL have out done themselves.

However even tricksters have their serious side and PiL are no exception. The song "One" is a poignant delving into the personal nature of sadness. This is PiL and Lydon we're talking about, so don't expect cheap sentimentality, but a sharp and intelligent homage to the times in our life when we're down or sadness threatens to overwhelm.

Lydon still doesn't pull any punches lyrically when it comes to those he considers fitting targets for his anger. Just listen to the lyrics of the song "Corporate" and you'll see he's not lost any of the volatility he's famous for. "Not global villages, but one globe/Not itty, bitty little villages of pity and learning how to survive in the 21st century and looking at WWlll/Because all humans seem to hate humanity."

While "Corporate" attacks the mentality that has allowed corporations to dictate what the direction the world takes, "Bettie Page" is an attack on the hypocrisy of the public when it comes to sexual images of men as opposed to women. "Bettie Page/Front page with Bettie Page, remember when you were the rage?/But you were censored in the greatest pornographic country in the world/Well, welcome to America/Land of the free/The pure absurd well served/Led by Betty Boop.../They all were naked 'till Maplethorpe shamed the heart of the Christian core/so get your cover off/Strip it down to the sergeant's stripes/God bless America".
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However, for a true taste of the absurd, the disc's closing song, "Shoom", is a classic. A stream of conscience diatribe about nothing and everything, which Lydon says he wrote as a kind of requiem to his father, it also answers the question implied in the disc's title: "What the world needs now is another fuck off"..."Play me, play bollocks/Pay me, you pay me bollocks/Contracts, well they are bollocks/Contacts are fucking bollocks/Success is bollocks/Botox you fucking bollocks/Sex box, fucking bollocks/Sucking lemons, fucking bollocks ...What the world needs now is another fuck off".

All of which is sung/chanted over a rather laid back dance beat save for the chorus of "What the world needs now" which comes out as a rather guttural scream. While the lyrics may prove a little challenging for some people, although I think anyone who'd be offended by them won't be listening to a PiL, taken all together they capture the irreverence towards societal norms which has epitomized Lydon's career.

Musically PiL are one of the most accomplished bands you're going to hear these days. They draw upon almost every style and genre of pop music and then make them their own. You'll everything from house to glam and art rock to punk - sometimes in the same song - on this disc. What makes it great, is the fact you're not even aware of what they're doing until you sit back and think about it later. Even within a song their segues from one style to another are so seamless it just seems like the song's natural progression.

Of course, overtop of it all rides the sound of Lydon. He's been a part of the collective unconscious of pop music since 1975, keeping us all from becoming too complacent. Whenever it seems like the world of music is becoming too corporate, too smug and too full of itself, along comes Lydon with his fistful of pins to poke holes in the balloon. He never specifically bites the hand that feeds him, but just by being his opinionated self he shows us how the medium's potential is being wasted.

What The World Needs Now is the perfect antidote for those grown sick of the pablum of the pop music machinery. Not only is it musically great, its lyrics will make you think. PiL is not going to be everyone's cup of tea, in fact they are sure to offend right thinking people everywhere. Just what good rock and roll is supposed to do.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: What The World Needs Now - Public Image Limited)

July 9, 2014

Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel - Back To Front: Live In London


Most of the time popular culture looks to the past it's for purposes of reliving past glories or for wallowing in nostalgia. Very few of us have the courage and the strength to look back at where we've come from with a critical eye. Even fewer have the ability, or the desire, to tamper with past successes. Usually when a performer reaches into his or her back catalogue for a show or a recording they end up recreating the original material as exactly as possible. It's safe, easy and is guaranteed to generate ticket and recording sales.

One of those who has always displayed a willingness and ability to deviate from this practice is Peter Gabriel. Starting with his first release in 1977, Peter Gabriel 1, his solo career now spans four decades. His contributions to popular culture haven't been limited to his own material either. Through his Real World label and his involvement with the founding of the WOMAD (World of Music and Dance) Festival in 1980 he was responsible for bringing music from cultures other than our own into the mainstream. However, it wasn't until the release of his album So in 1986 he achieved widespread commercial success.

In 1986/87 Gabriel and his band, Tony Levin on bass, David Rhodes guitar, Manu Katche drums and David Sancious keyboards and guitar, toured the world to promote the release. Twenty-five years after that tour ended, 2012, Gabriel reunited the original band in order to revisit the original performances while creating a new experience for his audiences. In October of 2013 the tour pulled into London England's O2 concert hall where the performances were filmed. The result is a new release from Eagle Rock Entertainment, Back To Front Live In London.
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Available in multiple formats, including a deluxe two Blu-ray two CD set complete with a hard bound book of pictures and liner notes, the single disc Blu-ray recording I watched shows Gabriel not only knows how to please his audience, but is still not afraid to push the creative envelope to its limits. Not only does he not simply play older material the way it was originally performed, he continues to be one of one of the most innovative users of the stage and lighting techniques available to popular performers. Even better is he's one of the few who have always understood how to create the perfect balance between the music and the visual in order to create something which is more than just a concert for his audience to experience.

As the camera leads us onto the stage, showing us Gabriel's perspective on proceedings as he moves into position at his piano to open the show, we're give the first example of how this performance will differ from other events of its kind. He does not enter to a blacked out house and stage, all the lights in the arena are on. Instead of breaking into song he begins by telling the audience exactly what he plans on doing for them over the course of the night; an acoustic set as an introduction, an electric set and then play them So in its entirety.

Maintaining the immediacy created by this rather informal beginning, he and the band perform the entire acoustic set with the house lights up. One of the highlights for me from this opening set was an acoustic version of "Shock The Monkey". Always a powerful song, somehow striping it down to the bare bones sound of acoustic guitar, bass, drums and piano not only didn't diminish its impact, but made you more aware of the song's potency. The gaps left in the song from the lack of electric instruments were like poignant pauses in a conversation which say more than words ever can.

However, no matter how powerful the opening numbers might have been, you could feel the excitement level rise in the arena the moment the house lights went down and the band picked up electric instruments. While the house lights must have been gradually dimming over the course of the last song of the acoustic set, the moment when the band was all of a sudden bathed in white light and the audience was in darkness was still so dramatic the thrill that ran through the crowd could be felt right through the television screen. It was not only a beautiful piece of staging, it was a great piece of filming, as it captured for us at home the experience of being at the concert like few other concert films I've ever witnessed.
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I have to confess, and this is testimony to the skill of both Gabriel and the film's director Hamish Hamilton, that from this point on my critical faculties deserted me and I allowed myself to be carried away by the concert and the experience. While I've seen quite a number of concert films, and a few by Gabriel in the past, this is the first one I've seen where the connection between performer and audience is so strong that even sitting in my living room on a rainy afternoon I lost all track of time and space and became totally absorbed.

For those used to some of Gabriel's more elaborately staged performances, this one might initially seem more prosaic then previous ones as the band is simply lined up facing the audience. However, as the show progresses he begins to make use of the empty space down stage as he and the two female vocalists accompanying him, Jennie Abrahamson (she does amazing work on "Don't Give Up", "This Is The Picture (Excellent Birds)" and "In Your Eyes") and Linnea Olsson (who also plays cello) move forward to execute some beautiful choreography during "This Is The Picture" and "Don't Give Up".

While maybe these moments can't equal the spectacle of him singing while hanging upside down as he's done in prior shows, for those who saw last year's release, Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987, capturing the original tour promoting So, you will recognize certain staging techniques and equipment. I don't want to give anything away, but I will say he uses the same equipment he did in 1987, but updates it by incorporating the new video technology at his disposal.

In the interview with Gabriel and lighting designer and Rob Sinclair included in the Blu-ray version of the concert, the two men discuss both how they incorporated the old set pieces and how they created the overall concept for the show. Unlike many of these interviews, this one not only gives you details about how they created what you see on stage, but the reasoning behind their ideas and the process they used in creating the event. Not only was it carefully executed, the planning behind it was meticulous and inspired. Oh, and while not exactly special features, I love the fact that during the film's credits, various backstage members of the crew introduce themselves and what they did to make the show possible. Gabriel is still one of the few who takes time at the end of the show to stand up in front of his audience to publicly thank the men and women who do this work. Including them so visibly in the credits is another sign of his appreciation for their work. How many other pop music stars do you know who would acknowledge the guy who drives the bus?

From the sheer pop energy fun of "Solesbury Hill" to the potency of "Biko" (which he still closes his show with all these years later by telling the audience "What happens next is, as always, up to you") Gabriel has created a catalogue of music few other modern popular music creators can match for its artistry and intelligence. Even more remarkable than the commercial success he was able to achieve with his album So is the fact that 25 years after its release the music is not only just as powerful now as it was then, and that Gabriel is still finding ways to present it which keep it fresh for both him and his audience. Back To Front Live In London might contain material close to forty years old, but it feels far more alive than most of what you hear being released today.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review: Peter Gabriel Back To Front: Live In London)

May 21, 2014

Music Review: Golem - Tanz


Legend tells us that the 16th century rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel created a golem to protect the Jewish ghetto in Prague from pogroms during the Easter/Passover holiday season. A creature made of clay, the golem was brought to life when the Hebrew word for truth, emet, was carved on his forehead and put back to sleep when the first letter of the word was removed leaving, met, the Hebrew word for dead. While golems have been depicted as everything from shambling monsters to articulate figures akin to our idea of artificial intelligence, they are also a reminder of the struggles for survival Jewish people have faced through history.

Now aside from both being parts of Jew's European heritage, at first glance golems and Klezmer music have very little in common. However, Klezmer shares the same roots as the golem, as it comes from Central and Eastern Europe. The word Klezmer comes from the Hebrew words klei (vessel) and zemer (song) which when combined literally means instrument of song. Originally it was the word for any musician, and it wasn't until the 1970s it was used to describe the music of the Yiddish speaking people of Eastern Europe. Today the music not only draws upon its traditions, but has incorporated aspects of contemporary popular music.
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One of the great examples of how Klezmer has evolved is the Brooklyn based band Golem. Referring to themselves as "Not your grandfather's Klezmer band", the band sings in Yiddish, English, various Slavic languages and German, plays instruments traditionally associated with the genre (violin, accordion, horns) but infuses it with an edge that can only be called a punk rock sensibility. Their latest album, Tanz, on the Mexican based Disco Corason label, is a rollicking adventure in high energy anarchic music that still manages to capture both the spirit and feel of Klezmer.

Instead of singing songs about a way of life which no longer exists, Golem have taken the form and turned it into the means of expressing what's important to them today. While there are still some traditional songs included on the disc the majority, like the title song "Tanz", (Dance) are originals which they've based on the lives of people and experiences they are familiar with. "Tanz" is the story of a survivor of the death camps who went on to build a small fortune as an adult. Instead of worrying about what would become of his money, he lived life to its fullest. When he died, unmarried, childless and without a will nobody inherited his wealth. "This cash is only paper/Let's buy a fast red car/We don't believe in heaven/Just want to die happy/Tanz tanz tanz...dance!"

Alongside this life affirming, live for the moment song, you also have some very witty satire. "Vodka Is Poison" bases its lyrics on a Russian self-help tape designed to help cut down on the rampant alcoholism in the country. The lyrics are hysterical, "It makes you sickly, makes you cough/Makes you smell like dirty socks/Makes you happy, makes you free/Makes you wish you were me/Vodka - Yad." The song's lyrics are in sung in both Russian and English - I'm not sure if the English are a direct translation of the Russian - but if they're any indication of Russia's methods of trying to curtail excessive drinking I doubt any real dent has been made in the problem. While the song's lyrics are obviously not meant to be taken seriously, they are real enough to make us realize the ridiculousness of a self-help tape being used to cut down on people's drinking.
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However, not all the songs are humorous or even satirical, some like "7:40" deal with more serious issues. In the former USSR it was impossible for a Jew to go to medical school. The only way a cousin of lead singer Annette Eziekiel Kogan was able to receive medical training was by becoming a member of the very anti-Jewish Soviet armed forces. The song's title refers to the first time of day Orthadox Jews pray, 7:40 am. In the Soviet Union her cousin was forbidden to pray at any of the three times designated for prayer; 7:40 am (shacharit) 4:15 pm (mincha) and 8:35 pm (maairv) "Sacharit, mincha, maariv/I do no work on Saturday/Back home Jews can't go to med school/ When someone called me a kike/I stuck a finger in his eye/And now I'm free to daven (pray) as I like". (The cousin actually took out somebody's eye when he was called a kike - not surprisingly he emigrated to Chicago as soon as he was able)

Musically Golem somehow manages to combine the familiar plaintive sound of traditional Klezmer with the harder edge of their punk ethos. A great deal of their success comes down to them having not only mastered the original form, but also have a great deal of respect and affection for its traditions. It also helps that both Kogan and co-vocalist Aaron Diskin are able to sing with conviction and feeling in all the languages used on the disc. Instead of the clarinet you would expect to hear playing leads in a Klezmer band, Jeremy Brown on violin and Curtis Hasselbring on trombone accompany Kogan's accordion in pumping out the melodies while they are kept on beat by Taylor Bergen-Chrisman on bass and Tim Monaghan on drums.

While this mix of instruments might sound odd on the surface, once you hear them play you'll be hooked on the infectious music they're able to create. Golem aren't like any Klezmer band you've ever heard, but that's what makes them so much fun to listen to. There aren't too many musicians who have the ability to take a traditional form of music and bring it into the modern world while still remaining true to the genre's origins. Golem may not be your grandparents', or even your parents', Klezmer band, but that doesn't make them any less authentic or inspiring.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Golem - Tanz)

April 9, 2014

Music Review: Wilko Johnson & Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home


The early 1960s saw the rise of an incredible number of blues based rock and roll bands in of all places the British Isles. The Animals, Led Zepplin, The Yardbirds, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones (yes they started off as a blues band - listen to their early albums) were just a few of those whose careers were shaped by the blues. While most of them went on to become part of the music establishment, at the time their music was considered rebellious and dangerous by the establishment. They also entrenched their style of music into British pop culture.

No matter what was being played on the popular music stations or rising high in the charts, the blues seemed to always be hanging around the fringes ready to raise its head when people wanted to hear something a little more rebellious than what was normally available. So when four guys from Canvey Island, about thirty mile east of London up the Thames River in England, decided to formed Dr Feelgood the band who impressed everyone from Johnny Rotten to Richard Hell with their rawness and intensity they looked to the blues and R&B for their inspiration. The creative force behind Dr. Feelgood for their formative years was guitarist and primary songwriter Wilko Johnson. While Johnson left the band soon after their fourth album, he's never left the style of music he played with them behind. Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2012, he's been grabbing at as many opportunities as possible to make and record the music he loves while he can. (His doctors told him he was only going to make it until October 2013 - but he's defied all their predictions and is still performing)
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One of the projects he's undertaken was teaming up with Who frontman Roger Daltrey to record an album of ten Johnson penned, and one cover, R&B/blues/rock and roll songs called Going Back Home. Released on the Chess record label in the UK the disc is being issued in North America by Universal Music Enterprises. While it might appear the two are a generation apart as Daltrey and The Who were part of the early 1960s British rock scene, and Johnson the early 70s, they both share a love for what they call British R&B.

Lyrically speaking none of Johnson's songs are going to change the world or even probably change your life. However, that's not the point of this music. The songs on this disc are about things we can all relate to, whether we want to admit it or not. While it might be a bit odd to hear these two veterans of the rock wars singing songs about being young and irresponsible, when it comes down to it, isn't that what rock and roll should be about? A celebration of everything the supposed adult world looks down upon.

The disc's opening and title track is a perfect example. The music is rollicking, I defy anyone with any soul in their body to resist the urge to dance while listening to it, while the lyrics are a celebration of the ups and downs of a irresponsible life. "I wanna live the way I like,/Sleep all the morning, go out and get my fun at night./Things ain't like that here,/Working just to keep my payments clear." Bemoaning having to actually work to do the things you want to do might not seem overly rebellious to some, but considering the fact Britain is the home of the Protestant Work Ethic, this type of attitude would make Margret Thatcher spin in her grave.
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For those of you who are wondering how Daltrey sounds after all these years, as far as I'm concerned his voice sounds better then it ever has. Of course that could be my own personal bias as I've never been one for the rock and roll vocal pyrotechnics he used to engage in during his younger years. However, on this recording his voice is a wonderful growl full of expressive twists and turns which is perfect for the material. Listening to this disc you swear he was born to sing this music as he not only sounds great he has the right attitude to express the sentiments behind the words. The tough kid from the streets who once sang "I hope I die before I get old" is still alive and well and giving the establishment a two finger salute.

The band accompanying the two front men are the perfect match to the music as well. They are the perfect combination of sounding like they could go off the rails at any moment while at the same time being incredibly tight. It helps that Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and Dylan Howe (drums) are Johnson's regular rhythm section, but Mick Talbot on piano and Hammond Organ and Steve Weston on harmonica are equally at ease with the music and the rest of the band. Weston especially is incredible. His harmonica playing is the perfect accompaniment to Daltrey's voice, providing an amazing counterpoint to his growls without ever overwhelming him.

Of course Johnson is Johnson. His guitar is the motor driving each and every song. Whether he's chugging along in the background playing rhythm or delivering short choppy leads, his playing is a lesson in the old adage of less is more. He gets more out of what he does in a few seconds than most rock gods can get out of a ten minute solo. There's an intensity to his playing (and his stage presence) that few to this day can match. The ten original songs he's penned for this album, match his playing style, as at first listen they seem to be simplicity in themselves, but you gradually realize there's a lot more to them they you first thought.

Going Back Home is a wonderful and imaginative collaboration from two men who've never lost their love for rock and roll. Even their choice of a cover, Bob Dylan's "Won't You Please Crawl Out Your Window" from his Highway 61 Revisited album, is inspired. They've turned it into a wonderful, rollicking R&B song which fits the mood of the track perfectly. In some ways you can almost imagine Dylan recording it this way, as that could easily be Al Kooper on the organ or members of The Band providing the bass, drums and guitar. However, just because the disc looks to the past occasionally, there's no way you can call this an exercise in nostalgia. This album is a timely reminder of how the soul of rock and roll is still rebellion.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Wilko Johnson and Roger Daltrey - Going Back Home)

April 2, 2014

Music Review: Steve Conte - The Steve Conte NYC Album


One of my favourite authors, Christopher Brookmyre, in his book Not The End Of The World described New York City (NYC) as a place where "An outgoing personality and a trusting nature would be filed as contributory negligence on an NYPD homicide sheet" and the average citizens's level of paranoia as "a constant state of heightened alertness like mainlining caffeine". Like many other assessments of NYC, this is probably three parts hyperbole and one part reality. For no matter where you live there's always a certain level of heightened awareness when you step out of the sanctuary of your own house.

As I once said to a person I knew who lives in NYC, my small city with a population of just over 100,000 has all the disadvantages of living in a big city, crime, pollution etc., with none of the advantages that come with a major metropolis. A small city is often very parochial as its population never has the opportunity to expand its world view through galleries, museums, theatres or other such venues displaying works from other parts of the world. When culture is limited to only what you can produce locally, with injections of new blood few and far between, it stagnates. No matter how hard an artist tries to grow, without inspiration or examples it's next to impossible.

I was reminded of all this listening to the latest album from NYC musician Steve Conte, The Steve Conte NYC Album. In his last solo release, Steve Conte And The Crazy Truth, Conte captured the spirit of the wild ride NYC can be in a series of brilliantly done rock and roll songs. Having played with the New York Dolls and the Mink DeVille Band he's been enough of a part of the city's rock and roll story to offer a perspective of life in NYC few others can. On this occasion he's delved even deeper into its psyche to show us the city through the stories of the people who live there.
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The other change you'll discover on this album is how much he's expanded his musical horizons. While there are still some wonderful New York rock and roll songs, he's also drawn upon other musical influences. Both the disc's eighth, "Broken Spoke Saloon" and 10th, "Tax Free", tracks have definite country/blues feels to them which makes the stories they tell all the more powerful. What's even better is neither song feels like they're some sort of token piece of "Americana" tossed off because its the in thing right now. Instead their content and placement on the album make them feel like they are part of a natural progression in the overall story Conte is trying to tell us.

The disc opens with wonderfully ironic "Dark In The Spotlight" which takes aim at those who want to find fame through infamy. If you don't have talent at least make sure you're found with a needle in your arm and make a suitably impressive corpse. "Well you're a medical wonder/you're no Johnny Thunders/but you kept up quite a pace./Always severely high and ya didn't die trying/Well lord knows it ain't no race./Somehow you stayed out of the headlines,/the whose nearly deadlines,/guess you missed out on the press." Unlike Thunders, who was a talented musician with genuine demons, the subject of this song is just another sad story of the pursuit of fame for fame's sake. Not only doesn't he or she have the required talent and desire to be a great musician, they can't even get the dying young part right.

This isn't the only New York stereotype Conte's sharp pen pricks with the bite of satire/sarcasm. He also takes aim at the supercool dudes with their machismo attitudes who have long been celebrated in song and emulated by every half wit whose walked into a bar and hit on some unsuspecting victim. "Lady Luck" tells the story one of these dudes who finally comes to the end of his run of luck. "You're the king of the world with a crooked crown/Another day in the life of a fool falling down/With your face in the muck/That's Lady Luck/...She busted your glass jaw, it's the karmic law/She really left you raw". There's nothing cool or glamorous about the life of a low rent hood getting by on the luck of the draw. A player in his own mind, once he steps outside of his comfort zone his world comes tumbling down around him.
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By the time Conte's tour of NYC brings us to the "Broken Spoke Saloon" we're almost prepared for the song's bitter/sweet ode to friendships which have withstood the test of time and two people going in opposite directions. "You couldn't make the rent so you went straight/But I kept on believing I'd get my twist of fate/Now I wonder when you look at me/Do you see a piece of your history?/Something that's too far gone to reclaim/I love you just the same." How many times has a friendship ended due to the resentment one feels towards the other's success, especially when they had met while pursuing the same dream?

In a city like New York this is probably a scene played out in many different bars between many different people. For every person who is able to find a way of making their living doing what they love, there are going to be twenty who have had to give up their dreams. Of course just because you've made it to the point where you're living the life you thought you wanted doesn't mean its without frustration and thoughts of just giving it all up and running away.

The final track on the disc, "Tax Free", shows Conte giving voice to those thoughts. While the song is funny, there's also an element of seriousness to it's expression of how even the most dedicated of artists can get frustrated. "Yeah I'm big joke to the New York Press/So I wake up on the floor/I'm just an aging freelance whore/Don't want to die in this den of despair/There's always death and taxes, but no tax down in Delaware".

The Steve Conte NYC Album is a wonderful mixture of music, thought and emotion which takes you on a tour of NYC as seen through descriptions of a wide variety of people who inhabit the city. Sometimes ironic, sometimes funny but always insightful and intelligent, Conte shows himself to be more than just another rock and roller. The portraits he has created give what most people see as a highly impersonal city the sense of being a place not much different from where they might live. With this release Conte has found a way of reminding us there might be millions of people jammed into NYC's many boroughs, but each one of them is an individual and their stories are what give the city its character.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Steve Conte - 'The Steve Conte NYC Album)

March 22, 2014

Music Review: IR 29.1: New Generation Dub


One of the biggest crimes committed by the music industry has been their ability to co-opt, dilute and turn even the most radical of genres into something safe for mass consumption. Disco, punk and rap have all been taken and watered down so they would sell in Peoria. Even worse is how the industry corrupts these forms, turning them inside out, so instead of preaching against the injustices which brought the genres into existence, they become something promoting the very things causing the inequities railed against. While disco was turned into mindless dance music for social climbers and punk became new wave and all about dressing well, what was done to rap/dub music was by far the most horrendous.

Rap/dub, the art of free association spoken word poetry/singing being recited over somebody mixing sounds on a couple of turntables, was born out of necessity. It was a cheap and easy way to make music and to relate information to large numbers of people. Individuals, Afrika Bambaataa and groups, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, took existing recorded music, LPs in the early days, and by manipulating the vinyl and mixing the sound of two turn tables together, would create rhythms and beats for songs, like "The Message", that spoke of modern African American frustration with the poverty, crime and drug use they saw around them.

So, its heartening to know there are those in the world who still see the potential for rap/dub music as an instrument for change and education. As I mentioned in my review of IR 30: Indigenous Visions In Dub elsewhere on this site, the grass roots organization The Fire This Time (TFTT), has established the record label, IR (Indigenous Resistance) produce rap/dub music which speaks to the plight of indigenous people all over the world. In order to facilitate the making of this music they have established a freedub page where musicians, poets and songwriters can upload and download mp3s for the sole purpose of creating new songs. Thus musicians from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific can exchange ideas with people across the North America and create material which speaks to the plight of indigenous people everywhere.
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Their latest release, IR 29.1: New Generation Dub available for purchase as a download through Bandcamp not only is a great example of how this system works, it also shows there is more to this genre of music than most of us think. There are only four music tracks on the release, its being promoted as the first of two parts, hence the title 29.1, but they're plenty to give you both an introduction to the type of music they create and the ideas and hopes they are trying to propagate.

The second track on the release, "IR Dravidian: Earth & Life: Dr. Das Ambient Mix", is not only a great example of how their international community of artists work together to create songs, but shows you how hip hop/dub/rap can be so much more than what we hear on commercial radio. This track had been originally recorded as "Dravidian Spirit" by DJ Soundar of Asian Dub Foundation but has been remixed for this recording by Jamaican musician Dr. Das. Not having heard the original I can't comment on the impact the changes have made to the song. However I can tell you its a powerful mix of language and music which not only communicates an intellectual message but creates a strong spiritual and emotional foundation for the ideas expressed.

The Dravidian of the title are the Indigenous people of South India who have been gradually marginalized by the majority Brahmin-Aryan peoples for thousands of years according to DJ Soundar. Their culture dates back at least 6,000 years and the percussion rhythms you hear on this track are Dravidian. A quick trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Jamaica for keyboards and percussion, then down to Bogota Colombia for the sound of children reading a passage of the Tried & True: Revelations Of A Rebellious Youth by dub Jamaican writer Dutty Bookman. Finally there's a quick side trip up to North America for the words of Native American poet/activist/musician John Trudell which were recorded by Bookman for this mix.
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What's wonderful about this mix is how well all the seemingly disparate sounds, languages and ideas are blended together to create a unified message. Built around the core of Trudell's words about the nature of power, how people are being misled into believing money and the political vote are the true sources of power when they are merely manifestations of greed and exploitation ("We are connected to the real power source which is life and earth") the music is both ethereal and grounded enough so its message is emotionally and intellectually real.

Unlike most politically oriented music which tends towards the polemic, the music on IR 29.1: New Generation Dub doesn't ignore its media's role in conveying the message. The tracks on this recording work on multiple levels, reflecting the artists' concerns with conveying both a political message to the world at large and a reminder to their indigenous audience to never forget who they are and where they came from. The spiritual messages found in these songs aren't meant to make non-indigenous people feel better about themselves and their exploitation of the world like the ones found in New Age bookstores. Instead they're a means of reinforcing the cultural identity of those who have been the victim of systemic cultural genocide.

If you're like me, and the sound of rap/hip hop blaring from some car's souped up sound system is usually enough to hope the vehicle will blow up on the downbeat, these tracks are a revelation. They show that dub music can be more than just mindless noise and used as a viable tool for self-expression. With contributors from literally every corner of the world, this truly international collaboration gives voice to the concerns of indigenous people all over the globe while allowing each distinct culture to shine through.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review IR 29.1: New Generation Dub)

March 13, 2014

Music Review: Tinariwen - Emmaar


In the early 1960s the creation of artificial borders in the trackless wastes of the Sahara desert might have been cause for celebration among the inhabitants of the newly created countries. However, the throwing off of colonial masters in Niger, Mali, Algeria, Morocco and others, also resulted in turmoil for the nomadic people who had called the region home for close to a thousand years. Attempts at fighting to retain their lands resulted in them being forcibly removed from their territories and sent into exile. Ibrahim Ag Alhabib was a young child when he and his extended family were forced to pack up their goods and lives and leave their homes.

Like many others of his generation Alhabib witnessed the death of family members, his grandfather, as they made their way to who knew what. So it's no surprise he and other young Kel Tamashek (Tuareg) men ended up in Libya receiving military training. In the 1980s these expatriates were the nucleus behind the revolts in Mali attempting to reclaim their traditional lands. However they weren't just receiving military training in Libya, they were also being exposed to music from all over the world. It was in the training camps Alhabib first starting learning how to play guitar and met the men he would eventually form the band who would have since become synonymous with the music of the Kel Tamashek, Tinariwen.
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Putting down their weapons and picking up musical instruments hasn't stopped the members of Tinariwen from continuing their fight for their people. It's simply meant a change of tactics. Initially their intent was to create songs and music celebrating their culture and their traditional lives. While this might sound innocuous enough, they along with other "guitar bands" were soon being targeted by the same governments they had fought against. In the 1990s many musicians were forced to flee both Niger and Mali because of threats against their lives by the armed forces of the two countries. However this didn't stop Tinariwen from continuing to make music and eventually making their way onto the world's stages to spread their tribal inspired desert blues around the world.

When terrorist groups usurped the Kel Tamashek uprising in Northern Mali - one of the nomadic people's traditional homelands - and imposed their own version of Islam upon the area's population, including banning all music, in early 2013, Tinariwen were once again forced into exile. Which meant their latest release, Emmaar (Deluxe Edition) available in North America on the Anti label, was not recorded in their home desert, but Joshua Tree California. Even there reminders of the troubles at home couldn't have been far from their minds as band member Abdallah Ag Lamida was unable to make the trip having been kidnapped by the terrorists. (He has since been released)

Previously when I've reviewed albums by Tinariwen and other bands from the Sahara region I've received a hard copy which has contained translations of the song's lyrics. The digital download I received this time didn't contain any liner notes, so I'm flying blind when it comes to understanding what the band is saying. While that might be a problem with some other bands, when it comes to Tinariwen, the music is as integral to their message as the lyrics.

What's interesting to note about this album is how they have continued the process of evolving their sound which had begun on their previous release, Tassili, by incorporating new sounds into their mix. The number of guest musicians has increased to include the talents of Fats Kaplan, who plays fiddle on "Imdiwanin Ahi Tifhamamone" and pedal steel on the opening track "Toumast Tincha", current Red Hot Chili Peppers guitarist Josh Klinghoffer (also on the opening track) percussionist Amar Chaoui on six tracks, guest guitarist Matt Sweeny on the song "Emajer" and poet/musician/ Saul Williams providing a spoken word English language introduction to the album's opening track.
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However, for fans of Tinariwen's particular brand of desert blues featuring hypnotic percussion overlaid by the interplay of droning guitars and sparse vocals, there's no need to worry they have done anything as crass as give in to commercial considerations or been so called corrupted by being in America. What they have done is augment their sound with these additional players to give it more depth and a wider range of expression. Listen and watch the video below of "Imidiwan Ahi Sigdim" and you'll hear how little they've strayed from their original roots.

Utilizing these Western musicians is not an attempt to make their sound more accessible to a wider market, this is the band which won the Grammy for best "World Album" in 2012 after all so they don't need to attract a new audience. What it does do is broaden the scope of their musical palate. This allows them to create even more vivid musical pictures of the desert landscape they call home. For while the lyrics are still sparse and sung in Tamashek, after all the songs are for their own people not us, the music evokes the landscape of their homeland. The new musical elements, such as pedal steel guitar and fiddle, which add a certain South Western American feel to some songs, only serve to make the picture more complete.

Tinariwen have been part of the struggle for preserving their people's traditional homelands and culture since the days of armed rebellion in the 1980s. Picking up musical instruments in exchange for the guns of their youth as an attempt to encourage their own people to take pride in their traditions and culture has turned them into cultural ambassadors for the Kel Tamashek on stages around the world. Yet in spite of the international attention, no matter which part of the world they are forced to record their music, or who joins them, their sound remains firmly rooted in the shifting sands of the Sahara desert.

Considering Tinariwen's refusal to to give up in the face of odds most of us would consider insurmountable, is it any wonder the armies of Islam gave their ancestors the name Tuareg - rebels against Islam - when they first invaded North Africa over a thousand years ago? It's this indomitable spirit pervading their music that gives it the presence which makes them one of the most compelling bands playing anywhere. No matter who they choose to accompany them when recording or performing, their music and spirit continue to shine through as an example for the rest of the world. Starting March 14 2014 Tinariwen is beginning a tour of the American South, South West, Mid West and West Coast. If you get the opportunity check them out - you won't regret it.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Music of the Sahara: Tinariwen's new album Emmaar)

February 22, 2014

Music Review: Adrian Raso And Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale


When the Ottoman Empire invaded Eastern Europe they brought more than just their armies with them. Even today evidence of their occupation can still be found. Muslim communities in Serbia are only the most obvious reminder of their one time rule as traces of their cultural influence can still also be seen in other, more subtle forms, including musical influences. The invading Turkish armies were accompanied by military brass bands, a type of music previously unknown in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. In spite of the general antipathy towards all things Muslim in the region, for some reason this one particular aspect of the culture became part of the region's musical makeup and today the Guca Trumpet Festival in Serbia is one of the biggest brass festivals in the world.

In the north-eastern region of Romania in a small isolated Romany village, Zece Prajini, population around 80, the tradition of the brass band has continued unchecked since the days of the Ottoman Empire even as it died out across the rest of country. From these humble beginnings the village band, Fanfare Ciocarlia, (translated as Lark's Song) has stormed onto stages and movie screens around the world. (They are the brass band playing Steppenwolf's "Born To Be Wild" in the move Borat) They have won countless world music awards for their amazing amalgamation of Romany and brass band music. Their fast and furious approach leaves one breathless and reeling, but they're more than just loud and brassy. They have the innate musical intelligence to be able to adapt their playing to almost any style and genre of music.
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This versatility is on full display on the new release from German label Asphalt Tango, Devil's Tale, a collaboration with Canadian guitarist Adrian Raso. In the past Raso has released albums of music ranging from Gypsy Swing to rockabilly and collaborated with everybody from Sheila E. to Lee Rocker of the Stray Cats, but as far as I know this is the first time he has sat down to record, or play even, with a brass band.

While I was very familiar Fanfare's previous work, I'd never heard anything by Raso before this disc. However, I did have some understanding of the style of music he plays. For while he's apparently an incredibly versatile performer, he appears to lean towards the more sophisticated Latin and Gypsy Swing influenced styles of jazz guitar work. Knowing how intricate and subtle those types of music can be, and also knowing how Fanfare's preferred approach was anything but either of those, I wondered how the heck their two seemingly widely divergent performance styles could meld successfully.

Which just goes to show how much I had underestimated Fanfare Ciocarlia's musical ability and their capability to adapt. All it takes is hearing the first notes of the disc's opening track to realize the band has entered into this partnership whole heartedly. Sure all their familiar energy is present, but now they have channeled it into musical nuance instead of blasting us out of our seats. For not only have they found common ground with Raso, but they have moved further afield musically than I would have thought possible.
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"Urn St.Tavern", the disc's opening track, is a wonderful example of how this union of styles resulted in something completely unexpected. I'm not exactly sure how to describe it, except that it would fit into the sound track of any number of Robert Rodriguez's more macabre movies. There's a slightly eerie overtone to Raso's guitar work which sends shivers up your spine while Fanfare's horns provide an ominous backdrop against which any sort of weird and creepy activity could take place. Who knows what the patrons of "Urn St.Tavern" get up to when dark comes creeping in over the mountains? Nothing any stranger would want to experience on their own, that much is for sure. (Obviously I wasn't the only one who made this connection as can be seen on the amazing video for the song)

As the disc progresses the jaw dropping work of both members of the collaborative team continues. The fourth track, "C'est La Vie" is a wonderful example of French/Romany swing music. Not only do Fanfare play with the relaxed assurance required to make this song bop and move with ease and grace, it's also a chance to hear what makes Raso such a special guitar player. Not only do his fingers fly over the fret board on his leads he manages to impart a kind of emotional joie de vivre into his playing. It's fast, loose and as full of life as the streets of the Left Bank of Paris where some new excitement is always lurking around the next corner.

The solo exchanges between the guitar and clarinet on this song resonate with not only the sounds of Paris, but Eastern Europe as well. You can hear the echoes of both Romany music and its close relative Klezmar come through as the clarinet swings its plaintive sound in cheerful defiance against the oppressive background that gave birth to both types of music. Simply listening to them perform lifts the heart and the spirit, and makes you appreciate how much music can lift you out of the muck and mire of a hard life.
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It's only fitting the final song on the disc is named "Django" in honour of the great Django Reinhardt, basically the inventor of the jazz style now called Gypsy Swing. However, the song's title can have a double meaning as the word Django translates from the Romany as "I awake". While Raso's guitar playing on this song harkens back to Reinhardt's style of jazz, the counterpoint provided by the brass is like a wake up call. While they're playing many of the same motifs Raso plays on his guitar, they put an extra punch into them which makes them leap out of your speakers. While some times jazz guitar can fade into the background if you don't pay careful attention, Fanfare's horns keep you awake and aware all the time. Whether they are providing the bass underpinning to the guitar leads with tubas and baritones, or snapping out leads on trumpets, they make sure our feet are always awake and moving to the music.

At first sight it would appear a brass band from a remote village in North Eastern Romania would have little in common with a guitar player from a small city in South Western Ontario, Canada. However, Adrian Raso from Guelph Ontario and Fanfare Ciocarlia from Zece Prajini have proven with their release, Devil's Tale, music knows no geographic, or any other, types of boundaries. Music is a universal language might sound like a cliche, but in the case of these two musical forces, not only was it literally true as neither spoke the other's tongue, but artistically as well. Each listened and heard what the other had to say and then responded in kind with results that are as spectacular as they are fun. On their own both Fanfare Ciocarlia and Adrian Raso are musicians to be reckoned with, together they are musical synergy of perfect storm proportions. Stand in the whirlwind and be swept off your feet by the result - you'll feel like you're finally awake.

(Article originally published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: Adrian Raso and Fanfare Ciocarlia - Devil's Tale)

January 21, 2014

Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem


There are some subjects I know not to talk to most people about, because they probably won't like what I have to say on the matter. Always having been slightly left of most anarchists I'm supposed to hold to certain opinions in order to not let the side down. Yet, I've always been of the opinion that being an anarchist means you can have whatever opinion you want and not have to toe any party line. Still that doesn't prevent most people I know from coming over all strange when I won't condemn Israel out of hand or give my unconditional support for the Palestinian cause. My problem is that I can see both sides of the argument and refuse to say either side is completely right or wrong.

Of course being of Jewish heritage probably does have some influence over how I feel about the issue. I can't help it, but if you've studied the history of Jews in the Christian world you'll know until the formation of Israel it was one of never being sure when your welcome in any country would all of a sudden run out. However, the fact the political leadership of Israel are enacting policies which have created conditions similar to those Jews suffered under prior to the creation of the state for other people is reprehensible. How can a country which was founded on the premise of equality for all and providing a safe haven for those who desired it do so on the backs of others? The situation as it now stands is so fraught with difficulty it's hard to hold out any hope for peaceful co-existence between the two people of the region.

However, every so often rays of hope do pierce the clouds looming over the region. One of the most recent is the latest recording from the Israeli musician David Broza. For East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem, being released on S-Curve Records January 14 2014, was not only recorded in a Palestinian owned recording studio, Broza recorded with a multinational and multilingual group of musicians including both Israelis and Palestinians. A mix of original material and covers, the album was created as a means of showing the world that it doesn't matter what politicians say or do - there are still people on both sides of the divide who haven't given up hope of region's two people living together peacefully.
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Broza is a gifted guitar player and singer, and both talents are on full display in this recording. One thing interesting to note is this record marks the first time he has written songs in English, instead of his native Hebrew. He has recorded in English before, but in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience he has taken the risk of writing his original songs for this disc in English. He figured, rightly, if he wants an international audience to take notice of his message he needed to record it in an accessible language. In the same vain he brought in American recording artist Steve Earle to act as producer for the release in order to ensure he had a better chance of connecting with a wider audience. Appropriately enough, considering the album's content, he also covers Earle's song "Jerusalem", accompanied by Earle on mandolin and harmonica.

With lines like "That I believe that one fine day all the children of Abraham/Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem", one could say the song is part hope for a better future and part wishful thinking - especially considering the current state of affairs in Israel. However, hope and wishful thinking aren't things to be condemned or put down when people attempt to put them into practical application. In the 1970s Nick Lowe wrote the song "(What's so Funny 'bout) Peace Love & Understanding" as a response to the backlash against the pacifism of the 1960s. Starting with Elvis Costello's recording of it in 1979 on his Armed Forces album, musicians have been utilizing this song to remind us not to give up on hope. "I ask myself/Is all hope lost?/Is there only, pain and hatred, and misery?/And each time I feel like this inside/There's one thing I wanna know:/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understanding?/What's so funny 'bout peace love & understand?"

Broza sings this song as a declaration of intent and as a challenge to those who would dismiss those who have given up on seeing peace in the region. He not only sings this, he also shows us an example of how Palestinian and Israeli can work together in harmony if given the chance. On this song, and on his cover of Yusaf Islam's (Cat Stevens) "Where Do The Children Play", he's accompanied by the Jerusalem Youth Chorus whose membership is made up of both Jewish and Palestinian youth. They are by no means a professional choir, but what they might lack in quality they make up for with their passion and obvious belief in what they are doing. Considering they have only recently celebrated their first anniversary their performance is as remarkable as the example they are showing to the world.

While there are other covers on the album, including a wonderful version of Roger Walter's "Mother", which are equally remarkable, it's the songs Broza has written himself, or collaborated on with others which still are the most powerful. Who he has chosen to collaborate with in this process is actually almost as important as the songs themselves. American/Haitian rapper Wyclef Jean co-wrote and performs on the cover track, "East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem". Whose chorus of "East Jerusalem, West Jerusalem/Shalom, Salam" reminds us how similar the word for peace is in Arabic and Hebrew. While Jean's participation and performance are impressive, the truly amazing collaborations are the multilingual ones Broza has chosen to write and perform with Palestinian musicians.

"Key to the Memory" features lyrics by Broza set to music composed by Palestinian musician Said Murad, who also plays both on the song, while the lyrics are translated into Arabic by Mira Awad who sings on both this tune and another of his originals "Ramallah - Tel-Aviv". Like many of the songs on the disc these two songs feature a line up of musicians from both sides of East/West divide in Jerusalem. However, when it comes to multinational and multilingual collaborations the disc's closing tune, "PEACE Ain't nothing but a word" is the winner hands down. Broza and Earle wrote the English lyrics, Muhammad Mugrabi and Fadi Awad supplied the Arabic and Shaanan Steet the Hebrew - with the latter three also performing their own lyrics - while Earle wrote the music. Part rap, part traditional song, the lyrics are sung and rapped in all three languages.
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As the title implies peace in of itself doesn't really mean that much. What so great about peace if you're not free? "Peace ain't nothin' but a word/Unspoken and unheard/If I can't be free/Ain't any frame of mind/That I'm never gonna find/Gonna save me!" Broza and his collaborators understand peace in Israel is far more complicated than simply getting people to stop killing each other. There has to be mutual recognition and respect for each people's right to exist and be who they are. You can be a slave and live in peace, but what kind of peace is that?

Of all the songs on the disc, this one impressed me the most for its willingness to face up to the hard realities existing in the region. It proves Broza isn't just engaging in wishful thinking or is blind to the social political realities of his homeland. In the album's opening track, "One to Three". he sings "I was born into this reality/I was brought up with a war/That doesn't mean I must accept it/Don't wanna fight no more/Young people from all over/Stray off and cross the lines/It's a dialogue that we're seeking/And we're running out of time". He knows the reality, he's lived it all his life. However, he also knows the only way things can change is if people talk for real about the situation instead of merely mouthing platitudes or decrying what happens.

Any real peace between Israel and Palestine will only be accomplished by the people talking to each other and learning how to overcome their fears and distrust. Projects like Broza's East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem which bring together people from both sides of the divide, Jewish West Jerusalem and Palestinian East Jerusalem, are only one small baby step in the right direction. However, its not only an example of what can be done by people when they put their minds to it, it's also an album of truly wonderful music. Hope comes in many packages, but this is one of the best you'll ever hear.

(Article first published at Empty Mirror as Music Review: David Broza - East Jerusalem/West Jerusalem)

December 17, 2013

Music Review: Neil Young - Live At The Cellar Door


It's sometimes easy to forget how long and varied a career Neil Young actually has had. Between his days with Buffalo Springfield, his work with Crosby, Stills and Nash, his remarkable solo career and his interests beyond music, he's crammed more into the past 45 years than most people can in two lifetimes. His longevity as a performer and an artist can be explained by his willingness to experiment with his music and constantly pushing himself in new directions. Sometimes the results haven't always pleased either critics or fans, but it hasn't prevented him from becoming one of the more respected, if somewhat enigmatic, figures in contemporary popular music.

Over the course of his career Young has given probably more concerts than most of us can even begin to calculate. However, unlike many, he's managed to hold onto control of recordings made of quite a number of these events and has put a great deal of effort into sorting through and remastering them before releasing any of them for public consumption. While an initial box set called Neil Young Archives Archives Vol.1: 1963 - 1972 has already been released containing a number of concerts from the earliest days of Young's career, he's also begun making various other concerts from that time available as solo CD releases. The most recent of them is Neil Young Live At The Cellar Door, available on Warner/Reprise Records, from a 1970 concert he gave in the Washington DC coffee house The Cellar Door.

The recording features Young performing solo on guitar and piano and playing songs from his then new release After The Gold Rush, his 1969 release Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere, a smattering of tracks from his Buffalo Springfield days and a song that wouldn't show up on record until 1972's Harvest, "Old Man". Everybody has their favourite albums by Young, and one of mine has always been After The Gold Rush. So the opportunity to hear him perform songs like, "Tell Me Why", "Only Love Can Break Your Heart", the title track, "After The Gold Rush" and "Don't Let It Bring You Down" solo was what made this disc intriguing.
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I must say I wasn't disappointed. Even without the added production values and the additional instruments used on the studio versions of the songs, in particular "After The Gold Rush", they still retain the captivating power. In fact there is something particularly haunting about hearing him play the title track accompanying himself only with the piano. His always distinctive near falsetto voice stands out in even greater stark relief and makes the song's lyrics all the more striking. I've often wondered where Young's inspiration for the last verse of the song came from, and hearing them in this manner only reinforced my curiosity. "They were flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home in the sun./Flying Mother Nature's/Silver seed to a new home".

There was a science fiction book published in 1960, A Canticle For Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller Jr. set in a world recovering from a nuclear war. The end of the book has a group of monks flying children off to a new home in the stars in space ships. I've often wondered if Young wasn't inspired in part by the book, at least for the final verse of his song. However, no matter what his inspiration, the song remains as plaintive and frightening as it was the first time I heard it many years ago. The simplicity of his delivery and his willingness to let the words simply stand on their own reveals just how strong a song writer he is and remains.

It was also fascinating hear an acoustic version of "Down By The River" from Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Anyone who has heard the studio version knows its one of Young's "grunge" rock and roll songs filled with crunching guitar chords and driving bass and drums. Live versions of the song usually feature an extended guitar solo somewhere in the middle as an exclamation point to the song's rather bleak subject matter. The version on this recording is simply Young on acoustic guitar and no leads. It comes across as a mixture between an old "murder ballad" and a traditional British isles folk song.
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Somehow, what had been a hard rock song was transformed into something which seemed to have its roots in another era. It makes you realize the power inherit in Young's writing. For when they are stripped down the their bare bones his songs not only don't lose anything, they actually gain a resonance very few contemporary artists can hope to match. I've always appreciated the level of intensity Young brings to his performances, whether live or in the studio. Hearing him performing in the intimate setting of this venue makes it obvious how much of himself he puts into to each of his songs and how he doesn't have to rely on amplification for power.

While I've always had an appreciation for Young's intelligence, this recording also gives you an opportunity to enjoy his rather quirky sense of humour. In his introduction to the old Buffalo Springfield tune "Flying On The Ground Is Wrong", which closes the recording, he displays an almost endearing irreverence for the way in which a rock and roll celebrity is supposed to behave. Obviously he's standing next to the grand piano he's going to be playing on the song, because as he's talking he's strumming on the exposed piano wires with his bare hand. He lets his audience know he's been playing piano for about a year now and thought it would be an interesting eccentricity to have a rider included in his performance contracts that a nine foot Steinway grand piano be made available for him at his shows. He then proceeds to tell us the song is about getting high, specifically smoking grass, and how that can be a problem when some of your friends, especially your girl friend, aren't as interested as you are in smoking dope.

The fact that he's idly strumming the piano's wires and giggling periodically while talking makes the whole thing very funny. Yet, there's also a sense at this stage of his career he's not completely comfortable directly addressing the audience. There seems to be a level of shyness about him as if he's not certain people are going to find him funny. However, once he begins singing, all traces of diffidence disappears and he becomes the same confident performer we've been listening to for the whole recording.

Neil Young has been, and continues to be, one of the more remarkable figures in popular music. Not only have very few others matched him in terms of their creative output, he's continually pushed himself to search out new challenges. Live At The Cellar Door is an opportunity to hear him at an early stage in his solo career experimenting with playing material in a manner different to the way in which it was recorded. While he has released other archival material over the last few years which have featured him performing solo it doesn't diminish this recording's value. Not only do you gain new appreciation for his gifts as a songwriter but as a performer as well. Recordings like this one serve to cement his reputation as one of the most important popular music artists of his generation.

(Article originally published at Blorgcritics.org as Music Review: Neil Young - 'Live At The Cellar Door)

November 25, 2013

Music Review: Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer - An Evening With Neil Gaiman And Amanda Palmer


There have been many great artistic couples down through the ages. Now a days there seems to be more celebrity couplings than any real co-joining of artistic talents. So when I first began to hear rumours writer Neil Gaiman and musician Amanda "Fucking" Palmer (also known as AFP) were romantically involved I was intrigued. It felt a little odd to be interested in the love life of two people I've never met, but as they were both individuals whose work I admired and respected I have to admit to a somewhat puerile curiosity. While I tried to tell myself it was different from the way "others" obsessed over the latest celebrity gossip, if I am being perfectly honest with myself, the only difference was I wasn't reading about them in the tabloids, I was reading about their relationship via their twitter feeds and blogs.

When the couple married in 2011 they decided to take what amounts to a busman's holiday, and did a short tour of the North American West coast from Vancouver Canada down to Los Angeles in the States. The performances, billed as "Evenings With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman" were mixtures of song and story telling. After the tour the couple decided to crowd fund a three CD set of the tour culled from the shows. Initially only available to those who participated in the crowd funding venture, An Evening With Amanda Palmer and Neil Gaiman is now available to the general public.

For those somehow unfamiliar with the two principles perhaps a little background is in order. Gaiman is the creator of some of the most inventive fiction written in the past two decades. From his beautifully frightening children's stories, Coralaine and The Graveyard Boy, his pure fantasy, Stardust and Nowhere, to the brilliant study of humanity's relationships with their deities, American Gods, he took genre fiction into the realm of literature. A combination of whimsical humour, a deep understanding of human psychology and a refusal to believe the sky's the limit when it comes to imagination means he has the capacity to both terrify you and leave you breathless with laughter within the pages of the same book.
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Palmer, after a career that included everything from busking as a living statue and being one half of the punk/cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, has established herself as one of today's premier independent musicians. Not only is her music a unique blend of styles, she brings a theatricality to her performances as original as her material. However, what has distinguished her from her contemporaries is her commitment to making and maintaining a connection with the people she creates her music for. From couch surfing from one fan's living room to the next as she made her way around the world playing venues as diverse as the Sydney Opera House to bathrooms for groups of thirty people, to today where she use's social media to take requests on stage during live internet broadcasts of her shows, she continues to build a rapport with her audience few other artists enjoy. More than anything else it was this personal connection with her fans that allowed her to raise over a million dollars when she crowd source funded her most recent album, Theatre Of Evil.

Needless to say the show put on by these two, and the variety of special guests who showed up at the different venues, was not your typical rock and roll concert. How often on a concert CD does the in between song chatter constitute some of the highlights of the recording? The interplay between Gaiman and Palmer is not only intelligent, it's insightful, hilarious and sometimes very personal. However, no matter how much fun they are talking to each other, they are that much more interesting performing their eclectic mix of material.

Palmer has a wealth of her own material to draw upon. You'll hear versions of "Map Of Tasmania", (both a celebration of a woman's body and a critique of censors who have no problem allowing images of human dismemberment but are horrified by depictions of the naked form) "Ukulele Anthem" , "Dear Old House" and the intriguingly titled "Gaga, Palmer, Madonna: A Polemic". The latter being her take on Lady Gaga, pop music and artistic creation in general crammed within the 2 minutes and 53 seconds of the standardized pop song format. However, in typical Palmer fashion, it is the most untypical pop song you'll ever hear. Satiric, sincere and introspective, she not only makes a case for pop music to be considered art, she expresses her own insecurities around performing and critiques the media's reactions to women pop stars. No wonder you'll never hear her songs on the radio.

Ironically enough, while I'd never heard Gaiman read any of his work before listening to this recording, I had heard him sing something he'd written before. Palmer and he, as well as friends Ben Folds and Damian Kulash had produced the album Nighty Night as part of a project called "8 in 8". The object was to go into the recording studio and write, produce and record eight songs in eight hours during a live web cast. While they fell short of their eight song goal they were able to produce six tracks including one sung by Gaiman that's included in this collection, "The Problem With Saints". While Gaiman isn't the singer his wife is, his delivery of this piece is perfect.
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Musically it sounds like it stepped out of a Noel Coward play from the mid 1920s, dixie land jazz meets British music hall, while the lyrics are a biting attack on the single mindedness of fanatics everywhere. Gaiman's half spoken, half sung delivery works perfectly for this type of piece as he can allow the music to provide emphasize for the lyrics and concentrate on communicating the meaning of the words. Listening to this and comparing it with his readings of things like his poem "The Day The Saucers Came" or the story "The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury", you'll notice he takes a similar approach in all three forms of presentation. His primary concern is to allow the words to communicate their meanings to the audience. Unlike many who I've heard read he understands it's just as much a performance as if he were singing, and is able to hold his audience as easily reading solo as when he's being backed by music.

One of the more enjoyable aspects of this three CD set is the wonderful informality of the concerts. The title is very apt as it feels more like you've been invited over to Gaiman's and Palmer's house to spend some time with them than as if you're sitting in the audience. While the invisible fourth wall separating audience from performer is present during some of the actual performing, its definitely not a permanent fixture. Not only do they both talk directly to the audience in their introductions to songs, they put aside about ten minutes for a segment entitled "Ask Neil and Amanda" where they field questions posed to them via Twitter.

The questions range from the silly, "What would you do in the event of a Zombie Apocalypse?" or "Any advice for a shy person". Gaiman's answer to the latter was marrying Amanda Palmer, or somebody equally as outgoing, because that way everybody will be concentrating on the other person and you can on going be shy and nobody will notice. However, what's important about the sequence isn't really the content of their answers, it's the atmosphere created by their casualness in answering them. It not only makes the listener feel more like a participant in a conversation, it also helps you realize how little difference there is between who they are as performers and who they are as people.

Usually when you go see a concert the people on stage hide behind a persona of some kind. Whether it be simply they are the performer and you're the audience or they have a character they assume while on stage, it can't help but erect a barrier between you and them. In the case of Gaiman and Palmer, you soon realize they aren't wearing any masks. As a result, even on the CD, there is an intimacy to this performance like none you've probably ever experienced before in a popular culture setting.

An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer is unlike any other triple CD live concert experience you'll ever have. Not only because of the content, but because of the two remarkable people at the centre of events. There aren't many three CD sets of anything which leave you wanting more, but as the final track on the final CD of comes to an end, you'll find your self wishing it wasn't over. While this is definitely not your conventional concert CD, and perhaps that's why its so compelling, it is one of the best I've ever experienced.

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Music Review: An Evening With Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer)

November 20, 2013

Television Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana


Once upon a time there was pop music. You either liked what you heard or you didn't, and you didn't particularly care about anything else. There were other types of music other people listened to, but that wasn't pop music. There was country and western music which was played by people who dressed funny and whose audience seemed to made up of senior citizens and people with short hair. It was like it was from another world. However as you grew older you discovered something, the rock and roll you listened to had been born out of the strange marriage of country music and blues music.

As you listened to more and more music, the more you realized it was all interrelated. From punk to disco it all could be traced back to the same beginnings. Sure it had split off onto wildly divergent paths, but they all traced their roots back to the same sources; the folk music of the British Isles and African music brought over with slaves. Even with Spain and France having significant impact on certain areas of North America, the African/British influence has remained the dominant force in popular music. You might hear traces of one of the other two, but they are usually laid over the same core everything else is.

As the music industry has sought to target specific markets they've begun pop music was divided up into an ever increasing number of sub-genres. Even though I've been a music critic for eight years now, I still couldn't tell you the difference between half of them. Even more confusing is the way so many people seem to apply different names to what is essentially the same music. One of the more confusing ones that's popped up in recent years has been something called Americana. My initial impression of this genre was it was a catch all category for anything which didn't fit anywhere else as it seemed to include everything from Woody Guthrie style folk/country music to Credence Clearwater Revival rock and roll. Well according to a new television special, Nashville 2.0: The Rise of American, airing on PBS Friday November 22 2013 from 9:00 - 10:00 pm DST (check local listings for air times in your area) as part of its PBS Arts Fall Festival 2013, I wasn't too far off.
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While I found the focus of the hour long show a little too Nashville-centric when it came to discussing the history of what it called Americana, and overly concentrated on its country roots, it doesn't stop the points it makes about the music any less valid. As was pointed out by one of the talking heads - it was hard to keep track of who said what with so many voices chipping in over the course of the show - America is still a young country comparatively speaking and is only now beginning to develop its own sound. This sound, coming out of the melting pot of cultures which have met in America, explains why Americana is such a mixed bag of musical types and genres.

The examples of bands considered by the show to qualify for the genre ranged from a Latin tinged country rock outfit from Miami to the new darlings of pop music Mumford and Sons from England. However, most of the bands on the show seemed to be ones with obvious country or Nashville influences. Combined with the show's crediting of Emmylou Harris, via her association with Graham Parsons, as being one of the primary influences on the current Americana scene, gave the impression that country music is the major factor in the development of this music. Aside from the inclusion of The Carolina Chocolate Drops and Alabama Shakes, they seem to have forgotten any African American influence there could have been on American music. In fact Carolina Chocolate Drops lead vocalist Rhiannon Giddens sort of sidled up to the point with her comment about it being nice to play gigs where the Alabama Shakes are sharing the bill, as they add a little bit of colour to the proceedings.

Now none of this is meant to disparage any of the people mentioned in the show. I've always loved Emmylou Harris, but I think its a bit of a stretch to credit her with being as great an influence as the show suggests. To do a show about this type of music and never once mention four guys from Southern Ontario and their drummer from Arkansas, The Band, is like talking about Opera and not mentioning a guy named Mozart. Parsons and Harris may have tried to bring country music to the pop music crowd in the early 1970s, but The Band remain one of the first outfits who created a melange representing almost every musical culture imported into North America.

While they call the show, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana the real emphasis is on the first part of the title - Nashville. Here the show excelled showing us how country music and Nashville have diversified so it now represents more of America than just a small segment of the population. It was also interesting to see what young bands like The Avett Brothers and Civil War to name only a few, have done with the country form to create a sound of their own. What was especially nice to see was the care these bands were taking with vocal harmonies, arrangements and the crafting of songs in general. It's a refreshing change from listening to the image conscience, celebrity seeking, so called musicians the air waves are usually littered with these days.

The show isn't hurt either be the people chosen to be front and centre as guides for the hour. Roseanne Cash, Buddy Miller, Billy Bragg, and Jim Lauderdale are not only knowledgable and intelligent, they each have an honest to god love and appreciation for the music which you can't help but get caught up in. Talking heads in shows like these can be boring or dry, but these four aren't shy of showing their excitement about an act or letting their emotions slide through. When Cash talks about how country radio stations refused to play her late father's latter recordings she doesn't attempt to hide her scorn for them and her pride in her father for being true to himself.
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It was Lauderdale, though, who had one of the best moments in the show right at the opening when he introduces the word Americana for the first time. He gives a little sly smile, almost as if tipping the audience a wink, and you can almost see the quotes round the word as he says it. He's not trying to undermine its significance but he's letting us know he doesn't take this business of genres too seriously. When he and Miller get together, either working with a younger band for the satellite radio show they host, talking about the music or performing you sense their deep love for what they do.

Hearing and seeing the music through the eyes and ears of these two and the others, and feeling the love they all feel, is what makes this show special. You can't help but be caught up their enthusiasm and excitement over the bands. All of them have been around the music industry for a long time, and with the exception of Bragg, most of that time had been spent in Nashville. What has made them all so excited is the genuine change in country music with the resurgence of people being interested in creating music and not just songs.

While I'm not in agreement with all that's expressed on this show, and I think there were some glaring omissions, Nashville 2.0: The Rise Of Americana does a good job of explaining the genre's seeming lack of boundaries. It also provides viewers a chance to meet some of the new bands who are performing new versions of country music. It may not be a complete picture of Americana music, but its some of the better music being played today. It's real people, making real music and singing about things they believe in. I don't care what you call it, but that's generally a recipe for great music.

(Photo credits: Deborah Feingold)

(Article originally published at The Empty Mirror as Review: Nashville 2.0: The Rise of Americana

November 7, 2013

Music Review: Bob Dylan - The Complete Album Collection Vol. One


How do you write about an icon? What are you supposed to say about somebody whose life and work have already been picked over with a fine tooth comb for the past fifty years? You could probably hurt yourself trying to write something original, and at the end of day discover it was still something somebody had already written. Even if you tried chipping away at his iconic status you'd find others had beaten you to it. While you could try and fall back on being as objective as possible, with people of this stature it's almost impossible not to let your personal opinions affect what you write. They've been such a part a of our culture's fabric for so long there's not going to be many out there who don't have an opinion about them one way or another.

I figure the only way I'm going to be able to get through this review of Legacy Recordings' Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is, aside from describing what it includes, to try and explain how Bob Dylan merits such a breathtaking career spanning retrospective. The only way I'm going to be able to do the latter is by relating my own experiences with his music. Hopefully this will give you some idea of how and what he has meant to the world of popular music since his first album in 1962.

The Complete Album Collection Vol. One contains 43 CDs including all of his studio albums ever released on the Columbia and Sony labels from 1962's Bob Dylan to his 2012 release Tempest. The set also includes six live CDs; Before the Flood (with The Band), Hard Rain, Bob Dylan Live at Budokan, Real Live (the last three newly remastered for this collection) Dylan and the Dead and MTV Unplugged. The final two discs in the box, Sidetracks, are made up of material originally intended for release as bonus features on one of Dylan's greatest hits packages; Greatest Hits Vol. 2, Masterpieces, Biograph, Greatest Hits Vol. 3 or The Best Of Bob Dylan Vol.2, but never released before. If you don't want to buy the 43 CD set, you have the option of purchasing the entire package as a limited, numbered edition harmonica shaped USB stick containing all the music in both MP3 and FLAC formats and a digital version of the hardcover booklet included in the box set. The booklet includes liner notes for each CD written especially for this package.
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With the CDs listing for over $200.00 and the USB stick more than $300.00, it seems like a lot of money to be asking people to shell out. However, even simple math will tell you the sticker price is still cheaper than the cost of even downloading each title separately let alone buying the CDs one at a time. So, if you're looking to pick up the entire Dylan catalogue in one fell swoop, plus some extra's thrown in, this is quite the bargain. However, what is it about Dylan that would make you want to own all of his CDs? What did he do that merits this type of attention?

I'm sure most of you have at least heard the quotes calling him the voice of a generation or the conscience of the people. But how is that relevant to those who weren't born in the post World War ll years, known to most in pop culture as the Baby Boomer or "Boomers" for short? The thing is, others might have slapped those titles on Dylan, but he was never one to really pay attention to what anybody said about him and always carved his own path. Unlike some who have been content to continuously plough the same furrow over and over again Dylan has constantly looked for new ways of expressing himself.

Even going back to his earliest albums you can see he was always more than just your simple folkie. While his earliest albums, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan (1963) and The Times They are a Changin' (1964), owe a debt to his mentor Woody Guthrie, they owe as much to country/blues artists as well. Lyrically he was ranging from the intensity of calling for the death of arms manufacturers and those who sent people of to war in "Masters of War" to being downright silly in "I Shall Be Free". In fact he originally was going to call "Freewheelin'" Bob Dylan's Blues he was so interested in that style of music. Perhaps if he had people might have been less shocked when he showed up with an electric guitar in his hands.

To say the electric sound of Highway 61 Revisited (1965) was considered a betrayal by his fans is an understatement. They booed their hero offstage. From the Newport Folk Festival (although a teacher I had in school says part of the problem was the sound system was so bad nobody could hear anything if you were sitting more than three rows away from the stage) to the Royal Albert Hall in London England and across the UK his fans acted with derision and outright scorn. Today songs from that record are among the ones you're still most likely to hear played on "Classic Music" stations; "Like A Rolling Stone" and the album's title track "Highway 61". However, while those songs are the most well known, others like "Desolation Row", "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" and "Tombstone Blues" are the real heart and soul of the album as they show how far Dylan had wandered lyrically from the days of protest songs. He's started to look at the world through the unique prism of his eyes, creating a refracted and strangely hued world which spoke to people at a gut level instead of being issue oriented.

As you chart Dylan's progress and evolution down through the years based on his musical output you discover he was always changing and progressing. There was the Americana music he started producing in the late 1960s with The Band, which included albums like The Basement Tapes (not released until 1975 but recorded in the late 1960s) John Wesley Harding (1967) and Nashville Skyline (1969). The latter was recorded in Nashville and featured a duet with Johnny Cash on "Girl From The North Country". While everyone around him was trying to blow the walls down with electric guitars and psychedelia, Dylan was once again charting his own path. As always he was more concerned with looking for emotional truth in his material than catering to popular taste or giving the people what they wanted.
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While I had first heard Dylan in 1966 at the tender age of five, hating the sound of his voice as I had just discovered The Beatles through the movie Help and thought that's what pop music should sound like, ten years later the combined effect of 1976's Desire and the live Hard Rain made a convert out of me. Those two albums plus 1975's Blood On The Tracks were nothing short of revelations. While the radio was full of mindless dreck here was a guy singing about ideas, weaving stories and standing up for what he thought was right. I still can't listen to "Hurricane", his song in defence of the wrongly convicted Reuben Carter, without getting chills. While some called the song naive and uninformed, Dylan was proven right when years later Carter was exonerated and found innocent of the murders he was said to have committed.

I don't know what would have happened if I had begun listening to him seriously a couple of years later when he went through his Born Again Christian faze. The lyrics are the most simplistic of his career - straight ahead Christian evangelizing. Musically they might have been interesting with Mark Knopfler and other members of Dire Straights playing on the sessions for 1979's Slow Train Coming, but I still can't listen to either this disc, or the two following Saved (1980) and Shot of Love (1981). I'm sure I wasn't the only one who took some solace in Joni Mitchell's words when she said "It's just a phase Bob's going through".

It wasn't until 1985 when he hooked up with Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers to promote Empire Burlesque and 1986's Knocked Out Loaded I began to take notice of Dylan's work again. Once again he had changed and was going places musically and lyrically challenging. "Brownsville Girl" on the latter, co-written with playwright Sam Shepard, was 12 minutes long and marked his return to the beautiful storytelling of the mid-1970s. This is Dylan at his best. The storyteller and poet who can see and describe the world in ways nobody else can. Whether it's his flights of fancy like "Isis" from Desire or, as he's aged, his explorations of his own mortality, his songs are carefully thought out and intelligent.

What makes Dylan so appealing is his ability to speak to things we all have in common no matter what our age or status. (I think this is what I found most unsettling about the Born Again Christian period, the way it excluded so many where his music had always been so inclusive) Sure you have to listen to it to appreciate it (this isn't mindless music you can put on in the background) and he might make you work to understand what he's saying, but this is a small price to pay for the gems you will unearth in his words. You may not always agree with him or even like everything he's put out, but he is without a doubt one of the major artists of both the 20th and 21st centuries and continues to be so to this day.

Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One is the most comprehensive retrospective of his career released to date. While others may have been equally prolific in their production or been more commercially successful, this set proves there's no one who can match Dylan when it comes to keeping us intrigued through his abilities as a lyricist and his desire to explore different musical styles. For those of you with the cash to afford this set, it will be worth every penny you spend as you'll have at your disposal the most diverse collection of music recorded by one artist in the history of pop music.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Bob Dylan: The Complete Album Collection Vol. One)

November 4, 2013

Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival


History is replete with tales of artists and poets who, after lives of penury and not being recognized for their talent, are revealed as geniuses after their deaths. While some might see this as some sort of posthumous justification for their work, I think they probably would have appreciated it the slightest bit more if they'd been alive to revel in it. There's nothing romantic about being a starving artist and having the money to buy the occasional meal actually makes it easier to paint or write.

One of the significant improvements the world underwent in the 20th century was how it became easier for artists of true talent to achieve recognition. Sure some still get overlooked, that's bound to happen, but innovation and genius are now rewarded far more often then they once were. However, no matter how famous today's popular artists manage to become during their lifetimes, an early death, especially one that occurs under mysterious conditions, is still their best chance at immortality. One only need examine the way people are still obsessed with everyone from Elvis Presley to Sid Visous to see the proof of this. While the former's impact on popular music can't be denied, the only reason for the latter's lasting fame is the sordid and sad manner of his death. (This is nothing against the man personally, as all accounts I've heard say he was a decent enough guy, but he was no musician and didn't even play bass on the one album the Sex Pistols released - Glen Matlock holds that honour)

Of course popular music is littered with tragic deaths from its earliest days. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper dying in a plane crash in 1959 and Sam Cooke shot dead in a motel room in 1964. However it wasn't until the late 1960s the death toll really began to add up; Brian Jones 1969, Janis Joplin 1970, Jim Morrison 1971 and Jimi Hendrix 1970. While Jones' career was on the wan at the time, he'd just been fired/quit The Rolling Stones, the other three were at the zenith's of their talent and popularity. While both Morrison and Joplin were undoubtedly talented individuals, with their own unique abilities as vocalists and lyricists, it's Hendrix's body of work which has stood the test of time; continuing to be appreciated and grow in stature.
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In the years immediately following Hendrix's death large numbers of poorly recorded and mastered records were sold by unscrupulous people looking to cash in on his popularity. While they might have resulted in some quick cash for a few people, they didn't do Hendrix's reputation any favours. Thankfully recent years have seen a concentrated effort from the people at Legacy Recordings and Hendrix's family to correct this problem through a series of remastered re-issues and previously unreleased recordings. The latest of these to come down the pipe is ,Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival. To be honest I'd never heard of the Miami Pop Festival, but it was to have been a weekend long pop music festival put on by the same guys who staged the Woodstock festival a year later, but the second day was rained out.

While Hendrix and The Experience (Mitch Mitchell drums and Noel Redding bass were the other two thirds of the band) had only recently started to tour America, they had already graduated from being the opening act for the Monkees (and they say the musician were doing strange drugs - what kind of trip must the guy at Warner Brothers been on who suggested that pairing) which lasted all of three gigs, and had gone on to headlining bigger and bigger venues. By the time they showed up in Miami they were considered one of the top concert draws in America. Hendrix's reputation as a genius on the guitar had spread like wild-fire. In the pre-internet days word of mouth was the most efficient means of communication, and the word has spread, this guy was unreal.

The Experience played a morning and an afternoon set on the Saturday, and were supposed to play another set on the rained out Sunday. The disc contains their complete set list from the opening show plus two tracks from the afternoon show the same day. With only two studio albums under their belts at this time, Are You Experienced and Axis Bold As Love, they didn't have a wealth of material to draw upon, so both sets would have been nearly the same. In fact, a quick glance at what's included on the disc shows a lot of familiar song titles. "Purple Haze", "Hey Joe", "Foxey Lady", "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and others we've long grown to recognize as staples of Hendrix's live performances.

While Hendrix's reputation is based on his ability to improvise and his intricate and elaborate solos, this gig shows another side of him and his band. Aside from a ten minute version of "Red House", most of the tracks are about the same length as the studio versions of the songs. Yet, as far as I'm concerned, this shows off his abilities just as well as any of his pyrotechnical solos ever did. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard "Purple Haze" and "Hey Joe". Yet aside from the studio versions of the song, I've never heard him play either song the same way twice, and this gig was no different. Each time he manages to put some new flourish or twist into his playing which changes the tune's flavour or adds a different texture to a line or a verse.
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Hearing him play the tracks fairly straight also gives you a new appreciation for his ability to integrate his leads into the rhythm of a song. Most guitar players simply let the beat of the song fall by the wayside when they play their leads either leaving it to a second guitarist or his bass and drummer to hold things together. Somehow Hendrix is able to do both at the same time. Sure there are times he does the same types of leads as other guitarists, but listen to him as he's playing the short fills between vocal choruses. He adds ornamentation to almost everything he does yet somehow t without it becoming distracting or detrimental to a song's overall sound. Like the painter who knows when another daub of paint will kill his masterpiece, Hendrix always seemed to know exactly when one more note would have been one too many.

Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival is the latest in a series of remastered re-issues or previously unreleased material to have been released in the past few years. Available as either a CD or a limited edition double LP it offers further proof of why Hendrix's reputation hasn't diminished over the years. In fact, as more and more material is released for public consumption not only does his reputation grow, but his place in history is solidified. You may not be able to tell it from simply listening to this recording, but when added to the rest of his catalogue it grows hard to argue with the statement he was one of the most important guitarist in popular music, and remains so more then 40 years after his death.

A version of this review first appeared at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Jimi Hendrix Experience - Jimi Hendrix Experience: Miami Pop Festival)

October 23, 2013

Music Blu-ray Review: Various Performers - The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert


To be perfectly honest I was never a big fan of either Queen or the band's lead singer Freddie Mercury. However, they were really good at what they did and I could respect them for that. While others might make claims on their behalf, they made no bones about what they were or what they did. They were the last great glam rock band. When Bowie took off his glitter paint post Ziggy Stardust, they were the ones who carried on the spirit of glam - and they did a great job of it. Musically they were over the top without ever forgetting they were a hard rock band at heart. As far as flamboyance went, it didn't matter what the rest of the guys in the band did, Mercury was flamboyant enough on his on to light up stadiums all over the world.

There's also no denying the band and Mercury were incredibly popular. Not only were they able to sell out arenas around the world for their whole career, how many other bands can you name who played a key role in a mystery novel's plot? (If you're a Queen fan you have to read Chris Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away) Therefore, it's not much of a surprise that when Mercury passed away from AIDS related symptoms in 1991, the band would want to do something both in honour of his memory and to raise money to help combat AIDS. In 1992 the surviving members of the band, Brian May, John Deacon and Roger Taylor, got together with a bunch of friends and thousands of screaming fans to hold a tribute concert to their deceased front man. While various versions of the concert have been released over the years, Eagle Rock Entertainment have now released the penultimate package of The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert on Blu-ray, including performances not released before now and all sorts of extras as well.
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The concert was divided into two parts. The opening acts featuring Metallica, Def Leopard, Guns N' Roses, Bob Geldof and various other bands playing their own tunes and covering some Queen numbers, and the main show featuring the surviving members of Queen being joined by guests to sing a string of their greatest hits and some of the guests' tunes as well. With performers ranging from Liza Minnelli to Axl Rose appearing on stage (And Elizabeth Taylor popping up to make a speech about AIDS awareness) there was enough variety of styles and sound to please all tastes. While I could easily done without the likes of George Michael and Lisa Stanford or some of the hard rockers who also graced the stage (sorry, never even heard of half of them) there were enough great performances from the rest to make it interesting.

Watching Roger Daltrey run onto stage swinging his microphone like a lariat you'll find it hard to believe the bugger had aged a day since Woodstock in 1969. Daltrey has always been the consummate performer, and his rendition of "I Want It All" was just another example of how great a showman he is. Watch how he not only uses his mic as a stage prop but how he positions it to control his singing volume. He knows he can project his voice into the stratosphere, so when he's harmonizing with the rest of the band, he's pulling the mic away from his mouth to avoide overwhelming their voices in the mix. Unlike some singers who think they have to deep throat a microphone Daltrey lets it work for him and his voice.

It was also Daltrey who seemed to understand the most what the loss of Mercury meant to the other members of Queen. One of the special features included on the Blu-ray was a documentary made about the concert on its tenth anniversary. While nearly all the performers who appeared on stage were interviewed, Daltrey was one of the few who didn't just mutter some platitude about "what a loss it was" in regards to Mercury's passing. He talked about how he still hadn't recovered from the death of The Who's former drummer Keith Moon - how bands were like families - and how raw the wound must still be for the surviving members of Queen. Daltrey is not what anybody would call sentimental - he's always struck me as a street kid who got lucky by becoming a rock star instead of a petty criminal - so when he says something like that he means it.

Back on stage, one of the better performances was Roger Plant camping it up for his version of "Crazy Thing Called Love". In any images I'd seen of Plant prior to this show he'd always come across as somebody who took himself a little to seriously. Seeing him starting to loosen up and have such a good time on stage was really cool. You can see he's starting to change his approach to music and it's like a foreshadowing of what's going to happen with his career in the future.
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While those two guys were cool, they weren't the highlight of disc as far as I was concerned. Watching David Bowie and Annie Lennox singing "Under Pressure" is almost worth the cost of the disc on its own. Lennox looks like she stepped off the cover of one of Bowie's old glam rock albums - white Kabuki make up with a racoon mask of black over her eyes - and wearing a stark grey and black dress. With Bowie doing his thin white duke thing, the visual contrast is amazing. Listening to how their voices intermingle was a joy. They both can run up and down the scale without any apparent strain and proceed to take turns singing low and high harmonies. It was not only great music it was great theatre - which is after all what Queen was about.

However, if you want to talk about contrasts and great theatre, the best was saved for near the end of the concert. I'd be hard pressed to think of a more unlikely duo to share the stage than Elton John and Axl Rose, but that's exactly what they did for a extremely intelligent and interesting version of the Queen classic "Bohemian Rhapsody". John opened the song, doing all the soft parts leading up to pseudo choral bit in the middle. Instead of trying to recreate that live, the part of the original video for the song where Queen sang it was broadcast over the stadium's Video screens. Then, without missing a beat, the live band took over for the hard rock segment of the song, with Rose doing the lead vocals. He and John came together centre stage for the song's finale. It was a perfectly executed piece of theatre and if they had ended the show right there it would have been a fitting tribute to what Queen had been.

Unfortunately, and this is probably why I was never a big fan of Queen, they had to take it one step more and do a couple of more songs, including "We Will Rock You" with Axl Rose and a grande finale of Liza Minnelli leading everybody in "We Are The Champions". It all felt like a bit of a let down after the great performance Rose and John had given. I understand those were two of the band's biggest hits and they wouldn't want to leave them out, but they should have figured out something else. I also don't understand having Minnelli singing the closing number either. She might have had a great and powerful voice at one time, but by 1992 she was a mere shadow of what she had once been and she had all the charisma of a wet blanket.
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I had briefly mentioned the disc's special features earlier. While the documentary about the concert doesn't offer much more than people muttering the usual platitudes you'd expect to hear, the included footage of Annie Lennox and David Bowie rehearsing their performance is a treat. They've also included some nice information about the Mercury/Phoenix Trust and stills gallery from the concert. While this is a Blu-ray recording, it's important to remember the original concert was shot in 1992 and neither the sound nor the audio are going of a quality you're used to. That being said, the remastering job done on both is quite amazing as the quality was nearly as good as anything you'd buy recorded today.

The net proceeds from the sales of this disc are donated to the the Mercury Phoenix Trust, and after reading about the work they do I'd say they are more than worthy of being supported. They are working directly with grassroots frontline organizations in the places the disease is still impacting the
most. With prostitutes and the poor in both Africa and South East Asia, where they not only have to work against poverty but government antipathy and a serious lack of medical infrastructure. They are funding projects which are actually making a difference to people's lives on a day to day basis, and that's the best thing an organization like this can do.

Watching this disc makes you realize how much of what Queen was as a band was due to Freddie Mercury. The songs just don't have the same qualities they did when sung by anybody else. You need to have the flamboyance, the arrogance and the ego of a person like Mercury in order to bring them off. In the hands of other people they just sound like any other rock song, but somehow he was able to turn them into massive hits. Whether you liked the band or not, after watching this tribute to Mercury it's impossible not to realize how much of an impact the man had on popular music during his career. For Queen fans who don't already own a recording of this concert, it is a must have.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray Review:Various Performers -The Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert)

September 25, 2013

Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987


I used to go to a lot of concerts when I was younger, and by that I mean a teenager and into my early twenties. The concerts were events, a shared experience you had with a group of people who were all there for the same reason. There was something about seeing the music live which made the experience more vital and inspiring than listening to it on record. I don't know if I've changed and concerts are still the same, but I won't go to one anymore unless I'm sure they will be in a controlled environment where people's focus will be on the stage. For under any other circumstances it seems like the audience is far more concerned with their portable devices or talking than paying attention to the person or band performing. These types of conditions make it almost impossible to enjoy a live concert the way I once did.

All of which makes me incredibly grateful for recent advances made in audio/visual technology. Now not only can I watch a performer I really appreciate without putting up with a lot of bullshit from people around me, the sound and visual quality are such they're probably better than what you'd find at most venues anyway. Even more exciting is the fact this same technology is allowing artists to revisit recordings of older concerts and remaster them digitally so we at home can experience them in ways we weren't able to before. Not only is this enjoyable, it also gives you a new appreciation for the group or individual's talent. This was brought home to me by the recent release of the Blu-ray/DVD package from Peter Gabriel Live In Athens 1987 on the Eagle Rock Entertainment label.

Instead of the usual dual format package where they send you the same item on both Blu-ray and DVD, this set is two distinct discs. The Blu-ray is the concert footage culled from three shows Gabriel gave over three nights in Athens of 1987 and the DVD, called Play, is made up of videos of Gabriel's songs from the last 25 years re-edited and mastered for 5.1 surround sound. While Gabriel selected which videos would be included in this collection, the majority of the re-mastering was done by Daniel Lanois.
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Gabriel took a much more hands on approach when it came to the concert footage. Originally the footage shot in Athens had been included in a movie called P.O.V.. Produced by Martin Scorsese the original film was more of a documentary about the 1987 tour as the concert footage intercut with film Gabriel had shot of life on the road off and back stage. For this HD remastering he went back to the original three days worth of film shot during the concerts and put together just over two hours worth of a concert movie. The film also includes the previously unreleased performance by the great Senegalese artist Youssou N'dour and his band Le Super Etoile de Dakar, who opened for and performed with Gabriel during the tour.

In 1987 Gabriel was probably at the pinnacle of his popularity and was touring to promote his most popular album to date, So, which remains the biggest selling album of his solo career. The three days of concerts in Athens marked the end of what was a world tour, so he, the band and the technical people had had plenty of time to work out all the kinks. While you might expect them to have been tired and maybe going through the motions somewhat after having been on the road for so long, nothing could be further from the truth. Maybe they had an extra adrenaline boost because these were the final nights of the tour, or perhaps they played every gig on the tour with this level of intensity, but this show is an emotionally charged phenomenon sizzling with energy from N'dour's opening note to Gabriel's final encore.

If you never had the chance to see N'dour and his band when they were in their prime their five song set will be a revelation. His set is a wonderful example of the way African popular music at the time combined popular music from other cultures with their own to create a spirited and exciting sound. Of course seeing them is twice as exciting as hearing them as they incorporate dance and playacting into their performance. The combination of N'dour's soaring soprano voice and the polyrhythmic sound of his band made for a performance that was not only a celebration of music but the joy of being alive as well.

However, this is Gabriel's show, From the moment he and the band, Tony Levin (bass) David Rhodes (guitar) Manu Katche (drums) and David Sancious (keyboards) open the show with "This is the Picture/Excellent Birds" (a song written with Laurie Anderson) you feel like you've entered into an exciting new world of sound, light and dance. For this isn't your ordinary rock concert with guys standing in a row playing. Nor is it the overblown effects some bands use to hide the inadequacy of their material. Instead what you have is a carefully choreographed and orchestrated show down to the smallest of hand gestures.

Gabriel uses his stage lightening not just for mood. It is almost a dance partner as he uses shadow, colour and light to help him weave the various stories he's telling or to accent a song's emotional content. His concerts run the gamut of taking us into the shadows where our darkest secrets lie (He introduces "Shock The Monkey" as a song about jealousy) to hope, "Games Without Frontiers" his anthem for peace and the joy of life's simple pleasures, "Solsbury Hill". On the latter the stage is bathed in clean white light and Gabriel, Levin and Rhodes almost skip around the immense stage in exuberant, yet simply choreographed, movements.
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However, it was on the song "Mercy Street" where he put both technology and choreography to their most daring usage. Not only did the lights play a part in the movement of the song. the lighting equipment itself became part of an elaborate dance with Gabriel. A portion of his lighting equipment was on a series of mobile crane like arms which could be raised, lowered, contracted and extended seemingly effortlessly. During "Mercy Street" these structures swung over the stage and then pressed down in what looked like attempts to crush Gabriel as he cowered under them. At times he would thrust the lights away from him and they would swing back up into the sky, only to come plunging back down again as he tried to stand. Not only was it an impressive display of coordinating the technical aspect of a show with the performance, it shows the depth of Gabriel's stage craft and his willingness to push the envelope of invention in all directions.

Never the less, all the technical wizardry and all the kinetic energy in the world would still be an empty shell if there wasn't a heart beating inside of, and an intellect controlling, it. In this case it's the heart and mind of one of the most passionate and intelligent performers in popular music. While those moments when Gabriel is in motion are without doubt very exciting, it's when he's still he's his most powerful. In 1987 South Africa was still under white minority rule and Nelson Mandela was still in jail. Apartheid and all the crimes committed against humanity caused by it was still a fact of life and the name Steven Biko was still emblematic for the mistreatment of Black Africans everywhere in South Africa. Biko was a school teacher and non-violent protester against apartheid who died in police custody September 12 1977 at the age of 30.

Gabriel wrote the song "Biko" in 1980 in commemoration of the man and what he believed in. The lyrics are simple and to the point, describing how he was found dead in his prison cell, and then repeating his name over and over again as part of a chant played over the sound of keyboard synthesized bagpipes and simple drum. Usually Gabriel stands stalk still in the centre of the stage to sing this song, and on this tour he closed all his shows with it, with his only movement raising his fist straight in the air. In Athens he was joined on stage by Youssou N'dour and members of his band for the chant. There is such power in this man and in this moment, that I defy anyone with a heart to listen to this song, especially this version, without shedding at least one tear. Although Biko's plight might be in the past, the song resonates with such power listening to it being performed today, 26 years later, not only reminds us of past horrors, but the fact people are still being kept in conditions similar to those which led to Biko's death today.

Peter Gabriel is the consummate performer. Not only does he understand how to marry technology and art like few others, he doesn't need technology to make his music great. He only uses it to enhance the experience for those watching not to make up for any deficiencies in his work. Live In Athens 1987 is a perfect example of this in action. Both the Blu-ray of the concert and the collected videos on the DVD are all the proof anyone will ever need. This is a case of technology finally catching up to an artist's vision rather than the other way round.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Blu-ray/DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - Live In Athens 1987)

September 24, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls


Look at those who've endured the longest in popular music and you'll notice the thing they all have in common is they know who they are and what they are capable of. The really good ones have managed the fine art of both staying within their comfort zone musically and finding a way of not sounding like they're going through the motions. They may not deviate too much from what made them successful in the first place, but neither do they ever seem to stagnate or become boring. With some it's the force of their personality which keeps them interesting while others simply have a quality which makes them endlessly endearing to generation after generation of fans.

Since his career started back in the 1950s Willie Nelson has written some of the most iconic songs in country music ("Crazy"), had a crossover hit on popular music charts before the word was even fashionable ("Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be Cowboys") and put out albums of everything from jazz standards to pop songs from the 1940s. He is beloved by everybody from the farmers whose plight he raises awareness of with his annual "Farm Aid, to country music fans, bikers, hippies and millions of people all over the world. He has recorded albums with artists from almost every genre of music, and not matter how incongruous the pairing might have seemed at first, the music has always worked.

You think a guy who just turned 80 would be slowing down now, but not Nelson. He recently signed with a new record label, Sony Music's Legacy Recordings, and his third album with them, To All The Girls, is being released on Tuesday September 24 2013. Each of the 18 songs on the disc features Nelson in a duet with, as the title suggests, a different female singer. Reading down through the list of singers who have joined him for these duets is like looking over a Who's Who of country music. From great old ladies Loretta Lynn ("Somewhere Between") Dolly Parton ("From Here to the Moon and Back") and Emmylou Harris ("Dry Lightning") to new stars Carrie Underwood ("Always On My Mind") and Shelby Lynne ("Till the End of the World").
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The roster isn't limited to women from country music either as he's also joined by another ageless wonder, Mavis Staples for a rendition of the gospel classic "Grandma's Hands" and Norah Jones on "Walkin". The one thing all of these women have in common is they each have their own distinct style. It's highly unlikely anybody is ever going to confuse Parton, Lynn, Staples or any of them with anyone else. Yet such is Nelson's ability, no matter who he's performing with, it sounds like they were made for each other.

What's always amazed me about Nelson has been his ability to sing even the most sentimental and contrived song yet somehow or other make it emotionally honest. There's something about his delivery and the genuineness of his voice which can turn the most hackneyed piece of pop or country music into sincere emotional expression. As a result, while there are some singers on this recording who I normally wouldn't listen to as I find their singing contrived, paired with Nelson I enjoyed their performances. Maybe they absorbed something of his integrity, or perhaps his talent is so vast it can cover up another's deficiencies. Whatever the reason, no matter who he's teemed with on this recording the results are just fine.

Of course some of the performances are better than others and to my mind there were a couple in particular that stood out. The combination of Nelson and Mavis Staples on the previously mentioned "Grandma's Hands" is probably the highlight of the disc. These are two of the great voices of popular music and to hear them together is to hear the form elevated to art. Neither of them have an insincere bone in their bodies and it comes through with every note and word they sing. The contrast between his mellow baritone and her throaty growl is amazing. They turn this very simple song into a testimony on the power of a grandmother's love to inspire somebody for a lifetime. Like all the best gospel music it will move you and make you feel better about yourself after listening to it whether you believe in the message or not.
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Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton probably aren't to everyone's taste. Both still carry the twang of their Tennessee backwoods upbringing in their voices like a flag proclaiming their heritage. However, unlike those who might try and affect this accent and end up being annoying, in the mouths of these two grand old ladies of country music its the sound of authenticity making their words ring true. Listening to them partnered with Nelson and the mix of their respective voices is like hearing the roots of popular music come alive in song. There's a power in each of their respective voices which is capable of sending a shiver up your spine. Hearing them together is as fine a treat as you could ask for.

I only recently discovered Shelby Lynne and was impressed with her the first time I listened to her. So I was happy to see Willie had included her on this disc. The version the two of them do of "Till the End of the World" is both touching and interesting. Lynne has one of those great throaty voices which gives all her material character. She sounds like a real human being singing about issues which mean something to her. The combination of her and Willie's smooth as properly aged whisky voice makes for a great meeting of sounds and turns the song into something special.

Willie Nelson is 80 years old, but you'd never know it listening to him sing. While some people's voices become rougher as they age his has become increasingly velvety. Like the best of that material it has a surprising amount of texture. So, while it laps against your ear like liquid gold its has enough of an edge to it to give it emotional depth. Hearing his voice mix and contrast with the various women accompanying him on this collection of songs is a reminder of what an incredible talent he is. For no matter who he works with, or what they sound like, he sounds like he was meant to sing with them. This is a wonderful album of great material performed with style and grace you'll listen to over and over again.

Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nelson - To All The Girls)

September 17, 2013

Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab


It's interesting how in a time of crises there can sometimes be an unexpected silver lining. The March 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by terrorist groups intent on creating a fascist religious state based on their perverted version of Islam saw an attempt by the invaders to outlaw music. In a country like Mali where music is one of their most prized natural resources this was not just an attack on people's social life, it was tantamount to cultural genocide. Many of the various ethnic groups, both Berber and African, rely heavily on music for preserving their traditions and heritage. If the attempt to kill music had been successful people would have been cut off from their histories and thousands of years worth of culture would have been obliterated.

While Malians of all types were forced to flee, it has been reported over 400,000 refugees from Northern Mali sought shelter in neighbouring countries and the southern regions of Mali, musicians were specifically targeted by the invaders. Houses were raided, instruments and equipment destroyed and lives threatened. The annual Festival au Desert, ironically started to celebrate peace in the region, which attracts musicians and audiences from all over the world to Timbuktu in Northern Mali in a celebration of music and cultural exchange, was cancelled due to the danger of travel and worries of fundamentalist attacks on both international and local artists.

However, even before the cessation of hostilities in Northern Mali was finalized, the musicians of Mali were showing their commitment to both their art and their country. The past six or seven months has seen the release of a number of recordings by various members of the community which have not only celebrated the role of music in their society, but have been replete with messages of tolerance and respect for diversity. Even more exciting is the effort being made by those outside the country to increase awareness of the region's music beyond its borders. While the Kel Tamashek bands like Tinariwen and various other individuals are known outside the country, there remains thousands of equally talented groups and individuals waiting to be discovered. Khaira Arby has long been acclaimed as the Nightingale of Northern Mali, but probably very few outside her native country have ever heard of her. A new release, Timbuktu Tarab, on the independent American based Clermont Music label, will give audiences in North America the opportunity to discover this amazing talent.
Cover Timbuktu Tarab - Khaira Arby.jpg
When listening to Ms. Arby's music those familiar with the various styles from the region will almost immediately notice how she incorporates many of them into her sound. The trance electric guitar of the Kel Tamashek (commonly known as the Touareg), the traditional instruments of the African people (the ngoni and traditional violin) and the blues of the great Ali Farke Toure- her cousin and the person she credits as her biggest influence. The other thing you'll notice is she doesn't sing in just one language. As a mixed blood Berber and Sonrhai she draws upon both cultural traditions for not only her music, but her lyrics as well.

A praise song about the bravery, the values and the grandeur of the Kel Tamashek, "Sourgou" is sung in both their Tamashek language and the language of the Sonrhai. However, she not only sings in local dialects, she also sings in what many consider the language of Islam, Arabic. Interestingly enough the two songs on the disc she sings in this language are "Salou", a prayer to Allah, and "Tarab", basically a prayer for Mali. In it she pleads for unity and patience among all the peoples of the country and cites the name of a warrior hero from neighbouring Mauritian as inspiration for them to keep on fighting for their future.

Now I don't speak any of the languages she sings in, but the good people behind this disc's release have offered capsule summaries of each song's content and subject matter so we can at least know what she's singing about. While it won't help you understand the lyrics, it will give you some insight into Ms. Arby's significance to the region and how she attempts to reach as many people as possible. It will also give you an indication of her fearlessness and compassion as she'll sing about topics you don't often hear mentioned in songs from Africa.

"Fereine" is a song condemning the practice of female excision (the female version of circumcision or as its medically known Female Genital Mutilation) which is still commonly practiced through out the world. For a female singer to bring this up in song takes an incredible amount of bravery as its not something normally talked about let alone sung about publicly. But this isn't the only social issue she addresses. In "Youba" she addresses the conditions facing those working in salt mines. The song talks about how they return from the mines hungry, thirsty and exhausted and the general hardships facing the miners.
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While other musicians from the region might sing about conditions facing their own people, or sing songs which pass on their cultural traditions, few who I've come across up to now address the broader social and cultural issues facing Malians as a whole. Ms. Arby is able to look past individual tribal aspirations and realize that for the country to succeed as a whole everybody has to respect each other and work together. She understands how the various people of the region take pride in their history and culture and the need for them to be respected and honoured, but she also believes there is room for all of them under the umbrella of Mali.

As I said earlier musically Ms. Arby's music draws upon the various traditions of the region. However, like others she's been influenced by Western pop music as well. Blues and rock and roll from America are the biggest influences one can hear in her music. However, it's her voice which will stay with you the most. Not only is she able to communicate the depth of her feelings for whatever subject she is singing about, she has amazing vocal control. How many vocalists do you know who are equally comfortable singing up tempo rock and roll, gospel, folk and jazz? If you can imagine a mixture of Aretha Franklin, Billie Holiday and Annie Lenox you'll have an indication of her vocal prowess.

The past year and a half has seen the country of Mali go through some of the most brutal fighting imaginable and its people deal with truly horrible conditions. With nearly half a million people made refugees and the continued threat of terrorist attacks from the groups who staged the uprising, it may take years for the country to completely recover. However, the attempt to stamp out music in Northern Mali not only failed, but has resulted in what looks to be a renewed effort to bring the artists of the region to the rest of the world. This is giving us the opportunity to hear wonderful artists like Khaira Arby. She's one of the great singers of her country and an amazing talent. For anyone with an appreciation for great vocals and great music, this is a record not to be missed.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Khaira Arby - Timbuktu Tarab)

August 28, 2013

Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough


There's a saying, "Old soldiers never die, they just fade away". If old rockers keep putting out albums it seems we're going to have come up with something similar to say about old musicians. While some of them probably should have hung up their gear ages ago, others seem to epitomize Dylan Thomas' famous line of refusing to go gentle into that good night. While they may not have the vocal range they once did or be quite as quick moving up and down the fret board of their guitars, they still play with passion and soul. These are the type of guys you could visualize spontaneously combusting on stage rather than their lights slowly dimming.

Stephen Stills and Barry Goldberg are veterans of the pop music wars with both of them first coming to public attention in the1960s. Goldberg is probably not as well known, he was part of the Chicago electric blues scene of the 1960s and was keyboardist with Electric Flag and Bob Dylan when he was booed off stage at the Newport Folk Festival in 1964. Stills is of course internationally known for both his solo work and the bands he was part of, Buffalo Springfield and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young to name two. Either one of them has been probably playing music for more years then Kenny Wayne Shepherd has been alive. However, that hasn't stopped them from teaming up with the younger man to form the new blues/rock band The Rides whose new recording, Can't Get Enough, is being released on 429 Records August 27 2013.

There aren't many older musicians who would willingly share the stage with a young blood like Shepherd who could easily leave them in the dust. Conversely there aren't many up and coming guitar heroes who would think playing with a couple of old guys wasn't just a waste of time. So just the fact the three of them have joined forces on what seems to be a semi-permanent fashion says a lot about their commitment to music. It's that dedication to their art which takes the fairly standard blues rock numbers on this disc and makes them something a little extraordinary.
Cover Can't Get Enough The Rides.jpg
You hear the type of music found on this disc played in venues all around the world by musicians of all calibers. Ninety per cent of the time this type of blues/rock isn't going to sound much different no matter who plays it. It takes a lot of work to make it sound bad, but at the same time it takes some pretty special musicians to made it sound special. While the first song on this disc, "Mississippi Road House", is a fairly typical number of the type, the lyrics about the life of a bar band musician have a certain poignancy which elevates it beyond just another blues based rock song, Anybody who's ever been in a large roadhouse watching a band sweat on stage as they try and compete with large screen TVs for an audience's attention will appreciate what its expressing.

One of things you'll notice about the recording is the immediacy of the sound. This is because the band made the wise decision to record themselves live. Rather than each of them laying down their parts separately in little glass booths while listening to everybody else on headphones, they played together in the studio, only laying down the vocal tracks later. This allows Still and Shepherd as the guitar players to feed off each other's work. It gives their songs the spontaneous quality this type of music needs to be at its best. Goldberg's keyboard complimenting what their doing only works as well as it does because he's in the room anticipating what the two guitars are going to do next. There's a sense of unity in their playing you don't often find in studio recordings.

Of the ten tracks on the disc four are originals Goldberg, Shepherd and Stills wrote for the disc, five are covers and one, the albums closing track "Word Game" Stills wrote in the late 1960s for Buffalo Springfield but never recorded. The covers are an interesting mix of classic blues numbers, "Talk To Me Baby" by Elmore James and "Honey Bee" by Muddy Waters, and rockers, "Search And Destroy" by Iggy and The Stooges and "Rockin' In The Free World" by Still's old buddy Neil Young. Hearing Still's sing the latter is an interesting experience, especially if you're familiar with any of the work he and Young did together in the past. For, although it sounds substantially different Young's version, it stills sounds right. It's like Stills has an affinity for Young's material based on their years of friendship which allows him to make the song effortlessly his own, while still honouring its original intent.
The Rides - Stephen Stills, Barry Goldberg Kenny Wayne Shepherd.jpg
Stills and Shepherd split the vocal duties on the disc. While Shepherd's voice, by dint of age and not having seen quite as much hard living, is stronger and has more of a range, Stills' ability to find the emotional honesty at a song's core remains undamaged. His raw passion on "Rockin" In The Free World" and "Word Game" give both songs the fire needed to make them work. Maybe somebody else could have made them sound better, but he's able to bring them alive and get their meaning across in a way few can.

Normally on an album of this type the spotlight shine brightest on the guitar players. While in this case the playing of Stills and Shepherd would actually justify them being the centre of attention for the entire album, it is a trio and Goldberg's keyboard is given its rightful place in the mix. While that doesn't mean songs are tagged with unnecessary piano or organ solos. his presence is felt on almost every song. Whether playing the role of lead rhythm instrument as the two guitars exchange leads or giving the songs an extra layer of texture, Goldberg's playing is integral to every song. He gives the more traditional blues songs that extra bit of melancholy needed by smoothing out the rough edges of the guitar laden sound while at the same time adding an urgency to harder numbers. There's only so much guitars, bass and drums can do on their own without becoming somewhat predictable and Goldberg adds the extra element required to ensure the sound never falls into a rut.

It would be easy for older players like Stills and Goldberg to rest on their laurels and quietly fade away as guys who were famous once upon a time. Instead here they are putting themselves out on the front lines again playing with somebody who could very easily make them look old and tired. Instead, they prove, at least in their case, old rockers don't fade away, they just find new ways of keeping themselves inspired. The combination of Shepherd, Stills and Goldberg, the old and the new, could be seen as the torch being passed from one generation to the next. However in this case it represents a meeting of equals who aren't out to prove anything except how much they love what they do.

(Article originally published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: The Rides - Can't Get Enough)

June 28, 2013

Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride


The road trip has taken on almost iconic status in American pop culture. From Jack Kerouac's On The Road to quasi philosophical works like Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance the road trip has come to be equated with both searching for personal identity and the quest to discover the truth about America. Part of the popular appeal for this type of story is they usually combine America's love for the automobile and their love of the rugged individual. However, no matter what they find out about themselves, most of those who make the pilgrimage in search of America discover its a country whose identity changes from region to region.

While many are loath to admit America has a multitude of faces singer song writer Willie Nile's latest release, American Ride, on Loud and Proud Records not only recognizes this fact but celebrates it. In some ways this album is Nile's personal road trip as he not only sings about America but about personal discoveries he's made during the course of his journey.

Nile has always managed the delicate task of fusing optimism with a realistic view of the world around him and this album is no exception. The opening track, "This Is Our Time", exhorts listeners to make the most of the opportunities presented to them enjoy the ride of life as much as possible. (Note: Track order in this review is based on an early promotional version of the disc and may differ slightly from the final release) Using the image of a train waiting in the station as a metaphor for life and encouraging people not to miss their ride isn't exactly original. However, as with all of Nile's songs intent and emotional honesty are what really matter and no one has ever sounded more sincere in their encouraging of others to live as fulfilling a life as possible.
Cover American Ride Willie Nile.jpg
Yet Nile isn't blind to the harsher realities of life. However, he doesn't sing sentimental songs about the troubles of the world, instead he stares them straight in the eye and tells them what he thinks of them. "Holy War" is directly addressed to anyone who uses God to justify killing. Whether suicide bombers or those pointing a gun at somebody else because it's God's will his opinion of them is succinct and to the point, "God's holy, your not". It's not often a popular musician will let his anger and disgust show through so clearly in a song, but Nile has never been one to pull his punches and this song is no exception.

Nile lets his wry sense of humour come through on what is sure to be one of the most misunderstood songs on the album, "God Laughs". In it he has God going about his day and experiencing a variety of human emotions and generally acting like you and me. "God laughs, God cries, God looks for love between your eyes/God gives, God takes, God pumps your gas and slams your brakes/And why?/Because he's God". Maybe some will be offended by this humanizing of the deity, but if they do they're missing the point. Nile's God feels pain and happiness like you and me. He rejoices in our triumphs, mourns at our losses and grieves at the way we treat each other with such callousness. After all, if we're created in his image, doesn't that mean we and He reflect each other?

While these songs, and his cover of Jim Carroll's "People Who Died", are along the lines of personal discoveries, Nile does take us on an actual trip around America. The title song, "American Ride", has him travelling the length and breadth of the country and reminding us of the amazing diversity of music, and by extension, people, to be found from region to region. Starting off with a solo acoustic guitar, the sound gradually fills out as we travel further on his "American Ride". Crisscrossing the nation with a litany of place names and highways he makes it obvious he loves the country. However, there's also something elusive about his reasons for loving it. "Rolling cross the plains through the great Sioux land/As good a place as any where to make our stand/Some might say it's all a dream/Abraham Lincoln Martin Luther King/From rock and roll music to the be-bop jazz/To the unknown soldier giving all he has/From Ellis Island to the Redwood trees/You're untamed beauty got me on my knees".

His referencing of Sioux lands and the elusiveness of the equality dreamed of by two men who were both assassinated shows he's not blind to the country's less than noble past or the problems it still hasn't been able to solve. However, that doesn't mean he can't see or admire its beauty or recognize what has been created by the country's people. Unlike others who go off on a road trip searching for America, Nile already knows his country. While there are those who think blind obedience is the sign of a true patriot, Nile's ability to love his country in spite of its problems makes him seem a far greater patriot than somebody who says "my country right or wrong".

Nile is probably one of the most versatile songwriters and performers around today. He may not have what anybody would call a melodic voice, on occasion it sounds like gravel being scrapped over sandpaper, but the range of expression he can produce with it allows him to perform more styles of music than most people would even think of attempting. He can rip through a high speed rock song with ease and the very next instant be singing what's basically a traditional folk song, "The Crossing". As you journey through this album you'll find traces of country, blues, punk, soul, R&B, and nearly every other kind of music associated with American pop culture.

Not only can he play and sing all these types of music seemingly effortlessly, he can also write in each genre with equal ease. Listening to his songs it's easy to become caught up in the music and miss out on the lyrics. However, once you start paying attention to what Nile is saying you'll realize there's more to his material then what first meets the ear. His lyrics are deceptively meaningful as at first listen they sound rather straight forward. Yet, they not only stay in your mind, once you start thinking about them in the context of a song's theme, they reveal their hidden depths are made obvious. Unlike a lot of people he doesn't try to impress you with his vocabulary, instead he uses the same language most of use in everyday life. It seems that what's being said is far more important to Nile than how it is said.
Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan.jpg
Like the great folk singers, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and Billy Bragg for example, Nile sings about the things he cares about in as straight forward and honest a way as possible. He may not strike people as a folk musician, however his music has the same sort of straight from the heart honesty and passion as anybody playing solo acoustic guitar. If you listen closely you can hear echoes of every great song ever written about America in his music as he asks all the right questions and searches for answers.Any answers he might find may not always be pretty and, they may not always be what people want to hear, but you know they're always going to be truthful.

American Ride is the latest instalment in Nile's recording of the journey he set out on back in the 1970s when he started out by playing coffee houses in New York City. It's been a great voyage up until now, and if this album is any indication, not only is it a long way from over, there's still plenty to hear and see from Willie Nile.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Willie Nile - American Ride)

(Photo Credit: Photo of Willie Nile by Lucas Noonan)

June 12, 2013

Interview: Willie Nile - The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet


The BBC called his last album The Innocent Ones "stunning...The rock and roll album of the year", Rolling Stone Magazine included it in their"Top Ten Best Under-the-Radar Albums of 2011" list, and USA Today called the album's "One Guitar" the number one song in the nation. Yet most of you have probably never heard of him nor recognize the title of the album they're each raving about. Hopefully that's all about to change. For after more then 20 years since his last contract with a major label, Willie Nile's next release,American Ride, will be coming out June 25 2013 on Loud and Proud Records and will be the first artist released under the label's new deal with RED Distribution, a division of Sony Music.

I had interviewed Nile back in 2008, but we had conducted it via email so I hadn't had the opportunity to actually talk with him. While an email question and answer exchange ensures accuracy, it's impersonal and doesn't give you much of a chance to get to know the person you're interviewing. To be honest most of the time you don't get to know a person even when you interview them over the phone. You're usually one of many people they're talking to over the course of a day which means you're usually limited to something like fifteen minutes for the interview. Barely long enough to ask them a couple of questions about their new album/tour/book/movie and them to dole out the same pat answers they've given everyone.

Thankfully that wasn't the case with Nile when we talked. Not only were there no time constraints, it was far less an interview and much more a conversation. Sure we talked about his new record, signing with a label and all the sort of stuff you're supposed to on one of these interviews, but I found out more about him from the way he talked about these things than I did from the answers he gave. Nile is one of those rare people who are exactly like you think he'll be after listening to his songs. Compassionate, intelligent, aware and a genuinely considerate and caring individual.
Cover American Ride Willie Nile.jpg
Most of us, when you ask us how we're doing, will answer with the expected and safe, fine. When Willie asked me "How you doing? as we started our interview he was really asking. So I told him. When I reciprocated with the same question he started by telling me it was a beautiful day, sunny and clear, in New York City and how "It was a great day to be alive". But, there was something else and it soon came out. He was in mourning as a close friend, Rob Morsberger, who had done the string arrangements for Willie's last release, The Innocent Ones had just died from brain cancer.

Instead of talking about himself or his own work, Nile spent the first few minutes of our interview telling me about his friend and what a great singer/songwriter he had been. He then proceeded to tell me a story which from another person would have sounded like, look what I did, aren't I special? But in Nile's case it was an opportunity to tell me about somebody else's generosity. He told me how he had gone to one of the final concerts Morsberger had given and how it made him think Randy Newman should really hear his music.

So he had gone home and spent a couple of hours trying to compose an email to Newman's publicist which would be intriguing enough to be passed along to Newman. Nile doesn't know Newman, and even felt like he had to include his CV thinking Newman might not have heard of him. However, it didn't prevent him from trying to help his friend gain some recognition for his work. When he told me how Newman had left two messages on Morsberger's voice mail the next day, it was with awe and respect in his voice for Newman. There wasn't a hint of pride or self promotion. He told me this story because he had been genuinely touched by Newman's generosity.

Of course we did finally get around to talking about his new album. Initially he had raised the money to record the disc through crowd source funding, using PledgeMusic. He had been making plans for distributing the disc on his own when Loud & Proud had approached him. I asked him whether or not he had used crowd source funding before, what he thought of it. He had used Kickstarter to help fund The Innocent Ones, but basically he'd been paying for all his previous recordings out of his own pocket. However over the years, his fan base has been growing and he has a very passionate following everywhere he goes.

"It feels like a big family when I tour" he said."Not only does everybody have a good time at the gigs, everybody also seems to connect to the music and it affects them personally. After each show I hang around and sign copies of CDs and say hi to people. They come up to me and tell me how the music is special to them or what it means to them. I had one guy, a young guy, come up to me after a gig and ask me to sign a copy of the CD to a friend of his who had died about six months ago. His friend, Ramon, had been a big fan and this young man told me it would have meant the world to him to have a CD signed by me." He paused, and when he continued I could tell he was still moved by the awe I heard in his voice as he said, "If you can help somebody it's a nobel thing to do. When music touches people it's wonderful. If its real it can be either as a party or something better - a source of joy and salvation. If its real it will be something meaningful to everybody who listens"

Well his music must touch a lot of people from all over the world, because he reached his goal at PledgeMusic in four days. Following the successful campaign to raise money for its recording Nile had originally planned on releasing the disc in April. However all that changed when Tom Lipsky, president of Loud & Proud approached him.

"The president of the label approached me about signing with them. He really believed in the music which convinced me to sign. The music has always sold itself and was doing well, but a partner will make it work even better. I believe they can take it to another level. When I went into the studio I knew what I had - I always have all my songs ready before I record, in fact I've already got the material for my next album written. Another one to add to the collection."

The sense I got from Nile was being with the label means he's able to breath a little easier. He can focus on his art a little more and not have to worry quite as much about money as he has in the past. Talking to him you would never know this guy has been in the business for what must be close to 40 years now. He sounds so enthusiastic and excited. He was fairly bursting to tell me about a quote Bono had written about the new album. It wasn't because he was boasting or showing off, but because he was so excited about his music and the fact people were enjoying it. "Its a ride alright...on foot, on horseback, with the occasional roller coaster thrown in. There are a few America's here to discover. The mythic, the magic, the very real. One of the great guides to unravelling the mystery that is the troubled beauty of America." He read the quote out carefully and slowly to make sure I copied it down accurately, all the while sounding like a kid who's been given the best present in the world.

All of which brought us to the album itself. I asked him whether or not there was a theme tying the CD together saying the title track, "American Ride", reminded me somewhat of Jack Keourac's cross country, road trip odyssey,On The Road, and was he perhaps inspired by the Beats. He was delighted with the comparison.

"The Beat poets continue to inspire me today, Bob Kaufman, Alan Ginsberg - great poets. I knew Alan. I did a reading at St. Marks Church with a group of them upon the republication of Keourac's American Haiku. I don't usually do that sort of thing, but I found out Ed Sanders of The Fugs was going to be there and I had loved the Fugs so I thought it would be great. But it was the Beat strain of poetry and music, American music - big band jazz, blues, be bop, Chuck Berry, Woody Guthrie - all the music which inspired the British invasion - can be traced back to the Beats. It was the music my generation grew up with. All the music and places in the song "American Ride" are American music - Motown, New Orleans, Memphis - all these sounds have gone into my music and so many other people's music.
Willie Nile Back Lite.jpg
The connection really came home to me when I was touring in London and we played the 100 Club. The place back in the 1970s where The Sex Pistols and The Clash played. There we were on stage with pictures of the Sex Pistols and The Clash on the walls playing and we were joined by Graham Matlock, original bassist for the Pistols, to play "People Who Died" (a Jim Carroll song covered by Nile on American Ride). They we were playing a song by one of the great modern American poets/musicians in a London club with a British musician surrounded by images of great British rock and roll bands."

He then turned back to the idea of there being a theme to the album. "I didn't put American Ride together as a concept album. It looked like there was a theme after the fact, but that's just the way it turned out." He paused for a second, "I'm all about giving - my mother always used to say it's better to give than receive - and I wouldn't walk into the recording studio if it wasn't going to be something special - if there wasn't going to be something to give to people. When I was making the album I was mindful there was different types of music on it. Songs about war, songs about love, dance songs - but any collection of songs needs to fit together somehow. It's more about the journeys we're all on and celebrating them. We need to be doing the best we can for each other. Bobby Kennedy said, "We're a compassionate people - we can do better".

There were a few songs in particular on American Ride I wanted to ask Nile about, and I brought them up now. The first one, "God Laughs", has the potential for being controversial with lines like "God fornicates". I wondered about his intent with this song.

"It's not meant to offend, I wrote it with a sense of humour - didn't censor myself and tried to make it real and evocative, but it came from a place of love. I was playing this song in Spain, the audience was having a great time and after the gig a guy comes up to me and asks me to sign a copy of the CD. (Nile obviously was selling early copies of the disc at shows in Europe before signing with Loud & Proud). It turns out he was a Catholic priest and he said the song really inspired him. It meant the world to me that this man who had devoted his life to spirituality and God appreciated it. So no, I hope people aren't offended by it, but I hope it makes them think about things."

Before talking to Nile I hadn't realized "People Who Died" was a cover of a Jim Carroll song. To me it sounded awfully aggressive and angry for what is basically a listing of people the singer knows who died.

"It was Carroll celebrating his friends. I wanted to bring what I thought was a masterpiece back to life. I talked to bunch of Jim's buddies who had known everybody in the song and they got what I was doing. The band really kicked butt on it and we made it a celebration of the people who are mentioned. Its defiant all right - a party song looking into the abyss and shaking your fist and dancing at the same time. I also wanted to do something for my brother who passed so I changed a couple of lines to add the bit about Johnny my brother and dedicated it to him. I'm sure Jim wouldn't have minded."

Another song which I saw having the potential for being misunderstood was "Holy War". I asked him if he was worried the song might make people think he has issues with religions and how they can be used to manipulate people

"I'm at peace and centred with all religions and accepting of them all and the different sides of faith. This is more of an angry prayer for peace than anything else. From the Crusades to the present lots of wrongs and lots of people have been killed in the name of different faiths. It's a taking to task of anyone who hides behind the cloak of religion. People need to understand we can all do better and we need to hope we can do better." He paused for a second, and then repeated, "It's an angry prayer for peace".

While the majority of the tracks on the disc are uptempo, if not out and out rockers, the second last song on the disc, "The Crossing" catches your attention for its simple folk sound. It's a reminder of Nile's Irish roots and why I once referred to him as the troubadour of New York City. It sounds like it could the story of his family's immigration to North America.

"I wrote it thinking about my ancestors, but its also about everybody and anybody. All those who came here to make a better life for themselves and their families and a tip of the hat to those earlier generations who made that journey. Its also about the personal bridges we all have to cross to make a better life for ourselves as individuals. Its about taking the risk of journeying into the unknown just as much as its about the risk of trying to create a new life in a new world."

By this time we had been talking for quite some time so I figured I should wrap it up. So I asked him what was next for Willie Nile as a way of bringing things to a close. Typical of the way our conversation had gone, he told me a couple of stories, both of which tied in with how he feels about his career and his life to this point.

"The songs are coming to me and the stuff I'm doing now I think is as good as anything I've ever done. You know my journey has been up and down and I've learned from it. I think I'm finally fulfilling what I hoped to when I started out. There have been some great moments along the way." He laughed, "Back in 1992 I was opening for Ringo Starr and his All Star band. When the last night of my section of the tour came around, Ringo found me back stage and gave me a big hug and thanked me for opening for him. I was covered with Beatle sweat (laughs) I'll never wash again...He then invited me out on stage to join everybody in the encore - "With A Little Help From My Friends". I got out on stage and there was Rink Danko (bass player from the Band) and we sort of looked at each other and grinned - as if saying look where we are.

My albums are what they are because of the journey I've taken. I'm not bitter because I'm not rich and famous, I never wanted to be famous. (laughs again) Rich maybe, but only because what I could do with the money. The fact that there are people out there who have championed my work (Everybody from Bruce Springsteen to Pete Townshead have expressed their admiration for Nile's work) makes me feel great. Music is to be shared just as life is to be shared and I've had the opportunity to do both with a great many people. The material is already ready for the next album and I feel like I'm doing some of the best work of my career now. As long as things keep feeling like this, I'm not about to stop anytime soon."

We said goodbye then, wishing each other well. While we talked about a lot of different things over the course of our conversation, the impression which stays with me most is of having talked to somebody who loves what he's doing and is genuinely grateful for being given the opportunity to do what he loves. When he talks about the famous people he knows or has met, it's not because he's trying to impress you, but because he wants to talk about how wonderful they are and how he's been lucky enough to know them.

Willie Nile is one of those rare people who makes you feel better about the world just by talking to them. His music is a celebration of life in all its diversity and is able to strike a chord with people from all over the world. His new release, American Ride, will be available on June 25 2013 and after listening to it you'll understand why so many people appreciate him. What you may not understand is why you haven't heard his music before.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Willie Nile, The Best Musician You've Never Heard Of - Yet)

May 31, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt


Something I've never understood is why people romanticize alcoholics. Even worse is why they see somebody dying a sad and lonely death as a result of their addiction proof of their authenticity as an artist. Why can't they understand the drugs and booze which resulted in these people's death also prevented many of these artists from achieving their potential. Yet people like Graham Parsons have obtained near mythical status more because of the way he lived and died than through his body of work.

I mention Parson specifically because of his associations with country music and early attempts at marrying it with pop music. For while he has achieved a great deal of notoriety after his death one who was far more prolific and influential has until recently been largely ignored. For some reason, while his talent was always recognized by his peers, Townes Van Zandt, never managed to capture the public's imagination in the same way as people like Parson.

Maybe it was because he was genuinely unwell, suffering from severe depression all his life and diagnosed by the medical profession as everything from bipolar to manic depressive. Turning to alcohol to combat his depression only made matters worse and he spent a great deal of his life living in isolation.
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Most of his income came from other musicians covering his material as his albums didn't sell that well. However, listening to Van Zandt perform his own material makes you appreciate he was more than just a gifted songwriter and his influence extends far beyond people covering his material. Earlier this year a two disc set of studio out takes and demos, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972, was released. The recording sessions were made during what is considered Van Zandt's most productive time as an artist. Now, the label who released that collection, Omnivore Recordings, in conjunction with the Van Zandt estate, have released remastered editions of the two albums on which the bulk of the material from those sessions appeared, High, Low and In Between and The Late Great Townes Van Zandt.

While you might think there's something eerily prescient about the title of the latter, it was more of an example of Van Zandt's sense of irony than any foreknowledge he might have had about his death. It was on this album he recorded "Pancho and Lefty", later a hit for first, Emmylou Harris and then Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Ironically, after his death it was revealed during the last few years of his life Van Zandt had earned around $100,000.00 per year from royalties.

Musically Van Zandt was the place where country, blues, folk and gospel hung out together. While some songs, like "Two Hands" and "When He Offers His Hand" on High, Low And In Between are specifically gospel, the most memorable tracks are the ones which defy any specific classification. "You Are Not Needed Now" and "To Live Is To Fly" from the same disc and "Sad Cinderella" and "Don't Let The Sunshine Fool You" from The Late Great Townes Van Zandt resonate with a sound and a quality distinct to Van Zandt.
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It's like he had the ability to reach into the places we hide our innermost fears and desires and find a way of turning them into song. Yet, he doesn't try to manipulate our emotions or reactions through sentiment or any of the other ploys other songwriters employ. His lyrics reflect an uncanny ability to empathize with people's feelings. Listening to some of his songs you may wonder how he managed to read your mind because of the way he was able to articulate the secrete hopes, dreams and fears most of us keep buried in the deeper recesses of our souls. While his songs are always about something in specific, he managed to make it feel like he was singing about something you'd experienced. "When the bandits have stolen your jewelry and gone/And your crippled young gypsy, he's grown tall and strong/And your dread misconceptions have proven you wrong/Well then princess,where you plannin' to turn to?" ("Sad Cinderella" Townes Van Zandt, The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

When you hear him sing your first impression is of a rather thin voice whose twang reveals his Texas roots. Yet there's something about it which draws you into a song quicker and deeper than most singers. Maybe because his voice sounds so regular there's less of a barrier between him and his audience than if he had a more melodic voice or polished singing style. The raw simplicity of his delivery gives it an honesty and sincerity we aren't used to hearing. By eschewing the flourishes and decorative elements so many singers employ, material, which in other's hands would risk sounding mawkish, remains emotionally honest.

One of the oddest experiences of listening to both of these Van Zandt discs is hearing a song which reminds you of some other performer. The natural reaction to this is to automatically think, wow he sounds just like so and so. It's only then you remember the song was released more then a decade before the one it sounded like. That's when you begin to appreciate just how much of an influence he was on those who came after him.
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Like the human condition Van Zand't songs are funny, sad, emotional and sometimes just matter of fact. The dryness of his humour and his delivery make it easy to miss some of the subtler moments in his songs. One of my favourites is the chorus of "Pancho and Lefty", "All the federales say/They could have had him any day/They only let him hang around/Out of kindness I suppose". Who ever heard of a cop letting an outlaw "hang around" out of kindness? It's these little touches which distinguished Van Zandt from most of his contemporaries and those who have come after him.

Steve Earle was once quoted as saying he thought Van Zandt was the best songwriter in the world and "I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that". Whether you agree with that sentiment or not after listening to Van Zandt's music is up to you. However one thing you won't be able to deny is this man was an amazing talent whose artistry has been overlooked for far too long.
When lessor lights are held up as examples of great talents because of our fascination with their untimely deaths due to substance abuse isn't it about time we start to recognize those among the troubled who were the truly talented? While his fellow musicians have always known the gift Van Zandt was to popular music it's about time for the rest of the world to catch up. You won't believe what you've been missing for all these years.

(Article first published at Blogcitics.org as Music Review - Townes Van Zandt High, Low and In Between & The Late Great Townes Van Zandt)

May 22, 2013

Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente


Prior to the Internet most of us wouldn't have any idea of what was going on musically in the city two hundred miles away from us let alone across the continent. Now with bands having access to You Tube and sites like Soundcloud allowing them to post music on line for audiences around the world to hear you can be living in the Yukon and listen to a bar band from Southern California. While this means bands who can now reach people around the world it doesn't necessarily mean they will become any more popular or well known because of it. Faced with the work of having to sift through thousands of hours of music on line, sorting the gems from the dross, most people will elect to stick with what they already know.

As a critic I receive countless press releases each day regarding bands of all genres from all over the world. To be honest if I don't already have an interest in what's being promoted it will take something quite extraordinary to prevent me from hitting the delete button on my email program let alone requesting a copy of a CD. Reviewing anything is a sizeable investment of time and energy which I'm not about to expand lightly. However, once in a while I'll get a feeling a band might be something special and request a copy of their disc. Such was the case with the newest disc from the San Antonio based Pinata Protest, El Valiente, released by Saustex Media and Cosmica Records.

Maybe it was the words, accordion fronted punk rock band which attracted my attention, or the fact they supposedly combined the raw energy of punk with the music of their Chicano heritage. Whatever it was I'm glad I took a chance on listening to these guys. Front man Alvaro Del Norte, vocals and accordion, J. J. Martinez, drums, and twin brothers Marcus and Matt Cazares on bass and guitar respectively have created some sort of perfect alchemy which allows them to inject the anarchy and berserker tendencies of punk into traditional Latino music. The results are an odd mixture of four guys having a really good time creating musical havoc and pointing a not so subtle middle finger at American stereotypes of Hispanic culture.
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Being from the northern reaches of North America not only don't I speak a word of Spanish I couldn't tell the difference between norteno and conjunto if you paid me. Probably the closest you can get to a Latino cultural experience in Eastern Ontario, Canada where I live is whatever is on the menu of the local plastic "Mexican American" franchise eatery. My only exposure to Latin music has been whatever has managed to seep into American pop music courtesy of people like Willy DeVille, seeing Tito Puente the one time I was in New York City and the cliches which show up in television cartoons. Of course, like anyone else, I can recognize a Mariachi tune when it hits me in the face, but otherwise the music and the history is as alien to me as if were from another planet.

However, none of this prevents me from recognizing Pinata Protest is doing something special. Maybe it's the fact an accordion features in both band's sound, but one of my first impressions was these guys are a Latino version of Irish punks The Pogues. If anyone ever doubted there was a cultural connection between the Spanish and the Irish listen to a song from each band right after each other and you'll be amazed at the similarities. It's not just because both bands have taken traditional folk music and ramped them up to warp speed or even the in your face attitude they share. Listening to Pinata Protest you're as liable to want to dance a crazed jig a la Lord of the Dance on speed as anything else.

It's not who they sound like though which makes these guys great. It's what they do with their sound which blows me away. First of all they might play fast, loose and loud, but they are also incredibly tight. While Del Norte is pummelling the accordion and letting loose with rapid fire vocals - unless you listen closely there are times when you can't tell if he's singing in Spanish or English - bass, drums and guitar are laying down the solid foundation required to keep the music from descending into chaos. They do their job so well even at the speed they are playing you are able to distinguish the differences between their music and straight ahead punk.
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I may not be able to tell one type of Latin music from another or be conversant with the varieties of traditional Mexican folk music, but I can tell when the melodies and rhythms a band are using for the basis of their sound aren't typical blues based rock and roll. In the case of Pinata Protest the band does an amazing job of ensuring whatever flavour of music they happen to be interpreting is never lost in their chaotic presentation.

As for their lyrical content I had to rely on Del Norte's ability to communicate intent through vocal inflections and the way in which he sang the songs on the disc rather than listening to what he was saying. Thankfully his voice, well rough, is also remarkably expressive. Whether he's singing in Spanish or English it doesn't make a difference for he is able to modulate his tone and his delivery in such a way as to ensure listeners get the general idea of what he's trying to communicate. In part I think this is because he's most concerned with ensuring his audience remembers the purpose of popular music is to inject a little anarchy into our lives. If you think of his vocals as another instrument, and not worry about what he's saying, it's hard not to let yourself get caught up in the wild fun of what you're listening to.

However, that doesn't preclude the band's music from occasionally having a rather pointed message. There's probably never been a song more associated with American stereotypes of Latinos than "La Cucaracha". Pinata Protest perform a version of this song done at the speed of light and with a snarl that turns it into declaration of defiance and anger. It's like they're daring you to think of them as cute little sombrero wearing mice. This is one mouse who isn't going to be pushed around by anyone any more. Watching the video for this tune will not only give you a good idea of what I mean, but it's a quick introduction to the band and their sound.

El Valiente is the name used to refer to the masked Mexican wrestlers, but it also loosely translates as the valiant one. Pinata Protest's music may or may not be valiant, but it sure as hell is strong, powerful and a whole lot of fun to listen to. For those used to a diet of the Serena Gomez's and the plastic world of Chi Chi's, this might be a little hard on the digestion. But if you've got the stomach for something hot, spicy and spiked with the worm at the bottom of the tequila bottle, you're in for a treat.

(Article first published as Music Review: Pinata Protest - El Valiente on Blogcritics)

April 9, 2013

Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere


When I was younger the mere site of an accordion would be enough to send me running. It was the instrument of Lawrence Welk and the worst sort of music imaginable. As my musical horizons broadened I learned this instrument, once the butt of so many jokes and derisive comments, had been unfairly maligned. Once you've heard zydeco and klezmer music you gain new respect for the accordion. However, nothing I'd heard before prepared me for what Koby Israelite does with it on his new release, Blues From Elsewhere, on Asphalt Tango Records.

While the disc has been out in Europe since March, its just being released in North America on Tuesday April 9 2013. The 16 tracks take you on a musical trip around the world as Israelite and his accomplices in musical adventurism blend genres and cultures in as extravagant display of virtuosity as I've ever heard. From North America to the Middle East, Eastern Europe and down to South East Asia probably the only continent missed out is Australia. Along the way you'll hear almost every instrument you can think of, with Israelite playing most of them. Yaron Stavi plays electric and acoustic bass on every track save seven ("Subterranean Homesick Blues"), 10 ("Rural Ghost") and 16("Kashmir"), while other guests join in on a couple of songs. Tigran Alexksanyan plays duduk and clarinet on "Lemi Evke", track 12, and "Kashmir", Ofir Gal adds electric guitar to "Lemi Evke" and John Telfer plays tenor saxophone on "Just Cliches", track 15.

While Israelite also contributes vocals, he has enlisted the aid of two highly contrasting, but equally powerful female vocalists for three of the songs. One of the highlights of the recording has to be his version of Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues" featuring Annique on lead vocals. It starts off sounding like it might be a klezmer version of the song as Annique sings the opening verse to accordion accompaniment in the sort of slow and almost mournful manner klezmer sometimes takes. Then, with a suddenness almost heart stopping, it rips into overdrive with Annique belting out the lyrics overtop screaming electric guitar to only have it drop back into her and the accordion again.
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On paper that might sound weird but believe me it's bloody amazing. You can check out the video for the song and it will give you a fairly good idea of how well it works. The video also gives you a good idea of Israelite's sense of humour. Dylan put out a short film for the song way back when and it featured him holding up pieces of cardboard with the lyrics to the song. Israelite uses a computer tablet to do the same thing, although its not necessarily displaying the lyrics, but random words which may or may not have anything to do with the song.

While Annique handles what could be called the Western vocal duties on the disc, she's also featured on the intriguingly titled second track, "Why Don't You Take My Brain And Sell It To The Night?", Mor Karbasi's vocals on "Lemi Evke" take us to the other side of the world. While Karbasi is famous for singing in Ladino, the language of Sephardic Jews in Moorish Spain, here she sings in Hebrew in what is described in the liner notes as Jewish blues. While it doesn't sound like any blues song you've heard before, there's no denying the weight of sorrow conveyed by Karbasi's voice. At one point she has overdubbed her own harmonies and sends her voice soaring up into the heavens overtop of her lead and you feel chills up your spine.

It's at this point that Israelite shows his genius for arrangements. For as Karbasi's voice is keening up in the higher registers he adds a clarinet to the mix. As you listen to what is apparently Karbasi's voice rising higher and higher on the scale you all of sudden realize she's no longer singing the harmony but the clarinet has taken it over and is carrying the notes even higher. The transition from voice to instrument is so subtle and beautifully done they could be interchangeable.
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While the two women guest vocalists stand out vividly the consistent star of the show is still Israelite. From the opening tribute to Johnny Cash, "Johnny Has No Cash No More", a burst of Cash sounding licks on accordion turned into just under two minutes of fun, to "Peckham Rai", a heady mixture of Western and Arabic pop music bridging the two worlds effortlessly, he shows he can play almost any instrument he lays his hands on. Even more important though is how he redefines the whole idea of world music.

According to genre classifications world music is sort of a catch all for any music, folk to pop, not readily identifiable as North American or British. Instead of partitioning music by ethnicity Israelite finds the common ground between cultures and weaves them together. His music is anarchy made real as it knows no borders or boundaries and ignores all laws and conventions. With the accordion leading the way he shows how a love of music can bring disparate cultures together without them having to surrender either their identities or having any one assume dominance.

Anybody who was fed a diet of Lawrence Welk will find it hard to think of the accordion as either revolutionary or an instrument of change. After listening to Blues From Elsewhere not only will you radically reevaluate your opinion of the accordion, but rethink the whole notion of world music. While others might dabble with music from other cultures to give their own music some additional flavour, Israelite immerses himself in all music equally. He knows it's our differences which make us unique and are a source of pride. His music not only celebrates those differences but also shows their potential to co-exist in harmony. It might just be for a few minutes in a song - but that's a start. We just need more people to follow his lead.

(Article first published as Music Review: Koby Israelite - Blues From Elsewhere on Blogcritics.)

April 2, 2013

Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni ba - Jama ko


It is sometimes said music gives voice to the concerns of a people. While this may not be as true in North American popular music as it once was in countries with a history of an oral tradition music is a key element in the telling of the people's stories. In West Africa griots are historians, storytellers, poets and musicians rolled into one. However, not only do they learn and recount the history of their tribe and its important people, they are also expected to be able to create songs about the state of the of the world around them in the present day.

While not all popular musicians in the region are griots, its a hereditary post passed from father to son involving years of study and preparation, it doesn't stop them from sharing many of the same attributes. So when the Tuareg uprising in Northern Mali turned into something that was far more insidious with repercussions effecting the entire country, it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone if a response shows up on an album of popular music.

Bassekou Kouyate was in the recording studio in the capital city of Mali, Bamako, when the military overthrew the democratically elected government of Amadou Toumani Toure in March 2012. With tensions mounting between the various ethnic groups in the country due to fear and anger and the very real danger real danger of reprisals and crackdowns on musicians, Kouyate wrote and recorded Jama ko, now available in North America on Out here records.
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With Islamic extremists in the North rounding up musicians and destroying and confiscating musical equipment and the Malian army's history of targeting musicians who make waves, making the record was an act of extraordinary courage. Yet not only did Kouyate make this record, he recorded songs meant to inspire hope and defiance among the people of Mali. The disc's title song, "Jama ko", translates literally as "a big gathering of people", and is a celebration of the country's diversity. It is a call for unity and tolerance and encourages people, no matter who they are, to come together, enjoy life and celebrate the true spirit of Mali.

While the country's population is more than 90% Muslim, Kouyate explains in a statement about the disc, their version of Islam has nothing in common with the strict imposition of Sharia law the forces in the North were trying to force upon people. Music has not only played a role in the recounting of their histories, it has also been a major part of their worship as praise songs for the prophet Mohammad have been written and sung for hundreds of years. He concludes with the simple yet telling statement. "If the Islamists stop people music-making they will rip the heart out of Mali".

Well in spite of frequent power outages, a curfew and fuel shortages Kouyate makes some fine music on Jama ko. He plays the West African string instrument known as the ngoni. This is basically a hollowed out gourd covered by a piece of raw-hide, usually goat skin, with a piece of doweling stuck in one end strung with anywhere from 4 to 7 strings depending on the tone the player wishes to create. The strings are plucked in the same manner someone would pluck a banjo, an instrument which in all probability was inspired by the ngoni. However it has a much more flexible sound than its modern descendant. In the hands of an accomplished player like Kouyate, for all its simplicity of construction, a ngoni can produce leads as ornate as any guitar.

Aside from being accompanied by his two sons Madou and Moustafa and fellow ngoni player Sissoko, special guest vocalists are dotted through out the recording. Two of the songs aside from the title track which relate directly to the situation in Mali at the time the recording was made are "Sinaly", featuring Kasse Mady Diabate on lead vocals and "Kele magni". The first song is about Sialy Diarra a king of the Bamara people who was famous for resisting an attempt in the 19th century of the imposition of Sharia law. While to audiences outside of Mali the significance of this might be lost, those within the country would be familiar with the history and be inspired by its message of standing up for their own culture.
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On this song we also hear how Kouyate has absorbed a variety of musical influences from around the world as there is a decided "Latin" feel to the track in spite of its very Afrocentric subject matter. Sacko and Arby are from Timbuktu in Northern Mali in the heart of the area where the uprising was taking place. In fact Timbuktu was captured by the rebel forces at about the time the recording was made, "Kele magni", which is a direct call for peace in the country, features a beautiful duet between the two guest vocalists. As the two singers would obviously be persecuted for being musicians if they had returned home while Timbuktu was occupied, the song and its message become all the more powerful.

One of the more compelling pieces on the disc is the track "Wagadou", It's one of those occasions where not being able to speak the language of those singing doesn't make a bit of difference to the emotional impact of a song. The rather pensive and moody atmosphere Kouyate manages to create with just his ngoni and some keyboards added in the mixing process by producer Howard Bilerman offers us a glimpse at Kouyate's diversity as a musician and his willingness to experiment with sound.

Among the special guests to appear on this recording the one who will be most familiar to North American audiences is the great Taj Mahal. He and Kouyate perform a great blues duet on the track "Poye 2", in French.They trade leads back and forth on guitar and ngoni and exchange duties on lead vocals. The mix of African French and what sounds like Mahal's creole French is wonderful and their instrumental duets are a brilliant melding of the old world with the new. If you ever needed proof of the old saying music knows no language and doesn't recognize borders, this song is it.

It's not often we think of the act of recording music in terms of bravery. In the case of the latest disc from Kouyate and his fellow musicians their recording was both an act of defiance in the face of those who would ban music and an act of celebration honouring their traditions and their culture. What's even more amazing is even in the best of circumstances this would be an excellent collection of music featuring great musicians. Considering the conditions under which it was recorded it's astounding the disc was ever made, let alone is of such a high quality both artistically and technically. It takes a real devotion and love for your art to overcome these kinds of obstacles and produce work of such quality. Listen to this album and hear what love sounds like.

(Article first published as Music Review: Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba - Jama Ko on Blogcritics.)


March 26, 2013

Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment With Mr. Yeats


While many people think song lyrics and poetry are interchangeable, the truth of the matter is there are very few song writers whose work matches up against poetry. On the other hand, just because a poem is wonderful to read doesn't mean it would necessarily make a good song. For while lyrics are written with the intent of setting them to music, including such considerations as melody and rhythm, a poet rarely concerns him or herself with those issues. People like Leonard Cohen, who records his poetry as songs with little or no alteration to their lyrics or meaning, are an exception.

Maybe that's one of the reasons such a relatively small amount of pre existing poetry is set to music. Certainly there have been attempts, but considering the amount of English language poetry available, the number is insignificant. So when I heard that Mike Scott &The Waterboys had released an album of music based on the poetry of Irish poet William Butler Yeats I was intrigued. Originally released in 2011 in the UK on Proper Records An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is now available in North America.

The album was obviously a labour of love for Scott as it wasn't something he rushed into. Over the course of two decades he gradually chose and adapted the poems used on this recording. His intent was to make a collection of songs which would sound no different from other Waterboys' recordings, with lyrics written by a guest artist. "The best thing is when people don't realize they were written a hundred years ago, but just hear them and think, 'That's a song", he's quoted as saying in the press materials accompanying the CD.
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I don't think anyone is going to mistake the language of poetry written in the early part of the twentieth century for something penned today. I'm sure there are songwriters who may write about the same subject matter, Celtic and Greek mythology and philosophers of the ancient world like Pythagorus, but I seriously doubt they would use the same turns of phrase as Yeats. However Scott and the Waterboys have certainly succeeded in turning the poems selected into modern songs. Anyone familiar with the band's sound from earlier albums This Is The Sea and Fisherman's Blues will recognize their distinctive flavour throughout this disc.

The question is does this marriage of modern post punk pop and early 20th century poetry work? Some purists might find Scott's interpretations difficult and jarring because of the nature of their sound. However, if you listen to the lyrics accompanying the music, you'll realize Scott has done a wonderful job of creating music which expresses the emotions and thoughts in the poem. The song leading off the disc, "The Hosting Of The Shee", (or Sidhe) celebrates mythical Celtic warrior heroes. marching off to war. "The winds awaken, the leaves whirl round/Our cheeks are pale, our hair unbound/Our breasts are heaving, our eyes are apart/And if any gaze on our rushing band/We come between him and the deed of his hand/We come between him and the hope of his heart."

The music accompanying these lyrics express both the thrill of watching these mythical warriors of the fairy world marching off to war while at the same time capturing the effects of their passing on the natural world. As you listen to the words of the poem come together with the music you can visualize the wild and fey army marching through the world and nature reacting to their passage. It's as frightening and jarring as you might imagine it would be witnessing the passage of such creatures.

Of course Yeats didn't just write about mystical and ancient Ireland, he wrote about what he saw around him as well. Scott makes sure we remember that by including a version of "September 1913", Yeats' poem about what's come to be known as the Dublin Lockout. Labourers had gone on strike for better working conditions and were betrayed by the church and Irish politicians. In his poem Yeats asks is this what our freedom fighters died for? Did we throw off the yoke of one master only to trade it for another? "Romantic Ireland's dead and gone/It's with O'Leary in the grave".
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If that wasn't potent enough for you, Scott has also included a version of the simple yet haunting "Let The Earth Bear Witness". It's a beautiful prayer of remembrance for those who have the bravery to resist oppression in spite of the personal cost. Yeats wrote it as a general paean for all those who have given of themselves in the hopes others might have a better life. "They shall be remembered for ever/They shall be alive for ever/They shall be speaking for ever/The people shall hear them for ever/Let the sea bear witness/Let the wind bear witness/Let the earth bear witness/Let the stars bear witness".

Scott has chosen to identify the song with the Iranian people who took to the streets a couple of years ago in an attempt to change their world only to be crushed under foot by the regime. In the video for the song he sets the tune to footage of the protests and the ensuing crackdown in an effort to keep the memory of those brave people alive. Here again he and the band have created music appropriate to the poem's spirit and words by letting their simplicity and starkness speak for themselves.

In order to do proper justice to the diversity of thought and emotion found in the poetry of a man like Yeats a band has to be able to carry off not only a variety of musical styles but be willing to subjugate their own desires to the needs of the work. The Waterboys have the versatility and artistry required to take you out of this world into the realm of magic and myth and to bring you solidly back down to earth to face reality just like the poetry of Yeats did to its readers a 100 years ago. In the process of doing so they, and especially Scott as lead singer, turn themselves into conduits for the poet's thoughts and ideas. Like the best actors they remember its the message that's important, not the messenger.

An Appointment With Mr. Yeats is one of those rare treats in popular music where the words and music come together in a perfect marriage. Not only does the music reflect the emotional context of the words they accompany, but the band has also managed to find a way to create an atmosphere for each song which makes them living and breathing creations. Even better is the fact they do this while remaining true to the spirit of the poems and the poet's intentions. The words of William Butler Yeats have never sounded so alive and so real.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Waterboys - An Appointment with Mr. Yeats on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit for picture of The Waterboys Live In Dublin - Paul MacManus


March 5, 2013

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell & Angels


In her autobiography about being a young artist in New York City, Just Kids, Patti Smith described attending the opening night party for a new recording studio. Being shy and easily overwhelmed by crowds she spent a great deal of time outside on the fire escape with the equally shy musician responsible for the studio's existence. Jimi Hendrix didn't have too much longer to live when he sat on the fire escape outside his newly opened Electric Ladyland studios with a young poet. The studio was to have been the place where he would have been able to experiment and play music away from the demands of the world.

Today, more then 40 years after Hendrix's death, the studio is one part of his legacy to the world of music. Smith is only one of many artists who record there taking advantage of what Hendrix created. However Hendrix's legacy stretches far beyond the walls of Electric Ladyland. In the 1980s when Tuareg rebels in North Africa picked up guitars to begin making music as a way of preserving their culture their biggest influence was Hendrix's style of blues guitar. While still famous for his pyrotechnics on guitar as the years pass more and more are discovering what the Tuareg appreciated - Hendrix's ability as a blues musician. Unlike other lead guitar players, both then and now, Hendrix understood there was more to being a guitarist than just being able to rip leads.

Listening to the new CD, People, Hell & Angels, released by Legacy Recordings, of previously unreleased Hendrix studio sessions is to be reminded once again how complete a musician he was. Some might wonder why bother releasing the music of somebody dead four decades, especially tracks which are essentially unfinished? The answer would be for the same reason we publish, and read, the letters and diaries of famous writers. Hendrix was a musician, so these tracks are his diaries, his letters to the world. They represent a chance to gain some insight into the directions he was wanting to take his music, what his interest were and maybe get to know him a little better.
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The majority of music released under his name since his death have been of not only dubious quality, but dubious origins as well. It's only been recently his family have been able to gain control of his music and try and redress the damage done to his legacy by a legion of unscrupulous people trying to make a fast buck off the name of Hendrix. In the years following his death a number of poorly recorded and badly mixed albums were dumped on the market. Tracks appearing on this disc had previously been released in either truncated versions or with studio musicians overdubbing those who had originally been in the studio with Hendrix leaving only his solos intact.

This would be equivalent to rewriting an unpublished story by James Joyce leaving monologues intact while having some hack ghostwriter fill in the blanks. Whatever magic was originally present in the studio when Hendrix was there with those he chose to create with in the moment was lost. Taking his solos out of their original context is akin to planting a palm tree in the Arctic Circle. Not only will it look out of place, it will wither and die. Here, lovingly restored by Eddie Kramer, the man who engineered all his studio albums and recorded his most famous concerts, and co-producers Janie Hendrix (Hendrix's sister) and John McDermott the songs can be heard in all their rough uncut glory.

I remember having semi-serious discussions with high school buddies in the 1970s about the possibility of Hendrix playing disco if he had lived. Who knows, he might have. If he had I'm sure whatever he did would have been far superior to the emasculated swill flooding the airwaves at the time or what Prince churned out in latter years. Of course there's no way of knowing what he might have done, but judging by what we hear on People, Hell & Angles his heart was still firmly rooted deeply in the blues. You'll also hear that while our dire predictions of disco might have been unfounded, he retained a fondness for both funk and R&B.

The first track, featuring him accompanied by his old army buddies Billy Cox on bass and Buddy Miles on drums, "Earth Blues" is a bare bones funk tune. No horns or keyboards like we're used to, just the three of them driving the beat and playing something dark, dirty and dangerous. Recorded in December of 1969 it might have just been three old friends jamming together and having fun it could also have been an indication of his vision for the song. The version released on the posthumous Rainbow Bridge in 1971 was a far different, more mainstream radio acceptable tune.
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Two other songs on the disc which go a long towards suggesting Hendrix had no desire to be pigeon holed as just another rock guitar god are "Let Me Move You" and "Mojo Man". Both of them show him reaching back too his early days as a sideman in R&B bands. Whether trading leads with saxophone player Lonnie Youngblood on the former or taking a master vocal track created by Albert and Arthur Allen (the vocal duo known as the Ghetto Fighters - Read the interview at the other end of the link to the Ghetto Fighters, now known as TaharQa and Tunde Ra Aleem, to find out more about their relationship with Hendrix) on the latter both show Hendrix pushing the R&B genre much further then anybody today would even dream of trying.

However, no matter what the song, no matter what the style, running like a constant thread through every song in the ever changing pattern of a complex tapestry tying multiple images together are the blues. They are the solid bedrock which all the tunes on the disc are rooted in. In some ways it seems like he was stripping his music down to its bare bones and finding new ways to clothe them. Unlike others Hendrix wasn't going to be satisfied with merely rehashing the same old format. Instead he was reinventing what was possible and pushing the blues and its associated genres in directions no one else was or has considered.

Hendrix will always be remembered for his incandescent guitar work and the wild abandon he brought to music. However lost amid the sound of the pale imitations trying to copy the original was the inventive and innovative soul constantly seeking to find new modes of expression. Listening to People, Hell & Angels is an opportunity to peek into the mind of an artist at work as he explores his media and the possibilities it offers for expression. These might not be finished songs or even the most polished of efforts, but they are invaluable and worth listening to none the less. We have no way of knowing what Hendrix would have accomplished had he lived. However, if this release is anything to go by he would have always been two or three steps ahead of everyone else.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - People, Hell and Angels on Blogcritics.)



February 17, 2013

Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (Intravenous)


There's a very fine line between being dramatic and melodramatic in pop music. Two singers can use almost the same style of presentation with one of them going over the top and the other sounding perfectly believable. If there is one style of singing that lends itself to this type of abuse more than others I'd have to say it would be the ethereal voiced singer who barely whispers his or her lyrics. Like those who seem to think the louder I sing the more emotional I sound these believe the wispier I am the more sincere and earnest I sound.

Unfortunately most of them just end up being annoying. You either can't make out a word they're saying as their vocals are swamped by the inevitable atmospheric music they always seem to choose as accompaniment or when you can hear them their voice is so precious it makes you want to scream. It's as if they'd never heard the word substance and figure if they sound deep and mysterious enough the audience won't care they're not really singing about anything.

It becomes increasingly obvious how artificial most of these singers sound when you hear someone like Diana Darby. Her most recent release, IV (intravenous), on her own Delmore Recordings label, is a collection of twelve thoughtful and moving songs. Those familiar with her previous work will be aware of her very individualistic style of singing which borders on being lighter than air. However, Darby distinguishes herself from others both in the way her vocals are an organic extension of her material and her range of expression. She doesn't spend the whole recording whispering to us in a more earnest than thou voice. Instead she comes across as a real person, not some will of the wisp whose just nipped in from a New Age version of the fairy realm.
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With songs dealing with everything from mourning the passing of a pet dog to a fundamentalist parent who delights in telling her family they're all going to hell her material isn't what you'd call typical of pop music. The low pitched intensity of her voice suits this type of material. There's an introspective quality to the material which demands a certain level of quiet contemplation. As you listen you can see how her voice fits with her songs and any other vocal approach wouldn't sound right.

Sometimes the softness of her voice is an expression of compassion for her subject while at other times it makes her lyrics stand out with shocking intensity. "Looking For Trouble", the disc's opening track, is a lament for the death of her own dog sung in the third person. "You keep/looking for trouble/looking for trouble/Don't you girl/You think/He will come to you/But you/Don't know what he'll do". At first listen it's not clear what the song is about. In fact, unless you read her website and find out Darby's dog Trouble died recently you might think its about a woman who chooses to date the wrong guy all the time.

At first the lyrics seem ambiguous, but when you start to think about them in terms of losing a pet they make a lot of sense. You hear a noise and you turn around expecting it to be the animal and are reminded again of its absence when you don't see it. Looking doesn't mean you're searching for the animal, it means you keep thinking you'll see it. By singing about herself in the third person she prevents this song from becoming maudlin. She doesn't try and describe how sad or emotional she was made by the animal's death. What she details instead is what's it like to experience the hole left in our lives by the sudden absence of a familiar presence. Long after we think we're done with our mourning it still comes as a shock to realize whoever it is we're missing is never going to walk into the room again.

Darby doesn't try and elicit sympathy from us with her voice on this song with any forced trembling or other such silliness. She just gently talks about the circumstances. In fact by talking about her experiences in the third person it's like she's offering sympathy to those who have experienced what the song describes. In doing this she's able to create a bridge with her audience based on real emotions. She's able to take a subject which could easily lend itself to sentimentality and turn into a universal statement on death, loss and the grieving process.

It's hard to imagine what it would be like to have a person in your family who tries to force their religious beliefs down everyone else's throat. In the her song "Heaven" Darby describes a family whose mother spends her time telling her children they and their father are going to Hell. "My mother worries we were not Baptized/My mother worries we can't be with her/My mother says it's written in the verse/We won't go to Heaven/We won't go to Heaven". As in the previously mentioned song Darby describes what's going on without passing judgement or reacting emotionally to what the mother says.
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It's as if she trusts us to form our own opinions.Try and imagine how'd you feel if your mother told you stuff like "Your father's going to Hell because he's Jewish", or if you don't accept Christ as your king you'll go to Hell? She says lines like these and the ones quoted above with almost no inflection. The words stand out like bold type in dark black ink on a clean white sheet of paper. There's a starkness to them which makes you feel empty. What kind of person could say such cruel things to and about people they supposedly love? Maybe somebody who held to the same belief system as the person speaking those words would see it differently, but what kind of person would tell their children their other parent is going to hell?

Darby's songs aren't going to be for everyone. They're not innocuous pop songs with a bouncy beat and happy go lucky lyrics which are going to make you want to dance. What they do offer is emotionally honest takes on life told in a straightforward and uncomplicated manner. She does show occasional flights of whimsy which break the disc up. In the song "Ugly Little Toad" she creates a parable about sustainable living through her description of a toad who depletes the food in his little pond through greed. Cute and funny it still leaves no doubt in your mind what's she talking about and stresses the importance of sustainable living better than most so called environmental songs.

Darby is an intelligent songwriter with a unique voice. Unlike others who affect either an airy or an earnestly subdued tone when they sing, her quietness is a natural extension of her material. Introspective without naval gazing, when she turns her eye inwards she also manages to see beyond herself. So whether she's describing something highly personal like the death of her dog or talking about an issue, she finds a way of doing so which almost anybody will be able to identify with. Take some time out of your day and sit and listen to this disc, it will be time well spent.

(Article first published as Music Review: Diana Darby - IV (intravenous) on Blogcritics)

February 12, 2013

Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972


Popular music is littered with the corpses of performers who died before their time. Some of them burned out on drugs and alcohol, others went by accident and a few were killed by somebody else's hand. With many of them dying during what should have been the prime of their careers, their musical legacies are often clouded. A kind of cult of the dead seems to have sprung up around many of them distorting their true significance and preventing any clear eyed assessment of their music. Yet, while some have been elevated to near iconic status for apparently no other reason than their untimely deaths, others of real talent are barely remembered.

Of those who slipped through the cracks of popular music history not making the kind of impression on the public at large his music merited, singer/songwriter Townes Van Zandt's story is probably the most poignant. Born to a well off Texas family in 1944 Van Zandt stood out even as a kid when he was recognized as having a genius IQ. However a diagnosis of manic depression (bipolar disorder) in 1962 led him to being institutionalized and receiving three months of insulin shock therapy which erased most of his long term memory. After flirting with a few other options; university (he was accepted into pre-law), the Air Force (rejected on the basis of being a severe manic depressive) he began to pursue a career as a singer songwriter in 1967.

During his life most of his success came from other people's recordings of his music. Emmlou Harris had a hit in 1981 with his "If I Needed You" and Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard took "Pancho and Lefty" to number one on the country charts in 1983. Musicians ranging from Bob Dylan (who claims to have every album Van Zandt recorded) to Norah Jones have cited Van Zandt as an influence and Steve Earle recorded an album of Van Zandt covers in 2009 simply entitled Townes. After his death in 1997, and the legal bother of figuring out who owned the rights to his music was resolved, his recordings started to show up in movie and television show soundtracks. Probably the most famous of these is his cover of the Rolling Stone's song "Dead Flowers" which plays over the closing credits of the Coen brother's movie, The Big Lebowski.
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Unfortunately a great many of the recordings he made during his lifetime, especially those when he was at his most prolific during the early 1970s, ended up being overproduced. Even the producer of those albums, "Cowboy" Jack Clement admits he went somewhat over the top. In the same review of a reissue of Van Zandt's 1968 For The Sake Of The Song which quotes Clement, the album is described as being so overproduced it would make a Southern Gospel album hang its head in shame. Thankfully it turns out there were recordings made of Van Zandt's material prior to Clement adding all his bells and whistles. With the approval of his estate Omnivore Recordings has put together a two disc set, Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions & Demos 1971 - 1972 featuring some of Van Zandt's best work.

The first thing you'll notice about Van Zandt is his voice. Initially it may strike you as being almost thin, lacking the timber or body we're used to in our pop singers. However, there's hardly anybody quite as mesmerizing. Something about his delivery or his expression leaves you hanging onto every word. You'll quickly realize what he's saying and how he says are of equal importance. The first song on disc one, the "Unreleased Studio Sessions", is a cover of the Jimmie Rodgers standard "T For Texas". While Van Zandt is faithful down to including the yodel refrain, his somewhat ironic delivery makes you question the sentimental nature of the lyrics. Yet at the same time, you know he's not making fun of the song. There might have been a girl called Thelma, but we can also tell by the way he sings the line, "T is for Thelma/that girl who made a mess outa me", she's not the one responsible for the mess he's in.

Then there's "Blue Ridge Mountains", the fifth song on this disc. Musically it sounds like your typical 'mountain music' song. One about the joys of life back home and how the singer yearns for what was the simpler days of his youth. Until you get to the last line of the refrain which opens the song, "I ain't comin' back here anymore". This prepares you for what's to come. For while he sings the song with a yearning quality we've come to associate with the "wish I were back home in the country" type of song, the lyrics tell you how he really feels. "I've seen this whole wide country over/from New York City down to Mexico/and I've seen the joyful and the sorrow/and I ain't comin' back here anymore".

Normally this type of song would have the singer saying just the opposite of the sentiments expressed in the previous verse. No matter what charms big cities and foreign locales have to offer, nothing compares to my old home. Well Van Zandt has no illusions. The wide world has plenty to offer and why in the world would anybody want to go back to living in the back woods after having experienced it? As this song makes obvious, false sentimentality had no place in Van Zandt's world. Others might pretend they would trade civilization for a dirt floor cabin with no running water or electricity, but not him.
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However Van Zandt was more than just irony, he could write and sing songs that would break your heart. "Sad Cinderella", track 11 on disc one, is about facing up to reality after having been treated as something special for no real reason. Whether through beauty, wealth or popularity individuals are elevated to the status of royalty and then just as suddenly have it all taken away. "When your magazine memory has spun you around/and you realize your lovers were just painted clowns/and outside the window you start hearing the sounds/where they're building a cross for to burn you".

Sung with no adornment save for his empathy and compassion, Van Zandt made this song into one of the most beautiful condemnations of what we do to people in our desire for celebrities. What's even more amazing is he wrote this in the early 1970s when celebrity worship was nothing compared to what exists today. It's a bittersweet reminder there're human beings behind the gossip and the headlines. It also shows off Van Zandt's uncanny ability as a songwriter to find those words which cut to the heart of a subject emotionally and intellectually without beating a point into the ground.

While many of the songs on disc two ("The Demos") duplicate those on the first disc, hearing Van Zandt sing them almost unaccompanied save for his guitar (a couple have a second guitar or other basic accompaniment) allows us even more of a chance to appreciate his voice. There's a rawness to his singing that's kind of like an exposed nerve. In fact some feel so personal it's almost as if your overhearing a private conversation between Van Zandt and the subject of the song. However, it's not all heartbreak and sorrow as he had a keen eye for the absurd and a wonderfully dry sense of humour.

For those of you who have never heard Van Zandt, and those who have always loved his music, the two disc collection Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 is a treasure to be savoured. Not only does it contain a great mix of his material and covers, his version of "Who Do You Love" will knock you on your ass, its him as he was meant to be heard. No strings, no horns or any of the other bells and whistles his producer piled on the songs after they were recorded. Just him and a band playing music unlike just about anything you've heard. You might think you recognize elements of others in some of these songs, but then you'll remember when he recorded them. He might not have gained the popularity or acclaim he deserved while alive, but his legacy is assured through those he influenced.

( Article first published as Music Review: Townes Van Zandt - Sunshine Boy: The Unheard Studio Sessions and Demos 1971-1972 on Blogcritics.)



January 16, 2013

Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra


I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Erin McKeown's new release Manifestra. The only examples of her work I'd heard to date had been YouTube videos of her performing solo and the satirical black comedy anti-Christmas disc, F*ck That she released in 2011. While I felt fairly comfortable in predicting this latest release wouldn't be as, shall we say, extreme as the former, I thought it would continue in the same pattern. A mix of agit-prop folk music and dark humour making wry but intelligent commentary on society today.

While there had been mention on her web site about a band, it didn't click in this was a permanent arrangement. So I was caught off guard when the opening song on the disc, "The Politician", saw her accompanied by the full compliment of a rock and roll band and effects galore. As the disc progressed it became increasingly obvious she was far more sophisticated and versatile a musician then I had realized. While I had previously been impressed by both her singing and guitar playing, not to mention her skills as a lyricist, this album shows she's much more than just another singer/songwriter plucking on her faithful six string and singing about the world's injustices.
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Don't get me wrong, there's nothing wrong with that type of music. However, to take the impetus behind it and create something far more musically and intellectually sophisticated as McKeown does on this disc is indicative of an artistry you don't see very often in pop music. Politics aren't limited to the decisions made by those we put in power and what occurs on the world stage trickles down into the fabric of our lives whether we know it or not. Without flow charts or pointers McKeown's songs go beyond the headlines and issues. What's done in our name as a country or a people will always shape our society. Like the proverbial butterfly wings flapping here being felt on the other side of the world, those currents are part of our pulse whether we know it or not.

"The nature of the jailer is/to do just what he pleases/but when we hang another man/part of us dies with him/lock up your soul piece by piece/then tell me just what love is", McKeown sings in "The Jailer". When it comes to arguments about capital punishment most people talk about vengeance or its effectiveness as a deterrent. Some might question a state's right to take a person's life and others play on people's fears. However, hardly anybody looks at the cost passed down to every citizen when a government kills their fellow citizens in their name. McKeown asks us to consider what's being taught when the law allows people to be killed. How can we really understand what love is when we sanction murder? When an individual kills another person it's a horrendous crime against love and yet it's not when the state does it? Doesn't anyone else find that confusing?

Even the more overtly political song, "Baghdad to the Bayou", isn't what I'd call typical of the genre. Instead of a litany of complaints or an attack on somebody or something it expresses the hope generated by the people's revolts that have been occurring around the world. "Street by street we will repeat/ the revolutions of the spring/you can't stop a people/when a people start to sing". Referencing both the Occupy Movements and the Arab Spring the song puts leaders everywhere on notice people aren't as inclined to be as unquestioningly obedient as they might have been in the past. The last line of the last verse, "We want accountability", capture what's been at the heart of each of those movements.
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In doing so MeKeown and co-writer Rachel Maddow have managed to bring back the feelings of hope these movements generated. Some of the dreams may have soured, Egypt has taken some nasty steps backwards and none of the occupations seem to have changed anything, but that doesn't mean people have gone back to sleep again. There have been too many examples in recent years of how a concentrated effort by a motivated population can be a powerful force for change. "Baghdad to the Bayou" is a spirited and timely reminder for all of us who may have forgotten what's been accomplished over the past few years.

Earlier I had mentioned being surprised by the variety of musical styles McKeown employed on this disc.In fact there's no two songs employing the same approach musically. Each song has been carefully arranged and produced so its lyrical content is given emotional and atmospheric context and support by the music. "The Jailer" is a punchy mix of R&B and jazz which underlines the potency of certain lines and gives the song a richness and texture that makes you take notice. Musically it captures the feelings of defiance the song expresses and the warnings of the dangers we face by abdicating control of our lives to a few powerful individuals without missing a beat or attempting to manipulate the listener.

I've chosen this song to cite as an example, but every song on this disc is a lesson on how to marry lyrics and music to create something greater than the sum of its parts. For while there's no denying the potency of McKeown's lyrics, by fleshing the songs out with additional instrumentation and careful orchestration their power is increased ten-fold. As part of this release McKeown has included a second disc, Civics, containing solo acoustic versions of the tracks on Manifestra. While you can hear hints of what the end results, it's like looking at an artist's preliminary sketches for a painting. You get the general idea, but they've nothing of the full impact of the finished product.

There are musicians out there who sing about issues and don't pay much attention to the music. There're far too many making music these days who have nothing to say and try to hide their lack of thought behind layers of sound. McKeown is one of the few who not only have something to say but the artistry and talent to create songs both intellectually and musically stimulating. Not only was Manifestra fun to listen to, it also makes you think. You can't ask for a better combination.

(Article first published as Music Review: Erin McKeown - Manifestra on Blogcritics.)

December 31, 2012

My Ten Favourite Recordings of 2012


I don't have any idea the number of press releases I received over the course of the past year announcing yet another CD of music being released by someone. Conservatively I'd say they would have to numbered well into the thousands. Based on those numbers for me to claim I can select the ten best releases of 2012 borders on being ridiculous. However, out of the releases I released I offer you the ten I liked the most. These are the discs which have ended up on my I-pod and I will be listening to them for years to come. Hopefully you'll be encouraged to check them out and find out why I thought they were special.

Martha Redbone Roots Project - The Garden Of Love - The Songs Of William Blake When most people refer to Americana or roots music they tend to forget about two important musical traditions. Redbone and her band created an album which blends the Native, African and Anglo/Irish/Scot American roots of North American music with the words of poet William Blake. The result are wonderfully vivid versions of Blake's work. With Redbone's splendid voice leading a masterful group of musicians you'll not only gain a new appreciation for the poems but broaden your definition of roots music.

Patti Smith - Patti Smith Live At Montreux 2005 As far as I'm concerned any release by Patti Smith is a special occasion. A DVD of her in concert is something to really celebrate, especially when its as well filmed and recorded as this one. Her regular band is augmented by the inclusion of lead guitarist and old friend, Tom Verlaine and they play a selection of tunes from her whole career to date. A live recording also is the chance to see her and the band step outside the box with improvised solos you won't find on studio recordings. Listening to Smith is great, being able to her watch her perform live is even better.

Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind The fact the Ben Folds Five are a trio should tell you something about the band even before you first listen to them. Intelligent, witty and an ability to create finely crafted pop songs make this unlikely group of pop musicians not only fun to listen to, but interesting as well. Lyrics which make you think combined with music that veers between power pop and torch songs - sometimes in the same tune - aren't what I've come to expect from most bands these days. However, that's the beauty of this band - they defy expectations with panache.

Jason Collet - Reckon If there were any justice in the world of pop music everybody would have heard of Jason Collet. Funny, irreverent and emotionally honest he tackles both topical and personal subjects in ways everyone could take a lesson from. He manages to show how the former impacts individuals and turns the latter into statements with universal appeal. If you've never heard him before do yourself a favour and pick up this disc. Your won't regret it.

Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years Sure Strummer has been dead for a decade now, but as this digital download of fifty plus songs culled from live concerts, unreleased tracks and the three studio albums he released with The Mescaleros shows, his music remains as vital today as it ever was. While more musically sophisticated than his recordings with The Clash, this music retains an edge which allows him to cut through the shit and get to the heart of a subject. For all you Strummer fans out there, and those who missed out on the Mescaleros' years, this collection is a must have.

Mark Knopfler - Privateering There are some guys still playing who you wish would just do us all a favour and retire already. Knopfler isn't one of them. This collection of songs proves he's still a master when it comes to song writing and guitar playing. His ability to write about a variety of subjects with sensitivity and intelligence is if anything even stronger then ever and his guitar playing remains some of the most subtle and beguiling in the buisness. As comfortable as a favourite sweater, but much more exciting, this is music you'll listen to for a long time to come.

Public Image Limited - This Is PIL It's been forty plus years since John Lyndon (aka Johnny Rotten) first set people's teeth on edge with his in your face image and iconoclastic music. He might not dress to shock anymore, but his music is still as unstintingly acerbic and challenging as it ever was. With this latest album from PIL he and the band show they are still musically interesting and fiercely independent. A great reminder of pop music's ability to unsettle and question the status quo with intelligence and wit.

Ray Wylie Hubbard - The Grifter's Hymnal One of the great Texas outlaw musicians is back with another disc of gritty and real songs. Part autobiographical and part mythological his latest disc is an irreverent but heartfelt look at music and life. You won't hear any of Hubbard's music on your local country radio station, or any other radio station for that matter, mainly because he has a disturbing habit of speaking his mind. Honest, gruff and firmly rooted in reality its the best music to come out of Texas in years.

Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil After raising over a million dollars through her Kickstarter campaign to produce, promote and tour this album Palmer was thrust into the role of standard bearer for independent music producers. Almost lost amidst all the fuss was the excellence of the resulting album. While she made her name as a quirky and intelligent solo artist, this disc sees her step into the role of front person for a rock and roll band without missing a beat. More musically sophisticated than any of her previous releases, lyrically she's still as insightful and thought provoking as ever. While she's an adherent of the school of rock and roll as theatre, substance never takes a back seat to style. One of today's most exciting and dynamic performers has finally taken centre stage and pop music will never be the same again.

Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird Somehow or other Rudd manages to produce record after record of topical material without ever sounding preachy or self-aggrandizing. He makes no apologies for singing about the exploitation of the environment and how it endangers life on the planet. Playing a combination of traditional and modern instruments his music is the perfect accompaniment to his lyrics. Simple and powerful his songs work on us both intellectually and emotionally without resorting to manipulation or guilt. He sings about facts, dreams and hope - asking us to join him and others in changing the way things are currently done. A brilliant musician and gifted songwriter he'll have you rethinking the way you look at the world.

Article first published as My Ten Favourite Recordings Of 2012 on Blogcritics.)

December 16, 2012

DVD Review: The Point


Quick pop culture quiz. Name the first full length animated feature produced specifically for television. Need a hint? It was based on an album of pop songs and first aired in 1971. Unfortunately I wouldn't be surprised if you've never heard of either the movie or the man who wrote the music it was based on. The Point, based on the album of the same name by American song writer Harry Nilsson and directed and animated by Fred Wolf was first aired on ABC with a cast that included Dustin Hoffman in the lead role.

Like its creator the film has unfortunately almost been forgotten, existing only as a faint memory for those who remember one of the times it was broadcast. However, with the movie being given a new life on DVD by the MVD Entertainment Group hopefully both Nilsson and The Point will gain some of the recognition they richly deserve. After the initial broadcast Hoffman's voice had to be overdubbed out of the production due to contractual conflicts. So the voice you now hear in the key role of narrator/father is that of former Beatle Ringo Starr. Aside from that, you'll be seeing the movie just as it was originally broadcast.

To today's sophisticated audience I'm sure the animation will look excessively primitive. For everything was still drawn by hand in the early 1970s. So instead of the detailed and lifelike cartoons we have grown accustomed to thanks to computer generated animation, this has a very rough sketch like quality to it. Backgrounds are primarily washes of colour while foregrounds and characters will seem like crude drawings compared to today's offerings. However, once you allow yourself to become wrapped up in the story, you'll find the technical details won't matter. In fact, the rather sur-real quality they create actually helps create the fantastical atmosphere which is part of the movie's charm.
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Told as a bed time story by a father (Starr) to his son, The Point recounts the adventures of Oblio and his dog Arrow. Oblio is born in the town of Point, which gets its name from the fact everybody and everything has a point. From the pyramid shaped buildings to the tops of each person's head there's not a round object in the place. That is until little Oblio is born without a point. Naturally his difference is quite the talking point (get used to it, there are any number of play on words around the word "point" employed in the movie) but things only come to a head when Oblio and Arrow show up The Count's son in a game of ring toss. The Count forces the King of Point to banish Oblio to the Pointless Forrest for being in contravention of the law stating everybody in Point must have a point.

So little Oblio and Arrow venture into the Pointless forrest where they meet with all kinds of strange and mysterious individuals. From the beatnik like "Rock Man" - a large creature made of stones who espouses a kind of hip philosophy of acceptance - to the triple headed pointed man, each help the young boy see that you don't need to be pointed to have a point. As Nilsson had originally told the story through song on his album The Point the action of the move is aided and accentuated by his music. Sometimes whimsical and often fantastic, when combined with the animator Wolf's visuals the songs are what give this movie its real magic.

Whether simply expounding on the relationship between a lonely boy and his pet with "Me And My Arrow", expanding on the themes of the story, "Think About Your Troubles", or exploring the differences between reality and fantasy in "Are You Sleeping", the songs both help tell the story and create an emotional bond between the viewer and Oblio. Like the movie itself the music never lectures or pontificates, instead it helps us see there is more than one way of looking at the world. In the town of Point Oblio was subject to the law that different is bad. However, out in the rest of the world he discovers there are all sorts of creatures without points but that doesn't prevent them from having a point.

What's nice about this movie is the time it takes allowing Oblio to make his discoveries. Over the course of the movie we watch as he comes to the realization that different is not bad and therefore he is of worth. Unlike a lot of stuff today where everything is about the quick fix, this movie understands we all need time to accept new things and to learn how to appreciate them. Especially when it comes to learning new things about ourselves that go against everything we've been told. If you've been made to feel different or odd all your life learning to like yourself and understand you have value is not easy. Watching Oblio take this journey will be edifying for anyone, young or old, who has ever felt out of place and different.
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Included along with the movie on the DVD are special features about both the movie and Nilsson. Hopefully the biographical details about Nilsson and the testimonials to his talent included in these features will encourage a new generation of people to explore his music. Unfortunately he pretty much stopped recording after the death of his great friend John Lennon in 1980 and instead worked on trying to get tougher gun laws passed. Still, when he died of heart failure in 1994 he left behind a legacy of 13 studio albums and four movie soundtracks - including the soundtrack to Robert Altman's Popeye starring Robin Williams.

The special features also include an interview with animator Fred Wolf who not only describes the process they went through to create the movie, but how Nilsson managed to convince ABC to make it. After many fruitless attempts to made an appointment with the head of the studio, he found out the man was taking a plane from Los Angeles to New York City. Nilsson proceeded to phone airline after airline until he found out which flight the man was on and then booked the seat next to him on the plane. By the end of the flight he had convinced the man that his station should produce and air a cartoon that hadn't even been filmed or scripted yet.

To eyes used to the high tech computerized animation of today The Point will look decidedly primitive. However the message of tolerance conveyed by the music and the movie are still as relevant today as they were in 1971. There's also a certain amount of charm and wonder to be found in watching something that was entirely drawn by hand and then filmed frame by frame as this was. Take the time and sit down with a child and watch The Point, you might be surprised to find out how much you both enjoy it.

(Article first published as DVD Review: The Point on Blogcritics

December 12, 2012

Television Review: The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour


Every year around this time there always seems to be something new being released associated with The Beatles. Those of you not old enough to have been alive when the group was still together must wonder what the hell is so special about a group who have been disbanded for over forty years. To be honest with even for those of us who were around it's easy to forget what made them special and distinguished them from the rest of the pack of pop bands. I don't listen to them very often anymore, in fact I don't even think I own a single one of their records, so I don't have many opportunities to be reminded of what the magic was all about.

However, when ever I do go back and dip into their catalogue, especially the stuff recorded from 1966 onwards, I'm struck once again by not only their inventiveness, but the musicianship and artistry that went into their work. By 1967 they had stopped touring and really didn't have anything to prove to anyone anymore. They were ruling the international pop charts and looking for new worlds to conquer. Although they all briefly experimented with Transcendental Meditation, with the exception of George Harrison, their hearts were never really into it. They were too curious, too interested in doing things and experimenting with their art to simply sit around and naval gaze all day. It was out of that insatiable urge to explore that was born one of their most controversial projects, the one hour movie The Magical Mystery Tour.

Originally aired on British television as a Boxing Day special (December 27) in 1967 it shocked people who were used to the four cute/mad cap guys featured in their previous movies A Hard Day's Night and Help. Instead what they got was an apparently haphazard collection of seemingly unconnected scenes concerning what happens to a group of people taking a bus tour together. After this one appearance on television the movie pretty much disappeared from view. Occasionally grainy prints of the film would show up, but the quality was so poor as to be almost unwatchable. Now, all these years later, its finally being restored and North American television audiences are going to be treated to their first opportunity to see it in their homes.
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Thanks to the good people at the Public Broadcasting Systems' (PBS) show Great Performances Friday December 14 2012 will not only see the broadcast of Magical Mystery Tour at 10:00 pm, directly preceding the movie viewers will also have the chance to see the documentary Magical Mystery Tour Revisited. Airing at 9:00 pm it will you in on the back story behind the film. (Please check local listings for dates and times) If you miss this airing of the film, don't worry, because this new remastered version is also being made available for sale in a Blu-Ray/DVD combo package with special features that seem to include most of the documentary as well.

I had previously tried to watch one of the aforementioned crappy versions of the film, so was very interested in seeing what it would be like with good quality sound and clean visuals. One of the problems for a North American audience will be we're not familiar with the concept of the "Coach Trip" - climbing onto a bus with a group of strangers and touring around for the day looking at sites. However in England, especially in the 1950s and the 1960s, this was a very common outing especially among working and middle class families like those the members of The Beatles grew up in. One of the observations made in the documentary is how much of the imagery used in the film would have been taken from the Beatles' childhoods and how much of it would have been very familiar to other English people at the time.

Village fairs and church socials would have featured things like sack races, tugs of war and races while novelty acts like midget wrestlers were common at side shows. The Beatles might not have been part of that world by the time they made the movie, but it was the world they grew up in and obviously had some fond memories of. However, they also understood the rather limited world view it represented and deliberately created a rather cartoonish version of it for their movie. However, there was nothing cruel about the depiction, it was more along the lines of gentle teasing that showed while they remembered these type of events they had long since out grown them.

If The Magical Mystery Tour was about anything it was about the joy of doing something just for the sake of doing it. The Beatles decided they wanted to make a movie and this was the result. They played with camera effects, different filters and various lenses to create distortion and multiple exposures. They took stock pieces from British Musical Hall and turned them on their head. The grand finale to the movie with them singing and dancing to "Your Mother Should Know" while dressed in white tail coats. (Notice while the other three have red roses in their button holes, Paul McCartney's is black - which was probably used to fuel the "Paul is dead rumours" that began circulating soon after) That none of them could really dance, made the sequence all the funnier. They manage to make it down the grand flight of stairs relatively in step, but once they hit level ground John Lennon and Ringo Starr especially seem to have a hard time walking and moving their arms at the same time.

As the interviews in The Magical Mystery Tour Revisited make clear, the movie wasn't meant to be taken seriously. It was done for the fun of doing it and to experiment with doing new things. Even the songs included in the movie itself, "I'm The Walrus", "Fool On The Hill", "Blue Jay Way", "Your Mother Should Know" and the title song "Magical Mystery Tour" were not standard Beatles fare. While Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had just been released and had shown them starting to experiment with studio effects, these songs were just that much more out there. Ranging from the archaic to the psychedelic they all would have come as a surprise to those used to the nice safe pop songs of their early years.
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While people like Martin Scorsese and Peter Fonda weigh in on the significance of the film in the documentary, as well as some of those who were actually in the film, the most interesting bits in it are the commentary provided by McCartney and Starr. From Starr we learn that the movie was McCartney's idea. As the only unmarried member of the band at the time McCartney spent a lot of time checking out the avant-garde theatre and film scene in London. He also had picked up some rather basic film cameras and had begun playing with them and creating short films. So he came up with concept for the film and then assigned each of the others various scenes to write. However he was also fascinated with the idea of improvisation and decided things should be kept free and easy and allowed cast and crew to create spontaneously in front of the camera.

While the psychedelic era was also known for drug use, and there have been all sorts of rumours circulating about LSD and the Beatles, the subject of drugs and the film is almost completely avoided. The one brief reference to drugs is made by Starr when he's talking about experimenting with the different lenses used for filming the sequence of Harrison performing "Blue Jay Way". He says, in almost an aside something along the lines of various "medicines" available at the time made the effects even more fun to watch.

If you tune in to watch The Magical Mystery Tour on your local PBS station later this week don't be expecting to see a highly polished film. However, if you let yourself go along for the ride, you'll find yourself having a good time. You'll also come away with a new appreciation for both The Beatles sense of the absurd and their willingness to experiment. They had to have known the movie was never going to be popular and was bound to shock a number of people, but that didn't stop them. Can you picture any other band at the peak of their popularity taking this kind of risk?

To our eyes it will seem rather tame and the effects rather primitive, but for the time it must have been rather shocking to a mainstream audience. When it aired on Boxing Day in 1967 it followed a nice safe Petula Clark Christmas special. Imagine the family gathered around their television set the day after Christmas and being presented with The Magical Mystery Tour - even today I can think of any number of people who wouldn't consider it appropriate fare for the holidays. If you've never seen it before, or are like me and only seen a crap copy of it, this impeccably restored version will be a treat. Meet The Beatles all over again and remember what it was that made them so special.

(Article first published as Television Review: Magical Mystery Tour Revisited & The Magical Mystery Tour on Blogcritics)

December 6, 2012

DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72


In these days of the media's attention so focused on the lives of those we consider celebrities it can be hard to believe there was a time when a trip behind the scenes into the life of a pop musician or film star was considered something out of the ordinary. Yet it wasn't too long ago that the idea of a camera crew following a celebrity around was considered a novelty. In those more innocent times it wasn't a matter of media trying to uncover scandals or revealing secrets. In fact the sole purpose of these early reports from backstage seemed more concerned with humanizing larger than life figures.

At least that's the impression one gets watching the footage taken by famous rock and roll photographer Bob Gruen and his wife Nadya of Ike and Tina Turner. Using one of the first ever portable video cameras, Gruen and his wife joined the Turners and their band on the road and at home for their 1971-72 tour. Now, forty years later, the footage taken during this time has been cut, edited and digitally remastered as Ike & Tina Turner - On The Road: 1971 - 72, and released on DVD by MVD Entertainment Group.
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Needless to say video technology was in its infancy in those days. According to Gruen's notes the camera was loaded with tapes similar to those used on old reel to reel audio equipment. The picture quality wasn't the greatest. In low light the image would darken to the point where the screen would almost be black and in bright light it would blanch out. The audio was mono only and would tend to distort if the source was too loud and pick up any and all ambient noise in the surrounding vicinity. If this were filmed today we would just throw it out as garbage. However, as a historical record of a bygone era and for the look it allows us into the lives of one of rock and roll's more controversial husband and wife teams, its an invaluable document.

The sad demise of Ike and Tina Turner's marriage has been well documented. The abuse she received at his hands and sneaking out of their hotel room with only change in her pocket is all that most think about when their life together is brought up. In his liner notes for the DVD Gruen says the footage he shot shows why they were together for twenty years. While I'm not sure it accomplishes that goal, what this DVD does is remind us of just how incredible the band was at the height of their performing prowess. While I'm sure there's still footage from their periodic television appearances, I can't see any network in the early 1970s airing some of the footage included in this DVD.

If in the 1950s they wouldn't film Elvis below the waist and in the 1960s demanded the Rolling Stones change the line "let's spend the night together" to "let's spend some time together", there's no way they would have allowed the full unbridled sexuality of Ike and Tina on the air in the 1970s. It must have been hard enough to get Tina and the Ikette's dance moves approved for prime time television. This is a band that reminds you of the word funk's origins with almost every note they play. Even considering the poor quality of some of the footage there's no disguising the fact their music wasn't the safe anti-septic stuff being churned out by Motown for mass consumption. They were playing down and dirty funk and R&B which makes even most of today's rappers look tame in comparison.

At least 50% of the film, if not more, was taken off stage. There's footage of Tina at home with the kids making supper and going grocery shopping like any housewife. However, even standing over a stove cooking, out of the slinky costumes and wigs she wore on stage, her natural glamour and presence shine through. Of course not everybody's house in those days has an in ground swimming pool, a sunken living room and a Grammy trophy on the mantle piece. Yet in spite of these things we also see a fairly typical domestic situation for the time period. Wife and kids hanging at the house.
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Interestingly enough, Ike never appears in the footage shot at home. We only ever see him in work related situations. Backstage, rehearsing the band, or in the studio Ike's presence is inescapable, but we hardly ever see the two of them alone together. Taciturn to the point of almost hardly ever talking except during rehearsals, I can't recall him saying anything not related to business during the entire DVD. Even then he doesn't say much. However, there's no doubt he's the one running the show musically. Watching him lead the band on stage and in rehearsals he's like a conductor. Even during concerts he would tend to stand facing the audience in profile so he could cue the band when required.

Of course, with Tina out front nobody was going to be paying much attention to anybody else anyway. She could blow the doors off an auditorium with her voice one moment and the next bring you to tears with her gentleness. She's pulling an audience to their feet and getting them dancing in the aisles and then sitting them back down again to break their hearts. Then there's her dancing. While your mind tells you she has to have her feet on the ground, your eyes are telling you a different story. Like some exotic bird she seems to float above the stage all the while twisting and twirling like an ecstatic dervish.

Unlike others who dance with only their arms and their legs, her whole body is involved. It's like every muscle is attuned to the music and responds to what's being played. It might start with her hands or her feet, but soon it can't be contained and her whole body explodes into motion. However it's not an uncontrolled flailing around either. For no matter how fast or involved her movements she's always able to stay centred on a song's rhythm and its that pulse which lies at the base of everything she does.

As an historical record of just how incredible Ike and Tina Turner were at the peak of their career there's no questioning the value of this DVD. However, in spite of what Gruen says in his liner notes there's no evidence of them having anything in common aside from the music. Nothing of what we see of them together in this movie indicates an emotional bond existed between them. In fact we learn almost nothing about Ike except that he was completely devoted to his music. Maybe he was just a very shy man, or very private, but don't go looking for anything that will give you any insights into their private life, because you won't find it here.

While the majority of the DVD is taken from the black and white footage Gruen shot with his early model video camera, there are a few pieces of colour film spliced into it that were shot at the same time. Unfortunately all they serve to do is make the flaws in the video even more obvious. Some of the times parts of the image on screen is blacked out because of low light, and other times the exposure is off because the ambient light was too bright. However, that doesn't stop this DVD from being something special to watch. The music created by Ike and Tina Turner was some of the most amazing R&B/soul/funk produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Any opportunity to see them perform shouldn't be missed. No matter what happened down the line, it can never be denied what they did together was amazing - it's just too bad it couldn't have lasted.

(Article first published as DVD Review: Ike & Tina On The Road 1971 - 72 on Blogcritics.)

November 29, 2012

Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005


It was 1982. Six of us were crammed into a Honda Civic driving through the night time streets of Toronto Ontario with Patti Smith's "Rock and Roll Nigger" blasting. We had the windows open in spite of the fact it was the middle of a January deep freeze, letting the music spill out into the darkness and cold. It was a classic rock and roll moment if there ever was one. Where music, time and place come together so all that exists in that moment is the song, its power and the way its relentless beat reverberates through body and soul.

That wasn't my first introduction to Smith, but it was the first time I'd fully experienced the power and intensity of her and her music. At that moment the song epitomized what rock and roll should be. It was a proclamation of independence and declaration of self delivered as an upraised middle finger to society. Yet perhaps its real appeal was how it perpetuated the romantic myth of the artist living on the edge. An outlaw who could see what others were blind to and had the nerve to speak those truths in public.

Over the years of listening to Smith's music I came to realize this was her reality. She wrote and sang about things others either couldn't see or weren't able to put into words. Maybe her fascination with photography, freezing moments in time with her Polaroid Land camera, inspired her to work towards the same effect with verse that she accomplished with film. However, unlike a photograph which is forever frozen, her songs take on new life each time she performs them. This feeling was reinforced watching the recently released DVD, Live At Montreux 2005, from Eagle Rock Entertainment, as she performed songs from the breadth of her career.
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While any performer worth his or her salt won't play a song the exact same way over and over again for thirty years, only someone as gifted as Smith will allow her material to evolve to meet the challenges of changing times and circumstances. Always pushing the envelope lyrically, on this night she and her band allowed the spirit of the jazz greats who had previously graced the festival's stage to imbue their music. As her long time stalwart and guitar player Lenny Kaye, commenting on the night's performance in his liner notes for the DVD, puts it: "Patti once again defines our credo: there are no definitions but those we choose to create for ourselves." This artist and her band will never be limited by labels or concern themselves with conforming to other's expectations of what they should sound like.

While the evening starts off gently enough with the reggae beat of "Redondo Beach", and its happy, welcoming sounds, Smith and company take the audience into far more unsettled waters with the second song, "Beneath The Southern Cross". Like the North Star is used to identify due north the Southern Cross was used by navigators in the South Pacific to fix due South. With its references to travel and exploration its placement in the set list couldn't have been accidental. Smith is preparing everyone to join her on a voyage of musical exploration and discovery.

From her earliest days as a performer reciting her poetry accompanied only by Kaye's guitar improvisation has played a big part in Smith's live performances. While she's best known for her singing and song writing abilities, she's also no mean slouch when it comes to her instrumental work. For although she's not technically skillful by any stretch of the imagination she has the unique ability to utilize both the electric guitar and her clarinet to create sounds which accent and elaborate on the mood of a piece. On the rendition of "25h Floor" included on this disc her electric guitar is a chaotic barrage of sound and noise creating a roar of defiance, anger and confusion.

The very rawness of her playing is what makes it so powerful. While the song's words might tell us what she's thinking, it's this lead which gives us a glimpse of the depth of her emotional commitment to her material. It's like we're being given a glimpse into her innermost reaches and seeing what's boiling beneath the surface. While her clarinet playing is more polished than her work with the electric guitar it too take us into a place of emotional rawness most pop musicians wouldn't dare venture into. "Seven Ways Of Going" is given an even deeper layer of mystery than normal with the inclusion of her clarinet solos. Its like an instinctual reaction to the music with Smith using the instrument to express those things mere language is incapable of articulating.
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One thing that becomes abundantly clear over the course of the concert is the level of anger and defiance Smith was feeling at the time. Even such apparently innocuous numbers like her cover of Bob Dylan's "Like A Rolling Stone" are delivered with a sneer and a level of distaste for the type of person the song describes you almost pity those she's pissed at. When "Because The Night", the only song she's ever written that could pass for a pop standard, becomes an expression of defiance, as if she's daring anyone to deny lovers the right to their nights, you know she's not happy with the direction the world is moving in. For she knows there are far too many people in the world who would deny people the chance to be lovers no matter what the time of day.

On this night Smith and her band, Kaye, Tony Shanahan (bass & keyboards) and Jay Dee Daugherty (drums) are joined by their fellow veteran of the New York City music scene Tom Verlaine on lead guitar. Seated off to one side it's almost as if he's in his own little world, but his guitar work is the perfect complement to the band's perfect storm of music. Like the eye of a hurricane he is calmness personified as he lays down his almost delicate leads. Yet each note he plays, whether with his slide or his fingers, stands out. He doesn't attempt to overpower, instead his guitar seems to appear when its needed in a particular song as if by magic to fill out the sound and add another layer of texture.

While there are no special features included in this DVD, as is usual for Eagle Rock concert DVDs, its technically superb. Aside from the normal surround sound options (DTS, and Dolby 5.1) the quality of the camera work and post production editing is some of the best you'll ever see when it comes to live concerts. From the beautifully focused close ups of Verlaine's fret board during his solos to the way in which they capture Smith's facial expressions while singing you're brought right up on stage. Cross fades from one shot to another have become overused to the point of cliche in concert recordings. So it was a pleasure to see them used sparingly and to great effect here. In fact the director even resisted the urge far too many succumb too of incessantly cutting back and forth between band members. Instead cameras linger lovingly on individuals allowing us to fully absorb and appreciate their performances. Watching and listening to Smith either while she's singing or hunched over her guitar squeezing sound and fury out of it we are gifted with an intimacy you'd never experience attending a concert.

For close to 40 years now Smith has been one of the most unique voices in popular music. Yet for all that her studio recordings are works of artistry, as this DVD proves, her concerts take her music to an even higher level. While catching lighting in a bottle might not be possible, Live At Montreux 2005 captures Smith's mercurial nature and indefatigable spirit and brings them to life in our living rooms.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Patti Smith - Live At Montreux 2005 on Blogcritics.)

November 13, 2012

Music Review: The Scenics - dead man walks down bayview


I missed the first wave of local punk bands in Toronto Canada by about two, maybe three years. By the time I was able to get into bars it was pretty much over. The bands; The Viletones and The Diodes to name two, and events, The Last Pogo, were already fading into the mystery of myth memory by 1981. Thankfully, while parts of the scene had been co-opted and cleaned up for consumption by suburbanites, places like The Spadina Hotel, Larry's Hideaway and The Horseshoe Tavern still catered to the punk trade.

Here you could see both second generation punk bands and those few who had survived from the first wave. While I was more interested in bands like The Rheostatics, L'Etranger, and Directive 17, it would have been still possible to have seen The Scenics up until 1982. Ken Badger (guitar and vocals) Andy Meyers (guitar, bass and vocals) Mark Perkell (drums) and Mike Young (guitar, bass and vocals) stayed intact longer then most, but that was the year they called it quits.
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While they were lumped in with the punk movement it was more because they embraced the "do it yourself" ethos of the times than because of their music. Instead of looking to The Ramones, The Sex Pistols or even The Clash for inspiration their music mixed an appreciation for Patti Smith, Television and Pere Ubu with a liking for Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground. Probably not a sound that most would have understood or appreciated on the nascent punk scene in Toronto.

During their first go round from 1976 to 1982 The Scenics released one LP, Underneath The Door, one 45, and were included on both the album and in the film made of The Last Pogo, a weekend long marathon of Toronto independent/punk bands held in 1978. The band lay dormant from 1982 until 2008 when they released How Does It Feel To Be Loved a collection of Velvet Underground covers and in 2009 released Sunshine World, a collection of recordings they had made between 1977 and 1978 which had never seen the light of day. Now, comes their first recording of new material in 30 years, dead man walks down bayview on their own Dream Tower Records.

I have to confess as to being curious what, if anything, these guys could have to offer that would be interesting after all this time. However I was willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. After all if others from that era can still be putting out music that's relevant and interesting there's no reason they couldn't do the same. Upon listening to this new recording my first impression was there's no way these guys should have been lumped in with three chord punk if this is an example of what they were producing in their first go round. In fact after listening to the first few songs and the big jangling guitar sound my first impression was here were people who had listened to a lot of The Birds and Graham Parsons.

Yet to say they are kind of an alt-country band is wrong. It just took me a while to get past the melodic guitar sound. It's been so long since I've heard guitar that doesn't sound like its patched through a million effects boxes that I'd almost forgotten the instrument could fill space with just its resonance. The more I listened to this recording the more amazed I became at the quality of sound they were able to produce using only the standard rock and roll set up of bass, drums and guitars. Normally you think loud when you think full for that kind of band. However The Scenics manage to fill space with their music without necessarily being loud. It has a richness and a melody that gives it substance you don't normally find in a rock combo's music.

As they did originally Meyers and Badger split the songwriting duties for this disc. Musically you can still hear traces of outside influences with Velvet Underground overtones here, "A Fox, Her Fur, an Where She Parks It", a Birds influence there, "When You Come Around" and rockabilly coming out on "No Sleep". The latter is actually the closest song on the disc to being akin to any of the old punk stuff you could hear back in the 1970s and early 80s. With a rockabilly beat given a hard and dangerous edge you'd never confuse this with anything from the Sun Record catalogue. The lyrics have the same rather nasty tone to them as they describe the reasons for the "No Sleep" of the song's title. "I say I love you and I get the fear that'll you'll never dump me for a thousand years/No sleep/No sleep/No sleep anymore/Tall Sally's built for speed/Cheap speed is all she needs".
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However this is track is the only one which comes in at under three minutes. In fact with the majority of the songs on the recording being a minimum of five minutes in length these guys break the cardinal punk rule of keeping songs short, simple and fast on nearly every cut. At over seven minutes "Growing Pains" isn't even the longest cut on the disc. However, its much more representative of the band's sound than "No Sleep". Haunting and sparse, but at the same time melodic, its combination of vocal and instrumental harmonies - listen for the guitar solo at about the three minute mark with the second guitar providing a harmony line for the lead - is an object lesson in how a basic four piece band can have intricate arrangements without sounding pretentious.

Judging by the lyrics the title of the song refers to the growth and progression of a relationship. From that first spark of interest in a person who you might glimpse from afar and the gradual process of two people getting to know each other. "Some lights seem brighter when they're farther away/I'll make you my galleon/Somethings you hold just to hold away/and they're no answers/I see you in streets and shapes/I see you in sidewalks and streetcars/I see something else/and you're nowhere at all/like me".

Over the course of the song both the language and the music intensify as more is revealed. However instead of there being some neat and tidy resolution it ends with an ever increasingly noisy and harsh instrumental which then just peters out into nothing for the final few moments of the tune. Inconclusive and confusing, but compelling all the same, some might feel like they've been left hanging. However, the reality of relationships is such there are no easy paths to follow while you learn about the other person and grow from two individuals into a couple. What I heard listening to this song was a band managing to capture this emotionally volatile and charged state of being both musically and lyrically.

The Scenics might have come of age in the first wave of punk in the 1970s but they are no more a punk band than The Talking Heads were. Yet, while the art rock influences of The Velvet Underground and Roxy Music are unmistakable, their sound also reflects the rejection of the excesses of the rock and roll of the early 1970s which was a hallmark of the punk scene. Combined with their willingness to embrace a range of musical influences that includes country and the ability to create music which reflects the emotional content of their lyrics, they have a sound unique onto themselves.

dead man walks down bayview is not an attempt to recapture the lost glory of youth by a bunch of middle age wannabes. What you have is a collection of songs both musically interesting and lyrically intriguing. Maybe this time around no one is going to mislabel them and lump then into some category they don't belong. This is a band that deserves to be recognized for who they are and what they are capable of producing.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Scenics - dead man walks down bayview on Blogcritics.)

November 11, 2012

Music Review: Joe Stummer and The Mescaleros: Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-G0 & Streetcore


It's been nearly ten years since Joe Strummer died of a congenital heart defect at the age of fifty. Born John Graham Mellor he took the name of Strummer just prior to joining Mick Jones and Paul Simonon in forming one of the most significant bands to come out of Britain's punk movement, The Clash. For six years they brought their politically charged combination of punk, reggae, ska, dub and pop music to the world.

In the all or nothing world of punk rock the band had remarkable longevity compared to most of their contemporaries. However, the departure of Jones as lead guitarist in 1983 marked the beginning of the end. Coupled with the lose of their drummer, Topper Headon, a year earlier to heroin addiction, the band was only a shadow of its former self. While Strummer and Simonon limped on with replacements on guitar and drums for another three years it just wasn't the same.
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For the next decade or so Strummer vanished from the public eye. He composed the soundtrack for a couple of movies, acted in a few others and stood in for Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues when MacGowan's drinking forced him out of the band. Yet when he returned to the world of pop music full time in 1999 it was with a vengeance. Joe Strummer and The Mescaleros were cut from the same cloth as The Clash playing high energy socially and politically conscious music. However, as the band's name implies, they were also far more a reflexion of Strummer's interests and taste than The Clash had ever been.

Over the course of three years and three albums the band's line up was constantly being shuffled with Strummer, Martin Slattery (guitar, keyboards, saxophone, flute) and Scott Shields (guitar and bass) being the only consistent members. However, this lack of a consistent line up doesn't seem to have had a negative effect on Strummer's creativity. Listening to Epitaph Records' newly reissued versions of Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A GoGo and Streetcore you'll be amazed by both his ability to write in a multitude of musical genres and songs that were both meaningful and musically interesting to listen to.

While there are obvious similarities between Srummer's work with The Clash and The Mescaleros, these releases weren't an example of somebody trying to recreate the past. Instead this later body of work continues on and expands upon what he had begun to establish with the first band. Later Clash albums saw the band experimenting with different styles of musical expression. Living in London England Strummer was surrounded by people from all over the world, listening to an amazing variety of music, and couldn't help but be influenced by what he saw and heard around.

The first Mescaleros' disc, Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, feels like it picks up where The Clash left off. The second last song on the original recording, "Yalla Yalla" has a groove which hints at Jamaican dub but without the heavy bass line. At the same time it has an urgency you'd never hear in reggae or any of its offshoots. It's hard to describe as on the surface the song ebbs and flows with an easy beat, but there's the feeling of a deeper current, a hint of danger, lurking just out of sight. Perhaps it's the sound of Strummer's singing voice, rasping out the lyrics, which gives these lines an added intensity. "Well so long liberty/Let's forget you didn't show/not in my time/Not in my son's/And daughter's time."
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Even sung to the melodic tune of the song those are opening lines guaranteed to grab your attention. The tune almost lulls you into not noticing its a lament for the way so many wars fought in the name of freedom and liberty end up replacing one form of tyranny with another. Like all of Strummer's best work "Yalla Yalla" isn't just an issue song but is a commentary on human nature. Some might find his rather pessimistic take on the world, not giving it much of a chance of getting better anytime soon, as being a downer. However, given the state of the world in 1999 when this was written and the way things are now, I'd say he was pretty accurate in his assessment of what the future held for his kids and their generation.

Global A Go-Go saw the band's line up changed to include Strummer's old friend and musical mentor Tymon Dogg. While it might have been coincidence but this disc also saw their sound and vision become far more global. While the immediacy and intensity that was always characteristic of Strummer's music didn't change, the scope of the band's means of expression certainly expanded. In liner notes written for this reissue film maker Jim Jarmusch comments on the appropriateness of the disc's title: "Strummer's world wide musical influences and appreciation are certainly well known...Global A Go-Go deftly represents his outlook, his intuition, his enthusiasm, and his concerns."

Yet what continued to make Strummer's music special was the human qualities he was able to imbue his songs with. Not very many people could write a song extolling the virtues of multiculturalism, let alone write one that's as funny and cheerful as "Bhindi Bhagee". Simply by listing the variety of food and musical styles on offer in a neighbourhood he creates the image of a multitude of nations living side by side in harmony. "Welcome stranger to the humble neighbourhood/You can get inspiration along the highroad/Hommus, cous cous, in the jus of Octopus...Welcome stranger, there's no danger." Typical of Strummer the song has a point, but that doesn't mean you can't have fun along the way.
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Strummer died before the release of the band's third album, Streetcore. Fortunately after a series of gigs in November 2002 the band had headed right into the studio and had recorded enough before he died the remaining band members, Simon Stafford, Luke Bullen, Shields, Slattery and Dogg, were able to finish it off and release it in 2003. This disc really shows the many and diverse musical directions Strummer was beginning to head in. From his reworking of an old British pop song from the 1950s, "Before I Grow Too Old", retitled here as "Silver and Gold", to his writing of "Long Shadow" in the hopes of it being recorded by Johnny Cash. It was the type of song that would have fit into Cash's repertoire seamlessly with its tale of a long struggle artistically couched in biblical terms. "Well I'll tell you one thing that I know/You don't face your demons down/you grab them by the collar/and you wrestle them to the ground."

Strummer ended up recording it with Smokey Hormel, Cash's guitar player. Also included on the disc was a recording he made of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" that he had made in Rick Rubin's studio (the man who produced and recorded Cash's "American" albums). It seems eerie that both Marley and Strummer recorded this song as solo acoustic numbers and in both cases it was released posthumously. However, in case you think these tracks were an indication of Strummer mellowing, the opening two cuts from the disc, "Coma Girl" and "Get Down Moses" will quickly disabuse of the notion. The first is a satiric look at the whole music festival scene while the second tells Moses he needs to come down from his mountain and check out reality before making his pronouncements.

As lead singer for The Clash Strummer had stardom and international acclaim thrust upon him whether he wanted it or not. While there's no denying The Clash were a great band and Strummer did some incredible work with them, The Mescaleros and what he created for them was just as deserving of recognition. While they obviously didn't produce the same volume of material as his first band, what they did record was every bit as good as the best stuff The Clash ever made. Hopefully the reissuing of these three discs will ensure they receive the recognition they deserve.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - Rock Art and the X-Ray Style, Global A Go-Go & Streetcore on Blogcritics.)

November 6, 2012

Book Review: The John Lennon Letters Edited by Hunter Davies


Ever since Paul's Epistles to the Corinthians we've been fascinated with the idea of reading famous people's mail. Perhaps it's our innate voyeurism coming to the fore or the usual obsession with celebrity, but over the years countless books of letters have appeared on the market and found many a willing reader. All kidding aside, some of these have provided fascinating insights into both the character and creative process of many brilliant minds. Reading the collected letters of someone like Virginia Wolfe or the correspondence conducted by Lawrence Durrell and Henry Miller is every bit as enthralling as most works of fiction.

A good collection of letters should not only satisfy our idle curiosity about the person who penned them, hopefully it will give us some hitherto unknown insights into their character and what made them tick. However when you're dealing with a figure who was in the public eye as much as John Lennon was and continues to be, you have to wonder what, if anything, new there is to bring to light. Even before he was gunned down in 1980 he had lived most of his adult life in the glare of the spotlight with almost every breath he took recorded and dissected. So, what, I wondered, could The John Lennon Letters, published by Little, Brown and Company, and edited by long time family friend and author of the only authorized biography of The Beatles, Hunter Davies, offer to complement our picture of him?
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Even more pertinent, perhaps, is the question as to whether Lennon even merits this type of treatment? Sure he was a prolific songwriter, sometime poet and never afraid to voice his opinion. However, there's no record of him ever engaging in an exchange of letters a la Miller and Durrell with anyone to think there would be sufficient material out there for a book. In his introduction Davies cedes this point by admitting a great deal of the book's content are not in fact letters from Lennon to anyone. He also admits that many of the letters are in fact a few words scrawled on the back of a postcard or short messages posted in reply to requests for autographs by fans.

Now after having read this introduction I have to admit to being a bit wary of what was to follow. However as the book was okayed by the guardian of all things Lennon, Yoko Ono, I knew it couldn't just be an attempt by the editor to cash in on a famous name. You can say what you like about Ono, but her love for her late husband can't be denied and she would never give her blessing to something without some worth. I was also impressed by the effort Davies had gone to in gathering the material collected here.

For over the years Lennon memorabilia has gone from being collectible to being spectacularly valuable. Many of the seemingly innocuous pieces of paper that ended up on the pages of this book have passed through numerous hands since they were written, and I'm sure there are countless others secreted away in vaults and safety deposit boxes around the world slowly accumulating dust and value. The twists and turns involved with tracking down some of the material reads like an agent following a paper trail in a John Le Carre novel.

Wisely Davies elected to lay out the book in chronological order and divide it up into short digestible segments. From childhood all the way through to his final days in The Dakota apartment complex in New York City the book's 23 parts follow the turbulent path of Lennon's life. Even more important is the fact Davies has to gone to a great deal of effort to place everything in its proper context. So instead of simply reprinting what looks like a child's standard thank you letter to an aunt for Christmas presents, we find out who this aunt was, what she meant to Lennon and what the letter signified about his relationship with Mimi, the aunt who raised him.
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While there has been lots made of the fact that Lennon was raised by his aunt, the various letters to cousins and other relatives he wrote over the years reveal the unhealthy influence this woman had on him. While Lennon almost never says a word against her things he lets slip give a picture of a woman who belittled him and attacked his sense of self worth his whole life. One of her constant refrains was he "got lucky" implying as Lennon says in a letter written in 1975 to his cousin Liela "i.e. I have no talent". We also learn Mimi went out of her way to run down both Julia (Lennon's mother) and his father Freddie. When John did manage to reconnect with his father he hid the fact from Mimi for as long as possible.

Not all of his relationships with his family were so negative, but there seems to have been a great deal of underlying tension. As he says in another letter to Liela "Stranger still that my (our) family should always (nowadays) seee mee in terms of $ and c....tho before I guess they saw me in terms of "problem child"... or an orphan of sorts. TO ME....I'LL ALWAYS BE.....ME" (misspellings and punctuation copied from original letter). From his letters and other references his fondest family memories were of an aunt and uncle in Scotland. He makes numerous references to missing Scotland and will sometimes even attempt to write in a Scotts "accent".

Of course anyone reading this is going to want to know what the book reveals about his relationship with his fellow Beatles (If you don't know their names I doubt you're reading this review, but for posterity's sake they were Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Richard "Ringo Starr" Starkey) While nothing new is really revealed, it's obvious he remained very friendly with both Harrison and Starr while relations with McCartney never really recovered from the termination of The Beatles. Some of this seems to have stemmed from disagreements about who should be handling the business affairs of Apple. Paul wanted to use his first wife's (Linda Eastman) family and the other three became dissatisfied with their handling of matters.
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When McCartney wanted to release his first solo album the other three had the record company push back its release date so it wouldn't conflict with of Let It Be. As a letter they sent him shows, they didn't ask him, they just told him they had done so after the fact and they hoped he would understand. While there's no indication as to who instigated the request to the company, it's not hard to imagine McCartney thinking Lennon was behind it. Business aside the two men hadn't been getting along personally as letter from Lennon to and about McCartney show. Part of it seems to stem from McCarney and his wife's attitude towards Lennon's new wife Ono and how much their apparent rejection of her hurt him.

Anyone the least bit familiar with Lennon's writing will know he was fond of both sarcasm and nonsense writing. This tendency was established early on in his life as can be seen in the reproduction of the parody newspaper he produced in grade school called The Daily Howl. As you read through the book and the years pass by you gradually realize how little he changed as he aged. The grammar and spelling might have improved somewhat (although as Davies points out it's sometimes hard to tell whether mistakes are deliberate or not) but the same sort of childish humour continued to prevail throughout his life. In some ways this is funny, but in other ways it shows a disturbing tendency to not mature.

While The John Lennon Letters might not offer any startling revelations into the life or character of Lennon, what it does do is provide as comprehensive a biography, or autobiography, of the man as we're likely to ever see. Davies is not only able to place each note, no matter how insignificant it might appear, into context, his comments on them are both informed and insightful. Unlike others who have to rely on second or third hand sources for their information, Davies was a friend of Lennon and is able to base his opinions on first hand knowledge of events described. However, this doesn't prevent him from including dissenting opinions from those who disagree with Lennon's accounts of circumstances.

While individually most of these notes and cards are fairly meaningless, collectively they work together to confirm the image we've always had of Lennon as the complicated Beatle. Always outspoken, always witty, sometimes almost cruel, but always interesting, 30 years after his death he continues to fascinate us. This collection of letters can only add to our fascination of this rare and witty man.

(Article first published as Book Review: The John Lennon Letters, Edited by Hunter Davies on Blogcritics.)

November 4, 2012

Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection


The majority of the CDs I review are either new releases or recordings that reflect the current trends in popular music. These trends had their genesis in the amalgamation of African American music and country music which took place in the 1950s. However, that doesn't mean there was no popular music prior to those days. Every so often the opportunity arises to review music from this earlier period and its hard not to be struck by the contrast between the two eras. The most glaring of these is how the artists of this earlier era are, for the main part, far more musically sophisticated.

This was driven home to me again when listening to a recent release from Legacy Recordings featuring the works of the late great jazz/blues vocalist Sarah Vaughan. While the majority of her recordings were with other labels Vaughan released four LPs on the old Columbia label which have now been packaged as the four CD set Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Albums Collection. What's wonderful about this collection is that it not only shows off the depth of her talent and versatility as a vocalist it gives listeners the opportunity to hear her at both the beginning and near the end of her career.
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The first two discs in the collection, After Hours With Sarah Vaughan and Sarah Vaughan in Hi-Fi were both originally released in 1955. We then jump forward in time nearly 30 years for her 1982 release Michael Tilson Thomas/Sarah Vaughan: Gershwin Live recorded at the Dorothy Chandler pavilion in Los Angeles with Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic. The fourth disc in the set, and the last she released under her own name, Brazilian Romance, was released in 1987 and produced by Sergio Mendes.

Each disc gives us the chance to hear her singing a different type of music. Big band and swing influenced popular tunes, sophisticated jazz, the classical blues of the Gershwin brothers and finally Latin music. Yet no matter what she's singing you can't help but notice her amazing control and range. She's able to float effortlessly from the lowest end of the scale to the highest without effort. Her singing is as much second nature as breathing is to most of us.

I don't know if you've ever heard the term phrasing applied to singing, it's not something you hear often anymore. To be honest its not something I'm sure I can define. The closest I can come to is it refers to a singer's ability to associate the lyrics of a song with the music. However, it means more than just being able to carry a tune. It's how you sing the words and music together. It's the ability to turn your voice into a lead instrument in a band and take one word and extend it over a whole series of notes. However it doesn't just mean the ability to sustain a note, it's continuing to sing the melody but with only one or a few words without them losing meaning or throwing the continuity of the song out of whack.

Listen to Vaughan wrap her voice around a word and you begin to understand what is meant by the term. You also realize why you don't hear the term used very often anymore as very few modern singers have this ability. To be fair the music of today doesn't really lend itself to that style of singing either. However hearing a singer of the quality of Vaughan you begin to regret its passing. I'm sure there are jazz singers around who have the ability, but we don't hear them on a regular basis.

Of course it's this ability which allowed her to be equally comfortable with any style of music she wished to sing. On After Hours we hear her sail through a series of smoothly orchestrated pop tunes. Even the version of Gershwin's "Summertime" on this disc is given the uptempo treatment. This might have been a collection of rather commercial standards, but she gives them a soulfulness that raises them above the level of just another pop song. She might not be as emotionally raw as Billie Holliday, but that doesn't stop her from being able to imbue even the simplest of songs with the heart necessary to make them soar.

On the second disc in the set, Sarah Vaughan In Hi-Fi, eight of the original twelve songs were with a jazz combo headed by a young Miles Davis. Listen to what she does with songs like Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin'" and the way her voice dips and soars throughout. The lyrics and music come together in her voice in a way that has to be experienced to fully appreciate. Each note is cherished so each word is clearly enunciated both musically and lyrically. Listening to Vaughan stretch a word over a sequence of notes without sounding artificial or forced is one of the wonders of the word. If you could hear the different notes taffy makes when its pulled I'm sure it would sound something like her singing.
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The highlight of the set for me was the third disc, Gershwin Live. The fact she opens proceedings with a medley of songs from Porgy and Bess doesn't hurt as it contains some of my favourite Gershwin tunes. "Summertime", "It Ain't Necessarily So" and "I Loves You Porgy" are the three she blends together here. Now this concert was recorded almost three decades after the first two discs, but her voice and delivery are every bit as polished and believable as they were on the earlier records. In fact I much prefer the rendition of "Summertime" included here than on the After Hours.

Instead of worrying so much about making it an uptempo offering that will appeal to popular audiences, they offer a slower, bluesier version. We're not talking Janis Joplin slow, but we're talking slow and drawn out enough to make you feel the heat of the Georgian sun beating down on those picking cotton. You can really hear the similarities between her voice and Billy Holliday's. There's that catch in her voice which sounds like its holding back years of sadness. Instead of showing any effects of aging, Vaughan's voice on this recording seems to have grown in its ability to transmit emotions. While she was always technically gifted, at this point in her career there seems to be a new depth to her sound.

As for the fourth disc in this set, Brazilian Romance, to be honest I've never been a big fan of this type of Latin influenced jazz. Vaughan makes it sound better than most people are able to, but it still sounds like Latin music that's been toned down to make it acceptable for all audiences. Something you'd hear performed by a country club orchestra in the 1950s. It might sound sort of Latin but the heart's taken out of it. However, that doesn't stop it from being well played and sung as Vaughan does her best to give the arrangements life.

For those who aren't familiar with Sarah Vaughan Sarah Vaughan: The Complete Columbia Album Collection is a great way to be introduced to this extraordinary vocalist. Not only does each disc contain all songs from the original recordings, both After Hours and In Hi-Fi contain bonus material that's never been included on an album before. These include eight alternate takes on the latter and four tracks previously released as 78rpm singles on the former. The set also comes with a booklet supplying the history of each album and detailed credits for each track.

Sarah Vaughan may not have had the same romantic appeal of Billie Holliday or achieved the fame of other singers, but this package proves she deserves to be remembered as one of the great jazz and blues singers of the 20th century. So put these CDs on your stereo and sit back and let yourself be transported back to the days of night clubs and joints that jumped.

(Article first published as Music Review: Sarah Vaughan - The Complete Columbia Albums Collection on Blogcritics.)

November 1, 2012

Music Review: The Velvet Underground and Nico - The Velvet Underground and Nico Super Deluxe Edition


Should we care about an album released 45 years ago? Specifically, should we care about The Velvet Underground and Nico, especially enough to buy a six CD set commemorating the forty-fifth anniversary of its release? Well the people at Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) feel the album warrants special attention as they are releasing The Velvet Underground & Nico: Super Deluxe Edition. Are they justified in their belief this album deserves this kind of treatment?

In 1967 the The Velvet Underground; Lou Reed, John Cale, Sterling Morrison and Maureen Tucker joined forces with husky voiced Nico for this, their debut album. With the infamous peel away plastic banana cover artwork (you could actually peel the yellow skin away to reveal a naked flesh coloured banana) by their mentor Andy Warhol and their association with his studio/workshop/performance space/ The Factory the band was assured a certain amount of hip cachet. However hipness is fleeting and doesn't necessarily signify the creation of something enduring nor is it any guarantee of artistic merit.
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As the saying goes, "the proof is in the pudding", or in this case, in the listening. One only has to listen to the album once to understand not only how different it was from everything else being recorded at the time, but how good it is. I say is, because even listening to it now one can't help but be impressed by its inventiveness and originality. From the lyrics to the music it still sets a standard which very few albums, no matter when they were recorded, can measure up to. In fact when you consider the technological advances that have been made since it was recorded, most of what's being made today pales even more in comparison.

Musically The Velvet Underground And Nico is a mixture of pop and experimental/avant garde. In fact this rather strange mixture of the familiar and the jarring is very much the musical equivalent of what Warhol was doing with his "Pop Art". Taking familiar cultural images and then reproducing them in either oversized, life like detail (think his infamous rendering of a Campbell's Soup can) or distorting them with colour and repetition (think of his pictures of cultural icons like Elvis and Marylyn Monroe). In the case of the album this came across in both the music and the lyrics. Familiar popular music motifs were played just differently enough to make them sound unsettling while in other cases the band left pop music far behind and entered into the realm of the experimental.

Listen to the opening track on the album, "Sunday Morning". While it sounds like your typical pop song of the day there are some very noticeable differences right from the start. First of all is the fact the lead instrument sounds like a child's toy piano. It plinks along overtop the gentle sounding rhythm and gradually becomes more and more disturbing. While Nico originally performed the song live, Reed recorded the lead for the record. He gives the lyrics an almost Bob Dylan like inflection with the slightest suggestion of a German accent and sounding very feminine, making them sound like nothing you'd ever hear in any pop song. Of course the lyrics themselves aren't what you'd call pretty."Sunday morning/Brings the dawn in/It's just a restless feeling/By my side/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's just the wasted years/So close behind/Watch out the world's behind you/There's always someone around you/Who will call/It's nothing at all/Sunday morning/And I'm falling/I've got a feeling/I don't want to know/Early dawning/Sunday morning/It's all the streets you crossed/Not so long ago." This isn't describing most people's idea of a Sunday morning. A hangover from Saturday night is one thing, but this sounds like a hangover of a life filled with regrets and failure - like the Sunday morning of somebody contemplating suicide.

While "Sunday Morning" is musically familiar the same can't be said for "Black Angel Death Song". It challenges listeners right from its opening notes. You're immediately hit with the sound of Cale's viola scraping across its strings playing the same few notes over and over again. Overtop of this comes the sound of Reed intoning/reciting, the lyrics to the song. "The myriad choices of his fate/Set themselves out upon a plate/for him to choose what had he to lose/Not a ghost-bloodied country all covered with sleep/Where the black angel did weep/Not an old city street in the east/Gone to choose".
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Sounding more like free form poetry with atonal accompaniment, its nothing like any pop song heard at that time. In it you can hear foreshadowing of performers like Patti Smith and Jim Carrol who a decade latter would set their poetry to music. While this song isn't what anybody would call accessible or radio friendly, it's a brilliant piece of work showing pop music's potential to be more than just inconsequential disposable and forgettable songs. While other bands might have been singing about love and peace or playing long and boring instrumentals which went nowhere and calling it experimental, The Velvet Underground were producing songs which would alter people's perceptions of pop art's capacity to be meaningful. Is it any wonder that famed composer and producer Brian Eno has been quoted as saying "the first Velvet Underground album only sold 10,000 copies, but everyone who bought it formed a band."

The Velvet Underground And Nico Super Deluxe Edition gives you a chance to fully experience the band and the development of this very special record. Disc one of six is the original recording remastered plus the addition of alternate versions of four songs. Disc two is a copy of the original mono release that came out at the same time. While its mostly a novelty item, it is interesting to hear the release with the sound flattened and compressed into one channel. Disc three is a copy of Nico's Chelsea Girl which features all the members of The Velvets plus a seventeen year old Jackson Browne. You'll also notice that Browne wrote three of the tracks on the album while the others were written by members of either The Velvets or The Factory with one Bob Dylan cover, "I'll Keep It With Mine", rounding out the mix.

The material on disc four was recorded prior to the band making the record. The first nine songs are taken from tapes and acetate recordings made at Scepter Studios in April of 1966 while tracks 10 through 15 are from previously unreleased tapes of a rehearsal the band had at The Factory in January of 1966. While not all of the songs on this disc made it onto the album, it does give you an interesting perspective on the album's development over the course of the year prior to its release. Discs five and six were again recorded in 1966 and are taken from a live concert the band did at the Valleydale Ballroom in Columbus Ohio. Again this is an opportunity to hear the band finalizing the tunes and testing them out on a live audience. While they didn't do all of the song's from the final recording at this concert, and there are two which aren't on the album, "Melody Laughter" and "The Nothing Song", listening to how the band and the music evolved over the space of the year these two discs and disc four represent is fascinating.

The answer to the question of whether or not we should care about an album first produced forty-five years ago is obvious - it depends on the album. When it comes to The Velvet Underground And Nico the answer is yes. Not only was it one of the most innovative recordings of its time, it is far more imaginative and creatively challenging than most of what is being released in popular music today. Listen to it and be inspired, confused, irritated, angered and moved - for like all good art even if you don't necessarily like it, it will make you feel something.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground and Nico. [Super Deluxe Edition] on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2012

Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28


I should probably be clear from the outset of this write up that I am not now and never have been a "Dead Head". While I'm familiar with the band's music I've never seen them live, let alone obsessively followed them on tour. The first time I encountered "Dead Heads" I was under the mistaken impression that they were in a band when they talked about going on tour. The idea that anybody would go from city to city following a band was something I'd never encountered before. I don't remember whether I was more taken aback with the fact the people in question hadn't been born when the Grateful Dead were first popular or that somebody would organize their life around a band's touring schedule. I guess I must have seemed equally strange to them because although I liked the band I had the nerve to suggest they weren't the be all and end all when it came to music.

What I eventually came to understand was there was a night and day difference between the versions of the band's songs as they appear on their studio albums and what they did in concert. Songs that were maybe four or five minutes long in their recorded form could turn into 20 minute jams in concert. While there has been a healthy trade in bootlegged tapes of the band's concerts over the years the Dead had their own archivist who compiled their live concert tapes. Dick Latvala put together a series of 36 volumes collectively known as Dick's Picks. Previously only available directly from the band they are now being reissued for retail sale by the Real Gone label with the most recent release being Dick's Picks Vol. 28 taken from two concerts in 1973: Pershing Municipal Auditorium in Lincoln Nebraska on 2/26/73 and the Salt Palace, Salt Lake City Utah 2/28/73.
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While Dead stalwarts Jerry Garcia (lead guitar), Phil Lesh (bass & vocals), Bob Weir (guitar & vocals) and Bill Kreutzmann (drums) still formed the nucleus of the band 1973's version also featured new comers Keith Godchaux (piano) and Donna Jean Godchaux (vocals) who were added after the death of Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan. For all pop radio tries to instil the idea that the 1970s were an era of "Classic Rock" the early part of the decade was really quite fallow as the big acts became bloated and rock and roll was being turned into a successful commercial product. It wouldn't be for a few more years that the rise of punk would shake things up again. So survivors of the 1960s like the Dead, who still played by their own rules, were one of the few bands who stood out from the pack. The addition of the husband and wife Godchaux team doesn't seem to have changed the band much at this point, as the set list for both nights' gigs is replete with old favourites.

However the big appeal of these concert recordings for Dead aficionados and novices alike will be the chance to hear some of the freeform improvisations their concerts were famous for. While bands like Phish have since assumed the mantle of "jam band to see" the Dead were the first rock and roll band to follow the lead of jazz bands and turn concerts into exercises in improvisation. Songs like "Dark Star", of which there is a 25 plus minute version taken from the Nebraska show, achieved their real fame because of their concert renditions. Each of the four discs in this set contains at least one example of a song extended far beyond its original recorded length.

However unlike the majority of rock and roll bands' extended live versions of songs, the Dead's aren't just merely excuses for solos by various members of the band. Instead the whole band is involved with elaborating on the the tune's theme. Sure there are still solos, but they aren't the long winded pointless exercises in ego stroking you're used to hearing from a rock band. There's a real unity of purpose within this group which allows individual solos to be seamless extension of the song instead of standing out too much like a sore thumb.
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While Garcia, Lesh, Kreutzmann and Godchaux are obviously talented players and as innovative as anybody in popular music, there's only so much variety you can produce with guitar, bass, drums and keyboards in the early 1970s. While they may have been trying to emulate jazz bands with their extended improvisations they can't match them in terms of range of expression. That's not a comment on their individual abilities as musicians. It's just that instruments like saxophones, clarinets, flutes and various horns can produce a far more diversified range of expression than your basic rock and roll combo. Instead of hanging onto every note waiting to hear what would come next as I would listening to John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Weather Report, I found my attention wandering during their extended jams.

Perhaps it's also simply the limitations of the genre as it doesn't lend itself to improvisation in the same way as jazz. For instead of building layers upon layers of music based on an original theme, here the music just feels like its going around in circles. After a while there are so only many ways in which you can circle back over the same material again and again without it beginning to become tedious. Others might find enjoyment in the repetition, but personally I kept finding myself waiting for some sort of evolution to take place. While the solos would provide the occasional break in the pattern, after a while they weren't enough to hold my interest.

The Grateful Dead were not your typical rock and roll band. Their rather unique blend of laid back rock and roll, blue grass, country and psychedelic was responsible for creating music quite unlike what anything anybody else ever performed. After years of playing together there's no denying they were also one of the few bands who could be guaranteed to be as seamless live as they were in the recording studio. However, while I know there are thousands who will disagree with me, neither the style of music nor the instruments they played were ideally suited to the improvised jams that dominated their live shows.

That being said, for those who are fans of their music, and for those who are interested in checking out what all the fuss was about, Dick's Picks Vol. 28 is as good an opportunity as any. Not only does it contain versions of some of the band's classic tunes; "Sugar Magnolia", "Truckin'", "Dark Star", and some interesting covers; "Big River" by Johnny Cash and "Promised Land" by Chuck Berry, you'll have the opportunity to hear examples of the jams that made them famous. Like all of the releases in the Dick's Picksseries the sound quality is not an issue. The original recording was made through the band's soundboard and has been digitally re-mastered to ensure as high as quality as possible considering the time period they were made in. It might not be the same as seeing the band in person, but you can still experience the music and make up your own mind if The Grateful Dead were/are deserving of the status of cultural icons bestowed upon them by their fans.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Grateful Dead - Dick's Picks Vol. 28 on Blogcritics.)

October 16, 2012

Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood


I've never been much of a fan of the use of electronics in popular music. Far too often they seem to be used to either cover up somebody's shortcomings as a musician or to replace live musicians with a machine. The thing is, I've yet to hear a machine which can duplicate the emotional nuance a human can bring to the playing of any instrument. Sure a drum machine can keep the beat, but that's all it can do. I don't know about anybody else, but I can hear a good drummer's heart in his or her playing even when they're just marking time. However, what's even worse, is the employing of electronics as short cuts in this manner shows a singular lack of imagination in the failure to realize its potential as an instrument and a tool for creativity. Most pop music barely scratches the surface when it comes to the possibilities technology represents.

This becomes glaringly obvious when you have the opportunity to hear how someone like John Cale puts them to use. His newest release, Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood, now available on Double Six Records as either a single CD or double vinyl LP, should be required listening for anybody considering using electronics of any sort in a recording. For not only does Cale not use them for short cuts, his use of tape loops, synthesizers and a variety of other electronica is imaginative and exciting. Maybe its the fact he was trained as a classical musician which gave him a grounding in composition which makes him more inventive. Of course, it could also be the same spirit of experimentation that caused his teachers at London's Goldsmith's College to honour him with the "Most Hateful Student" award in the early 1960s that makes what he does so interesting. For as this album makes obvious, he's not one for shying away from taking risks.
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However I think it's probably a combination of the two. Just as really good abstract painters have to learn the basics of figure drawing and perspective before they can experiment with form and colour, modern composers need to understand traditional composition and musical notation in order to reject them. Cale has a wealth of experience working both in popular and experimental music either as a solo artist or as the member of a group starting from his days in The Velvet Underground and his associations with Andy Warhol's Factory. While he has never strived for recognition, the world is finally beginning to appreciate his talents as he was chosen to represent Wales at the 2009 Venice Biennale art competition and festival and was awarded an OBE (Officer of the British Empire - step down from a knighthood) in 2010.

Based on that history you'd expect some sort of very serious experimental piece which most would find inaccessible and breathtakingly boring. Well, Cale has been trashing people's expectations for decades and this disc is no exception. According to the press release issued with this disc the 12 tracks began life as rhythms and grooves and he built songs out of what they suggested to him. For example the bass line for the song "Vampire Cafe" reminded him of vintage vampire movies. The combination of viola, still Cale's instrument of choice after all these years, accordion and drums is not a mix of instruments you're going to find on many albums, be they pop or classical. However as they are employed here they manage to capture both the darkness we associate with vampires and something of the emptiness at the core of the undead creatures' souls. There's also something about the accordion and viola mixture which gives the song a decidedly Eastern European feel, the part of the world we most associate with vampires.

The fact that Cale has distorted his voice heavily with fuzz, making the lyrics hard to discern, only adds to the eerie atmosphere created by the instruments. In some ways the vocals are more important for adding another layer of texture to the piece rather than for what they might be saying. The desolate and isolated feelings created by the music are enhanced as his vocals feel like they have travelled a great distance to reach us. It's as if we're hearing a message transmitted by short-wave radio from somebody, or a group of people, travelling through mountains, or a snow storm, who may or may not survive the journey.
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With "Vampire Cafe" Cale creates mood and atmosphere with effects and the sounds of the instruments used in the piece. While that might not be what most of us are used to when it comes to popular music, it is still a fairly accessible and traditionally arranged song. However, earlier on in the disc, he shows us something completely different with "Hemmingway". Created with the famous author in mind the song seems to deal with the anguish of a creative mind which has run out of new ideas. There has always been speculation around the reasons for Hemmingway's suicide. Cale's song, both lyrically and musically, suggest it was the fact he had run out of things to write about that pushed him over the edge. "I always held on to the thought/ that if they loved you long enough/they'd find out what was missing/when they finally called your bluff."

Reading those lyrics I can only think my own fears of being a fraud. We all have doubts as to our abilities at times, and when we're going through a dry patch they grow even stronger. Not only does Cale capture those feeling with the opening lines to this song, but musically it also captures how these insecurities can eat away at a person until they push them over the edge. The song starts out with a regular beat and melody line and gradually descends into the chaos of madness. Discordance seeps into the piano playing and the vocals until Cale is pounding the keyboard and turning the occasional word into a primal scream. It's a stunning depiction of how the gift of creativity can be a two sided blade. When the well of inspiration dries up the creative mind turns upon itself. Imagination turns insecurities and doubts into pits of despair from which there is no escape.

Cale's real gift as an musician is he can not only recreate something this type of emotional journey, he does so in a way so the listener understands what's happening to the person in question. This isn't just some exercise in voyeurism where we are treated to the sight of a person's descent into madness. We hear and feel their pain and travel with them as they come to the realization suicide is their only means of escaping the anguish they feel. It's not pleasant, but it's a brilliant piece of music.

Not all the songs on this disc are quite so intense or moody as the two I've mentioned, but they are all equally well conceived and executed. He utilizes technology as if it were another instrument to be played. In much the same way that guitarist Dustin Boyer and drummer Michael Jerome make their contributions to each song, drum machines, tape loops and other electronically generated sounds become part of the overall sound. The video for the album's title song, "Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood", that I've embedded here is a sample of the amazing work Cale has created. It might not be what most are used to, but its what we should hope more and more are inspired to emulate. This a great album of music by one of the most inventive composers of our time.

Photo Credit: Picture of John Cale by Shawn Brackbill
(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Shifty Adventures in Nookie Wood on Blogcritics.)

October 5, 2012

Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind


Probably the first thing you'll notice about Ben Folds Five is they're a trio not a quintet. However, before you can puzzle about this too much you'll then notice the band are a very odd configuration of instruments for a pop trio. Instead of the usual guitar, bass and drums you'd expect to find they are drums (Darren Jessee) piano (Ben Folds) and bass (Robert Sledge). While you find plenty of jazz combos along those lines I can't honestly think of any pop trios who don't rely on guitar. So even before you listen to a single note you know you're going to be in for something different.

Now I'm sure none of this is news to a lot of you out there as Ben Folds Five first started recording and producing music in the mid 1990s. However I wasn't really paying attention to pop music in the 1990s and missed out on their first go round. It wasn't until last year Folds even came to my attention. He was part of an experiment with author Neil Gaiman, Damian Kulash, of the group OKGO, and vocalist Amanda Palmer. 8IN8 was an attempt by the four of them to write, record and produce eight songs in eight hours during a live internet broadcast. While it ended up taking them 12 hours to produce six songs, the resulting album, Nighty Night, was really quite good. I was very impressed with what I had heard of Folds on this recording, and made a mental note to check out more of his music in the future.
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Well the future is now as Ben Folds Five has released their first studio recording since they broke up in 2000. Unlike in the past where they were signed to a label The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind (TSOTLOTM) is not only self produced they also raised all the money for its production by utilizing the crowd funding site Pledge Music. Pledge Music not only assists artists in raising money for a vast variety of projects from touring to special editions of recordings, a percentage of the money raised is directed to a charity of the artist's choice. For Ben Folds Five that meant raising money and awareness to promote the fields of music education and music therapy.

As for the recording itself it confirmed my initial impression that one should always expect the unexpected from this band. We all have our own prejudices and when I think of pop music where the piano is lead instrument my expectations have been shaped by what I've heard previously. So I thought this would be an album of finely crafted melodic tunes with the occasional ballad thrown in for good measure. So the opening track, "Erase Me", took me completely by surprise. It opens with Folds pounding out chords on the piano accompanied by Sledge playing heavily distorted power chords on bass. The opening bars end suddenly and are replaced by quiet notes picked out on the piano with gentle accompaniment from bass and drums as Folds begins to sing.

While the subject of the song is nothing unusual for pop music, the dissolution of a relationship, Fold's use of an extended metaphor to open the song took me by surprise."What was our home? Paper not stone/a lean to at most/and when you fall you're half away/gravity won like it always does/Did I weigh a ton?" It might start off delicately and introspective, the opening verse takes a sharp turn after Fold's has his protagonist pondering his role in the breakup. All of a sudden it morphs something that wouldn't have sounded out of place on an old Queen album as we're back to the big power chords from the piano and bass and a pounding drum. This to the accompaniment of Fold's voice starting to increase in power and climb the scale until he crescendos with the final two "erase me's". "Would it be easier to just delete our pages and the plans we made?/Erase me, so you don't have to face me./Put me in the ground and mound the daisies/Ah, the memory, see how it goes when you/erase me, erase me".
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During the course of the song the musical intensity switches a couple of times, matching the feelings being expressed by the lyrics. As we delve deeper into the facts behind the breakup and the relationship the music and the lyrics become angrier and angrier, with only the occasional respite. Within the context of the song the anger makes sense as the person's reacting to being completely obliterated from their ex partner's life. The switch from questioning as to why the relationship ended to anger at feeling discarded and forgotten might seem abrupt. However if you've ever gone through the breakup of a long term relationship the sudden change in emotional intensity makes sense.

Normally I'm not that fond people singing in the higher registers as they often start to become too shrill for my ear. However Fold's vocal control allows him to express heightened emotion like anger, climb the scale and increase his volume without becoming shrill. This disc is a veritable clinic in vocal technique. No matter how raw or emotional he gets, he never sounds forced or affected. Yet at the same time he's probably more emotionally honest than most contemporary male vocalists. Musically the band is equally skilled. The instrumentation in this song, and the rest of the disc, provide the perfect context for what is being said by the lyrics. Of course not all of the songs are as emotionally difficult as "Erase Me". In fact the band shows they know how to have fun as much as anybody with "Do It Anyway".

This is a fast paced tune with wonderful jazz/honky tonk piano about taking chances. "If you're paralyzed by a voice in your head/It's the standing still that should be scaring you instead/go on and do it anyway/do it anyway." While on the surface the subject matter might not seem to be that lighthearted the band manages to prevent the tone from becoming too heavy by doing things like delivering the key line of "Do it anyway" in a flat monotone. Then there's the video they've made to accompany the song. This was the song they chose when they were approached by The Jim Henson Company via the Nerdist Channel to come up with something to use for a video commemorating the 30th anniversary of Fraggle Rock.

As you can see by the video while the message in the song is not one to be taken lightly the band doesn't take itself too seriously. Which is another thing to like about Ben Folds Five. They aren't your typical rock and roll band. Just look at any picture of the three guys in the band and you're more likely to think they work in Silicone Valley than play in a band. Remember it was the Nerdist Channel that approached them for a video. Well, they may look like nerds but they play as hot or hotter than bands who look the image of rock stars. Those of you who liked Ben Folds Five the first time around aren't going to be disappointed by what they hear on TSOTLOTM. Those, like me, who are hearing them for the first time are in for a real treat. Ben Folds Five prove once and for all being cool is a state of mind and has nothing to do with the you way you look. They play some of the coolest music this side of jazz you'll hear from anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Ben Folds Five - The Sound Of The Life Of The Mind on Blogcritics.)

October 2, 2012

Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon


There are some musicians who are, for lack of a better way of describing it, in your face. There's nothing subtle about them and you know immediately whether you're going to like them or not. Then there are those at the other end of the spectrum. They are so subtle that you barely notice them but for some reason you can't get them out of your mind. There's something about what they do with their music and lyrics that keeps pulling on your heart and mind and compelling you to listen to them over and over again.

The first time I listened to Jason Collett's new release Reckon on the Arts & Crafts label, it felt like it had come and gone like a puff of wind. Something that had briefly ruffled my hair without having any lasting impact. Yet, the second time I listened not only did every song sound familiar I found myself singing along with the choruses on about half of them. Music that had seemed to run together all of sudden had become a series of distinct tunes with intricate arrangements. During the first listen there might have been a couple of points where something grabbed my attention. However the next time through I was amazed to hear songs performed in a variety of genres with lyrics both intelligent and moving.
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While I don't know if this says more about my inability to listen than anything else, I do know that most of the time if a disc doesn't grab my attention the first time through I don't bother with it again. Yet that wasn't the case on this occasion. Collett had reached inside me, grabbed my attention and held on tight without me even noticing. One of the way he manages to do this is his voice. It's not what you'd call powerful nor does it have any really distinguishing characteristics that make it stand out. Yet its compelling all the same. Old time folk and country singers appealed to their audiences because their voices were familiar. It was like listening to somebody you knew singing. Collett has something similar going on. When he sings it doesn't sound like he's up on a stage singing down at you from a great distance. Instead it sounds like he could be sitting in the chair opposite you in your living room or on your back porch.

There's also something about his voice which makes it memorable and unique. While he has the same high, lost/lonely quality, as Neil Young, his voice is in a lower register and has more of a tonal range than Young. However, what you'll really notice is his voice has character. You can tell by listening to him that he's experienced almost everything the world can throw at somebody. You can hear, heck you can almost see, both what's scarred him and what's given him hope. While there are times when he gets angry and times when he can be biting in his satire, you can hear he's neither tired of the world nor does he believe he's seen everything it has to offer either.

Of course you also hear a lot of this reflected in the lyrics of his songs. Now some of the place names mentioned won't be familiar to those outside of Canada, but the circumstances his songs describe are universal. There's the young woman in the ironically titled "Miss Canada" who moved from her home in the Maritimes when the fish stocks disappeared in the hopes of finding work in the oil fields and tar sands of the West. You have to wonder what work she thought there'd be for a woman out there. "She takes off her dress/in a Fort MacMurray motel bedroom when the boys cash their cheques in the fields of Black Gold/Back home the cannery's closed and the fishing boats don't hardly fish no more/She came out West/hoping to make the best of it/It wasn't what she planned/but who can draw a line in the tar sands/money's a fast talking bird in the hand". Obviously this isn't a song about a beauty pageant contestant, but the young woman in the song is much more emblematic of life in Canada than anybody bearing the title of "Miss Canada" is liable to be.

To me the line "money's a fast talking bird in the hand" says far too much of what people are being forced to do in order to keep body and soul together. "Miss Canada" is the first of three songs in a row which are related to what politicians euphemistically refer to as an economic slowdown. It's easy for them to talk about the necessity of cutbacks and restraint, but they're not the ones who have to suffer for it. There's almost no pause between "Talk Radio" and "I Wanna Rob A Bank" which follow "Miss Canada". You have to wonder if the latter isn't the answer to the dilemma expressed by the person in the former.

I'm sure all of us have heard people call into radio shows and talk about their lives. Well "Talk Radio" is the voice of one of those people, somebody who's obviously at the end of their rope. "What is happening to me?/I have done all the right things/I'm a Christian, God fearing/ I work hard for my family/I have a gun and I believe in the values of the country/and my life is collapsing". Spaced over just a bit more then two minutes of music that's the song's lyrics in their entirety. Delivered slowly with only basic musical accompaniment it comes across as a cross between a lament and a whine. So it catches you by surprise when before the echoes of its last notes have even completely died away the crunching guitar and opening lyrics of the next song burst upon you.
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When after the first chorus of "I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank" finishes and we hear; "I think it's only right, what's left don't even put up a fight/Someone's got to save the day/even Jesus would say it's okay to wanna rob a bank/ don't you wanna rob a bank?/Just like Jesse James/but I don't want to rob no train/ I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank, I wanna rob a bank." It's possible Collett is referring to Jesus throwing the money lenders from the temple, but it's equally possible we're hearing our good Christian with the gun from the previous song finding a solution to his problems. If that's the case I have to wonder how that would make anarchist types who would normally support knocking over a bank feel? Is it only okay if those doing the knocking over are "politically correct"?

On the surface Collett is expressing the frustration we all feel at the government bailing out banks while poor people are losing their houses. However I think he's also reminding us that everybody, not just the Occupy Wallstreet people, are feeling the same things. Think about the guy who genuinely believed in God, country and the flag who is all of a sudden forced to confront the fact the latter two really don't give a rat's ass for him. He's going to be a lot more angry and disillusioned than any so-called anarchist. He's going to have even more cause to want to knock over a bank than anybody else. Collett does a good job of forcing us to put ourselves in his shoes and realize his pain is every bit as real as everybody else's.

That's what I meant about Collett's stuff being subtle. There's layers of meaning in almost every song and they pick away at you, forcing you to listen to them again and again to try and track the train of his thoughts. Of course there are also songs like "Don't Let The Truth Get To You" which don't mince any words. Lines like, "the fools on television not taking any sides/modern journalism is just little tongue tied" in response to their reporting verbatim what the politicians have to say about the state of the world make it obvious what he thinks of television news. That's the sort of thing that will grab your attention and stick with you, but there's even more waiting to be discovered beneath the surface. Musically the disc ranges from folk, to rock to pedal steel country, but that's almost incidental to what's going on in Collett's head.

There's a wealth of ideas to be found on Reckon expressed in a myriad of ways. However instead of having to wade through reams of rhetoric to appreciate them, you only need to sit back and let them wash over you as gently and inexhaustibly as the tide. Jason Collett proves that intelligent songs don't have to either complicated or hard work for their audience. As a bonus the CD release of Reckon comes with a second disc, Essential Cuts, a retrospective of the best songs from earlier releases. If you buy the LP version you'll be given a code which will allow you to download the bonus disc. Either way its a great package of music from an exciting and interesting musician.

Photo Credit: Photo of Jason Collett by Victor Tavares

(Article first published as Music Review: Jason Collett - Reckon on Blogcritics.)

September 27, 2012

Music Review: Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros -Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros - The Hellcat Years


The performers I've always admired the most are the ones most willing to change and or experiment with the type of music they play. As far as I'm concerned it was a willingness to experiment that made Joe Strummer a cut above a lot of the musicians who had their start in the punk era of the 1970s . From his days as front man with the The Clash to his work with Joe Strummer and the Mescaleros he never stood still musically. From mixing reggae and punk to utilizing Latin rhythms, he always pushed his music in new directions. However, one thing that stayed consistent throughout his career was the emotional commitment to social and political justice that motivated the majority of what he wrote.

A recent release from Epitaph Records, Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years offers listeners a great opportunity to experience the extent of his musical diversity. Put together in commemoration of what would have been Strummer's 60th birthday (August 21 2012) its only available as a digital release. However it offers an almost complete retrospective of his career. For not only does it compile material from the three Mescaleros albums on the Hellcat Records label (Rock Art And The X-Ray Style,Global A Go Go and Streetcore) it also includes close to 25 bonus tracks consisting of b-sides, live material and dub versions of songs. While they are all played by the Mescaleros, they come from various times throughout his career, including covers of songs by The Clash, The Ramones and the Specials. The last 18 tracks are taken from a concert the band gave as a benefit for the Fire Brigades Union of London in 2002. Not only are there some wonderful live versions of Mescaleros songs in this concert, but it also contains new versions of some old Clash favourites.
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With 57 tracks in total this collection gives new meaning to the word comprehensive. However, what I find remarkable is that not only does it manage to demonstrate Strummer's musical diversity, it also captures the energy and emotion that made him so compelling. Even better, there are also tracks which show he could be a lot of fun as well. People can't focus on changing the world all the time, and Strummer was no exception. A great example of this is a live version of the old Specials song, "Rudi, A Message To You". He starts off by teasing the crowd, asking them which of them had owned a pork-pie hat (emblematic of ska music lovers in the 1980s) back in the day, and then leads them all in a sing-a-long of the tune. In fact he doesn't really have to do much leading, as the crowd starts singing of their own volition, he just has to encourage them.

"Rudi" is sandwiched between live covers of Jimmy Cliff's "The Harder They Come" and the Ramones "Blitzkrieg Bop". The three were originally released as the b-side for the single of the Mescaleros' song "Coma Girl". Listening to those three tracks one right after each other is like listening to the different sides of Strummer all at once. There's the social political statement of "The Harder They Come" followed by the still political, but light hearted fun of "Rudi" and finally the raw anarchy/power of "Blitzkrieg Bop". From reggae to ska to power pop/punk without missing a beat - it's almost his career in a nutshell.

I say almost, because while those are aspects of what he was, he was also much more. Listen to his version of Bob Marley's "Redemption Song" or to his 17 plus minute "Minstrel Boy" and you'll hear a completely different artist. With minimal musical accompaniment he sings the former as if its a heartfelt explanation of his motivations for making music. "So won't you help to sing/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/these songs of freedom/cause all I ever had/redemption songs/these songs of freedom/these songs of freedom". He sings it so simply and honestly it's hard not to think its his way of telling people what he's been trying to do all for all he years of his career..

On the other hand "Minstrel Boy" is an instrumental, one of the few if not the only one Strummer ever wrote outside of music he created for movie soundtracks. Aside from its novelty, as an instrumental, its interesting musically as well. It shares many similarities with a Celtic folk song including rhythm, atmosphere and instrumentation, but there's also something about it that makes it markedly different. First is its length of course, far longer than most folk songs, but even more important is what doesn't happen in the song. For while a great many of these types of folk songs (think of "When Johnny Comes Marching Home" and songs like that) celebrate or commemorate events in history and have a certain romanticism to them, "Minstrel Boy" doesn't seem to be about anything in particular. There's no mention of any great victories or tragic defeats for people to become worked up over, its just 17 plus minutes of almost slow dirge like music. It's like Stummer wants to remind everybody there's nothing romantic about war or killing people, no matter what the cause and no amount of stirring songs will change that fact.
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While the material on this collection includes songs Strummer wrote when he was with The Clash and covers of material from that time period, all of them were recorded with the Mescaleros. So that means you have Tymon Dogg playing violin on tracks like "Rudi, A Message To You" and the Clash's "Junko Partner" and breathing new life into them. Still, it's hard not to be stirred by the final three songs of the collection where Mick Jones joins Strummer on stage for the first time since he left The Clash twenty years earlier. Hearing them tear through three classic Clash tunes, "Bank Robber", "White Riot" and "London's Burning" is a treat. Yet even then, the songs aren't just faithful copies of what had been done previously as the new band puts their own take on the material.

The concert at Acton Town Hall in London England from which these live tracks were taken was on November 15 2002 and turned out to be the second last live appearance Strummer would ever make. On November 22 2002 the Mescaleros played Liverpool and Strummer died of a congenital heart disease December 22 2002. Strummer was fifty years old when he died and there's no telling what he would have gone on to do if he had lived. The final Mescaleros recording, Streetcore, was released almost a year after his death in October 2003. As you can tell from the tracks included on this compilation it was classic Strummer. A mix of the hard driving and political; "Get Down Moses" and "Coma Girl", the introspective; "Redemption Song" and folk music; "Long Shadow", written for Johnny Cash and recorded with Cash's guitarist Smokey Hormel.

Joe Strummer is still probably best remembered as the lead singer of The Clash, but his career continued for almost fifteen years after they disbanded. The new digital only collection Joe Strummer And The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years is not only a compilation of material from his post Clash career, its a reminder he was much more than just a punk rocker. His work with the Mescaleros was as political and socially conscious as anything he did with The Clash but he also continued to take risks musically as he aged. It's probably about time his work in this second part of his career is recognized as being equally important as anything he did as a member of The Clash. If listening to this collection can convince even a hard core Clash fan like me of the truth of that statement, it should convince anyone.

(Article first published as Music Review: Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros - Joe Strummer & The Mescaleros: The Hellcat Years on Blogcritics.)

September 21, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live At The US Festival 1982 & 1983


It always amazes me that when I hear these so-called "retro" events featuring music from the 1980s how I never recognize any of the music. So it's been something of a relief this past summer to find Shout Factory offering a retrospective of the career of the band who easily provided the best and most intelligent dance music for the first three years of the 1980s, The Beat, or as they were known in North America, The English Beat. First, there were two greatest hits collections: a five-disc box set The Complete Beat and a single disc Keep The Beat: The Very Best of The English Beat. Now, last but not least, comes the CD/DVD combination package The English Beat Live! at the US Festival. Both the CD and the DVD feature the band's performances from the 1982 and 1983 festivals.

While the CD is comprised of the highlights of each year's show, the DVD, able to hold more material, has both concerts in their entirety. The US festival was a seven-day extravaganza of popular music with each day featuring a different category of music. Which was probably a wise decision on the part of the promoters as those who would want to watch bands like The Clash, The English Beat and others scheduled to play on "New Wave" day probably wouldn't mix well with the crowd coming to see Van Halen and their ilk.
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This was the early days of music video television and before home televisions could deliver the high quality of sound and visuals to make watching an event like this worth while. Now, 30 years after the 1982 concert, its available complete with 5.1 Dolby Digital surround sound and compatible with your wide screen television. So not only does the sound quality do the band justice, the visuals are crisp and clean which is a nice change from some DVDs made of tapes from that era. In fact, the sound is crystal clear and far better than many recent concert recordings I've heard. For example, how often do you actually hear the secondary percussion instrument being played by a vocalist during a concert? On this release, you can hear every tap and beat vocalist Ranking Roger plays to accompany his singing and mad dancing.

The US Festival took place in a large open area in Glen Helen Regional Park in San Bernardino, California. In both years the stage was enormous and the band seemed dwarfed by their surroundings. In both concerts, but especially in 1982, they looked and acted like they were expending a lot of energy, but somehow or other you don't feel it. Maybe it was because they were so isolated from the audience; the bands were on this huge stage and separated from the audience by a fenced off area for press photographers. Or maybe it was because it was open air and the energy they produced just sort of dissipated into the wide open spaces around them.

Of course, no tape will ever be able to convey the experience of dancing yourself silly alongside a thousand other bodies at a show. What it should do, and what this DVD does, is capture moments which give you glimpses into the experience. One such moment is when the entire band is in motion and dancing around the stage like mad men while playing their instruments, with only lead vocalist and guitarist Dave Wakeling preventing them going into orbit by staying anchored at his post in order to sing. Or watching vocalist Rankin' Roger break into his biggest smile while desperately trying to bridge the gap with the audience by climbing on top of the monitors at the edge of the stage and dancing his heart out.
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As far as the set list for both concerts go, each year's contained an even mix of the band's material from all three of their studio albums. While songs like "Two Swords", "Save It For Later", "Twist and Crawl" and "Get A Job/Stand Down Margaret" show up both years, there are enough differences between the two to make watching each concert worthwhile. The 1982 concert features "Hands Off, She's Mine" and one of their lessor known tunes, "Sugar & Stress". The 1983 concert has a couple of my favourite English Beat tunes, "Ranking Full Stop" and their great cover of the old Miracles hit "Tears Of A Clown".

Even more fun for old fans will be the sight of their original saxophone player, Saxa, joining them on stage halfway through the 1983 concert. While his playing wasn't as sophisticated as the man who replaced him, there was an emotional depth to his playing which made him a lot of fun to listen to. In fact, once he joined the band on stage they reminded me more of the group I had seen live then at any other time on the DVD. Of course that could just be because of associating Saxa with seeing them perform, but they did seem to have a lot more fun once he started playing.

One thing you can't fail to notice is no matter how much fun they are having, and no matter how crazy they get, this band was incredibly tight. It's hard to believe this was a live concert they were so in sync with each other. Not a cue was missed and there didn't appear to be a note dropped or any of the other glitches you would normally see in a live concert. Technically there were also very few problems, including no equipment failures. Of course, this could be because all the technology was supplied by Apple computers and they were using top of the line everything. Still, technology is only as good as the people operating it, and the people crewing this event must have been at the top of their game for everything to have gone so smoothly.

The English Beat only produced three albums, but from 1978 until their breakup in 1983, their infectious mix of reggae, ska, Motown, pop and punk kept people dancing. England during this time was a powder keg of racial tension and unrest. It was said the only sure fire way to ensure a gathering wouldn't descend into violence of some sort or another was to have the English Beat play – as everybody would be too busy dancing and having fun to think about anything else. They just didn't play mindless dance tunes either, they sang about social justice and racial equality with a heavy emphasis on tolerance and joy. The English Beat Live! at the US Festival is a lovely reminder of their politics of joy and what it was like to see them in concert. I can only wish more bands would learn from their example.

(Article first published as Music DVD/CD Review: The English Beat - The English Beat Live! at the US Festival 1982 & 1983 on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Band photo by Michael Grecco

September 13, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists -Songs For Desert Refugees


Life in the sub-Saharan desert is hard at the best of times. The Kel-Tamasheq nomads have been traversing the area between Mali and Niger, moving their herds from water hole to water hole, since before the coming of Islam to Northern Africa. It is said among them their ancestors chose such a harsh land to live in because nobody else would want it and they'd be left alone. However, history has shown no land is too inhospitable for those greedy for territory. First it was the Arab nations spreading the word of Islam taking their land and giving them a new name, Touareg, (literally those who rebel against Islam). Even when they eventually accepted the new religion, they adapted it to suit their own traditions and made it their own.

It wasn't until the coming of the Europeans who divided the territory with artificial and arbitrary lines in the sand their lives started to be changed for the worse. The legacy of colonialism was the Kel Tamasheq found themselves cut off from their former migratory paths through the desert and the grazing lands needed for their herds. Those living in Niger were expected to stay in Niger and not wander over the shifting sands into Mali, Algeria and Burkina Faso as they once did. At various times since 1960 they have attempted to reassert their claims to the territories taken from them. A variety of treaties have been negotiated either through rebellion or diplomacy that were supposed to guarantee them territory and rights, but successive governments in Niger and other countries have gone back on their words. The discovery of uranium under the Sahara has only made matters worse as not only did it result in their further displacement, but the process of mining has steadily destroyed the environment.

While the rebellions have not always been successful, and have resulted in reprisals against the people at times, they have always been attempts to improve their lot. So the uprisings in Northern Mali in the early part of 2012 which have forced over 200,000 people to leave their homes doesn't fit the same pattern as previous Tamasheq revolts. The fact that Islamic fundamentalist troops are also involved with the fighting is even more suspicious, as the Tamasheq would not be interested in simply exchanging one group of people telling them how to live their lives for another. However, perhaps most telling, is the release of a new compilation disc, Songs For Desert Refugees on Glitterhouse Records as an effort to raise funds for those displaced by the fighting.
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In the past Tamasheq musicians have been key figures in advocating and fighting for the rights of their people. Some of them took part in the armed rebellions of the 1980s before putting down their guns and picking up guitars. Governments in the area have gone out of their way to target them for harassment and even assassination in the past, and most have spent time exiled from their home countries. Yet, during this most recent uprising instead of using their music to spread the word or to remind people to take pride in who they are, they are lending their talents to an effort to assist those being harmed by the fighting. Artists of the stature of Tinariwen,Terkaft, Etran Finatawa and Bombino, all who have been advocates for their people, have donated either previously unreleased material or new versions of older songs to this disc.

Even better is the fact that those who have compiled this recording have included some lesser known artists, ones whom I haven't heard before. Not only is it great to hear other artists from the region their inclusion gives listeners an indication of just how much diversity there is among the Kel Tamsheq groups of the region. For although they are commonly referred to as the guitar players, that does not mean the Kel Tamasheq sound is limited to the electric blues/rock guitar that has become the trademark of those well known in the West. While the offerings from Tinariwen, "Amous Idraout Assouf d'Alwa" (a previously unreleased track) and Bombino, an extended live version of his "Tigrawahi Tikma" give pride of place to the electric guitar, there are others who are more traditional in their approach.

Amanar de Kidal (Amanar of Kidal in Mali) took their name from the Tamasheq word for the constellation Orion in memory of those times the band would rehearse through the night until the stars were high in the sky above them. While the guitar is still the lead instrument in their contribution to the disc, "Tenere", it doesn't dominate in the same way it does in other groups. Instead we are treated to massed voices, flutes and a steady rhythm carrying us forward. The rhythm is not one we're used to as it induces an almost swaying motion, as if you were being gently rocked in the high saddle of a camel. Like many other Tamasheq groups Amanar also features female vocalists in the band. Here they supply a spine tingling vocal undulation as part of the harmonies for the song as well as more conventional backing vocals.

The final cut on the disc is from the band Tartit made up of five women and four men. The women provide the lead vocals and rhythmic patterns for this song while the men accompany them. At first the vocals sound rather simplistic, but listen closely and you realize there are something like five different vocal patterns happening at once. Occasionally one of the women break free from the hypnotic trance like sound to issue an undulation that rises up like a sudden wind. "Tihou Beyatne" is unlike any other song on the disc and is probably the one closest to the traditional music of the people. Here again you also see indications of why their Arabic name of Tuareg stuck as not only do the women lead the band, they go unveiled while the men keep their faces covered.
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While Tartit may be the closest to the traditional sound of the Kel Tamasheq all of the bands, no matter how electric or how much they've been influenced by Western popular music, retain solid connections to their desert roots. The majority sing in the Tamasheq language and thematically their songs are designed to remind their listeners to be proud of their culture. More importantly they use their music to teach the younger generation displaced from their desert life who they are and why the desert is important to the Tamasheq people. Musically, even artists like Bombino, whose band uses a full drum kit and is probably most like a Western pop group, retain the traditional rhythmic elements that distinguish all the bands' music. No matter how much their guitars wail, the drum still carries the echoes of thousands of years in the desert.

Like indigenous people the world over the Kel Tamasheq have seen their traditional territories taken away from them due to the encroachment of outside influences. The safety provided by living in one of the harshest environments in the world has disappeared. No where is safe any longer from civilization's greed for resources. The discovery of uranium in their traditional territories in Niger was a death knell for a way of life that had been carried out by those living there for a thousand years. The insurrections in Mali by Islamic fundamentalists earlier this year made an awful situation even worse with the displacement of over 200,000 Tamasheq and others living there.

All profits made from the sale of Songs For Desert Refugees are being split between two Non Government Organizations (NGOS) who are dedicated to assisting the Tamasheq people. Tamoudre works directly with those nomads still trying to work the land in the war torn areas by assisting them in any way possible to make their livelihoods more secure. Etar, has the more long term goal of helping to preserve, protect and disseminate the Tamasheq culture, both for the people themselves and to educate the rest of the world about them. They are currently raising money to build a culture centre in one of the regions in Mali hardest hit by the recent uprisings.

The Kel Tamasheq are a proud people who have fought long and hard for their right to be left alone and live their lives in the same way their ancestors did for generations. Music has played a key role in this fight for survival by keeping traditions alive and helping the people to retain a sense of pride in who they are. This disc represents a slightly more tangible way of helping their people as the bands involved have donated their songs and time in the hopes they will be able to raise some money to bring relief to those of their people who have once again find themselves caught up in a situation not of their making but which is causing them to suffer. Won't you help?

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Songs For Desert Refugees on Blogcritics.)

September 12, 2012

Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering


A couple of years ago when I man admired and respected was dying I was asked to prepare an article to be published when he died. Basically an obituary, but also an appreciation for a talented man who through fate, bad luck and his own demons never really received the recognition he deserved. While I was able to supply the nuts and bolts of his career and give my opinion I knew if I wanted to people notice I'd need to have a quote from a not only a familiar name but one whose opinion would carry some weight. While there was an obvious choice I didn't hold out much hope of hearing back from him as he didn't know me from a whole in the ground. However, to my delight and heartfelt appreciation, it was only about a week after I sent out the email request I heard back from Mark Knopfler.

He hadn't worked with Willy DeVille since the late 1980s when they had made the Miracle album, which included the theme song for the movie The Princess Bride, "Storybook Love", which had garnered DeVille an Academy Award nomination. Yet in spite of that he wrote a beautiful and gracious letter saying what he had appreciated about DeVille's singing and the pleasure he had making his minor contributions to the album (his words not mine). Listening to his new release, Privateering, on Universal Music September 11 2012, I'm reminded once again not only of Knopfler's talent, but the simple elegance of spirit that infuses both his music and everything about the man. It's not a thing you can point your finger at and say look there's an example, there's just something his music exudes which cocoons you with its warmth of heart. Like a magic cloak you can wrap around yourself to protect you from the privations of the world.
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This latest release, in its basic form, is a two disc set containing 20 tracks ranging from electric blues to traditional sounding folk from the British Isles all performed with his usual understated excellence. You also have a choice to buy the release as double LP; a deluxe set including an additional CD of rehearsals for his last tour packaged in hard back book format or you can go the whole hog and purchase a box set which includes the two CDs, the two LPs, an additional bonus CD of three songs, a documentary DVD called A Life In Song, a card with code allowing you to download a concert and a numbered art print. However, no matter which version of the release you choose to buy you can count on hearing superbly played music and a guitar which sings like no other.

In one of the books in his The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy the late British author Douglas Adams spent a couple of paragraphs rhapsodizing about the way Knopfler played his Fender Stratocaster. He called it the most beautiful sound in the known universe, even more beautiful than the sounds made by some sort of love dragons. In fact, Adams went on to say, if these love dragons happened to hear Knopfler play, they would just pack it in, weeping in frustration over their inability to match the quality of his playing. Now Adams was known for his hyperbole, and of course he was a science fiction writer, so its doubtful the love dragons in question really exist. However, his point about the sensuous beauty Knopfler is able to create with his Stratocaster wasn't exaggerated.

In his typical understated fashion though Knopfler flashes his talent only rarely. Unlike others who seem to feel the need to be constantly saying look at me, he is quite content with sharing the spotlight with those he plays with. Oh sure he'll take his solos, and be it slide, acoustic or electric guitar they are all things of beauty, but they're only one part of a song, not the song's reason for being. (Note: For some reason the order of songs on the download I received for review purposes seems to bear no relationship whatsoever to the order they appear on the actual release. So in order to avoid any potential confusion I'll only refer to tracks by name.)

Listen to a song like "After The Bean Stalk", a delta blues type ode to Jack's life after successfully pilfering from the giant in the sky three times, and you'll hear what I mean. Both Kim Wilson, harp (which I have to assume is harmonica since there's nobody credited with playing harmonica) and Tim O'Brien on mandolin, have their instruments featured far more prominently than anything Knopfler does on this song. You'll also notice as you listen to the disc how this track is emblematic of the release's theme of there's no easy ride in this life. There aren't any magic beans that will magically make your troubles all vanish: "Oh, Mama what's the matter now/Oh Mama what's the matter now/I'm still up in the morning to get behind the plough." Even after three trips up the bean stalk you still have to get up and work the fields if you want to eat.
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Even on a song which lends itself to uncorking a guitar lead, the rollicking honky tonk "I Used To Could", Knopfler holds back to allow his long time keyboard associate Guy Fletcher to share the spotlight with Wilson's harp on the solo breaks. At the same time though, both the piano and the harp make the most sense in this song about driving 18 wheelers. The harmonica catches both the loneliness of the road and, along with the piano, brings the rhythm of the wheels eating up miles of highway to life. This combination works perfectly with the lyrics. They not only manage to capture the difficulties of life as a long distance trucker but the appeal it can have to a certain type of person, all without sentimentalizing the experience or making the driver into some sort of hero: "GMC Cannonball going like a train/All down the 40 in the driving rain/All those horses underneath the hood/I don't do it no more but I used to could".

What I really appreciated about this disc is how easily Knopfler is able to cross the ocean musically from his adopted land of blues and country music back to his homeland's folk traditions. "You Two Crows" sees him swing back from the rainy highways of America to the rainswept moors of the British Isles. The uilleann pipes of Mike McGoldrick are enough to bring a shiver to anyone's spine, and they set the tone for this tale of a shepherd and his dog out in the rain contemplating life. Taking shelter from the rain and drinking from his flask he questions his career choice; "And once again I ask/What made you think/There'd be a living in sheep/Eat,work,eat,work and sleep." However, the two crows of the title, looking for carrion to eat, but most of all survivors, seem to give him the strength to continue; "And I raise my flask/To the clearing skies/To you sweepers/You carrion spies/To scavenge and survive/If you can do it so can I."

Its a beautiful and haunting sounding song, but like the other tracks its firmly rooted in reality. The farmer has chosen a hard life for himself and knows damn well he's going to have be as tough and ornery as any crow in order to survive. There's nothing romantic about this rainswept heath, no brooding heroes or beautiful heroines wandering looking for lost loves, only mud, dirt and the hard work of making a living from a herd of sheep. Yet, even here, in this tough and dirty song, you can feel the love Knopfler has for his subject. The respect he holds for the people who have to get their hands dirty, in one way or another, in order to get by. As he says in another song, "Corned Beef City"; "You don't ask questions/When there's nothing in the bank/Got to feed the kids/And put diesel in the tank." Sometimes people don't have much choice and they do what is necessary in order to survive.

Like the gentleman he is Knopfler doesn't judge any of the people he sings or writes about. There's not many people who can sing about the realities of having to make a living with compassion and understanding without pontificating. Not only does Knopfler avoid those traps, he doesn't make the mistake of romanticizing these people either. These aren't odes to the salt of the earth, these are songs about people. Of course these are songs, not essays on the plight of the working man, so they also sound wonderful and are played with the seemingly effortless skill of all Knopfler's creations. To make this combination work successfully it takes a person with equal amounts compassion, understanding of human nature and musical ability. Mark Knopfler is such a person.

Photo Credit: Artist photo by Fabio Lovino

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Knopfler - Privateering on Blogcritics.)

September 9, 2012

Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil


No matter how many different genres anyone wants to claim there are, when it comes to pop music everything's starting to sound pretty much the same to me. They should come up a new genre called "safe music for radio" and just get it over with. Sounds sort of like country, sort of like pop, sort of like dance, and nothing like anything really. However once in a while you get somebody like Amanda Palmer, better known as Amanda "Fucking" Palmer or AFP for short, who genuinely has no respect for conventions, genres or anything else that would make it easy to pigeon hole her into some sort of category. If you were to try and describe her music up until now you could say she's that ukulele strumming, keyboard playing cabaret style singer from The Dresdon Dolls.

Which of course doesn't really tell you anything at all about her. Just some facts. She was also in a production of the musical Cabaret put on by the American Repertory Theatre playing the role of Master of Ceremonies. Whether that makes her a cabaret style singer I don't know, but she does have an amazing voice. It can float between a caress and a battle cry in a second. She can charm the pants off you one moment and burn paint off a battleship in the next. She soars up the scale like a mezzo soprano at The Met and growls out lyrics like she learned how to sing at the knee of Johnny Rotten. On the couple of solo recordings I've heard up until now the music hasn't been very elaborate as she's been primarily on her own and there's only so much you can do with keyboards and ukulele. However that's all changed with the release of her new disc, Theatre Is Evil, on her own 8 ft. Records label (funded entirely by one of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns ever) September 11 2012, as she's now Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra. (A note on the release's title: she chose to go with the British spelling of the word theatre so it's not my Canadian chauvinism changing the spelling)
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I think I'm being quite honest when I say I've not heard anything like this disc before. I've only heard an online stream so far, so these are only my first impressions. It felt like listening to the sound track from some wonderfully anarchic musical. Something set in a basement nightclub in Paris during the decadent desperate period just before a war, any war. When everybody is living their lives to the utmost because they don't know what the world has in store for them. There's something slightly dark and sensual about the music while at the same time the feeling is of an unqualified celebration of being alive. A life being led on a knife's edge might be a little more dangerous but it also lets you know you're alive. Listening to Theatre Is Evil is far more dangerous than the music you normally hear, but it lets you know you're alive.

The album itself is laid out like a performance complete with an opening introduction to the Grand Theft Orchestra and a piece of intermission music at the half way point. Whether you want to get up and stretch your legs, take a pee break or go to the bar and have a cigarette the choice is yours. However it does give you a chance to pause the disc and digest what you've heard before proceeding onto the second half of the show. Believe me you'll be grateful for the break. Musically, emotionally and intellectually this is one of the most intense recordings you'll be listening to this year, or in any number of years to come. For these are multi layered and intricate songs with much more to them than meets the eye or ear.

Track 4, "Do It with a Rockstar", is at first blush an ode to the glam rock gods and goddesses of the early 1970s. You can almost smell the pancake make-up and hair spray. It's easy to visualize everybody wearing thigh high platform boots and metallic suits studded with rhinestones. Its brash, bold and brassy, yet there is an underlying note of something disquieting which comes through in lyrics like this; "And do you wanna go back home?/Check your messages and charge your phone/Oh are you, really sure you wanna go?/When you could do it with a rock star, do it with a rock star?"

From the title you might think the song is about the glamour of "doing it with a rock star". Yet the more you listen the more you hear its about the rock star looking for a little company. "Do you wanna dance?/Do you wanna fight?/Do you wanna get drunk and stay the night?/Do you want to see all my cavities?/Talk about the criss in the Middle East?" She sounds desperate for company. The contrast between the lyrics and the flamboyant music makes for an extremely powerful commentary on the nature of fame and stardom. With so much of our media obsessed with fame and celebrity these days it's a relief to see someone saying anything that might make people pause and think about the reality behind the glitter.
Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez.jpg
I could probably write a couple of paragraphs about each one of the 15 songs on this disc but it would end up reading like a PHD dissertation and bore the shit out of everybody including me. However I can't write about this disc and not talk about "Grown Man Cry" and "The Bed Song". Both songs deal with the dynamics of a relationship between a woman and a man in ways that you'll have never heard in a pop song before.

"Grown Man Cry" stands the whole sensitive guy thing on its head. "For a while it was touching/For a while it was challenging/Before it became typical/Now it really isn't interesting to see a grown man cry." Every time the woman in the song wants to have a serious conversation about anything, the man uses emotions to avoid the issue. My favourite lyric in the song though, and the one I think sums up the way guys use "sensitive" to their advantage, is her thoughts while listening to the radio; "I'm scanning through the stations/as the boys declare their feelings/but it doesn't feel like feelings/it feels like they're pretending/it's like they just want blow jobs/and they know these songs will get them". Guys have long used every angle possible to get into a woman's pants or to avoid talking. What better way to do either than by hiding behind "being sensitive".

"The Bed Song" is a different animal again. It traces a couple's relationship from their first bed, a mattress on the floor in what sounds like a squat, to their final resting place lying side by side under a tree. When the youthful romance of the early years has dissipated, their futon on the floor is replaced by an expensive bed and their squat with a luxury condominium, disquiet seeps into their relationship alongside the affluence and comfort. The woman wonders what the problem is. Lines like "And you said all the money in the world/ wouldn't buy a bed so big and wide/ to guarantee that you won't accidentally touch me in the night", are heart rending in their simplicity and implications. Yet for all the years of their life spent together she never once asks him what's wrong. It's not until they're both lying under their tombstone she finally asks him what was the matter; "You stretch your arms out and finally face me/ I would have told you if only you'd asked me." On that unhappy note the song ends, trailing off into the sound of alonely and desolate piano. I think we've all at least known of a relationship which seems to just drift along without either person saying anything of consequence to the other. What Palmer has done is manage to lift the mask and show the awful desperation that lurks beneath the silence. What makes this truly heartbreaking is she shows how easy it is for people to fall into this trap and the awful consequences.

Amanda Palmer and the Grand Theft Orchestra (described as genius musicians/arrangers/programmers Michael McQuilken, Chad Raines and Jherek Bischoff) have created a disc of music unlike anything you're liable to hear anywhere else. While being unique is not necessarily an indication of quality, Theatre Is Evil is one of the most exciting albums of popular music I've heard since the first time I heard The Clash. It challenges conventions without being inaccessible and actually assumes those listening to it have a working brain. This is not passive entertainment that you put on and forget about or put into random shuffle with hundreds of other tunes. This disc will reach out and grab your attention from its opening notes and not let you go until the final chord drifts off into the ether. From start to finish this is a work of art with every note and nuance carefully crafted and presented. Be prepared to be amazed.

Article first published as Music Review: Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra - Theatre Is Evil on Blogcritics.)

Photo Credit: Picture Of Amanda Palmer & The Grand Theft Orchestra by Shervin Lanez

September 4, 2012

Music Review: Dispatch - Circles Around The Sun

It was every kid's rock and roll dream. Three collage buddies get together in a band and start playing locally while in school and watch as it takes off. Soon they're playing gigs all over the US in sold out venues. Songs are being downloaded and shared from friend to friend and advance work is done via the Internet without them having to do anything. Their self released albums walk off the shelves and when the big labels come sniffing round they can tell them to get stuffed, we don't need you. Yet, even a dream can become tired, and for three young men who hadn't lived yet, and had the brains to know there was more to life than playing music with two other guys, they pulled the plug before it all went sour. While fundraising concerts brought them back together occasionally they managed to resist the urge to reunite on a more permanent basis.

That all changed in 2011 with them reuniting for a sold out tour of the US. Now, 2012 sees the release of the first full length Dispatch album of entirely new material in twelve years with Circles Around The Sun being released on their own Bomber label. Yep, their back. The three college kids who turned the music industry on its head by encouraging their fans to file share their songs in order to spread the word. Who sold out not one but three shows at Madison Square Garden in New York City in hours to raise money for Zimbabwe in 2007 and an acoustic show at the Kennedy Centre in Washington DC two years latter in less then two minutes.
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Chad Stokes, Brad Corrigan and Pete Francis; - they trade off on guitar, bass, drums, vocals, and one of them plays a mean banjo on the new disc - have gone out in the world as individuals and returned with something a lot more mature than the youthful exuberance and intelligence which were the earmarks of the band in the early years. So anyone expecting this to sound just like the music the band was playing a decade ago will be in for a surprise. Oh, some of the same elements are still there, its still the same three guys after all. The harmonies are so seamless and the playing so tight they still sound like they're completing each other's sentences musically, but the music isn't as raw or gritty and the writing is far more sophisticated. What they've each learned working on their own has been brought back to the trio and distilled down into a collection of songs reflecting their collective experiences.

What I had appreciated about Dispatch originally was how much they differed from what I had come to expect from pop trios. Normally this configuration conjures up images of bass, guitar and drums churning their way through assorted power chords with amplifiers turned up to eleven, compensating for lack of numbers with noise. Concerts would be more of the same except songs would be excruciatingly extended by endless solos. Dispatch always seemed more focused on making each song greater than the sum of their parts instead resulting in a diversity of sound most bands, let alone a trio, would be hard pressed to match. With Circles Around The Sun they not only continue on in that vein but have pushed themselves even further.

Right from the first song on the disc, title track "Circles Around The Sun", they start to take risks. Initially it sounds like fairly typical power pop song, opening with a cutting guitar lead and continuing on from there as a moderately fast, if much more melodic than normal, rock song. However, at about the half way point of the song, they start to change it up. First of all instead of what would under most circumstances be a break for a solo by one or more instruments, they have a three part harmony vocal break. What this does is serve as a both a musical and a thematic change of pace. A child born with a freak medical condition rendering him weightless had been taken from his mother; "Oh let's send him where no one else has gone/After all he cannot speak or walk/Let's send him at the moon/Do circles 'round the sun".
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Until the break we expect the tune to be about the callousness of government and exploitation. However, the first verse after is completely different in tone and form from anything preceding it as, "But he came back, yeah he came back/He came back with a smile as big as the whole world/The Doctors were shocked by his vital signs/She said, "Would you like to come home now"". With just this simple break the song changes from being just another obvious tune about heartless governments to something a little more complex. Sure, they'll do their best to exploit us when they can, but that doesn't mean we have to surrender hope. While the song reverts back to its original theme for a final refrain of "Oh let's send him where no one else has gone", the break and subsequent verse have done their job in subverting the notion of governments being all powerful and able to get their way in everything.

As the disc progresses you'll notice the band isn't willing to let themselves be easily defined musically anymore. For while "Not Messin'", track two, is a hard edged rap song about the strange values being preached according to the gospel of money and material wealth, "Get Ready Boy", following immediately after, is a wistful song about freedom with a distinct bluegrass feel to it. Yet in spite of the changes in style that occur throughout the disc, there is still a sense of cohesion to the album as a whole. For one thing it never feels like the band is doing something different solely for the sake of being different. No mater the approach taken it never sounds forced. Each song on the disc feels like the lyrics and music are organic extensions of each other and took their particular form because it was best suited to expressing the thoughts and emotions specific to the tune.

In the 1990s Dispatch were the quintessential independent collage band. They took the industry by storm by taking advantage of file sharing and the burgeoning Internet social networks to publicize their material and promote their concert appearances. Their music was fresh, positive and fun and they tapped into young people's need to feel like they could make a difference in a world which seemed indifferent to their concerns. Now twelve years since the release of their last studio album they're back.

While they remain as fiercely independent as they were originally and have lost none of the joie de vivre that made them so appealing, they've grown both as musicians and human beings in the interim. The result is an album of material emotionally and intellectually maturer then anything they previously released retaining the enthusiasm for life and music that distinguished them in the past. If you liked them before, you'll love them now. If this is your first time listening to them, you're in for a treat. There still isn't another band quite like Dispatch, and you'll not hear another album quite like Circles Around The Sun.

(Article first published as Music Review: Dispatch - Circles Around The Sun on Blogcritics.)

August 6, 2012

Music DVD/CD Review: Various Performers - Johnny Cash We Walk The Line


I often have trouble with tribute concerts, concerts where a collection of performers gather to perform the music of one specific musician. It's been my experience people far too often get caught up in the event and the iconography of the person being honoured and forget about the reason they're honouring him or her - the music they created. The larger and more significant a figure it is being celebrated the larger the likelihood is of this happening. So it was with some trepidation that I started to watch the DVD of Johnny Cash: We Walk The Line - A Celebration Of The Music Of Johnny Cash, being released August 7 2012 by Legacy Recordings, as there's probably no bigger icon in American music than Johnny Cash.

Since Cash's death there have been a number of tribute albums released and any number of people have taken to covering his music. While there have been some amazing versions of his songs, everything from punk All Aboard: A Tribute To Johnny Cash, one of the best, to hip hop, Johnny Cash Remixed, they've not been able to capture the entire essence of the man and his music and why it appealed to such a cross section of society. To be honest the only reason I even bothered to check out this latest effort was because I read that Don Was was musical director and had helped put together the lineup. I've been impressed with events similar to this one that Was has been involved with, so I thought it would be worth taking a chance on.
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The concert, which took place back in April 2012 in Austin Texas, was the kick off to this year's celebrations in honour of what would have been Cash's 80th birthday. Over the past couple of years Legacy Recordings, in conjunction with the Cash family, have been releasing collections of Cash recordings that have been laying around in vaults for years. As their contribution to the birthday proceedings, not only are they releasing this DVD/CD set, but the same day will also see the release of four CDs of Cash's music, each celebrating a different aspect of his musical character. The Greatest: The Number Ones, The Greatest: The Gospel Songs, The Greatest: Country Songs and The Greatest: Duets. Looking at the track listing for each of these CDs will give you a clue as to how it was always impossible to pigeon hole Cash - even when you divided his music up by genre or style.

The country songs were culled from a list of a hundred Cash had considered essential for his daughter to be aware of and include everything from "Long Black Veil" and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" to his version of "The Gambler" (which he released before Kenny Rogers). However, as far as I'm concerned it's the duets collection which is the most telling. Naturally it includes "Jackson" and "If I Were A Carpenter" which he and June Carter Cash were famous for singing together. Yet unlike what you'd expect from this type of compilation they're not all love songs performed with a female vocalist. In fact nine of the fourteen tracks feature him singing with another man - everyone from Bob Dylan, "Girl From The North Country", to George Jones, "I Got Stripes".

Which is why anything less than even an attempt to reflect the idiosyncratic nature of Cash's musical tastes and his appreciation for all types of music would have made this celebration of his music a failure. My worst fear was it would turn out to be a gathering of Nashville types twanging their way through his music and sucking the life out of it by covering them with rhinestones and cheap sentimentality. Seeing that both Willie Nelson and Kris Kristoffersson were among the performers was a relief and the fact the African American string band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, were also in the line up was also a good sign. However, there were a number of names on the list I didn't recognize which still troubled me. However, I should have trusted my initial reaction to Was' involvement, because nearly each person involved went the extra distance to try and capture the essence of Cash's spirit.

Film actor Matthew McConaughey hosted the evening and wasn't too obvious about reading from the teleprompter - in fact as the night went on he loosened up more and more and was obviously starting to enjoy himself. (One of the special features is him doing a credible job of performing "The Man Comes Around"). Was and executive producer Keith Wortman compiled their ideal Cash set list and each of the invited performers were asked to select the Cash song they'd like to perform. In the special features Wortman says he and Was were pleasantly surprised when they compared their list with the list of requests submitted by the performers and the two were almost identical. Something that people are bound to wonder about, is how many of the songs are ones Cash didn't write. Yet it's only by variety of styles he recorded that one can really appreciate him as both an artist and a human being. How many people out there do you know that can perform both "Hurt" and "Why Me Lord" with equal sincerity and credibility.
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Which is why you need as diverse a group of performers who were gathered together in Huston that night to bring Cash's music to life properly. Highlights, at least for me, included "Get Rhythm", performed by pop singer Andy Grammer. He injected some much needed fun right from the start by doing hip-hop style vocals percussion and by so obviously enjoying himself. Buddy Miller, who was also lead guitarist for the "house" band (Don Was bass, Greg Leisz steel guitar and mandolin, Kenny Arnoff drums and Ian McLagan keyboards) rocked the house with his version of "Hey Porter", Shelby Lynne was stellar singing Kristofferson's "Why Me Lord", Rhett Miller, lead singer of the Ol' 97s, tore the stage up with his version of, what else, "Wreck Of The Old '97", Ronnie Dunn brought out the trumpet section from a Mariachi Band for his version of "Ring Of Fire" and Lucinda Williams broke everyone's hearts with her rendition of "Hurt".

Nearly everyone of the twenty tracks on the disc are worth mentioning but there are a few more which stood out in particular. Putting the Carolina Chocolate Drops on stage was a beautiful move by the show's organizers, as it not only reminded people of the African American roots of so much of Cash's music, it also showcased one of the best string bands in America today. If their version of "Jackson", and leading the ensemble in a gospel style version of "I Walk The Line" to close the night, doesn't have people scrambling to buy their records there's no justice in the world. Yet for all the youthful exuberance on display it was still the two old guys, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, who stole the show. Maybe it's because they represented a tangible connection to Cash through so many years of associating the three of them together that made the heart swell listening to them perform, but it was also just great to see them on stage again.

Kristofferson first joined Jamey Johnson for a rendition of his "Sunday Morning Coming Down" and then he sang "Big River". Kristofferson's voice hasn't weathered the years that well, but for all its current limitations there's still something wonderful about listening to him growl his way through anything. On the other hand Nelson's voice seems to be becoming more and more velvety as he ages. First performing "If I Were A Carpenter" with Sheryl Crow, then "The Highwayman" with Shooter Jennings, Kristofferson and Johnson, and finally, as a special feature on the DVD but included on the CD, "I Still Miss Someone", he sounds even more effortless then ever. It's like he just opens his mouth and liquid gold rolls out as a balm to ease your wounded soul.

The special features include interviews with nearly everyone of those performing or involved with the concert. What struck was how many times somebody said a variation of "you'll find Johnny's music in the record collections of everyone from punks to middle of the road country fans". That one man had something that could appeal to such a huge cross section of the population says something about both his abilities as a musician and who he was as a human being. There's probably no one person in popular music today who can connect to that many people. Even finding the right mix of performers whose combined talents come close to matching what Cash was able to accomplish with his music is a nigh on impossible job. But on this night in Huston they came as close as I think anyone will ever come. No matter what your reason for liking Johnny Cash there's something in this collection for you. If anybody was looking to find a way to establish common ground between all the disparate elements in American society today the music of Johnny Cash would be a great foundation to build upon.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - We Walk The Line: A Celebration of the Music of Johnny Cash [DVD+CD] on Blogcritics.)

July 31, 2012

Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis


There used to be a strong connection between popular music and its audience. This was especially true of protest music, but even regular pop music spoke to the interests and concerns of those listening to it. However, the more music has been taken out of the hands of individuals and become big business with a bottom line, the more it has been watered down so overall it has become more about style than content. Worse yet is the cult of celebrity that has sprung up surrounding the performers making them objects of admiration for their fame and wealth instead of their talent or what they have to say.

While there are some exceptions they seem to be fewer and fewer each year. So it was wonderful to hear the new CD from Nona Hendryx, Mutatis Mutandis, being released July 31 2012 on Ani DiFranco's label, Righteous Babe Records. Not only do her lyrics express opinions on subjects most people are uncomfortable even talking about, musically the disc is exciting, passionate and raw. Even better is when listening to Hendryx you feel her connection to what she's singing about. Topics range from religion to politics but she performs them in a way that anybody listening to the songs can relate to them. They're about what we see on television, what we hear in the news and what we see on the streets around us and delivered by a voice whose experiences of them are much the same as ours.
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The opening song, "The Tea Party", isn't about American history, but the political party that has co-opted history in an attempt to lend itself credibility. Against a driving funk backdrop Hendryx outlines all the ways these self-styled patriots are really the anti-thesis of what America stands for. "They say they want to take their country back, but don't they know it wasn't theirs and that's a fact". However the song isn't just the usual liberal whining about those bad guys on the right. Instead Hendryx spells out the reality behind The Tea Party's fine sounding rhetoric and exposes their real agenda. For a party who claims to be all about liberty and freedom they sure do want to deny a lot of people the freedom and liberty to be who they are and make up their own minds about subjects.

Critiquing religion and churches is always a sensitive subject because it's too easy to paint everyone with the same brush and make sweeping pejorative statements which are as much an injustice as the behaviour being protested. In "Temple Of Heaven" Hendryx walks the fine line of being critical of the way some people use religion as a means to an end without coming down on either any specific denomination or faith itself. There's nothing wrong with believing or going to the church of your choice, what's wrong are those out there pushing hatred in the name of their God. Far too many songs of this type alienate the majority of people because they come across as anti-religious, By being very specific with her target Hendryx increases the chances people will pay attention to what she's saying and makes the song far more credible than if she just complained about "church" or religion.

What I really liked about Hendryx's approach to her material was she continually found ways to sing about a subject that didn't make it sound like she was preaching to us or she's somehow morally superior to us. To quote Lou Read, the last thing we need is another self-righteous rock star. Hendryx doesn't come across as either self-righteous or a star. Listen to her "environmental" song "Oil In The Water", and you'll hear her talking about oil spills -"there's oil on the water that no rain will wash away" - but she doesn't just talk about the evils of the oil industry. She's created a song which talks about how oil spills are a symptom of what's wrong with society today. The song is about corporate greed, true enough, but its also about how we've all become disassociated from the world around us and the danger that represents. Even better, like all the tunes on this disc, she doesn't make any distinction between those listening to her music and her. We're all in this together and nobody is exempt from responsibility.
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While I could go on and on about all the songs on this disc (her adaptation of the Billie Holliday classic "Strange Fruit" - "Stranger Fruit" is brilliant and "The Ballad Of Rush Limbaugh" will surprise you) I want to make special mention of "Black Boys". "Black boys in tight blue jeans/is that a gun in your pocket or are you just glad to see me?/Black boys in tight blue jeans/Are you America's nightmare or America's dream". Not only does the song challenge the stereotypes that white people have about African American men, especially young men, it also challenges the young men in question. She says as an African American woman I love you, but I worry about and am afraid for you. She questions the gangsta-rap identity, the macho bullshit and the emphasis on material goods that accompanies it, "Don't be blinded by the bling" she admonishes at one point.

This song typifies Hendryx's approach to her material on the whole disc. She's not afraid to ask the questions most of us think but never speak out loud. She's looking around at the world we all live in and doesn't just shake her head, but finds a way to articulate in song many of the things troubling all of us. Even better is how she doesn't ignore the music for the message. Each song is as carefully crafted musically as it is lyrically with the sound ranging from old school R&B and Chicago soul, hard core funk to songs which fuse all those elements together with jazz and rock. Its an album of great music and great lyrics where neither outweighs the other and they compliment each other perfectly.

Hendryx is a veteran of the music wars and the lessons she has learned about music and presentation from her days with Labelle and performing with groups like The Talking Heads are all put to good use on this disc. On top of that, each song is timely and topical, articulating the issues facing Americans on a daily basis in such a manner that you can't help but listen to her. Not only is this a great disc musically, but any politician wanting to know what really matters to Americans these days would be well advised to give it a listen. Finding answers to the questions Hendryx raises will go a long way to ensuring yourself of victory in November.

(Article first published as Music Review: Nona Hendryx - Mutatis Mutandis on Blogcritics.)

July 26, 2012

Music Review: Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth


A big deal is always made about the role Bob Marley played in the popularization of reggae music among mainstream audiences. While it's true Marley was the genre's first big superstar, and at the time of his death easily the most well known reggae performer, he wasn't the only one responsible for bringing reggae to the attention of non-Jamaican listeners. The soundtrack from the 1972 movie The Harder They Come introduced the world to a young Jimmy Cliff. Not only did he have the lead role in the movie, he also sang and wrote the two most popular songs on the soundtrack, "The Harder They Come" and "You Can Get It If You Really Want". I don't know about anyone else, but I heard this album and Jimmy Cliff long before ever hearing anything by Marley or his group the Wailers.

Unfortunately for Cliff he never seemed to catch the public's imagination in the same way as his compatriots Marley and Peter Tosh did. In spite of writing some really wonderful tunes, "Many Rivers To Cross", to this day the most poignant reggae song recorded, and "Pressure Drop", covered by The Clash and other punk bands in the 1980s, after all these years he's still searching for the breakout album that will push him to the next level of popularity. In fact he makes no bones about it in the press materials for his latest CD , Rebirth on the Universal Music Enterprises (UMe) where he is quoted as saying "I want to become a stadium act".
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Unfortunately this desire seems to have an adverse effect on his music. When an artist, even one as good as Cliff, sets his sights on a specific type of success, rather than simply going about creating his art it can't help but impact on what he creates. Consciously or not all his choices are going to be guided by, in this case a desire for popularity and commercial success, and his creations can't help but be coloured by those desires. In the case of Rebirth the result has been an album that doesn't live up to the expectations created by Cliff's previous material. That's not to say this is a bad CD, or the music is crap. It's just not in the same league as other music I've heard from him.

Musically the songs don't seem to want to make a full commitment to reggae as if he's trying to make them more accessible to a wider audience. Unfortunately the result is they lose the solid footing that a reggae back beat would have given them. While there are plenty of examples of music which have melded reggae with other genres with various degrees of success, here they just sound like reggae songs watered down by pop hooks. What's depressing is listening to the couple of songs where Cliff's true potential shines through. His cover of The Clash's "Guns Of Brixton" is a great example of what he is capable of. He delivers the words with passion and dignity, keeping alive the challenge of the original version while showing compassion for those pushed to having no more choices."When they kick in your front door, what you goin' to do? Guns of Brixton"
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But unfortunately the majority of the songs on the disc are more like "Reggae Music". The song is a simplistic and sentimental look at the history of reggae over the past fifty years tracing both Cliff's career and a changing world. The chorus of "Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now/Reggae music gonna make me feel good/reggae music gonna make me feel all right now" seems to imply no matter what's happening in the world reggae will make things better. While the sentiment itself is harmless enough I guess, its undermined by the fact musically the song is an uptempo pop song with the reggae influence almost buried under its cheery refrain and catchy tune.

Then there's the song "Outsider" where the music contradicts the purported message of the lyrics. For while Cliff is proclaiming his outsider status, his individuality, the music belies that message by sounding like it would be comfortable on a top forty television show. This is not the music of the streets of Kingston Jamaica or songs about injustice, but rather the stuff they play for tourists at resorts that won't offend anybody's sensibilities. I can't help but remember a movie Cliff was in with Robin Williams called Club Paradise. In it Cliff was the leader of a band who were capable of playing down and dirty reggae, but when the police come around they immediately switch to something that sounds like Bonny M would play.

Now there's no way even on his worst day Cliff could sound like Bonny M. However, listening to the songs on Rebirth I can't help but feel disappointed as they sound little or nothing like the music I'm used to hearing from him. Sure the tunes are catchy enough and he still has a great voice, but the heart and soul seem to have been removed. Cliff is one of the greats of reggae, but unfortunately you can't really tell it from this attempt. Go back and grab a copy of the soundtrack to The Harder They Come or even just listen to "Many Rivers To Cross", if you really want to experience him at his best.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jimmy Cliff - Rebirth on Blogcritics.)

July 13, 2012

Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley


When a pop musician has been dead forty years it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you talk about how great they were. There have been a million players since his or her time and people whose parents might not even have been alive when the person was in their prime are going to, and with good reason, ask why they should even care. Let's face it, every generation always hears it from their elders how much better everything was in their time and learns how to tune them out, so why should this generation be an exception. It's especially difficult when so called "Classic Rock" stations choke the airwaves with uninspired shit that gives the impression that the music of four decades ago was as unimaginative as what they hear on the radio today.

So I can't blame anyone if their eyes started to glaze over simply reading the title of the item under review here. Not another article extolling the virtues of some long dead rock star. What makes him so special that we should give a shit about a DVD shot forty years ago of this guy performing? The sound quality probably sucks and the pictures can't be much better, so why should I shell out how ever much its going to cost? All of which are perfectly fair questions and the only answer I can offer is because seeing is believing. In spite of any deficiencies in audio and visual I'm willing to bet that you've never seen anyone like Jimi Hendrix and after watching the newly remastered and restored version of Jimi Plays Berkeley released by Legacy Recordings you'll agree.

Jimi Plays Berkeley isn't a concert film in the typical sense of the word, it's more like a documentary film about a concert Hendrix gave and what was happening in America at the time. The University of Berkeley California was one of the centres for student unrest in the 1960s and 1970s. The Free Speech Movement, protesting the censorship of student newspapers by the governors of the university, began mounting demonstrations in 1964. These expanded to include demonstrations against the war in Viet Nam and other causes. By the time Hendrix's concert took place in 1970 running battles between student demonstrators and police were common occurrences in Berkeley.
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All of which explains why the directors of this movie elected to include footage of various demonstrations. Whether or not these protests actually occurred during the weekend Hendrix's concerts were taking place is another question. However it does give you a historical context within which to place his music and an idea of events in society that inspired him. Barely three weeks before the concert's May 30 date the Ohio National Guard had shot and killed four students at Kent State University during a protest against the war on May 4 1970. So songs like "Machine Gun" and "I Don't Live Today", while not specifically inspired by that event, would have had special resonance for the audience.

The movie opens with Hendrix and some of his entourage driving to the venue for his afternoon rehearsal in a limousine. Quiet and unassuming, he seems to be in a world of his own quietly staring out of the car window as the others chat and drink beer. He may have dressed the part, but Hendrix never came across like your typical rock star, and you glimpse that here. From the limo we move into the concert hall, The Berkeley Community Theatre, where we see some footage of Hendrix, drummer Mitch Mitchell and bass player Bobby Cox rehearsing for the evenings performance. At one point Hendrix instructs Cox on what kind of bass line he needs for a particular transition into a solo by singing him the arrangement. It's a lovely little moment that gives you some insight into how careful he was with his arrangements and the attention he paid to every last detail.

During the rehearsals is also our first indication that the sound quality of this recording is going to be far superior than we would have suspected judging by the quality of the video. For while there's little that can be done to improve an old film's quality, modern digital technology has allowed Hendrix's original recording engineer, Eddie Kramer, to re-master the soundtrack of the film in 5.1 Surround Sound. While that won't eliminate any of the flaws in the original, it does mean the sound is far cleaner then it would have been when the film was first released. Having heard other recordings from the same time period made under similar conditions I could immediately notice the difference. It was most noticeable in the way each instrument was discernible in the mix. In a lot of older recordings I've heard of Hendrix what you normally have is a wall of sound which his guitar would occasionally break through and you'd be lucky if you ever heard his vocals.
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Hendrix was notoriously self-conscious of his voice and even on studio albums his vocals were often muted. However, Kramer has done an excellent job of not only managing to isolate him while he's singing but to make sure we hear everything he says to his audience. This is important because it allows us to hear his opening introduction asking them to forget about yesterday or tomorrow as this is "our own little world tonight".

The material he performed during the concert was his usual mix of traditional blues, "Hear My Train A Comin'", his own material, "Purple Haze", "I Don't Live Today", "Machine Gun", and "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" and his two favourite covers "Johnny B Goode" and "The Star Spangled Banner". Listening to him play is only half the story. It's watching him that you truly begin to understand how special he was. Listening you forget he's playing a right hand guitar strung for a left handed person upside down and backwards or that his beloved Stratocaster was not designed to be played that way. Watch his hands on the fret board - they seem to have a life of their own as they fly up and down it, pick out notes on the bridge, make adjustments to the guitar's controls and ply the whammy bar.

Unlike today's guitarists who have rack upon rack of effects peddles they can modulate their sound with at the touch of a foot, there's barely a peddle to be seen on the stage in front of Hendrix. Aside from a Wha Wha peddle and a couple of others which he doesn't even seem to make use of, he's creating every sound that comes out of his guitar simply by playing with the sound. Throwing his whole body into almost every note like he's trying to see how far he can bend or milk the sound for that extra little bit of impact he looks to be entering into another world. When he comes back to the microphone to sing it's like he's returning from a voyage and reporting back to his listeners on what he's seen. Watching him come alive with the guitar in his hands one realizes how much the music meant to him. The more you see and hear him play the more you realize it wasn't about fame for him. The money he made allowed him to play and create. Just before he died he had opened Electric Lady Land studios where he recorded his last studio albums. It was meant to be his laboratory where he could make wonderful things come to life. Instead it became his legacy where others now go and record.

Jimi Plays Berkeley also contains a couple of special features. One of them is the second concert of the weekend re-mastered in 5.1 audio. This concert has been released before with questionable audio so it's good to have a clean version of it. Its also being released as a stand alone CD and special edition two hundred gram vinyl. The second special feature is an interview with Abe Jacob, Hendrix's touring sound engineer. Listening to him you understand just how primitive equipment was in those days compared to our standards. For the time they were considered way out there because of Hendrix's need for multiple amplifiers and stacks. But it drives home the point of how little he depended on effects for what he did.

Jimi Hendrix would have been seventy years old on his next birthday (November 27 2012) if he had lived and there's no way of knowing what kind of music he might have gone on to create. The good thing is that after years of inferior recordings being released cheapening his musical legacy, we are finally having the opportunity to hear his music in the best shape possible. Jimi Plays Berkeley may not be perfect, but rock and roll isn't about perfection, its about heart and passion. This DVD gives us an opportunity to see Jimi Hendrix's heart and passion and some of the events going on at the time that would have fuelled his creativity. Watch it and understand why there will never be anyone else quite like him again.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Jimi Hendrix - Jimi Plays Berkeley on Blogcritics.)

July 7, 2012

Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat


Great Britain in the late 1970s and early 1980s was an extremely polarized society. Upon its election Margret Thatcher's Conservative Party government had instituted a deliberate policy of isolating and attacking those it deemed to be its enemies. It was pretty much open season on everyone from trade unionists to minorities. While it was never official government policy to target immigrants like it was to break the coal miner's union, when unemployment started to escalate and the poor and working class began to suffer, scapegoats were needed and visible minorities were an easy target. The National Front, a British neo-Nazi political party, took advantage of the hard times to whip up anti-immigrant sentiment. The result was increasingly violent altercations between their followers and the large South East Asian and Jamaican populations in London, which cumulated in race riots that were running battles between both sides and the police.

This was the backdrop against which a new type of music was born. Ska and reggae had come to Britain along with calypso with the post WW ll wave of Jamaican immigration but they had never really spread beyond their native communities. That all began to change in 1970s with the emergence of reggae stars like Bob Marley and Jimmy Cliff who garnered mainstream attention in England. While bands like The Clash incorporated reggae into their sound, others were attracted to the higher tempo sound of ska. Bands like The Specials, Madness and UB40 blended ska and reggae with punk to create a high energy, somewhat politicalized, dance music. However it was a group from Birmingham, the second largest city in England after London, which had been really badly hit by Thatcher's policies, who really caught lightning in a bottle and created a perfect marriage of ska, R&B, pop and punk.
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The Beat, or The English Beat, as they were known in North America, only released three albums. (The original band broke up in 1983 and have recently reformed as two separate bands, The Beat in England and The English Beat in the US hence the two web sites) While they may have not been around for very long they blazed through popular music like a comet. Infectious, intelligent, fun and exciting their music had people on both sides of the ocean dancing. A review published around the time of their first album, I Just Can't Stop It, called them the perfect antidote to the riots plaguing England at the time. Just set The Beat down between the two factions and start them playing and people will have to stop fighting as their bodies will force them to start dancing the reviewer implied. If you didn't have the opportunity to experience The Beat the first time round, or if you're old vinyl has been worn out by repeated playings, you're in luck, for on July 10 2012 Shout Factory is releasing the box set The Complete Beat.

Not only does it contain all three original releases (I Just Can't Stop It, Wh'appen, and Special Beat Service) remastered and with extra tracks you'll also receive two bonus discs. The fourth disc of the set collects together all the extended remixes, twelve inch singles and dub versions of songs that they released during the course of their career. Dub is of course short for over dubbing and was a widely used technique in Jamaican dance halls for years. The original song is taken, and then overdubbed with effects usually with the intent of extending the track and giving it a funkier groove. To be hones when I had heard some of these tracks when they were originally released I found the idea of overdubbing The Beat somewhat redundant as they were already a great dance band. However, that being said, their overdubs do have the added bonus of being more than just simple remixes with a new rhythm track.

Vocalist and "toaster" (another term from the Jamaican dance hall lexicon equivalent to American rap) Rankin' Roger adds new "toasts" to quite a few of the tracks and he's always a treat to listen to. His soliloquies seem positively innocent compared to what you hear on the average rap record, but they're inventive. intelligent and fun. They usually involved taking the main lyric line and extemporizing, genuinely adding a new dimension to any song that he worked on.
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The fifth disc is comprised of versions of their songs recorded for the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) renowned "John Peel" show. Some of the most famous bands in British pop from the 70s and 80s have had their music released under The John Peel Sessions imprint. Recorded live in BBC's studios for radio broadcast they are rawer and more immediate than the versions which appear on a band's releases and give the listener a better idea of how they would sound live. With a band like The Beat, while studio versions are great, it's only live when they're all feeding off each other's energy that one really begins to appreciate what made them so special. The inclusion of the Peel recordings in this set gives listeners an inkling as to what that experience would have been like. Having seen them twice in concert back in the early 1980s I know nothing can capture that magic, not even a live recording, but these John Peel Session recordings come close.

The last four songs on this disc are taken from their 1982 North American tour during their Boston gig in November of that year. If you thought the studio version of "Twist and Crawl" on Just Can't Stop It was high energy, wait until you hear what they uncork live. It also contains the never recorded combination of their song "Get A Job" and their plea for Margaret Thatcher to do everyone a favour and resign "Stand Down Margaret". Originally paired with "Whine & Grine" "Margaret" takes on an even bigger bite when combined with "Get A Job". Remember this was the government that did its best to destroy Britain's industrial base for the sole purpose of putting union members who voted against them out of work and then proceeded to say the poor only had themselves to blame and anybody who really wanted to could "Get A Job".

Maybe a song like "Stand Down Margaret" is dated (however it still remains the one and only song I've ever seen develop into a full scale sing along while the audience is dancing itself silly) but listening to The Beat itself will never get stale. While there were other talented ska bands like The Specials, The Beat were something special. They fused the best of R&B, soul, punk, reggae and ska into a sound that was unique to them. Listen to their cover of the old Motown hit "Tears Of A Clown" and you'll hear what I mean. What was once sort of a catchy, but basically insipid pop tune, has been turned into something with meat on its bones. Tighter, tougher and with twice the energy of the original it, like all their music, makes you want to throw your body around in ways you never thought possible.

In the years since The Beat broke up we've seen the rise of various different types of dance music. Yet for about six years or so a band existed who created music that inspired thousands of people to forget about whatever else was going on in their lives for hours on end and dance like there was no tomorrow. Their music might not have been as political as the Clash's or as cerebral as the Talking Heads, but The Beat - or The English Beat if you prefer - were in some ways just as important. For even today they remind us that music doesn't have to have a message or be selling anything to have a positive impact. They were a reminder that life can and should be a celebration, and all during a time when things were looking really quite ugly. If you think about it, that's a message the world could stand to hear more often. The songs in this collection might be thirty years old, but they still have the same impact they did when first recorded.

For those who aren't sure if they want to invest in the box set The Complete Beat Shout Factory is also releasing a fifteen song greatest hits disc, Keep The Beat: The Very Best Of The English Beat on July 10 2012. They are also offering a special incentive for ordering the box set directly from their web site as they will throw in the never before released CD/DVD recording of the Beat's appearance at The US Festival in 1982 and a signed booklet with every purchase. I've no idea of the DVD's quality - but I remember the US Festival was televised by the music networks of the day so it will probably be the television feed which means it will at least have been professionally shot - but the chance to see them perform live even on tape is something not to be missed. However, no matter which recording you choose to buy, you'll soon discover there was and is no other band like The Beat.

(Article first published as Music Review: The Beat - The Complete Beat on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2012

Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird


As a reviewer or critic you're supposed to provide some sort of objective opinion on whatever it is you're writing about. You look at a group or person's work within the context of the genre they work in and ask yourself how they stack up against others like them. After a few years of doing this you get so it becomes almost rote. However the difficulty comes when you come across somebody who won't let you be objective. You start gushing all over the page about how damn amazing somebody is and nobody is going take your review seriously, it will dismissed as the ravings of some fan. Well, even music critics can be fans. I know that sounds like a stretch to some of you. It's cool to think critics hate music and only exist to run down your favourites or to say nasty things about people you like. Well I can be as nasty as the next person - ask me how I feel about the music industry in general or some of the so called celebrities/singers who somehow are referred to as artists and watch me go - but I also genuinely love music.

Normally I find a way to list the reasons I like someone's work without crossing over the line so the review becomes a fan letter. However, for some reason when it comes to Xavier Rudd all I can ever come up with is "holly shit this guy is fucking awesome". While that's a lot shorter than my reviews tend to run, and according to some that's a positive, it doesn't really tell you much about him, his music or why I think he's so great. The problem is Rudd is one of the few musical artists around these days who I react to on a purely emotional level. I've been listening to a downloaded copy of his latest release, Spirit Bird coming out on Side One Dummy records June 5 2012, for about a week now and I still haven't been able to figure out how to put into words the effect the CD has on me.

I could tell you that Rudd is an extraordinary multi-instrumentalist who plays slide guitar, regular guitar, percussion, drums and the indigenous Australian instrument the yidakis (referred to as didgeridoo by Europeans). Not only does he play all these instruments, but when he appears in concert he is set up so he can be playing as many as possible as once. Pictures of him on stage show him siting in the centre of of a construct literally bristling with instruments - a row of yidakis in the front, top hat snares off to each side, stomp box and bass drum pedals at his feet and assorted percussion scattered around within easy reach. Then he begins to sing.
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His vocal range is equally impressive as he ranges from a forceful alto right up to almost falsetto on occasion. Yet, unlike others, when he forges up into the higher altitudes of his scale the quality of his vocal expression doesn't change. In fact it seems to have the opposite effect. Most people have enough difficulty obtaining the high notes they are satisfied merely with reaching them and usually end up sacrificing expression in the attempt. With Rudd the higher he goes the more he seems to be opening himself up emotionally and spiritually for his audience. It's like his connection to the heart and soul of what he is singing intensifies with the further up the scale he goes. In some cases when people reach into the higher ranges it starts to become uncomfortable to the ear and the sound makes you wince. Somehow Rudd seems to bypass the ear and heads directly to your heart the further up the scale he climbs.

In the past there has been a decided reggae influence to Rudd's music and traces of that can still be heard on Spirit Bird. However, over the course of his career as he's evolved from being the accompaniment for surfers and late night beach parties (Not only were some of his songs featured in the movie Surfer Dude he wrote parts of the movie's score) with an environmental conscience to singing about having a spiritual bond with the planet and the compassion required to create it. While every song on Spirit Bird is related to this subject in some manner or another, not once does it feel like he's preaching to his listeners or even telling them this is how they should live. Instead he give us his vision of the potential for a better world.

From songs like the almost completely instrumental "Lioness Eye" which opens the disc and captures something of the beauty and power of nature in its wild abandonment to the haunting simplicity of the disc's first single, "Follow The Sun", and its description of the life cycle, he does his best to show us the beauty and wonder that surrounds us every day. The closest he comes to being political is the brief mention he makes of Captain Paul Watson of Sea Shepherd, the environmental protection group who exposes illegal whaling and other maritime piracy being carried out in the name of cosmetics and fake natural health care products, in the song "Creating A Dream" which closes the disc.

In some ways this song lies at the heart of the whole album. It's simple chorus of "Please, patience please, patience please, I'm creating a dream, Please, patience please, patience please I'm creating a dream", follows lists of things he asks us to imagine ("Imagine industry just had to obey') that would make the world a better place. The lists don't just deal with issues either, he also includes "Imagine the heart could just shed its skin" and other lyrics which talk about the human condition and freeing ourselves from the need for confrontation and over thinking everything. Simply reading quotes from the song you might be tempted to dismiss it as over simplified utopian idealism, but you have to hear his voice to fully appreciate it.
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He knows he's wishing for the impossible, that these things can't be accomplished just by wishing, which is why he asks for our patience. He's taking a moment to dream about a better world and expressing the vision that sustains him in the face of the overwhelming opposition, and in some ways even worse, the apathy, that most feel towards and about change. If you don't have a dream than you have nothing to shoot for, and if you're going to dream you might as well dream huge.

The press release sent out for Spirit Bird talks about its hard hitting environmental message. I think that misrepresents the nature of the recording. It makes it sound like its a collection of uncompromising politically motivated tunes when nothing could be further from the truth. This is merely a guy using every tool at his disposal to pour out his hopes and visions for a better world. His songs aren't ringing denunciations of anybody's lifestyle or of corporate greed destroying the earth. He's not preaching to the converted to make them feel good about themselves or trying to make anybody feel guilty because they drive a car. Instead, without any false sentimentality or whinging, he opens his heart to listeners to let them hear and see his vision of the potential we all share for creating a different world.

So, there you go, I tried. But that's the best I can do and I don't know if I was able to capture what it is about Rudd's music and songs that work such magic on me. My wife says he's one of the few artists today who has the ability to crack her wide open, to break through the shell we all wear to protect us against having too much hope or from having our dreams crushed one too many times. It's not like he waves a magic wand or anything. He sings with compassion and love and it shines through in every song no matter what's its about or whether he's playing electric guitar and rocking out or creating instrumental magic with his yidakis. Listen to his music and find out for yourself. You might end up thinking I'm full of shit, or hopefully, you'll come away with the same feeling of contentment at finding somebody out there able to articulate those dreams for a better world you'd forgotten and had buried away in the deepest recesses of your soul.

(Article first published at Blogcritics.org as Music Review: Xavier Rudd - Spirit Bird)

May 6, 2012

Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana -Santana's Greatest Hits Live At Montreus 2011


The first time I saw Carlos Santana was in 1976 when I saw the movie Woodstock - Three Days Of Peace And Music playing at a run down down cinema in Toronto which specialized in second run movies. There were about twenty or thirty people scattered throughout the audience and the air was redolent with a variety of marijuana smells. There was a particular brand of home grown making the rounds in Toronto in those days that smelled like muddy peanut butter and its distinctive scent is indelibly inscribed in my memory as being associated with Santana.

It might also be what's responsible for why I can't help but think of his music as dream like and trance inducing. Even in the straightest of atmosphere's the mixture of rhythms and melody that Santana and his band laid down for that concert were conducive to letting your thoughts wander. In the years since then I've seen and listened to various bits and pieces of his music, but somehow or other I've never had the opportunity to either see or attend an entire concert, and have always felt I've missed out on an experience. Well, thanks to Eagle Rock Entertainment we now have the opportunity to take in what appears to me to be the ultimate Santana concert. On February 21 2012 they released Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 a two disc DVD set of Santana and the current incarnation of his band playing material that spans the nearly fifty years of his career.

Checking in at just over 200 minutes in running time, including interviews with Santana and his wife Cindy Blackman Santana and a behind the scenes glimpse at the concert, the two disc set really brings home how enduring both he and his music have been. Unlike most of his surviving contemporaries from the 1960s Santana spent long periods of time flying under most people's radars. Occasionally a song like "Black Magic Woman" or "Evil Ways" would make it onto the radio but then he'd seemingly vanish again. It wasn't until the last decade, with the rise in awareness of so called world music, that his brand of Latin tinged rock and roll really began to be appreciated by the more mainstream elements of the industry. So songs like "Maria Maria" and "Back In Black" became hits and propelled him to accolades he hadn't received earlier.
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Santana is a throwback to an earlier era in that he's a band leader who doesn't necessarily take centre stage. He very rarely takes on the role of lead vocalist, in this case the majority of vocals are supplied by Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, and is quite willing to share the spotlight with other members of his band. Yet on this night one was always aware of his presence on stage. Even when the cameras were focused on other members of the band it was impossible to forget him. The music and the man are so inseparable you don't even have to see him to know he is responsible for everything occurring. I was reminded of band leaders like Tito Puente and others who were able to put their stamp on the music no matter what role they played in a particular song.

Call it force of personality or what you will, but it takes a special type of artist to be able to surrender their own egos to the greater good of the music. Periodically Santana would step up to a microphone to speak directly to the audience. Normally the platitudes one hears rock and roll stars utter about loving their audience are to be taken with more than a few grains of salt. Yet with Santana you never doubted for a second that he meant every word he said about how the music he and his band were playing was aimed at spreading love and light to the world. He wasn't making these announcements to milk the audience for applause, you could almost feel their discomfort through the screen at his sincerity as if they weren't used to such public expressions of emotion, he was merely putting his motivation for creating music into words.
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Maybe it's this lack of ego or the sincerity of his convictions that always sees Santana surrounded by excellent musicians. I don't know how long the current incarnation of his band has been with him but from the rhythm section of bassist Benny Rietveld, drummer Dennis Chambers and percussionists Raul Rekow and Karl Perazzo on out to guitarist Tommy Anthony, keyboardist David K Mathews and Bill Oritz on Trumpet and Jeff Cressman on Trombone they were amazing. They were the ideal mixture of tight and relaxed so while there wasn't a note out of place there was fluidity that allowed them to make every song come alive.

It's not as if the band is only playing one kind of music either. They're called upon to play everything from the complex jazz of John Coltrane, "A Love Supreme", to classic rock and roll with Cream's "Sunshine Of Your Love". Each song they played was handled with the same verve and aplomb, revealing hidden depths to songs you thought you knew so well. Of course they were taking their lead from a master, who continues to show why he's considered one of popular music's great guitar players. Santana may not be as flamboyant as others but his playing has emotional depth others can only dream of. Each note he wrings from the neck of his guitar sounds like its been drawn forth from the bottom of his heart. Not a single note is simply tossed off in a flurry of noise, instead they all have meaning. You have the feeling watching him play that he is able to choose just the right note for that instant - if it was some other stage on some other night he might have played something else, but right here, right now, the notes he is playing are the only ones that could have worked to sum up what was happening in that moment in time.

If you're a fan of Santana, or if you've just been a casual observer of his career for a while, Greatest Hits Santana: Live At Montreux 2011 is something to be treasured. As is the case with all the concerts I've seen filmed at the Montreux Festival the sound and visuals are immaculate. The 5.1 surround sound of the DVD lets you feel like your in the middle of the concert and the camera work brings you right on stage with the band. Combined with the interviews included in the special features these discs give you Carlo Santana as you've never experienced him before. If I closed my eyes I could ever catch the faint whiff of muddy peanut butter in the air. What more could you ask for.
(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Carlos Santana - Santana: Greatest Hits - Live At Montreux 2011 on Blogcritics)

May 2, 2012

Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red


I've been going to Pow Wow's on and off since 1995 when I was a volunteer with the local First Nation's Friendship Centre where I live. For me the best thing about a Pow Wow is how no matter where you are on the grounds you can always hear the big drum. From the moment Grand Entry begins (the ceremonial entrance of the dancers into the arena) to the closing ceremonies the drum is almost always playing. Even when its so faint that you can barely hear it, the sound throbs up through the ground and into the soles of your feet. That's when you really understood why its referred to as the heartbeat drum. Perhaps even more distinctive than the drum, and even more alien to those not used to it, is the sound of the singers gathered around the drum. In contrast to the deep pounding of the drum they, men and women, sing in a high falsetto. Guaranteed to cut through any surrounding din the singers can be heard just as clearly as the drum. Those who have never heard experienced the combination will probably have a hard time believing how spine chilling it can be.

What might come as an even bigger surprise to some, especially me, is how well the form lends itself to modernization. Now I've got to be honest, I'm not the biggest fan of most hop hop, rap or dance music. It's fallen so far from what it once was in the hands of community and political activists like Grandmaster Flash and Gil Scott Herron. So I've been leery about the First Nations hip-hop groups who have been springing up across Canada. That's until I heard A Tribe Called Red's new release A Tribe Called Red, which they've made available as a free download. A Tribe Called Red are three Ottawa area First Nations DJs: DJ NDN, DJ Bear Witness and DJ Shub. They have been putting on what they call Electric Pow Wows on a monthly basis dedicated to showcasing Aboriginal DJ talent and contemporary urban Native culture.
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So what is contemporary urban Native culture? Well judging by the twelve tracks on the collective's first CD it owes as much a debt to inner city youth culture, Jamaican dance halls and modern electronics as it does to their various nation's traditions. What distinguishes A Tribe Called Red from other DJ collectives, what makes them uniquely First Nations, is what they incorporate into their creations. While its true some DJs, especially those who specialize in Trance, have begun turning to sources other than popular music for the samples they build their tunes around, the majority of A Tribe Called Red's track's are built around various Drums. (Drum, in this case, refers to both the physical drum and the people who make up the group of drummers and singers associated with the instrument. For example, The Whitefish Bay Singers of Ontario Canada are also called The Whitefish Bay Drum)

The opening track, "Electric Pow Wow Drum", starts off with familiar "heartbeat" of the big drum. After a few bars its joined by both an electronic pulse playing counter point and the sound of the jingles on dancer's costumes keeping time with the big drum as they move around the arena. (Traditionally a jingle bell dancer's regalia was covered with deer toes, but today the jingles are just as likely to be anything from the rolled up lids of tins of chewing tobacco to manufactured tin cones) Then the singing starts. Normally the sound of the massed falsetto voices over top the drum is enough to send shivers up your spine. In this case the voices are fed through a synthesizer or processor of some kind that gives the voices an overlay of heavy fuzz which heightens the effect even more. Cutting back and forth between the electronic pulse and the distorted singers, the song builds in intensity until the first break. (There are two very distinct rhythms played on a drum during a song, the heartbeat sound which propels the dancers around the arena and the break which, depending on the dance, requires the dancers to either dance in place or freeze) After the first break in this case the singing intensifies and an electronic melody based on the rhythms of the song laid over top serves as both a counter point and to add another layer of texture to the material

Any doubts I may have had about A Tribe Called Red were erased after I listened to this first track. Instead of merely being content with sampling the original music and ignoring the traditions behind it, they've managed to merge it with the technology they use as DJs and respect its original intent. Its exactly what the title suggests it is, an "Electric Pow Wow Drum". Not only does the song capture the power of the Drum, but it enhances it. There's no attempting to make the music more accessible by watering it down or giving it a catchy dance tune. Instead it feels like they've grafted the realities of urban living onto their traditions to make them relevant to the world they live in.

Eight of the remaining eleven tracks on the disc combine traditional Pow Wow music and modern DJ technology. In each case the guys have managed to find the same delicate balance that made the first track so effective. There's nothing haphazard or sloppy about any of their choices, including the fact that they have found a wide variety of Pow Wow music to use in their material. Because A Tribe Called Red allows the original material to come through in the mix you not only get to hear the music updated, you also hear how different one Drum can sound from another.
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The last song on the disc, "General Generations", is slightly different as its taken from an old wax cylinder recording of a singer who might have been DJ Shub's great grand father. The sound of the scratchy solo voice taken from early primitive recording equipment singing a song that might be hundreds if not thousands of years old remixed with modern electronics sums up the entire disc for me. Its about keeping cultural traditions alive without allowing them to stagnate and making them relative to changing circumstances.

Also deserving of special mention is the song "Woodcarver". Written in commemoration of the Native American woodcarver John T Williams who was "unjustifiably shot" by a Seattle Police officer in 2010. Using samples of news recordings, and statements made by witnesses, family and members of the Seattle Native American community the song both honours the memory of the man and presents the facts of the case with a minimum of editorializing. Unlike the other pieces on the disc "Woodcarver" isn't something you'd expect to hear on the dance floor. What it is though is a good example a found sound installation and the way modern sound technology can be used as a means of expression.

A Tribe Called Red is not only a collection of great music, its an example of how the modern and the traditional can come together to the benefit of both. Intelligent and inspired the songs on this disc represent both a cross section of traditional Pow Wow music and the variety of sounds and techniques available to the modern DJ. In the past I've been dismissive of DJ created songs because most of what I'd heard up to now has pretty much sounded the same. The three DJs who make up A Tribe Called Red prove that doesn't have to be the case. You can download a free copy of A Tribe Called Red by following this link

Article first published as Music Review: A Tribe Called Red - A Tribe Called Red on Blogcritics)

April 30, 2012

Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book

When we think of France and music we don't usually think of rock and roll or blues. Singers like Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier and Jacque Brel (yes I know he's Belgian) accompanied by accordions and violins are what usually spring to mind. However when you consider the fact that African American jazz and blues musicians have been traveling to Paris France to ply their trade since as far back as the 1920s it really should come as no surprise those genres are just as popular as any other type of music. In fact the blues, especially, is probably more popular in France and other parts of Europe than in its home country of America. Many North American blues musicians seeing their careers drying up on this side of the Atlantic have relocated to Europe, or at least do the bulk of their performing and recording over there.

So it was only a matter of time before France started producing its own body of blues based musicians. The most recent one I've come across is Bobby Dirninger who has just self-released his solo album The Book. I first ran across Dirninger when I reviewed Zora Young's French Connection CD a couple of years ago as he'd been her keyboard player and band leader for some time. In fact he had assembled the musicians for the that albums recording sessions. So it's fair to say Dirninger knows his blues music.
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However, being a band leader and keyboard player for someone else is one thing, fronting your own band and recording your own music is something else altogether. A band leader might have plenty of responsibilities but he or she isn't the one up in the spotlight "selling" the material. It takes a special kind of person to take centre stage. Aside from the givens of musical talent and the ability to sing, to front a band requires the indefinable quality of presence - that certain something that makes a person stand out from the rest of the band even when they aren't doing anything. Presence doesn't require a person to be flamboyant or even necessarily an extrovert, in fact the best ones only have to stand on stage for your eye to be immediately drawn to them. Bruce Springsteen usually dresses in jeans and a work shirt, but when he steps on stage an audience can't help but look at him because he just seems to radiate energy.

The first thing you'll notice about Dirninger is how relaxed he is. There's an almost effortless grace to his singing style that's far more reminiscent of French popular singers like Brel than what were used to in blues and rock singers. Maybe because its not a style we're accustomed to hearing when listening to this type of music it takes a bit of getting used to, however he is able to capture our attention and hold it from the opening song of the disc to the final track. For although at times he appears almost laconic he's so laid back, you can't help but feel like he's a coiled spring waiting to explode.

Every so often he leans into a song and gives us an example of what lies behind that calm exterior and then as effortlessly as exerted energy he slides back into his easy groove. Unlike those who feel they have to be performing at a fever pitch all the time to gain our attention, Dirninger understands the importance of modulation. The first song on the disc, "Like That Music" is a great example. The song starts off with a mid-tempo funky beat and his vocals are a gentle accompaniment, subdued to the point he's almost talking. Then as the music builds in intensity so does his voice, until the chorus when he reaches the peak of his urgency and demands you listen to him.
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One of the things I appreciated most about this disc, and Dirninger, is he doesn't equate intensity of emotion with speed and volume. Too often in blues based music singers and musician will think they have to either make our ears or their fingers bleed to let us know they are feeling some great emotion. Just listen to Dirninger's song "Late At Night" for an object lesson on how the combination of great arrangements and singing can achieve the same goal in far more convincing manner without damaging anyone. Not since Warren Zevon have I heard a musician able to sing a slow song that sounds just as intense as any rock roll barn burner with screamed lyrics. There's a rawness to Dirninger's vocals that speaks of emotional intensity while the guitar and keyboard leads accent the lyrics without drowning them out or overselling the emotion. It's the perfect balance between music and voice that in my mind separates the exceptional song from the ordinary run of the mill number.

Of course Dirninger also knows the key element of good rock and roll. It should be fun to listen to. "Love Is A Feeling" and "You'll Be On Fire" are not only great pieces of music but they are fun to listen to as well. If it can't pull you to your feet and get you up dancing once in a while, what's the point of rock and roll? On these two songs specifically, and sporadically throughout the album, Dirninger and his band show they understand that music shouldn't be just for listening to, it should also make you want to move. What makes both these songs even better is the fact they aren't obviously dance songs. It's not like they've said well we should include a couple of uptempo numbers cause people like to dance, the songs just happen to be ones you can dance to,

In fact that's the truly remarkable thing about this disc. No matter what style of music a song is, blues, rock, funk, R&B or soul, it's all effortless. The band moves easily between styles whether within a number or from track to track and nothing ever feels forced or unnatural. I don't know if any of them have played for North American musicians before, but they could match up with any blues based band I've heard anywhere and are a damn site more interesting than most I hear in North America.

Music needs to be constantly evolving to ensure it doesn't stagnate. In order to evolve it needs to be exposed to different environments and receive transfusions of new blood periodically. The Book shows just how important this is as Bobby Dirninger and his band take blues based music down some familiar paths but also branch off in totally new directions making it one of the more interesting new albums of its kind to come out in a while.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bobby Dirninger - The Book on Blogcritics.)

April 25, 2012

Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse


With the advent of computers and the accompanying ability to exchange ideas and material over long distances almost instantaneously, popular musicians in North America have had the opportunity to experience a far greater selection of musical influences then prior generations. While the music industry's inherent conservatism has ensured the mainstream hasn't been overly affected, there has been a definite increase in the number of independent musicians looking further afield than their own backyard for inspiration. The best of these groups don't just copy what they hear but find a way to meld their new influences with the music they grew up with to create something unique.

With their latest release, The Funhouse on the United For Opportunity label, Caravan Of Thieves gives listeners a great example of this trend in action. First of all there's the band's complement of players. Instead of the standard mixture of bass, guitars, keyboards and drums Caravan Of Thieves are composed of a core of violin, acoustic bass and acoustic guitar. On this album they've broadened their sound to include, quoting from the notes on their web site, the kitchen sink and then some. Banjos, ukuleles, resonator guitars and various things that can be banged percussively are the main ingredients in the stew of instruments used, but there are also many unrecognizable and unattributable sounds and noises to be heard throughout the disc. Without a hard copy of the CD attributing each and every squeak and squawk it's impossible to identify all of them, but to be honest the mystery does add to the albums cachet.

As you can tell by the title of the disc they've built the disc around the central theme of a travelling carnival complete with Funhouse, fortune tellers, rigged games and mysterious dark corners where unexplainable things happen. While the Funhouse of the title and the carnival atmosphere created by the music can be taken literally, they also exist on another level as well. For the world you are ushered into with the opening track, "The Funhouse Entrance", bears many similarities to what's around us everyday save the perspective has been slightly skewed, as if you're looking at it through one of those funhouse mirrors which distorts reality. However instead of taking reality and twisting it out of shape beyond the point of recognition, they merely change the lens we view events through. The result is a chance to see things from a perspective we don't normally have the opportunity to experience.
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Check out "Monster", their fun and tongue in cheek take on love songs dealing with the way love can effect somebody. "On the slab down in the basement/in the laboratory/there's a new subject under the covers/I recall the days before the transformation/before the amputation of my heart....Love made a monster out of me!" Using the whole Frankenstein story as an analogy to describe an obsessive lover is brilliant. Not only does it poke fun at all the broken hearts to be found in most pop music love songs, it's great to hear anybody singing about so-called romantic love in less than glowing terms and in such a macabre manner. Sort of like receiving a Valentine with black borders accompanied by a dozen dead black roses.

Of course just to let you know the difference between the world of the Funhouse and the real world they leave you with a warning to close out the disc. "The Funhouse Exit" makes sure you're prepared and know where the real monsters lurk. "Don't put your feet on the outside dear/There are monsters and goblins and politicians everywhere/...overcrowded schools with education overseen by ghouls/". The list of dangers lurking around corners in the real world goes on to include "doctor's with hatchets" and "Bankers and other vultures" all out to take pieces out of you when and however they can. A real horror story if I've ever heard one!

Musically Caravan Of Thieves has cast a wide net when it comes to their sources of inspiration. One would think because of the composition of the band they would have taken the easy way out of leaning heavily on Romany influences. While there is no doubt they do owe a debt to the Eastern European branch of that musical tradition, you can't help but notice they owe just as much to the music halls and cabarets of pre WWll Europe. In fact quite a number of their pieces on this recording put me in mind of Kurt Weill and the music he wrote for Bertol Brecht's plays in pre Nazi Germany. Slightly wilder and with perhaps less of a polka influence than Weill's compositions, but the same brash and brassy attitude which challenged audiences and forced them to pay attention to what was being said and done on stage.
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However, they don't deny their own musical heritage either. For underneath a great deal of the wild and wooly playing the music almost constantly swings along to a beat reminiscent of 1920s and 1930s jazz. On this disc you can hear influences from the Dixieland stylings of New Orleans to the dance bands of Harlem from those eras. What's really quite amazing though is while this sounds like an incredible hodgepodge of styles and traditions to cram within one recording, an almost sure recipe for chaos, the result is a delight to listen to. Caravan Of Thieves has managed to blend everything together to make a vibrant and exciting sound with twice the energy and intensity of any rock and roll band.

Musically inventive, lyrics full of sly humour and gentle cynicism and all served up on a platter garnished to reflect the dark mysteries of a travelling carnival make this one of the more entertaining listens I've had in a while. It's not often you find a band whose sense of humour and intelligence are matched by both their musical talents and an ability to put spurs to their listener's imaginations. You not only listen to their lyrics and appreciate their music, but you find yourself visualizing the atmosphere they create. When you put this record on be prepared, you sure won't be in Kansas anymore.

(band photo by Michael Wientrob)
(Article first published as Music Review: Caravan Of Thieves - The Funhouse on Blogcritics.)

April 22, 2012

Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933


The history of North America over the past hundred to two hundred years is split into two distinct stories. The history of white people and the history of people of colour, mainly African Americans. Originally white people came to these shores as conquerors and African Americans came as slaves and well into the twentieth century each had their own version of American history, While whites had the American dream which promised them if they worked hard they would be a success and create a good life for themselves and their family. It wasn't until the last quarter of the twentieth century that African Americans even began dreaming of being treated as equals under the law in America, let alone having a comfortable life.

So in the the 1930s when ex-banker turned ethnomusicologist John Lomax talked about preserving the distinct African American culture that had grown up out of segregation he wasn't being racist, he was just making an observation based on current societal conditions. He also knew there was little chance this culture would survive even the least amount of integration. If he wanted any chance of making an undiluted record of its music he'd have to go places where segregation was strictly enforced. As the prison populations were strictly segregated and the inmates were living in conditions similar to those they would have experienced as slaves, he thought prisons represented the best opportunities to record African American music in as pure a form as possible.
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Judging by the collection of recordings being released under the title Jail House Bound - John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 by Global Jukebox and West Virginia University Press, his assumption was correct. Using the primitive portable recording equipment available at the time Lomax went from prison to prison in the South making recordings of the songs the African American prisoners used to sing while doing forced labour. In these songs you'll hear the influences of everything from the tribal drums of their home lands, gospel, blues and the field songs slaves once used to help pass the time while picking their master's crops.

It was during these recording sessions that Lomax discovered Huddie Ledbeter, more commonly known as Leadbelly, the man who wrote folk/blues staples "Good Night Irene", "The Rock Island Line" and "I Got Stripes". While Leadbelly doesn't appear on any of these recordings, nor is any of the material as polished as his work, you hear the roots of his songs in almost every track. Which of course was the point of these recordings after all. While titles like "The Midnight Special", "John Henry" and "Grey Goose" have long since become popular, most of the material is no where near as widely known. There are some titles which might sound like they should be familiar, "Long Gone", "That's Alright Honey" and "Alabama Bound", but they sound little or nothing like the songs which bear the same or similar names today.

For while quite a number of the songs included in this collection had previously been recorded as popular tunes or went on to become popular, what you hear on this record are versions that wouldn't have been heard outside of the African American community. There are work songs where we can still hear the cadences and rhythms that were used to help coordinate the efforts of men working together. "Steel Laying Holler" used to be sung by men unloading heavy steel rails from flat cars and "Track Lining Song" was used to help in the lining or straightening out of railroad track.
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Than there are songs like "Black Betty", which some prisoners claimed referred to a whip used to punish them while others said it was the name given to the prison transfer truck, and "My Yellow Gal", a song about a mixed blood lover, whose lyrical content was specific to the people singing it. What white singer in the 1930s is going to sing about the beauty of their mixed race lover or how would anybody at that time who hasn't been in jail know who Black Betty was? Most listening to the latter wouldn't have idea it wasn't about some women who treated men badly.

Naturally the sound quality isn't going to be what most are used to, but all things considered its of a higher quality than I expected. Some of the tracks are pretty scratchy and in places there is some distortion, but I was honestly surprised at how good a job Lomax was able to do with the equipment at his disposal. It does say in the accompanying booklet he wasn't satisfied with some of his results and would occasionally make return visits to redo a recording if he thought he'd have a chance improving on the original. Obviously those who have put this compilation together have sifted through who knows how many recordings and picked the best ones possible. However, they're still on par with other field recordings I've heard that were made decades later using far more sophisticated equipment.

The thing is though, the roughness of the sound adds an air of authenticity to the recordings. It would be hard to believe they had been collected in prison farms in the 1930s if they were pristine. Anyway, the rawness of the end result seems somehow suited to the material recorded. The people singing weren't necessarily trained vocalists or even musicians. They were inmates in prisons who had more enthusiasm and passion than skill. These were the songs they sang working on the chain gangs, picking crops and in the prison chapels for each other's and their own comfort. Hearing them flaws and all makes both their music and their situation come alive. You really have the sense of being transported back in time and given the chance to observe a unique moment in history.
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In an interview recorded with John Lomax that's included in this collection he talks about his intent behind making these recordings. While it's hard not to be put off by his use of vernacular common to that era for referring to the subjects of his recordings the very fact he went to the time and effort to make them is what you need to remember. Most white people at that time wouldn't have considered anything African Americans, especially those in jail, produced worthy of their notice, let alone worth recording for posterity. In his own way Lomax was also recognizing how America was divided along racial lines and how that resulted in a distinct culture for each race.

These recordings are fascinating listening because not only is the music great to listen to but because they give us a glimpse into another era. The idea that African Americans might have had their own distinct culture in the 1930s would not have been something most of white America would have been willing to recognize. The music on these discs not only shows how strong and vital that culture was, but makes it obvious how much that culture influenced, and continues to influence, American popular culture.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Jail House Bound: John Lomax's First Southern Prison Recordings 1933 on Blogcritics)

April 17, 2012

Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians


Being old enough to remember when David Bowie released the song "Young Americans", it was the title of Eamon McGrath's new release, Young Canadians, on White Whale Records which attracted my attention. Probably a stupid reason for wanting to hear a CD, especially as it was pretty obvious from the press release about the disc McGrath's music would have nothing in common with mid 1970s Bowie. However I've purchased or chosen to listen to something for stupider reasons and not had any regrets, and I could only hope this would be the case on this occasion.

Thankfully McGrath's work is not something anybody should regret listening to. For those wishing to have it classified or categorized for them, I'd guess most would say his work falls into the folk/punk genre. I'm not even sure what that means myself, but since he mixes acoustic and electric instruments and his songs range between the quiet introspection one expects from folk and the anarchic abandon of punk it would seem to fit. However I'd hazard a guess that he didn't sit down and say, "Hmm I think I'll create an album of folk punk music". I've the feeling that if it were musically appropriate to the content and context of a song he wouldn't hesitate at incorporating a funk groove or twelve bar blues. The sense I have from listening to this one album is he wouldn't limit himself or his material through arbitrary boundaries. The needs of a song would far outweigh the need to fit into an easily defined niche.

Maybe it was the title of the disc which triggered this thought, but after listening to the disc I couldn't help but remember something I had happened across years ago regarding the arts in Canada. The quote implied they were heavily influenced by the long winters so much of the country experiences and the stark landscapes which dominate its wild spaces. While that might sound like a tempting theory, the reality is the majority of artists in Canada live in urban centres far removed from the wild and its only in the far north the winters can last for what seems like ever. However, there is a quality to McGrath's work both musically and thematically that suggests both the raw energy and stark beauty of Canada's wilderness and the introspection associated with the long nights of winter.
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That's not to say his music is either depressing or bleak. Personally I don't find anything depressing or bleak about winter or the wild anyway, but I realize some would automatically make that association. Try and imagine a vista of evergreen forests brushed with snow climbing the side of a sun washed mountain and the awe it inspires. For while the songs on this album may not be safe and civilized like most pop music, they also have a far greater chance of having a lasting impact on you in much the same way the rough beauty of nature in winter will impress itself upon you far longer then a field of corn or other tame image. Like both winter and real unspoiled nature there's something a little intimidating about McGrath's work, but that's part of what makes al of them so compelling.

The disc's opening track, "Eternal Adolescence", starts off with a brief, piercing whistle of guitar feedback. It cuts out abruptly to be replaced by an acoustic guitar carefully picking out a tune and its soon joined by McGrath intoning the song's opening lyrics. While rock and roll songs in the past might have declared "I hope I die before I get old", McGrath looks at the trade off you make for the eternal adolescence of rock and roll. How do you fit a life into the lifestyle of constant touring and late nights? You can have "Eternal adolescence" but "the schoolyard is insane". What happens if you meet someone, the eternal adolescence wars with the desire for the companion and "rock and roll won't ever be the same". The lyrics are deceptively simple, the final minute of the song sees him simply repeating "rock and roll won't ever be the same" until the music ends. However, it's not hard to get the message of how the stereotyped rock and roll lifestyle doesn't really mix well with adulthood. The underlying conflict described in the lyrics is emphasized by the way the music switches back and forth throughout between distortion and gentle guitar. It creates the uncomfortable feeling of someone being pulled in two directions at once,
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Even more conventionally sounding rock songs like "Instrument Of My Release", track two on the disc, have their disconcerting moments. In this case lyrics like "I saw your picture in a magazine/how'd you end up with a man like me?/someday I'm going to trade my black holes for memory/an instrument of my release/an instrument of my release", aren't what you'd call typical for a song about regrets. Normally these songs are either full of self pity and recriminations designed to elicit pity for the person singing instead of those who have suffered through their behaviour. Not in this case, as you're left wondering what kind of stupidity did this guy indulge in that resulted in black holes instead of memories. Even the line "How'd you end up with a man like me?" which has all sorts of potential for self pity is delivered in such a way the listener wonders what somebody would have to do to another person in order to ask such a question.

Vocally McGrath is never going to win any awards for having dulcet tones or smooth as silk harmonies. Than again that type of voice wouldn't work with the music he's playing. Ironically there are probably any number of rock singers who would sell their souls to sound like him. Ever since Dylan popularized rough textured vocals as being a kind of voice of the people, singers have been trying way too hard to sound "authentic". Of course if you have to try sounding authentic it sorts of defeats the purpose, but nobody seems to have quite understood that yet. McGrath doesn't have the greatest range but he more than compensates for any technical deficiencies in his vocals with his intensity and the effortlessness of his delivery. Like other great vocalists he doesn't sound "emotional". Instead his voice simply gives life to his song's lyrics through his ability to communicate the meaning behind each word. Not just the dictionary definition either, but what they mean in the context of the song and to him personally.

As for the title song, "Young Canadians", well I'll leave you to decide what you think of it, but I was right in thinking it was nothing like Bowie's "Young Americans". In fact, while you really can't make a rock and roll album any more without sounding like something that's gone before, McGrath has created something that uses those familiar elements in ways that make them sound new again. He's taken all the best elements of rock and roll, country and folk and grafted his unique vision of the world onto the framework. The resulting album doesn't make for easy listening as it challenges the listener both musically and lyrically and forces them to pay close attention to each song. It won't be to everyone's taste, but if you're like me and want something more from your music than just escapist entertainment, its the album for you.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eamon McGrath - Young Canadians on Blogcritics)

April 14, 2012

Music Review: Theresa Andersson - Street Parade


Nine out of ten internet stars whose claim to fame is making it big on You Tube, or some other social media site, don't usually hang around long enough for most people to remember them from one week to the next. Usually its because the person has done something freakishly memorable rather than display any real talent during their fleeting moment in the limelight. In Andy Warhol's day it might have been possible for someone to have fifteen minutes of fame, now people are willing to settle for notoriety as a substitute for fame. In this everything is for public consumption age it doesn't matter what we do, it's whether we get noticed or not.

So the fact that someone gets a million, 2 million or a hundred million hits on a video they put up on YouTube is no indicator of a person's talent. To be honest when I hear about things like that my instinctive reaction is to stay as far away as possible. I guess it's a good thing I started hearing about Theresa Andersson well after she was a sensation with her self produced videos recorded in her kitchen. While I've since seen them after the fact, and for what they were they are impressive, but the first music I heard from her was stuff she had recorded professionally through a streaming version of her live concert at Le Petit Theatre in New Orleans (now on DVD as Theresa Andersson: Live At Le Petit). Aside from a few special guests, including Allen Toussaint, it was a one woman show, and she rocked the house.

This was no flash in the pan sensation, this was someone with talent, creativity, skill and imagination. She had great presence on stage, a great singing voice and an obvious talent for musical instruments. While it was slightly weird seeing a blue eyed blond Swedish woman standing up on stage belting out African American gospel tunes and originals which had more to do with New Orleans than Stockholm, her obvious love and enthusiasm for the material helped to bridge that gap. Yet where could she go from there? There's only so many times she could do the same thing over again without it becoming tired. So I was curious as to what she would have to offer on her newest disc from Basin Street Records, Street Parade, being released April 24 2012.
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Anyone who was expecting something along the lines of the infectious pop music of her You Tube hit, "Na,Na,Na", are going to be surprised. Maturity, motherhood and growth as a musician have all had an impact on not only her sound but her lyrical content. There's a level of introspection permeating this disc not present on anything I've heard from her previously. Even "Sleepsong For Saoirse", obviously a lullaby for her new daughter, while a dreamy and somewhat charming piece of music, hints at the lengths a mother will go to in an attempt to get her child to sleep. "Rainbow moon beams and honey bees dreams are waiting for you/ but they can't play until you sleep" is only one of the inducements offered to get the child to go to sleep.

However its on songs like the title track, "Street Parade" where we really see the differences from what she's done in the past to now. New Orleans is of course famous for its parades, from the elaborate one at Mardi Gras, the ones that seem to be spontaneous celebrations at the joy of being alive to those escorting people who have died to their next destination. While Andersson's song is specifically about the Mardi Gras parade the questions it raises could be applicable to any parade or any event which momentarily lifts us up into an elevated state of excitement. What happens after you come down? When the parade goes by and all that's left is the trash from the crowds who had gathered, what are you left with? To some the answer might be a feeling of emptiness, or at least some sort of let down as you return to your ordinary life.

However, Andersson sees another side to the situation. While musically the song might lead you to think she's bemoaning the passing of the excitement, as the sound has a very "the party is over" feel to it, the chorus clearly states "I'm not alone". While the first time you hear her sing this you might think there's something of the spitting in the wind attitude about the lyric. As if she's trying to convince herself, that in spite of everything she's feeling, really, she's fine. Yet when the song progresses and she repeats the phrase you begin to hear the underlying strength in her voice. Yes the parade was a wonderful high and a great party, but the impression that builds over the course of the song is her true fulfillment comes through her regular life. A party can be a blast but you really don't get much accomplished during them.
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Musically the disc also differs from a lot of what we've heard from Andersson previously in the complexity of their arrangements, including a far more prominent role given to a staple of the New Orleans music scene - horns. But don't come expecting any of the styles of horn playing normally associated with the city. Instead of either the upbeat sound of a marching band or the syncopated beat of the horn section in a funk band she's modified them to suit the almost dream like quality permeating the disc.

"Listen To My Heels", the third track on the disc, is a good example. The horns which open the song ease us into it with extended and muted notes leading into Andersson's staccato vocals. The song seems deliberately a-rhythmical and the horns smooth out the overall sound of the piece by adding a layer of texture to the metronome quality of the other instruments and her vocals. While there's something disconcerting to hearing her sing on the offbeat - it gives the song an almost forced sound - it's also very effective and powerful. With horns rising and falling under the rest of the track the rough edges of the song stand out even more potently. It might not be "pretty" but neither is the message of the song for it's about people talking behind people's backs and the nastiness of rumours.

Theresa Andersson started her career as what easily could have been dismissed as a novelty act on You Tube. The world quickly discovered she was no mere flash in the pan or worse, someone looking to gain a few minutes of Internet notoriety. In the space of a few short years she has gained a reputation for ingenuity and creativity. Now with her latest release she continues to push herself and her music in new directions. While still paying homage to her adopted city of New Orleans, instead of merely copying what's been done by others before her she uses it as a springboard for exploration and for creating her own unique sound. It will be interesting to see where her journey takes her in the future. For now this step on her path makes for fascinating listening.

(Article first published as Music Review: Theresa Andersson - Street Parade on Blogcritics)

April 13, 2012

Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia


Why is it everybody is always so surprised when other cultures aside from our own evolve and change to suit the times. It's like we want them to stay stuck in the past playing their interesting "folk music" and dressing up in their "traditional" costumes for our entertainment. Unfortunately that music and those costumes, if they ever really existed outside of some romantic vision offered up by people outside of the culture, have very little to do with the realities of life in the 21st century. There's nothing wrong with honouring the traditions of the past, but any culture that can't continue to evolve runs the risk of stagnating and losing its power to speak to its own people.

For many years the image of the Eastern European musician playing a fiddle or a balalaika and wearing colourfully embroidered clothing has lingered. Who knows where this image came from initially and whether or not it had any validity. Even if it did to assume a people whose population is spread over thousands of square miles would play the same types of music let alone dress the same is not just unrealistic but insulting. Cultural stereotypes are dangerous because they allow people to think of those in question as somehow less then or different from normal. It then becomes easy to discriminate against them, because they aren't like us.

The fall of the iron curtain was supposed to usher a new era of freedom and hope for all of Europe and parts of Asia. What nobody seemed to count on was the fact that millions of people were going to have to be absorbed into an economic system that was already feeling the strain of supporting its own people. It's quite frankly a miracle the economic meltdown we're witnessing in Europe took this long to happen. During times like these there are always those who, usually at the point of a gun and by knowing which wheels to grease, manage to accumulate a great deal of wealth and power at the expense of others. This has been the situation all across Eastern Europe and Asia where power vacuums were formed with the fall of governments.

So expecting a new generation of Eastern European musicians to be content with putting on cute cultural displays after what they've lived through is ridiculous. I don't know about you, but I'd expect to hear something that reflected what's going on in their lives. Which is exactly what you get from the new release from Moldavian basedZdob Si Zdub's. new release, Basta Mafia on the great German Asphalt Tango label as an import in North America February 14 2012. Its a brilliant piece of work combining biting political commentary and messages of hope for a better world played over a wonderful melange of styles as the band employs everything from folk to punk, and almost everything in between, to get their message across. Yet for all the variety, and the lack of cohesion that it might imply, each song is connected to the rest by the elements they all have in common.

It's hard to put your finger on what those might be initially, but it gradually becomes clear that although one song contains elements of hip hop and another grunge, they all have the same point of origin. The brass section which emphasizes the beat and the fiddle scrawling out the melody beneath the guitar on some tunes are indications of the group's background; not because they're the only people who use those instruments but because of the way they are employed and the sounds they make. Listening to the band you hear elements representing the myriad of musical influences their region has experienced over the generations. There's the fiddle music that speaks the defiance and freedom characteristic of Romany music, traces of the Flamenco guitars of Spain, belly dance rhythms of Northern India and the brass bands of Istanbul.
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Of course no one's going to confuse Zdob Si Zdub with the "ethnic bands" of Hollywood movies. Not with songs like the title track "Basta Mafia" with its lament of the freedoms promised by the fall of the Iron Curtain being hijacked by Free Market gangsters. "And the west wind feels so cold/ because they've put freedom on hold" or "Many people gave their life/ for the values aimed so high/but some still love guns, it's easier to win/it's easier to move in the gangster's skin" aren't exactly the kind of lyrics one expects to hear sung from the steps of your typical peasant's cottage.
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It's important to remember the members of Zdob Si Zdub probably grew up not only with the turmoil of the end of communism, but being from Moldavia, once a province in the Soviet Union, some sort of civil unrest if not civil war in the period directly after the collapse of governments throughout Eastern Europe. So their lyrics are tinged by the violence they've seen and contain some of the bitterness you'd expect from seeing dreams of freedom soured. However, the real surprise is to find they haven't given up hope and still sing about what could be possible. It's really kind of humbling to hear people who have been through what they have singing lyrics like, "and I'll say it again and again/it's more than a dream/we are free/you can never put it away".

As you might have gathered a good many of the songs on this disc's lyrics are in English. In an attempt to make this disc more accessible to Western audiences they have worked with an English language composer, Andy Schuman, to make sure their lyrics were translated properly. There are still a couple of songs in Russian, but with the majority in English Western audiences will have no problem enjoying and appreciating this amazing band. Musically they're as exciting and as intense as as any band you'll hear in the so called alternative scene in North America and lyrically far more insightful and intelligent than any of the so called "politically active" bands you'll hear anywhere.

If you've missed real alternate music or are just looking for something different from what you hear all the time on the radio and other sources of music, Zdob Si Zdub will be a pleasent surprise and a welcome relief. A great band for their times and great music for all time, they have a truly unique sound and a perspective on the world that's a lesson for all of us.
(Article first published as Music Review: Zdob Si Zdub - Basta Mafia on Blogcritics.)

April 11, 2012

Music Review: Heyward Howkins - The Hale & Hearty


Listening to popular music for any length of time conditions you to have certain expectations regarding what it sounds like. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise as we've been hearing basic variations on the same theme now since the 1950s. Every so often a new flavour is added to the mix, but the formulae of under four minutes and don't really challenge the listeners musically or lyrically is adhered almost religiously. Originality is actually seen as drawback, making it difficult for any work deviating from the norm to gain acceptance. All of which makes the path being taken by Heyward Howkins, as displayed on his first CD The Hale & Hearty being released in June of this year, seem all the more brave and difficult.

For this is not a collection of conventional pop songs by any stretch of the imagination. In fact there isn't anything others are currently doing for the listener to use as a reference for comparison. The only two singers who come close to being in a similar area would be Antony of Antony and The Johnsons and Rufus Wainwrieght. But that's only because those two, like Howkins, are not doing what everyone else is doing and have the same sort of sensibility when it comes to their approach. Their music doesn't sound much like his, but all three bring a kind of emotional impressionism to their work unlike most people's much more literal approach.

You won't find any neat little packages coming in at three minutes and twenty-five seconds about boy meets girl and gets heart broken. Instead you'll find him painting with a more subtle brush. Through a combination of music, lyrics and arrangements his songs aren't limited to one emotion, they manage to convey the myriad of feelings involved with a particular aspect of life. The lyrics themselves may not actually tell a story, but like poetry they convey the emotional message of the song through inference and suggestion. The music, and by extension a song's arrangement, serve to accent and compliment what the lyrics have created. A single song will travel from the austerity of a single acoustic guitar acting as accompaniment to a crescendo of strings, horns and vocal harmonies and then ebb and flow between the two over its course like a relentless tide.
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While in general I look upon the use of orchestration in pop music in much the same way as poison ivy in that its best avoided if you don't want to break out in hives. However once in a great while someone is able to use the instruments in question without descending to the level of cliché. The arrangements that Howkins and producer co-arranger Chet Delcampo (who also plays mellotron, keys, guitar, bass and drums on the disc) have created never stoop to the obvious, You're not going to find any "swelling strings" on this disc or anything anybody would think of describing as lush. What you do find is a careful architecture where each instrument has been placed in the exact right place, playing the exact right tone, so they all fit perfectly together in the building of each song. Their incorporation into a song's overall structure is so seamless you barely even notice them as individual entities.

Howkins vocals are as individual as the rest of the recording. While there is a slightly ethereal quality to his tenor voice, it's not without body or texture. One thing you'll notice is that unlike quite a number of male singers who use the upper ranges of the register he is not a one note vocalist. While he hardly ever strays into the lower areas of the scale he finds a way to modulate his tone so his voice changes to suit the emotional requirements of a song. There's nothing so annoying as hearing a vocalist sound exactly the same as when he's singing about supposedly opposing emotions. Howkins' voice is able to use his voice to complete the picture the music had begun to draw.

The disc's first song is the spare, almost minimalist, "Thundering Stop". In it he describes two people walking along side of a canal and having a conversation. Not quite the normal subject matter for a song in this day and age. However, like in life, there's more than meets the eye to what we think is going on. Opening with the tune picked out on guitar accompanied by cello, he sings "By the side of the sleepy canal/you gave a sibilant shout/and then the baby was out/the whole sky's in a front when we're sitting in the mud composing ourselves/for the thundering stop". What begins as sort of a serene setting is suddenly interrupted by a "sibilant shout". Now any sort of shout would be sudden, but the image of someone trying not to cause a scene by hissing or whispering their shout is somehow even more jarring than if they had just shouted.
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Without giving us time to properly absorb this first disquieting note the possibilities of the third line are upon us. Is it simply a way of saying a secret is out, or should we also take it literally and assume it means the secret was the other person was pregnant? Whatever it is the next lines imply there is some sort of storm brewing that there can be no preparing oneself for. In the next verse the walk continues but instead of being by a sleepy canal it sounds like the couple is almost speed walking to some locks a little bit further along. What's amazing about this song is not only does it manage to evoke the emotions of the scene it describes, but it spurs the imagination to picture what could have come before and what might happen after.

Two people in two completely different frames of mind set out. He looking forward to a peaceful outing walking by the canal and she plagued by some secret which has been eating away at her until she's no longer able to bear it anymore and blurts it out. After the shock they continue, but now hurry as nothing can ever be the same any more. What will happen to them when they get to the locks that are their destination? Will they climb into a car together and drive home sitting side by side in the front seat in silence? Or do they use the privacy offered by the car as a chance to have a conversation? Where can they go after such a "Thundering Stop".

While there is nothing like a typical song on the disc, "Thundering Stop" is emblematic of the type of thing you can expect from Heyward Howkins on his first release The Hale & Hearty. Each song is a superbly crafted work with music and lyrics working in tandem to create something that transcends the normal boundaries of popular music. By no means is this what you'd call an easily accessible recording. While it won't appeal to those whose appetites are satisfied with the normal fast food equivalent of music usually on offer, those looking for something more substantial might just find themselves leaving the table fulfilled.

Howkins is not only an accomplished musician and singer, he also has the ability to turn words and music into worlds for his listeners to explore. However, like a good poem or story, instead of being merely escapism, they provide us with insights and observations firmly based in reality. It's a rare thing these days to find a singer of popular music who can inspire you to flights of imagination, but Howkins does so and more. The Hale & The Hearty is being released on June 26 2012 and tracks from the album are now available for download through Bandcamp.

(Article first published as Music Review: Heyward Howkins - The Hale & Hearty on Blogcritics.)

April 9, 2012

Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol.1 The Songs Of Robert Wyatt & Antony & The Johnsons


There are some artists who make an indelible impression on you from the first moment you see and or hear them perform. The first time I heard and saw and heard Antony of Antony and the Johnsons was his performance of "If It Be Your Will" on a DVD recording of a tribute concert for Leonard Cohen. Not knowing what to expect, when he opened his mouth and began singing and that amazing voice issued forth, my heart almost stopped. I've heard other male tenors and contra tenors before, but none of them with the ability to put so much of themselves into their singing. Listening to his recordings with Antony & The Johnsons, and various other recordings he's made accompanying other performers since has only served to convince me of his genius. Yet how well would his material translate when performed by someone else? Would his songs be as captivating without the unique qualities of his voice giving them emotional depth?

Well a new release by the British folk group The Unthanks, named for lead singers and sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank, Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons, being released in North America on Rough Trade America February 7 2012 seemed like a great opportunity to see how Antony's music held up in the hands of others. To be honest I had never heard of The Unthanks and only had a vague sort of awareness of the other song writer featured, Robert Wyatt. It turns out Wyatt is the former lead singer of the British 1960s group Soft Machine who, after a nasty fall left him paralysed from the waist down, went onto develop a career as a singer songwriter in Europe and the United Kingdom.

As for The Unthanks they are another in the long line of British folk groups whose roots are firmly embedded into that island nation's musical history. Unlike folk music here in North America with its topical/political associations, in the United Kingdom the genre is far more literally representative of the "folk" of the country's various regions. In the case of the Unthanks that's Northumberland, best known for its wide open moors, bloody past and having once been an industrial heartland. Not having heard any of their music prior to this recording, I don't have any means of comparing this new recording with their other work. However, judging by their history they've not shied away from tackling material most would consider outside folk music's traditional purview. No matter how progressive they are I'm sure there aren't many others in the genre who've covered everything from King Crimson to Tom Waits.
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So this foray into covering other's music isn't something new for the band. What is unusual is they had done a series of live concerts dedicated to performing the works of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons. The tracks on this CD are taken from two concerts they gave at the Union Chapel in London England on December 8 and 9 2010. Diversions Vol 1 opens with five tracks taken from the Antony & the Johnsons' release I Am A Bird Now plus one song, "Paddy's Gone", from the single "You Are My Sister". The second half of the concert, and the CD, are nine of Robert Wyatt's songs taken from five of his solo releases. At the actual concerts the audience was given an intermission between the two sets and you might just want to hit pause for a few seconds after the last Antony & the Johnsons' tune to give yourself time to prepare for the change in atmosphere that occurs with the change in material.

What is most impressive about this CD is the remarkable way in which the Unthanks are able to capture the almost ethereal quality of Antony & the Johnsons' music and convey the emotional intensity behind his highly personal material. Antony's songs are akin to paintings in the way they present a variety of self-portraits of the artist. Exploring themes such as sexual identity, "For Today I Am A Boy", "Bird Gerhl" and "You Are My Sister" all deal with that subject with remarkable candour and sweetness, it makes it extremely difficult for someone other than the writer to perform them with the honesty required for them to touch a listener in the same way as the original.

While both Rachel and Becky Unthank have strong singing voices with impressive ranges, they very wisely don't attempt to match Antony's unique style. Unaffected and pure, with a raw sweetness of their own, what their voices might lack when it comes to the ethereal quality that gives Antony's work its emotional integrity, is more than made up for by their obvious honesty. Like great actors who allow themselves to become conduits for a writer's words, the Unthank sisters have done their best to let the lyrics speak for themselves. Where others may have tried too hard, and in the process spoiled the purity of the song's emotions, they have let the material guide their performances instead of forcing their own interpretations upon it.
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However no matter how good a job they do with Antony's material, it's the songs by Robert Wyatt that allow them to show the qualities that had one of their recent albums voted onto two of Britain's more reputable newspapers' lists of the previous decades' best recordings. Hints of this quality, musical ability mixed with a certain homespun warmth, had shown up in their chatter in between the songs in the first part of the show with the comments the sisters made to each other and the audience. Wyatt's material, rooted as it is in the same folk traditions from which the sisters spring, is more of a natural fit for them not only musically but culturally. This isn't to say they are lacking in musical sophistication, because the arrangements by the band's producer and keyboard player Adrian McNally aren't simplistic by any means, but it feels like they have far more of a natural affinity for work based on more traditional folk stylings.

Wyatt's songs seemed to liberate the band more and the second half of the CD was far more exuberant, especially a rousing rendition of "Dondestan" that sounded like it included some of the clog dancing the sisters had promised their audience earlier on in the show. Of course not all of the tunes were "dance" numbers. "Free Will And Testament" for example was equally as introspective as anything done in the first half of the show, but regardless of its tempo The Unthanks seemed a little bit more relaxed and open playing this music. In fact the last time I had heard a concert with this unique a mixture of musical professionalism and "down home" atmosphere was watching Kate and Anna McGarrigle perform.

Diversions Vol. 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons will not only give those who appreciate the music of the artists being covered a chance to hear evocative and thoughtful interpretations of their work, it offers listeners an indication of t The Unthanks versatility. The fact they are equally capable of performing the work of two such different artists with almost equal comfort and ability is astounding. For those like me who had never heard them before, it makes for a remarkable introduction to their music and whets your appetite for more. That it was recorded live in front of an audience makes it even more impressive and left me hoping they'll consider touring on this side of the Atlantic ocean some time in the near future.

(Photo Credit: Pip April)
(Article first published as Music Review: The Unthanks - Diversions Vol 1: The Songs Of Robert Wyatt and Antony & The Johnsons on Blogcritics.)

DVD Review: Everyday Sunshine - The Story Of Fishbone


Documentary movies about rock and roll bands are all the rage these days. The majority tend to be about those who most of us are already familiar with. I mean you have to have been living in seclusion for the past twenty years if you're a fan of pop music and not heard of U2 or Pearl Jam. While there's no denying the impact either of those bands have had, what can we really learn about them or the nature of popular music from a movie about either band? On the other hand, watching something like Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone, a new documentary by Lev Anderson and Chris Metzler charting the story of one of rock and roll's truly unique bands, gives you insights into the nature of the industry, the dynamics of working in a band, and the sheer, almost perverse, energy required to keep a dream alive when everything seems to conspire against you.

Fishbone, for those who don't know, came out of the thriving Los Angeles punk rock scene of the 1980s. While they shared a lot of things in common with other bands of the era, one thing distinguished them from the rest, the fact they were nearly all from South Central LA and all were African American. Even today the idea of an African American rock and roll band is an anomaly and in the 80s it was unheard of. So how on earth did a bunch of guys from South Central end up as Fishbone? The movie tells us how in 1979 the California State Supreme Court decreed that the only way to achieve racial balance in the schools of Los Angeles would be to institute a program of mandatory bussing. Kids from the hood would be shipped by bus to the fancy and well funded schools in the suburbs. It was here that Norwood and Phillip Fisher (bass and drums) Kendall Jones (guitar), Chris Dowd (keyboards) and Walter Kibby (trumpet and vocals) were introduced to Led Zeppelin and other white rock and roll acts by their new classmates, and met Angelo Moore (vocals, saxophone and thermin) one of the few black kids who actually grew up in the Valley.

While bussing may not have done much for racial integration in America, when it came to the musical integration of Fishbone, it was an incredible success. Slashing guitar riffs met R&B horns, funky rhythms, gospel tinged vocals and was wrapped up in the anarchic packaging of punk rock to explode all over the bars and clubs of LA. While they were a hit with anybody who saw them, nobody cares what colour your skin in in a mosh pit, when they started to move into the recording studio it was different story. Columbia, the first label they signed with, still had a black music division in those days, but Fishbone weren't Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson - hell they weren't even rap music - and they sure didn't fit anybody's image of what "black"music should sound like. Yet in spite of these obstacles by 1993 the band looked like they were on the verge of the big time. Spike Lee directed their music video, an appearance on Saturday Night Live and signing on for the Lollapalooza tour all seemed like things guaranteed to push them into the spotlight.
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However, coincidence or not, the wheels started to fall off around the time the four cops accused of beating Rodney King were acquitted and South Central went up in flames. Growing up black, poor and male in LA they had all felt the sharp end of the LAPD at one time or another and were just as angry as everybody else over the verdict and it came out in their music. Not something a mainstream record label like Columbia was going to be comfortable with. At the same time guitarist Kendell Jones started experiencing personal difficulties, drinking heavily and accusing his fellow band members of being instruments of the devil. When Norwood and a few others tried to stage an adult intervention in order to get Jones the psychiatric treatment they thought he needed, he had them charged with attempted kidnapping. While they were all eventually acquitted, the loss of Jones seemed to signal the beginning of the end as Chris Dowd left the band a year later.

As the movie makes clear, while others had joined the core group who came together in 1979 along the way, when the centre started started to fall apart the band began a long slow decline back from the brink of success. By 2003 only Norwood Fisher and Angelo Moore remained of those who started the group, and the strain of holding it all together was starting to take its toll on them. The camera had been moving back and forth between the present and the past throughout the course of the movie as the directors wove archival footage of the band performing, rehearsing and hanging out in the studio with present day interviews, animation and even paintings to bring Fishbone's story to life. As is normal with these types of things we viewers are safe from any direct emotional involvement with the subject matter because it's all stuff that's happened in the past. So when the camera all of a sudden drops us down in the middle of something happening in the present the wall separating the audience from the movie's subjects comes tumbling down.

In footage shot at various points over the last decade we see how the struggle to keep the band going has come to affect the relationship between Fisher and Moore They both begin to harbour resentments towards the other which they start to reveal to the camera i their inteviews. Moore, the mercurial front man, is as potent a force on stage as he ever was and continues to look for new means of expressing himself. Exploding in all directions at once he washes up against the stolid and very grounded Fisher who as bass player has always provided the roots which gave the band its strength. Within the original band their were other members who could serve as buffers between the two with either the force of their personalities or their creative contributions. But the two of them as the only creative engines were gradually being pushed apart like polarized magnets.
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What's amazing about this film is that instead of merely hearing others talking about the problems between the two men, or even just the two of them talking about each other, the camera sits down with them and watches as they attempt to hash out their differences. Both of them are committed to the idea of Fishbone and have made huge personal sacrifices for the band. However that can only keep working as long as its able to fulfill each of their artistic needs. As we've seen from the present day footage showing the band playing for miniscule audiences or attending publicity events which nobody comes to, they're not making the force they once were. Yet in spite of their differences, neither Norwood and Fisher want to give up on the band and still believe they have something to say that needs to be heard. It's that common ground that allows them to work things out and to continue the band. In fact, as the movie ends it seems like the band's future is actually looking brighter then it has in ages. Kendal Jones joins them for a gig and not only appears to have rid himself of the demons that plagued him in the early 90s but also wants to play with the band again. Trumpeter Kibby had left the band in 2003, but came back in 2010 and Chris Dowd - who had been one of the main writers in the early days - plays a couple of gigs with them.

Watching the footage included in the movie of the band performing during their hay days of the 1980s you can see why people like Flea from Red Hot Chili Peppers and others claim that Fishbone were the band who inspired them the most. You can also see how almost impossible it would have been for any record label to cope with them. Their music defies any sort of classification and their stage show would have a straight audience quaking in their boots. Moore thrashing atop the mosh pit, scaling the walls of the concert hall to climb into a balcony and diving into the audience and singing all the while while the rest of the band thrashes out a deadly mix of punk, funk, ska, rock and roll and jazz. What's truly amazing is how tight the band is. This wasn't some group of idiots who had no idea how to play their instruments or who couldn't find their way from the beginning of a song to its end without getting lost. No this was a tight knit and well rehearsed band with incredible skill whose vocal harmonies were as tight as a gospel choir and musical arrangements as crisp as any band.

Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone does a wonderful job of not only telling audiences who Fishbone was, but who they are today. However, it's not just about a rock band, its about the people who are in a rock band and what it is that keeps them going when times are tough. This is one of the few "rockumentaries" I've seen where which manage to capture the love and pain involved with playing rock and roll when you care about it more than anything else in the world. It can eat at your soul. but the rewards can also be glorious. As this movie shows so poignantly the members of Fishbone have seen both sides of that coin and the long grey areas in between as well.

(Article first published as Movie Review: Everyday Sunshine: The Story Of Fishbone on Blogcritics.)

November 25, 2011

Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones

Once in a while a pop musician comes around who makes little or no impact on the public but earns the respect and admiration of their peers. In most cases these are individuals in possession of an exceptional talent who have ended up outside the public eye of their own volition. Usually it's because they have no desire to play the game required for commercial success. Either they've been badly burned by the industry and want to have nothing to do with it anymore or they've decided their independence is more valuable to them than success.

In the late 1970s Willie Nile was on the verge of international stardom. The industry was dubbing him the next "big thing". After Springstien he was going to be the next Bob Dylan, the voice of a new generation and all the expectations that went with the designation. It wasn't just hype either as fellow musicians quickly recognized he was something special. Pete Townshead specifically requested Nile as the Who's opening act for their 1980 North American tour while more recently Lucinda Williams has said if there was any justice in the world she'd be opening for Nile not the other way around.

Instead of cashing in on his accolades in the 1980s, Nile chose to walk away to preserve his independence. Going almost a decade without a record contract, but never stopping writing and performing, he put out two releases in the early 1990s and then nothing else again until 2000. It was another six years before he released Streets Of New York, which was then followed by three live recordings in quick succession in 2007, Live In Central Park and 2008, Live at the Turning Point and Live From The Streets Of New York (also on DVD). This was followed by 2009's House Of A Thousand Guitars on his own River House Records label.
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It's obvious having his own record label has agreed with Nile as he's now released his third new studio disc in the past five years. The Innocent Ones made its way into stores in North America on November 22 2011 after enjoying a successful release in Europe in 2010. The eleven cuts on the disc are Nile's usual mix of power pop anthems, thoughtful ballads and rock and roll for the sheer fun of it. There aren't many popular artists these days who are capable of doing a credible job of any one of those types of material let alone all three. Yet Nile seems to have no difficulty in switching gears from one mode to the other and performing each with equal ability.

With the exception of "Sideways Beautiful", which he wrote on his own, all the songs on the disc were co-written by Nile and his long time musical cohort Frankie Lee. The two men have a knack for creating songs deceptively simple musically and lyrically. You don't need to be needlessly complicated to write an intelligent song. Far too many people these days seem to feel that their music won't be taken "seriously" unless they clutter it up with convoluted lyrics that a cryptographer would have trouble deciphering or complicated tunes which nobody really has any fun listening to. If you have something to say doesn't it make more sense that people understand what you're talking about and enjoy listening to you say it? Lee and Nile are not only masters at writing intelligent lyrics that speak directly to their listeners, they've not forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun. Who decided that the only way pop music could be taken seriously was by sucking all the life out of it anyway? Thankfully Lee and Nile weren't listening to whoever made that decision.

When was the last time you listened to a CD and found the music so infectious that you caught yourself singing along with the chorus of a song the first time you heard it? How many times has a song's lyrics caught your attention so vividly you were able to pay attention to what they were saying without making any effort? Not only are the tracks "The Innocent Ones", "Song For You" and "Rich And Broken" from this disc capable of doing this, they do so without you feeling like you've been manipulated. Too often songs rely on cleaver "hooks", catchy arrangements or melodies, and cheap sentimentality to capture our attention. That's not the case with any of the songs mentioned above, or the rest of the material on the disc either for that matter.
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Aside from the fact they are well written and intelligent, what makes them so compelling is Nile's abilities as a performer. By no stretch of the imagination would you say he has a beautiful voice, but it has the rough hewn honesty so many strive to emulate but which can't be faked. Whether he's excited, happy, sad or just having a good time, as listeners we can always tell because his voice doesn't lie. The compassion in his voice when he sings, "For every heart that's broken in two/I'm speaking your name, I'm lighting a flame/ I'm singing a song for you" during "Song For You" is so genuine that you can't help believing him. He isn't just singing these words, he lives them, and if he could he'd find a way to comfort the lost people of the world he would.

He's not just compassionate either. In "Rich And Broken", he not only sings about the wasted lives of young starlets like Lindsey Lohan and the other party girls with genuine regret, he accepts the fact that our society, our craving for celebrity, has to accept some responsibility for what's happened to them. "She's oh so rich and broken/There's part of her that's yet to be awoken/She's rich and broken...and she's mine"..."With first name recognition/She's a walking fashion fiction getting high/Bye Bye Bye". Not only does he mourn the lost potential all these people represent and how our cult of celebrity has taken away their identities by reducing them to a meaningless name, the three words "and she's mine" are him accepting his share of the blame for being part of a society that thinks celebrity worship is normal.

Willie Nile is that rarest of musicians, a true independent. He's turned his back on record contracts twice because of the compromises involved working with studios and forged his own path for the last two decades. The result is pure unadulterated rock and roll music and lyrics sung from the heart with more genuine emotion in one song than most people can squeeze out of themselves over the course of a career. Like the bards of old, Nile seems to have found a way to tap into the human condition and create songs that are both topical and timeless. He finds universal themes and imbues them with his own unique blend of compassion and intelligence in the hope that he might make a difference. So when he sings "So if you get knocked down you gotta' take a stand/For all the outcast, dead last who need a helping hand" on the song "One Guitar" he gives you hope that maybe if people do raise their voices together they can make a difference. It's at least worth trying anyway don't you think?.
(Photo Credit: Christina Arrigoni)
(Article first published as Music Review: Willie Nile - The Innocent Ones on Blogcritics)

November 23, 2011

Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation

Being the children of famous people can have it's advantages and disadvantages. On the plus side is the automatic recognition that comes with sharing a well known name. On the downside there's having to live up to everyone's expectations of what the name signifies. On top of that there's also having to deal with those who will whisper about people only making it because of their relations. So, in the end while having a famous name might get your foot in the door, you're going to end up having to work almost twice as hard as the next person in order to gain the respect you deserve for your efforts.

For a lot of people the temptation might be to run as far away from their family name as possible in order to prove they can make it on their own. However, there shouldn't be any reason for them to have to do that. If you have talent it will show through no matter who you are or who you perform with. When Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie released their first disc as Folk Uke a few years ago they not only proved they could stand on their own two feet as song writers and performers, they also made no secret of their family ties. Let's be real, Willie Nelson's and Arlo Guthrie's daughters aren't going to be able hide from the world who they're related to, so they might as well own up to it. So both dads appeared on the first record in support roles.
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While the first CD was fun to listen to the duo relied more on their sense of humour and intelligence than their musical abilities to impress listeners. There were only a couple of moments which hinted at the true nature of their talents. Songs like "Shit Makes the Flowers Grow" and "Motherfucker", seemed like deliberate attempts to distract listeners from the natural sweetness of their voices and how suited they were to an older style of country/folk music. Now, with their second CD, Reincarnation, being released on November 22 2011 on their own Folk Uke label, the duo, as can be seen through their choice of material, have far more confidence in themselves and their abilities as vocalists.

The opening track on the disc, a cover of Harry Nilsson's "He Needs Me", tells the listener right away the direction Guthrie and Nelson have moved in. Nilsson's material requires just the right touch or it could easily slide into sentimental mush. Like a great many of his songs its deceptively simplistic while demanding a great deal from any who attempt to sing it. The temptation would be to go over the top emotionally in an effort to "make something" of the song. However, it's the song's very understatement which makes it so powerful, and Nelson and Guthrie understand that perfectly. Their vocal arrangement is simple enough to allow the song to speak for itself, while the unaffected sweetness of their harmonies captures its emotions without getting in your face.

Of course being who they are they haven't completely abandoned their rather wicked sense of humour. "I Miss My Boyfriend", with guest vocals supplied by Skeeter Jennings, is one of the most biting and non-politically correct songs about abusive boyfriends you're ever going to hear. In a letter from his prison cell an abusive boyfriend confesses to his girlfriend how he's had a wife all along. Not to worry though, for while dragging your wife around by the bra turns out to be against the law, he'll be out in a couple of years. With its sweetly sung chorus of "I miss my boyfriend/ will you hit me/give me the beating of my life/take off your belt now/leave me a welt now/treat me just like I was your wife", some might think the tune doesn't take the subject seriously enough. However, if that's the case, you need to look up the word irony in the dictionary and then listen to it again.
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Still, the lasting impression you take away after listening to this disc is that of two wonderful voices raised in song. Whether it's the country type tear jerker "Long Black Limousine" or the title song "Reincarnation" - a love song that truly crosses all boundaries - Guthrie's and Nelson's vocals are a pleasure to listen to. Even on the aforementioned tear jerker they bring an honesty to lyrics that in other people's hands would sound cliched or downright stupid. They both seem to have the innate ability to open their mouths and sing unaffectedly. Whether one of their own creations or covering somebody else's material they have the confidence in themselves to simply serve as the song's interpreters and let it speak for itself.

On top of that their voices seem to have been made to sing with each other. Listen to the way they build their harmonies on "He Needs Me" and the effortless way their voices intertwine. It's not often you have the opportunity to just sit back and enjoy the sound of two voices working together so well. In fact you have the feeling that it wouldn't matter what they sang, and it would sound great. However, the music they've chosen here not only suits their voices perfectly, the songs also show their remarkable emotional and intellectual range as performers.

Both Nelson and Guthrie could easily slide over the edge into being cloying and sweet, and probably make a killing in the adult easy listening market, but thankfully they've taken a different direction and we're the ones reaping the benefits. They might have famous musical parents, but this latest release only confirms that Amy Nelson and Cathy Guthrie are deserving of recognition in their own right.

(Article first published as Music Review: Folk Uke - Reincarnation on Blogcritics.)

November 12, 2011

Music Review: John Cale -Extra Playful(EP)

Once upon a time in the magic kingdom of New York City there was a White Prince. The White Prince, through dint of his own special powers, was able to attract a large following among the wild and weird of the kingdom. Together, in their mystical palace called The Factory, The White Prince and his adherents created films, theatre, art, music and things called "happenings" that were beyond the ken of the rest of the denizens of the kingdom. Most of what was created in those strange and magic days has long since been forgotten and fallen into the mists of time. However, there are those whose tales are still told today, and foremost among them were the ones who banded together to form what was known as The Velvet Underground.
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While the White Prince championed the band, they had been the brain child of Lou Reed and John Cale. Originally from the far off land of Wales Cale had come to the magic kingdom to study modern composition and had previously worked with composers like John Cage. However his stay in the new world had made him more and more interested in popular music. Reed's background in popular music, but burgeoning interest in the avant-garde, seemed to make them an ideal fit for working together to create something new and exciting. Unfortunately for the world Cale and Reed were both brilliant men who weren't destined to work together. After only two recordings Cale had left the band as he and Reed couldn't get along.

It's been over forty years since that fateful split took place and while Reed is much more well known than Cale, the latter has never stopped creating. As a musician and producer he has worked with some of the most interesting and complex popular artists of the last three decades including Patti Smith and Brian Eno. Aside from his work in popular music he has also composed scores for films and created video art for prestigious events like the Venice Biennale. His latest foray into music, Extra Playful, a five song EP available for digital download at all the usual places, released by Domino Records, shows he's lost none of his willingness to experiment with style and form and is still far more interesting to listen to than the majority of popular musicians.

From the new wave sound of the opening song "Catastrofuk", with its nod to the Talking Heads of the the late 1970s, the melodic and melancholy "Whadya Mean By That", to the challenge of "Hey Ray", Cale takes the conventions of pop music and tweaks them into something enough off centre to make them intriguing. He uses our own assumptions of what a song should sound like against us. So while a song like "Catastrofuk" sounds like its going to be your typical electro-pop number with keyboards and other digitally enhanced sounds, just as you settle into anticipating how it should it continue Cale refuses to follow the expected pattern and takes you somewhere else.

While he takes his work seriously, the wonderful thing about Cale is his refusal to take himself seriously. Far too many pop musicians have an over inflated sense of their own importance which usually creeps into their work. This is especially true of most of those who lay any claim to being avant-garde. Cale, on the other hand, has his tongue firmly planted in his cheek and on cuts like "Hey Ray", with its sardonic take on the 1960s, he not only makes fun of people's nostalgia for a "golden age", he whittles away at his own place in pop history. All I could think of while listening to this song was the Velvet Underground's infamous "Sister Ray", and it was a response to people's attempts at mythologising the band.
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"Perfection", the final cut on the EP, is a glimpse of Cale's more introspective side. Whether he's talking about the search for perfection in the creation of art, in personal relationships or even in terms of how we all live together on this planet isn't made quite clear. However, it's also not important. The song seems to be about the agonizing glimpses we occasionally manage to catch of perfection. We're aware of its existence, but at the same time we realize how unrealistic it is to ever think of achieving it in whatever we attempt. We can respond in one of two ways - either give up in frustration and settle for less, or, even though we know we're doomed to fail, keep striving for it anyway. How we chose to answer that question dictates what kind of life we have. We can play it safe and settle for a known mediocrity or we can take the chance of doing something great by risking failure and striving for perfection.

An EP is like a preview to give listeners an idea of what a musician is currently working on. With the release of Extra Playful Cale is showing us he's still pushing the envelope by blending pop music with an avant-garde sensibility. He sees things differently than most pop musicians and isn't afraid to give us glimpses of his point of view. Unfortunately it's not always a comfortable way of looking at the world, and some people might not appreciate it. While some might wish for the once upon a time days of the Velvet Underground and the Factory, Cale's work is not an exercise in resurrecting the past. Extra Playful is currently available for download, and will be released on CD November 25 2011 with an additional two songs. If its an accurate indication of the direction he's taking his music, its definitely a sign of very exciting things to come in the future.

(Article first published as Music Review: John Cale - Extra Playful (EP) on Blogcritics.)

October 31, 2011

Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb

Those of you whose primary experience with recorded music has either been with CDs or downloads will understandably probably not share previous generations' appreciation of album art. Even the name, album art, hearkens back to an era when music was released on long playing (LP) records made of vinyl. Instead of the 5 inch by 5 inch covers that now adorn CDs, designers would have a canvass of approximately eighteen by eighteen inches when creating the art for an LP. There was nothing quite like the experience of walking into a large record store whose walls were adorned with years and years worth of record covers. Sometimes you'd go into a record store merely to flip through the bins of LPs and revel in the diversity of artwork and design.

While a sizeable percentage of covers were made up of pictures of the bands striking some kind of pose or another, even some of them could be interesting, or at the very least informative. I used to be able to get a pretty fair indication of whether I'd be interested in the music on offer from the way in which a band displayed itself. However, it was albums with artwork on their covers that would have a better chance of capturing my attention. First of all they were a refreshing change from pouting rock stars trying to look dangerous and secondly some of it was genuinely fascinating. There were quite a few occasions where I would buy an album without knowing anything about the band simply because I liked the art work so much. What was amazing was how many of those recordings I ended up liking. While there were a few which didn't live up to the promise of their art work, most of the time if the cover art appealed to me so did the music.

Cover art has also been a pretty accurate reflection of the overall state of the music industry, especially when it comes to popular music. From the early to the late 1960s as the music became freer and more expressive the cover art became wilder and more experimental. From Andy Warhol pop art on Velvet Underground covers to Peter Max's art work for the Beatles' Yellow Submarine it was a period where almost anything went. Of course this explosion of freedom of expression wasn't just limited to popular music, it was in all the art forms.
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Famed American underground cartoonist and illustrator Robert Crumb said in a recent interview how he had given up being a commercial artist in 1968 and was amazed he could get his crazy comics published in the so called underground press at the time. There might have been little or no money in it at the time, but it was total freedom of expression in his chosen medium. While Crumb is best known for his comic work from that time, it was also when he made his first contribution to the world of record cover art when he was offered the then princely sum of $600.00 to do the cover for Big Brother & The Holding Company's album Cheap Thrills. While he probably could have parlayed that cover into more jobs for record companies, Crumb has never been a particular fan of popular music, except for rock and roll from the mid 1950s to around 1968, and lost interest in it altogether by 1970.

However a new collection of his artwork, The Complete Record Cover Collection, being published by Norton Books in the US on November 7 2011 and Penguin Canada October 25 2011 reveals a side of Crumb that many will not have been familiar with - his passion for recordings made in the early part of the twentieth century. Contrary to the book's title, cover art for records is only one component of Crumb's music related art works as the book is replete with everything from illustrations of musicians from various parts of the world to logos and business cards he's designed for a variety of independent record companies and stores. As you look through the book the first thing you'll notice is not only the wide range of projects he's taken on over the years, but how much more incredibly diversified he is as an artist than is commonly realized.
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Crumb is probably best known for the rather flamboyant and exaggerated style of his comics; a style that is highly reminiscent of cartoons of the early part of the twentieth century. Looking at his illustrations, or even many of his comics, you can almost hear that old time cartoon music playing underneath them. You just know the characters would have a bounce in their step as they walk jauntily down the street to the sound of a ragtime band if they are happy and if sad trumpets would roll out long mournful notes echoing their disconsolation as they sob their hearts out. While the cover for the Cheap Thrills album and some of the other art work in the book utilize that style, you'll see how he's able to gradate his style between the over the top cartoon work and realism as requirements and inspiration dictate.

While I've heard any number of people dismiss cartoons or illustrations as something of a lessor cousin to painting when it comes to the visual arts I've never agreed with that assessment. You only have to look at what Crumb is able to communicate with some of the work in this collection to come to appreciate that while what he does may not be framed and on gallery walls, his work has a validity of its own that makes it the equal to much of what is categorized as "serious" art. Even at its most exaggerated and cartoonish his cover art not only captures something of the nature of the artist who is being represented, it also gives you some insights into the time period the music is from.
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However for pure artistry nothing beats the portraits of various musicians scattered throughout the book. Some of them, Frank Zappa, Woody Guthrie, Lighting Hopkins, Merle Haggard and George Jones are of famous folk, others are of obscure country and blues players and a third group are of anonymous musicians from various parts of Europe. Yet no matter who they are each of the pictures captures some intangible quality of the person that stimulates your imagination in such a way you find yourself either remembering what details you know of the person's life or trying to imagine something about them - what their life was like and what playing music meant to them. While for some of them he's used old photographs as his source material, Crumb's illustrations imbue what were obviously posed pictures with far more life then the original portrait could possibly have contained.

While the book appears to be laid out without any discernible order, record covers and logos for vintage record stores share pages and musicians from the 1920s stand shoulder to shoulder with others from the early part of the twenty-first century, that actually adds to the fun of scanning through the book. Not only does it mean that each page contains examples of Crumb's diversity as an artist, but it makes looking through the book that much more interesting because you're never quite sure what to expect as you flip from one page to the next.

This is the time of year when publishers are flooding the shelves with coffee table books of various sorts in anticipation of the upcoming present buying season. The shelves of your local bookstore are going to be filled with collections of photographs of everything from the glamorous to the infamous, buildings and cute animals and of course the obligatory photo album of the Royal Family and the new Royal Couple. In a crowd like this The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb stands out like a speck of gold in a sea of nickel. If you're going to buy one coffee table book this season make it the one with a spark of life and subversive enough to bring some much needed spice to the season. In an age of conformity and homogenization people like Crumb are needed more than ever. His artistry is as unique today as it was when he first started out and its high time for him to receive the recognition he deserves.

(Article first published as Book Review: The Complete Record Cover Collection by Robert Crumb on Blogcritics)

October 27, 2011

Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel - New Blood Live In London

I have to admit that I've never liked orchestrated versions of pop songs. As far as I'm concerned its usually one step removed from Muzak - pop music for people who don't like pop music. Even worse, as far as I'm concerned, are those times when some performer starts taking themselves way too seriously and decides to use orchestral elements in their music. The results are usually god awful as they simply don't have the talent to make it work, The smarter ones will hire somebody else to do the arrangements, but there's very little modern rock and roll that works orchestrated. One of the worst experiences I ever had in my life was sitting in an all night restaurant at 3:00 AM and hearing an orchestrated version of "Light My Fire" by the Doors.

After a scarring experience like that you'd think I'd swear off orchestrated pop music for the rest of my life. However I'm a firm believer in the maxim that its the exceptions that prove the rule. If there's one performer of popular music around today who has always been an exception to most rules it's Peter Gabriel. So when I first heard about his deciding to orchestrate a selection of music spanning his career I was intrigued. Last year he released a CD and toured with the equivalent of a chamber orchestra - a forty-six piece ensemble he called The New Blood Orchestra. Now, for those of us who weren't able to attend one of those concerts, Eagle Rock Entertainment has released DVD, Blu-ray, Blu-ray 3D and special edition four disc digital CD versions of New Blood Live In London, recorded over two nights at London England's Hammersmith Apollo concert hall last March, on October 25 2011.

As I had hoped Gabreil has not just pasted an orchestra over top of his more popular songs by having them play the tunes instead of the usual mix of guitars, electric bass, drums and keyboard. Instead he and arranger John Metcalfe set out to reinterpret the material making use of the diversity of sound available with the instruments at their disposal. The name New Blood Orchestra proved very apt, as they have indeed injected new blood into the material in question. Right from the opening number on the DVD, "Intruder", you realize that once again Gabriel has pushed his music in a direction few others would either dare to attempt or have the talent to carry off.
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Instead of simply transposing the music to suit the range of the instruments in the orchestra, Gabriel and Metcalfe have broken the songs down into their component parts of rhythm and melody. Then they designated individual sections within their orchestra to bring them to life. The result is on some songs instruments, like violins, you would normally associate with the melody, are busy performing sequences of notes representing one element of the rhythm while the brass section plays another. The overall effect is stunning, for where you would normally hear these parts being played by two or three instruments at most and not notice the number of elements going into the rhythm, in this case you not only hear the overall pattern, you also hear each of its distinct components. At first it might feel a little chaotic as your mind tries to sort out and separate the sounds from each other because that's how we are used to listening to music. However, in the space of only a few minutes you find yourself starting to listen to the whole, including Gabriel's vocals, and the impact is as strong, if not stronger than anything you'll have heard produced by amplified instruments.

Of course a Gabriel show is more than just the music and the DVD does a fine job of capturing the visual presentations that accompany the songs. A series of screens and scrims - for rear projection - are hoisted in and out, some even dropping down in front of the performers, with various images being broadcast. Initially these consist of primarily abstract visualizations relating to either a song's theme or its musical content. However as the concert progresses they start to include film being shot live on stage by a variety of cameras. Some are in the hands of crew members scrambling around the stage, but others are hung from the grid above and offer the show's floor director what must be a confusing array of shots to pick from for broadcast. One of the cameras is given enough slack that Gabriel is able to swing it in gentle arcs out over the audience and the orchestra. Thankfully, as I would find that sort of thing paling quickly, they only use that technique sparingly - primarily for "Solsbury Hill".

The special feature included with the DVD package is a roughly twenty minute documentary about putting the show together called "Blood Donors" and features interviews with Gabriel, Metcalf, conductor Ben Foster and Blue Leach who directed the filming of the concert. The talk is primarily focused on the process of adopting the music and how their goal all along was to avoid as much as possible slapping an orchestra over top of popular music. It was fun to hear Gabriel talk about the project, because at no point does he ever take himself too seriously. I've found in the past that nothing guarantees pomposity among pop musicians quicker than an orchestra. So it was a delight to hear Gabriel freely admitting to going slightly over the top when they adapted "Solsbury Hill", including throwing in a few bars of Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" as a tip of the hat to the old Beatles tunes which would sometimes fade out on classical tunes (Think of "All You Need Is Love").
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It's in the documentary that you also discover the 3D effects in the film were not shot during the live performance, but during the rehearsals with Gabriel wearing a metal harness upon which the camera was mounted. The framework extended in front of him what looked to be about six feet and the camera was focused directly on his head. The resulting shots would obviously be of his head suspended in front of the rest of the performers. During the concert itself Gabriel would augment those shots with ones he filmed while holding onto the camera suspended from the lighting grid that I mentioned earlier. Without a 3D television, and not watching the official 3D release, I can't tell you exactly how the effect worked out. What I can tell you is on my regular television it looked like Gabriel's head and upper torso were distinct from the background and floating around like a balloon. The only thing that saved it from being cheesy was the fact Gabriel was having so much fun with it, making it obvious he considered it a toy.

Aside from "Solsbury Hill", the set list for the DVD includes favourites like "Biko", "Single To Noise", "Red Rain", "Don't Give Up", "The Rhythm Of The Heat" and sixteen more tunes. Like most of Gabriel's work, it's neither an easy listen nor is it the type of thing you can throw on in the background. While there will probably be some dissatisfaction from fans over the way tunes have been changed and how what was once familiar is no longer, I think anyone who genuinely appreciates Gabriel's music can't help but be impressed. The orchestral interpretations bring another dimension to each of the tunes and reveal just how sophisticated the material was in the first place. I've always thought acoustic instruments have a far greater emotional depth than any electric or electronic instrument and hearing these reinterpretations only confirmed that belief.

"Biko", the song in honour of South African anti-apartheid activist Stephen Biko who was killed in police custody in 1976, has always moved me. Yet it was like I had never heard it before. A bass and floor drum establish the rhythm to start the piece then are joined by bassoon and clarinet which begin to play the melody. Then, as the song progresses, new layers are added to the rhythm as the string sections begin to play the melody in time to the cadence established by the drums. Gradually the volume increases until by the time Gabriel turns the singing over to the audience - the chant which ends the song - its built to a spine tingling crescendo. Then, everything stops save for the two drums which started the song in first place, until they too come to a rest like a heart that's stopped beating.

As you would suspect the sound quality on the DVD is superb, with the option to choose from regular Dolby Stereo, 5.1 surround sound and Dolby Digital for the concert footage, and the picture quality is fantastic - I can only imagine what it would be like in High Definition for those with Blu-ray capability. The DVD comes with a booklet containing complete credits, track listing, and includes some nice still shots from the concert. However, it's the contents of the DVD which really matter, and in this case they are spectacular.

In his interview during the documentary, Gabriel said he's already moving on to something else and won't be doing any more orchestrated versions of his material. So this will be the only time he'll be releasing these interpretations of his songs. Don't miss this opportunity to see and hear what happens when somebody makes the effort to take finely crafted pop music and turn them into equally finely crafted pieces of orchestrated music. The results are as truly unique as Gabriel, and prove once again that unlike many of his contemporaries he is deserving of being referred to as an artist.

(Article first published as Music DVD Review: Peter Gabriel -New Blood Live In London on Blogcritics.)

October 12, 2011

Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman The Rolling Stone Years

Once upon a time in the city of the Golden Bridge by the edge of the Pacific Ocean, there lived many happy people who dressed and acted differently from the rest of the land. People would flock from all over to point, look and wonder. In this magic land there lived smaller groups of people who had been blessed with the ability to make wondrous sounds. Taking strange and other worldly names like Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Big Brother and the Holding Company, they would perform at large ritual gatherings for the inhabitants of the magical kingdom. Among those attending there would be some who would ingest strange substances and then dance with wild abandon. It was a time of innocence and joy.

Okay, so maybe it wasn't really like that in San Francisco, but there are times when you read about the heyday of the Bay Area music scene from around 1964 to 1969 it sure sounds like some sort of fairy tale. There's no denying it was a centre of creative energy whose influence spread far beyond the borders of not only the city but the state. One could easily make the argument that the Woodstock Music & Art Festival on the other side of America in Bethal New York, was as much a part of the San Francisco music scene as the free concerts in Golden Gate Park. So it's not surprising that the first magazine devoted solely to the popular music of the time, Rolling Stone was born in that city in 1967.

In his wonderful new book, Every Picture Tells A Story: Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years published by Omnibus Press, photojournalist Baron Wolman recreates for us those early years at Rolling Stone. In a combination of text and photos he recounts the history of the magazine's first tentative issues. From his original meeting with founder/editor in chief, the then twenty-one year old Jann Wenner, through his three years of photo shoots for the magazine, Wolman's descriptions of events captures both the pure magic and the pathos of the times.
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Wolman describes himself as something of an outsider to the pop music scene. While he and his wife lived in the Haight Ashbury district which was the nexus for the scene, he was thirty years old and not that familiar with either the music or the musicians he was being assigned to shoot. However that didn't stop Wenner from reaching a deal with him that saw his photographs appear in the magazine in exchange for stock in the company and Wolman retaining all rights to the material. While at the time it meant that Wolman would also have to hunt down paying gigs while shooting material for Rolling Stone, he obviously has no regrets about the arrangement and is honest enough to say the deal has worked out very well for him.

One thing you find out very quickly is Wolman is from a different era then the one we live in today. He wasn't like one of the hordes who now stalk celebrities in the hopes of catching some indiscretion on film. It was also long before promotional videos, branding and image creators. Wolman would typically accompany the writer assigned to write a story to the subject's home and take his photos on location. There were no make up artists, no wardrobe changes and no lighting effects. He would shoot Janis Joplin in the basement of her Laural Canyon home shooting pool with members of her band, Frank Zappa lurking in caves or playing on construction equipment behind his house, or Tiny Tim beaming with delight over the bouquet of daisies just presented him by Wolman and the writer.

These aren't candid shots obviously, but something of the person's real character shines through unlike so many of today's carefully sculpted arrangements. Wolman talks about the difference between then and now and puts a lot of it down to being a matter of trust between the subject and photographer. "They trusted me...and the rest of us... not to make them look like fools." For Wolman the biggest change was when studios started to become involved and began dictating what they wanted and pushed the photo shoots further and further away from being a one on one interplay between photographer and musician. With the advent of MTV image became far more important then it once was and according to Wolman bands were no longer happy with simply being photographed - they wanted to look a certain way and wanted photographers to achieve it for them.

As a photojournalist Wolman had learned how to capture moments on film that would tell a story. In his photos for Rolling Stone the subject was usually the story. So whether the shots were in a recording studio, backstage or on stage, each one of them tell us a little bit about the person in question. Even those he took in his studio at home, with lights and posed in front of a seamless background still reveal something of the person's story. Sometimes even Wolman was surprised at what his photos showed. He remembers puzzling over a photo of Jerry Garcia he took in his home studio; wondering how Garcia was able to contort one of his fingers so that it looked like it was missing, until realizing it was actually missing. It's a beautiful shot of Garcia smiling into the camera and holding up the hand with the missing finger as if caught waving. What Wolman didn't know until much later was that it's also one of the only photos Garcia ever allowed to be taken where he wasn't hiding the fact the finger was absent.
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Looking at the pictures, both scattered through out the book and those in a separate section comprising some of Wolman's favourite shoots, you can't help but be struck by how intimate some of the shots are. Even some of the caught in performance shots capture moments on stage when the performer is turned inward and is in the process of vanishing into the music. Of the galleries of Wolman's favourites shoots the ones of Miles Davis, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin which I personally found the most interesting. Wolman makes no secret about his love of shooting Hendrix whether on stage or off and it's obvious from the photos. Hendrix may have been a shy person, but Wolman's camera captures the life in his eyes even when he's sitting and relaxing.

Miles Davis must have existed at the opposite end of the universe from Hendrix. The intensity of his stare, even when he's relaxing at home with his wife, is enough to burn a hole in the page. Looking at shots taken of him in a gym shadow boxing are like looking at a coiled spring releasing and snapping back into place again. Wolman mentions how Davis seemed filled with anger so much of the time, and that certainly comes through in the photos. However, nothing matches the pictures of Janis Joplin for poignancy. Maybe it's because we know about her sad end, but looking at the shots of her smiling face are enough to break your heart. It's far sadder to see the potential for joy that lived inside her and know she very rarely had the chance to experience it than to look at those which show her sadness.

As the book's title so aptly says every picture can tell a story, and while you may purchase the book for its pictures alone, do not ignore the text. Wolman tells the story of his time photographing the great and famous among popular music's pantheon in refreshingly honest prose. Candid about what he sees as his own deficiencies as a recorder of musical history, he readily admits to knowing little or nothing about the people he was shooting or their music prior to his assignments, he doesn't offer any critiques about anyone's place in history, he simply speaks of them as human beings. Much like his pictures reflect the individual as much as the rock star, his text humanizes, and thus makes them more real, each of those he saw through his viewfinder.

From free concerts in Golden Gate Park to the blackness of Altamant and, after leaving Rolling Stone, the Concerts on the Green in Oakland in the 1970s, Baron Wolman and his camera captured most of pop music's royalty. While he might have regrets for the pictures he didn't take, we can only be grateful for those he did. After reading Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Woman The Rolling Stone Years you'll find yourself believing in the fairy tale of San Francisco of the 1960s and perhaps even wishing we could somehow turn the clock back to those more innocent times.

(Article first published as Book Review: Every Picture Tells A Story - Baron Wolman, The Rolling Stone Years by Baron Wolman on Blogcritics)

October 9, 2011

Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Vol. 3 - Live Around The World

Sometimes concert settings are the best places to see a band in order to appreciate them and sometimes there not. There are a ton of variables which can come into play and impact the quality of a performance, some beyond the control of the band and others which are their responsibility. The venue, the crowd, equipment problems and even the touring schedule are things beyond most band's control these days, and each of them can have a hand in determining how a concert comes off. However a band can also become complacent from playing the same music over and over again and while they might not make mistakes in their performance, the risk of them merely going through the motions instead of giving their all to a performance is always real. Finally there are those performers who can't be counted on to show up in the right state of mind, so to speak, for a concert, if they even deign to show up at all.

Now a days those who fall into the latter category are far fewer then they once were. With popular music becoming such a big business the industry has become far less tolerant of such behaviour. Performers who can't fulfill their commitments are liable to soon find themselves without recording contracts no matter how talented they might be. Unfortunately, the history of pop music is filled with stories of those whose lives ended before their time because the individuals weren't able to control their excessive behaviour. Thankfully there were also some who were able to stop before they went too far down the path of self destruction and find a way to stop the bleeding before it was too late. One of the most famous of those was Johnny Cash.

While we might never know the depths to which he sunk personally the forthcoming release, Johnny Cash: Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World, on Legacy Recordings October 11 2011, a collection of Cash's live performances from 1956 to 1979, provide a glimpse of how close to the edge he came at certain points in his career. You only has to listen to his behaviour and demeanour on stage in the early to mid 1960s compared to how he was from the late 1960s on to appreciate the difference between the two stages of his life. In fact, one of the most amazing things about this new two disc CD package is how it manages to capture the arc of his career.
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From the early days, the Big D Jamboree in Dallas Texas in 1956, when he was still young and caught up in the excitement and thrill of being a musician; the middle period, performances given at the New River Ranch, Rising Sun Maryland in 1962 and at the Newport Folk Festival, Rhode Island in 1964, when he was on the verge of losing control, to when he turned it around and began again, a 1969 concert in Long Binh Vietnam at an NCO club, a command performance at Richard Nixon's White House with the Carter family in 1970 and excerpts from concerts as far afield as Osteraker Prison in Sweden 1972 and as close to home as Exit Inn, Nashville Tennessee 1979.

While that distinctive voice never changes through the years, and he never makes any of those mistakes you would normally associate with substance abuse, there's something awfully uncomfortable, and almost embarrassing, about listening to Cash's performances in the middle period. Whether it's because he sounds like he's trying too hard to be the life of the party by doing his imitation of a record with a skip in it during the concert in Maryland or making bad jokes while playing "Rock Island Line" at the Newport Folk Festival, or some underlying nastiness that comes through on occasion, he comes across like the drunk at the party who everybody spends the evening trying to avoid. They are especially difficult to hear after listening to the opening three tracks taken from the Texas concert in 1956, where he comes across as happy and excited, just glad to be invited to the party.

So it's something of a relief to listen to the recording of the 1969 concert at the NCO club in Vietnam to hear the Johnny Cash we're all more familiar with. For while you won't notice many differences in the quality of his performance or the sound of his voice, what you will notice is he's no longer trying to prove himself the life of the party or acting the fool. Instead of being there for his own ego he's there for the audience and it makes a huge difference. Cash's music has always spoken to people in much the same way Woody Guthrie's did because of his ability to put the things that matter to us to music. He can sing about everything from his belief in his saviour to what it's like to be a dirt farmer and on some level or another we'll all understand what he's talking about.
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In those middle years when he was more concerned with showmanship and following a path of self destruction you can hear how the stories, while not lost, were certainly diluted. All you have to do is compare the way he sings the same songs at different points in his life in order to notice the difference. When I first received my copies of this two disc set I was surprised to see how so many of the songs on the first disc were under two minutes in length, including songs I could have sworn were much longer whenever I'd heard them before. The reason is he was rushing through most of them and barely even listening to the words he's singing. The contrast between those performances and the ones in the later years, when he is taking the time the material requires, is so strong you can almost reach out and touch it.

While it's hard to listen to Richard Nixon introduce Cash for the White House performance in 1970, that concert is one of the discs highlights as far as I'm concerned. First of all there's the fact that he's joined by the entire Carter Family for all thirteen tracks, and no matter whether you agree with the Christian message of much of their music or not, you can't help but appreciate their music. It also represents a chance to hear a piece of American music history as you listen to America's first family of country music singing with one of the men who first started merging it with African American blues. Of course the irony of hearing Cash singing "What Is Truth" to "Tricky Dick" is nothing short of priceless.

Needless to say the disc contains nearly all of everyone's favourite Cash tunes including "Big River", "Give My Love To Rose", "Boy Named Sue" and "Walk The Line" to name but a few. However, I was personally more thrilled to see some of his covers of tunes like 'Sunday Morning Coming Down" Kristofferson and "City Of New Orleans" by the late Steve Goodman included. Those are tunes, especially the latter, I've had a hard time tracking down recordings of Cash singing, so to find them as well as a couple of others is a real bonus.

While the quality of some of the recordings isn't great - the two tracks recorded in 1976 at The Carter Fold are scratchy and the ones from the Exit Inn from 1979 sound like everybody, crowd included, are off in the distance - that doesn't depreciate this release's value. Most of the time collections of this sort shy away from casting the artist in a less than perfect light. Here though, whether intentionally or not, the producers have given listeners an incredibly accurate history of Cash's performance career. It's not always the prettiest of pictures, but it's an honest one, and it makes you appreciate the road the man travelled all the more. Cash himself might have winced upon hearing some of those recordings, but I'd like to think he was honest and brave enough to have been okay with them being released. He always wore his heart on his sleeve, was always honest about who he was, and this release carries on that tradition.

(Article first published as Music Review: Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash Bootleg Volume 3 - Live Around The World on Blogcritics.)

September 28, 2011

Music Review: Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie - Various Performers

July 14 2012 marks the centenary of the birth of one Woodrow Wilson Guthrie, better known to most people simply as Woody. While September 27 2011 might seem a little early to begin celebrating that event, when you stop and consider the impact this one man from Okemah Oklahoma has had on popular culture, specifically popular music, in North America and the rest of the English speaking world, you'll realize even if we spent every day from now until December 31 2012 looking through the body of his work we'd only barely begin to scratch the surface of its significance.

Just to begin with there are the musicians around the world who he influenced. Everyone from folk music icons like Bob Dylan, mega stars of rock and roll like Bono of U2 and punk rockers like the late Joe Srummer of the Clash all have cited Woody as one of their inspirations. Woody had the unique talent of being able to look at huge impersonal events like the depression and find a way of expressing how it affected people on a personal level. Not just the farmers suffering through the dust bowl either. He could write with equal empathy about miners, textile workers, field hands, bus drivers and soldiers. Not only could he give voice to their stories, he did so in words they understood and a voice that sounded like their own. However he didn't just write about the poor and oppressed, he wrote about everything. He wrote what is perhaps the most stirring song ever written celebrating his own country, "This Land Is Your Land", a celebration of the hope for the potential it represented.

When he died 1967, after spending nearly his last thirteen years of life hospitalized by the Huntington's Disease which killed him, he left behind a massive legacy of unpublished writings, including song lyrics, poems, manuscripts for books, plays and note books. Woody's son Arlo once said that it was always dangerous to have his father as a house guest, because he was constantly writing song lyrics. If he couldn't find any scraps of paper to write stuff down on you could wake up in the morning and find your walls covered as his inspiration wasn't something that was going to be denied. It's only been recently that his family has begun the labour of love of bringing those unpublished works to life. In 1998 British folk/punk singer Billy Bragg joined with the American band Wilco to release Mermaid Avenue a collection of previously unreleased Woody songs, which was followed a couple of years later by Mermaid Avenue Volume 2.
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Now to kick off the celebrations of the centenary of Woody's birth 429 Records is releasing Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie featuring twelve songs inspired by the writings of Woody Guthrie by a collection of performers spanning five generations of American popular culture. From Woody's contemporaries, Pete Seeger and the late author Studs Terkel; those who have picked up Woody's torch to become voices of protest today, Ani DiFranco, Michael Franti and Jackson Browne to a real surprise Lou Reed. They and the six others involved have either taken previously unrecorded songs by Woody or, like Jackson Browne, were inspired by entries in Woody's journals.

No matter what the source, each of the songs captures one of the myriad elements of Woody's voice. What's particularly fascinating about this collection is how it continues where the Mermaid Avenue collection left off and gives us a chance to appreciate the breadth of subject material that captured his attention. Pete Seeger, accompanied by Tony Trischka, ruminates on the nature of music and why it matters so much to humanity on "There's A Feeling In The Music", while both Ani DiFranco, "Voice", and Studs Terkel, "I Heard A Man Talking", tackle the subject of lyrics. While Terkel's is a straight recounting of a conversation overheard in a bar, both DiFranco's and Seeger's songs show an introspective side of Woody revealing just how much thought went into what appeared to be so spontaneous. As we hear in both songs Guthrie's work was rooted in an artistic philosophy based on honesty and universality that was as every bit as intense as any political ideals his music might have expressed.
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Of course you can't ignore the social justice aspect of Woody's music, and "Wild Card In The Hole", performed by Madeleine Pevroux and "Old Folks", sung by Nellie McKay are two fine examples of Guthrie's approach. Less typical of the genre, and an indication of what made him so special is "The Debt I Owe" put to music by Lou Reed. Initially it appears to be about a man wandering through a deserted Coney Island amusement park worrying about the hole he's in financially. However we soon realize those aren't the only debts eating at him. No the ones he's really tortured by are those he owes for how he's treated the people in his life, both in the present and the past. Reed is the perfect performer for this piece as he's able to capture the bleakness of the man's soul with the right level of detachment in order to prevent it from descending into a self-pitying wallow. Its as wonderful a commentary on the compromises and bad choices forced on so many people, usually at the expense of others, by the conditions of modern living as you're liable to hear anywhere by anyone.

The final song of the recording shows us a side of Woody Guthrie the public has only recently begun to discover. We don't associate him with love songs, but as is apparent from Jackson Browne's fifteen minute song, "You Know The Night", (a shorter version was prepared for radio and released on August 15 2011 and can be heard on line at this web page) based on a thirty page entry in Woody's journals talking about the night he met his second wife Marjorie Mazia, it's not because he never gave the subject any thought. The song is an unabashed confession of love combined with a wonderful compiling of reasons for that love coming into existence. All that sparks the desire and need one person feels for another, from sexual attraction to intellectual compatibility, are dealt with as Woody/Jackson run down what it was about her which attracted him. Yet its far more than just a shopping list of reasons for falling in love, as the song itemizes not only what the observer sees in the person across from him, but the feelings each evokes in him. The song is filled with the joy and fears of a man finding himself inexplicably falling in love, and expresses the wonder we all feel when we know we've met the person we believe we're supposed to spend the rest of our life with.

Woody Guthrie should be a national icon in the United States for the way in which he was able to express the hopes and dreams of people who normally don't have a voice in his music. The anti communist witch hunt of the post WW II era followed by the onset of the disease which killed him not only denied him the opportunity of writing and performing, but also ensured his music and name were kept from a great many people. It wasn't until the folk music boom of the 1960s that he was "discovered" by a new generation, and even then it was only as the guy who inspired Bob Dylan, not in recognition for his own work. Sure school kids around the country might have been learning the words to his most famous song, but nobody was telling them who he was or anything about the rest of his music.

Woody wrote about subjects nobody wanted to talk about, the plight of migrant workers, dirt farmers, share croppers and how the greed of a few could hurt so many. Those weren't popular topics in the post war boom days and in the 1960s most people were more concerned with avoiding being drafted and getting stoned then fighting for the rights of poor farmers in Tennessee and Oklahoma. Yet if you stop and listen to his songs, any of his songs, you'll realize they have the unique ability to speak truths without preaching, tell people's stories without sentimentalizing them, and speak to something we all have to one degree or another, our hearts.

In Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie we hear twelve American singers, musicians and writers from across the generations offer us their interpretations of material he wrote that has never been heard before. Yet somehow, no matter what format they were presented in or their subject matter, there was something familiar and comforting about each of them. It was like hearing the voice of a loved one you'd thought never to hear again all of a sudden whispering in your ear. From now until the end of 2012 let's hope that everybody has the chance to share in the experience of hearing that voice. Maybe by the end of celebrating Woody Guthrie's centenary, he'll be appreciated for the artist he was and along the way open a few more hearts to the possibilities for justice and joy in the world.

(Article first appeared as Music Review: Various Artists - Note Of Hope: A Celebration Of Woody Guthrie)

September 14, 2011

Music Review: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland (Box Set)

Jimi Hendrix was shy of his twenty-eighth birthday by a couple of months when he died. (November 27 1942 - September 18 1970) and we'll never know how much more he could have accomplished if he had even lived another decade. In her coming of age memoir of life in New York City in the late 1960s early 1970s, Just Kids, Patti Smith describes meeting Hendrix at the opening night party for his Electric Ladyland recording studios. She was hanging around outside, a little shy of a party full of people far more established than herself, and the host/honoured guest was hanging out on the fire escape escaping the noise and confusion of the party. The two struck up a conversation and in the short time they spoke he talked to her about his hopes and dreams for the studio and a little of what he hoped to achieve.

Of course we'll never know what would have happened if he had lived. I remember friends joking in the late seventies that Hendrix would be playing disco if he had lived. They were mostly kidding, as they were all big Hendrix fans, but it was fun to imagine what he might have done. With all the guitar heroes who have come and gone since Hendrix's death, and now that I don't listen to him on a daily basis, it's easy to forget how special he was. One of the key indicators of any artists status is the respect his or her peers hold them in and their influence on others. In 1980 famed British guitarist Robert Fripp (King Crimson, League Of Gentlemen, and many collaborations with Brian Eno) was touring his solo "Fripatronics" soudnscapes music. On his stop in Toronto he interrupted his evening of electronics to pay tribute to the "one rock and roll guitar player I respected, Jimi Hendrix", and tore through a wild version of "Wild Thing" When the desert warrior/musicians of the Tourag first picked up their electric guitars, it was Hendrix's playing that caught their imaginations. Somehow it seems fitting that a Seattle born mixed blood African/Native American's music would inspire a group of nomadic tribesman looking to preserve their way of life.
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Still all of that is only talk. The only way to truly appreciate Hendrix is to listen to him. While there have been plenty of reissues of his work over the years, most of them have been of dubious quality and haven't really managed to capture his magic. It now finally looks like the record is being set straight as the latest series of releases from Legacy Recordings shows. While his studio work was inspired, it was live that Hendrix really showed what he was made of, and both Hendrix In The West and the four CD Box set Winterland coming out on September 13 2011 are stirring examples of what made him so special.

In The West was originally released posthumously by Polydor Records in 1972 and was intended as a memorial to Hendrix's ability as a performer. The producers gathered together material recorded at concerts during the last two years of his life performing with both the original Jimi Hendrix Experience, Mitch Mitchell on drums and Noel Redding on bass, and 1970's version with Billy Cox replacing Redding. The venues ranged from the Isle Wight festival of 1970, the San Diego Sports Arena, Berkeley Community Centre and two tracks recorded at the Royal Albert Hall in London. As the last two were used without proper legal permission, (they were listed in the original credits as being taken from the San Diego concert) and have been reissued properly somewhere else, on this version of the disc they've been replaced with a version of "Little Wing" recorded at the Winterland and the actual version of "Voodoo Child (Slight Return)" recorded in San Diego. (On the original the record company even misspelt the latter calling it "Voodoo Chile"). As well as the replacements the new version of the disc included three tracks not on the original recording "Fire", "I Don't Live Today" and "Spanish Castle Magic" taken from the San Diego concert.

The original Polydor recording was one of the first Hendrix albums I listened to, it and Smash Hits,were in my older brother's record collection, and along with the soundtrack to Woodstock, was my first exposure to popular music outside the safety net of AM radio. Most people now a days thing of the Sex Pistols when you mention "God Save The Queen" within a pop music context, but to me it will always evoke memories of Jimi Hendrix exhorting the crowd at the Isle of Wight festival to stand up for their culture and fuck you if you don't - then playing the British national anthem. (To be honest I didn't remember the fuck you part of Hendrix's introduction on the original recording and wonder now if it was only restored for this reissue) Unlike his version of the "Star Spangled Banner" which was a searing indictment of its military implications, the soars and leaps he puts his guitar through for the Queen are more tongue in cheek than bitter. Segueing into the Beatle's hit "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" makes it seem all the more good spirited. It helps to remember Hendrix made his name in England first, and two thirds of his original band were Brits., and it sounds like he's paying tribute to the land which first recognized his talent.
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As a kid the other highlight on the original album had been his renderings of Chuck Berry's "Johnny Be Good" and Carl Perkin's "Blue Suede Shoes". What I had liked then, and still appreciate today, is how little he did to them. Most guitar heroes would look on these types of tracks as excuses to go to town and stamp themselves all over the songs. Hendrix never did that sort of shit, he had too much respect for other people's work. Sure he threw in some searing solos where appropriate, but he was paying tribute to the music he loved growing up, the music which influenced him, and it shows. He plays them with love and spirit so that even songs everybody knows and has heard countless versions of, sound fresh and invigorated. At the same time he managed to give them back the whiff of danger and excitement that reminds you of why rock and roll was considered the music of rebellion.

While the music on In The West is great, it's not until you listen to the recordings on Winterland, culled from six shows on three days in October 1968 (10,11 and 12) that you begin to get some insight into Hendrix's real genius. The band had been on the road almost non-stop for two years across Europe and the United States playing pretty much the same material over and over again. To some it might appear as if it were a miracle, as Redding says at one point, they "we're still standing", let alone performing. After an intense period of playing like this there are two ways a band can go; they can either get to the point where they are doing their set by the numbers and play each song by rote or they've reached the point where they're so comfortable with each other and their material they use it as a springboard to jump higher each and every night. For these six gigs in 1968 Jimi Hendrix and company were definitely in the latter camp, throwing caution to the winds and finding every single possibility available in each song.

Each time you hear "Purple Haze" it's like the first time again. Even though you can't help but recognize what have to be almost the most familiar opening chords in rock and roll after "Smoke On The Water", you can't help but experience a sensation akin to the shock of hearing something for the first time. Maybe it's the anticipation of wondering what's to come and where is he going to take the song this time? But every time I heard that familiar wavering tremolo as Hendrix holds the opening note for what sometimes seems like an eternity before playing those big chunky chords of the opening, I felt a flutter of excitement coursing up my spine as if it were a new experience each time. At the risk of sounding like some artifact, his music was an experience in all senses of the word. It creates images in your minds eye, you feel it in your body, naturally you hear it and sometimes you feel like you can bloody well reach out and touch it. There's such a tangible presence to what he created it doesn't seem possible that there were only three men on the stage - the music was almost a fourth person brought to life by the other three.
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A couple of times over the three days they were joined by guests. Jack Casady subbed for Redding on bass for a song on the opening night, and instead of playing "Voodoo Child" as planned Hendrix swings into Howlin' Wolf's "Killing Floor". When the Experience are joined by flautist Virgil Gonsalves from the Buddy Miles Band for "Are You Experienced" they extend the song to twice the length they performed it the previous night as Hendrix feeds off the flute to inspire his solos. Listen closely to what you think is the same set list over and over again during the course of the four CDs and on each song you'll hear something new and exciting inside a familiar framework. Therein lies the true genius of Hendrix; he can repeat something note for note when required but isn't tied to any pattern and created something special every time he picked up a guitar.

If you've ever wondered what all the fuss is about, or have forgotten, listening to either of these releases will enlighten you. Also included on disc four of Winterland is an interview recorded with Hendrix backstage at a concert in Boston. While the sound quality isn't the best it does give you some insight into who he considers inspirations and he makes some interesting comments on the difference between English and American music that make a lot of sense. However, the real story of Hendrix is his music and to experience that is to understand how little everyone else since has explored the guitar's potential. It also makes you wonder what he could have done if he hadn't been so limited by the technology at his disposal. Even if he had ended up playing disco, it wouldn't have been like the disco anyone else played.

(Article first published as Music Reviews: Jimi Hendrix - In The West & Winterland [Box Set] on Blogcritics.)

September 7, 2011

Music Review: Hank Williams 3 - Ghost To A Ghost/Guttertown

Being anybody the "third", except perhaps royalty where you take a name of your own choosing upon ascending the throne, can be quite the burden. Not only do you have to live up the expectations of being your father's son, you also carry the added burden of his father's achievements around on your shoulders. I've always looked at people saddled with that type of burden with some pity, wondering what kind of life they can have carved out for themselves when somebody has tried to dictate who and what they will become right from the word go. Of course that sympathy is usually mitigated by the fact most who are bequeathed their grandfather's name also end up having a few million dollars or pounds placed at their disposal in compensation. At the very least it's sufficient to pay for any therapy they desire.

Of course some are given a far less tangible inheritance, and something harder to live up to than mere wealth - a reputation. Even those children of famous people who don't share their parent's given name have a hard time living up to the expectations generated by the accomplishments of the previous generation or generations. What most of the world fails to realize is that some talents are akin to lightning strikes and aren't genetic traits to be passed along from parent to child. Genius, in whatever form it might take, is not an inherent right. Intelligence may be something families share in the same way similar shaped noses will show up in generation after generation. But the circumstances which create a person's ability to perceive the world in a singular enough fashion that the impact of their actions lives on for generations are usually as unique as the individual who lives with them.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s Hank Williams changed popular music forever. He was one of the first popular musicians to combine all the various cultural influences in popular music (Anglo/Irish/Scottish rooted country music, African American blues and French and Spanish Cajun from New Orleans) and in the process paved the way for the likes of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and all the other early rock and roll stars of the mid to late fifties. Songs like "Move It On Over", "Hey Hey Good Lookin'", and "Jambalaya", to name only a few, not only influenced future generations of musicians, they are still being played and listened to sixty years after they were written.
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However, whatever inspired his greatness wasn't passed along to his son. Hank Williams Jr., although a capable musician, has never shown the same spark of originality nor the willingness to experiment with content and form that marked his father's work. So, when I heard his son, Hank Williams III, had in turn become a musician, I really wasn't interested. It wasn't until I started to hear rumours of something called "Hellbilly", a combination of punk, country and Cajun with occasional forays into speed metal, that he seemed to be a nexus for, that my ears perked up. Now on the surface it might appear punk and country have little in common. But at their most basic both feature bare bones music relying on a few chords fuelled by passion and production values that allow for a "do it yourself" approach to recording. Any doubts you may have about their compatibility, at least in the hands of Hank Williams III, will be laid to rest upon listening to Ghost To Ghost and Guttertown being released September 6 2011 on his own Hank 3 label. The two discs, packaged together as a double, are half of the four disc assault that Williams has planed for that day. As I gathered the other two discs represented the harder edge of his repertoire, and I have a limited appetite for speed metal, I elected to review this package, advertised as representing his country/punk/Hellbilly side.

Now, if like me, you've had no experience with this type of music, you'll be in for a bit of a surprise that even the title of Ghost To Ghost's opening track won't have prepared you for. Okay, maybe a song title like "Cunt Of A Bitch" will prepare you for the fact this isn't going to be country music of the likes you're used to seeing on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. However, since that place has done more to to ruin country music than any other so called institution in America, that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned. It still refuses to recognize the contributions of Hank III's grandfather to country music which ought to tell you more than enough. (Hank III has set up a page at his web site, Reinstate Hank Williams, where you can sign a petition asking the Opry to reinstate Hank - sign it if you love music) Anyway, before this turns into a rant against the country music establishment, let's get back to Hank III and Ghost To Ghost

It definitely won't be on the top ten playlist of Tipper Gore and any of her cronies who worked so hard to get warnings about offensive lyrics put onto album covers to protect innocent ears from being ravaged. But damn if it ain't music that will put the fear of god into any God fearing, hate mongering asshole. Not only will the lyrics burn the paint off most automobiles, the music is an all out assault on the ears as well. Turmoil, anarchy, the threat of random violence, cursing, substance abuse and everything else everybody pretends they don't partake in six days a week when they're sitting mouthing their prayers in the pew on the seventh is packed into the ten songs on this disc. So called American values take a well deserved beating as Williams and company rip a hole right into the heart of darkness at the rotting core of a nation caught in downward spiral. If you can't hear the greed and excesses of the last fifty years being indicted on this disc, well you're not listening. Your ears may bleed and your mind may reel, but you won't be bored and you won't ever mistake it for bullshit "New Country".
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However none of what you hear on Ghost To Ghost will prepare you for what's in store on Guttertown. For instead of the wild careening anarchy of the first disc you are immediately plunged into a world filled with the mysteries buried in the depths of fog shrouded swamps, ghost towns and other places lining the borders of the spirit world. The opening piece in this nineteen song opus, "Chaos Queen", introduces a world of "haints" and others who occupy the mythology of the South. The sounds of the night, crickets and other nocturnal creatures, mixed with just the right amount of atmospheric music serves as an overture. Slowly what sounds like a child's voice becomes audible, offering to guide us only so far to meet with somebody, presumably the Chaos Queen of the title, but no further because the woman is of an uncertain temperament and you never can be sure of how she'll take to you.

As the child leaves us to our own devices and the night sounds creep back upon us we move into the first song of the disc, "Chord Of The Organ", as fine a piece of Cajun country zydeco as you'll ever hear. While most of us are used to the upbeat and celebratory sound of the genre, Williams and band bring another element into play - the bayous and swamps where the music was first heard and played. While the cadences and patois are what we've grown accustomed to, there's an underlying element that evokes something darker and dangerous you'll not have heard before. As you listen to this song, and the other "songs" on the side, you start to feel like you've wandered into some backwoods carnival where the games are rigged and for an extra dollar you can go out behind the tent to watch the geeks bite the heads off chickens.

Meanwhile underneath it all is playing a calliope whose motor has seen better days and the music is just slightly off, either too slow or too fast, your not really sure which. Its the kind of place, and music, which reminds you the swamps were once home to more than just zydeco. This is where the gods and goddesses who travelled from Africa with slaves took root and what we call voodoo was practised. As the disc progresses, with songs interspersed with more trips back to "Guttertown" accompanied by our strange voiced guide, we feel like we are being led deeper and deeper into something strange but oddly familiar. The music is brilliantly played by Williams and his band, as they somehow manage to play wonderfully tight zydeco and create the atmosphere conducive to scaring the crap out of you.

I guess it's sort of obvious that Hank Williams III is not going to be showing up on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry anytime in the near future. Nor are you likely to see any of his videos in heavy rotation or hear his music on the radio. While some of the songs on Guttertown might be more accessible than anything on Ghost To Ghost, he's still not the kind of safe and predictable performer the music industry feels comfortable with. However, if you still believe popular music shouldn't be either of those things, rather it should upset the establishment and reflect the disquiet of the times, and you understand being a rebel doesn't mean waving the stars and bars or singing songs about beer, boobs and football, than give Hank Williams III a listen. He may not sound much like his grandfather, but he definitely inherited his spirit and his willingness to take risks with his music. He might be carrying around the weight of a famous name on his shoulders, but after listening to these two discs it doesn't seem like its been too much of a burden for him.

Photo Credit: Cindy Knoener
(Article first published as Music Review: Hank 3 - Ghost to Ghost/Guttertown on Blogcritics)

August 30, 2011

Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili

Do you remember back to the days of your high school English literature classes learning about literary devices like foreshadowing and pathetic fallacy? The latter, imbuing events in nature or inanimate objects with human emotions to help create atmosphere and to intensify mood, was the one teachers always trotted out during the study of any of Shakespeare's plays. Unlike most of the modern writers we would study in high school he understood the power of natural imagery and how it could evoke reactions at a visceral level. Perhaps that was because in the era when he was writing nature still had far more of an impact on the day to day lives of people. Today, unless its a storm of some magnitude, like a hurricane or tornado, we can pretty much carry on blithely ignoring the elements. Oh rain and snow might inconvenience us slightly on occasion, but for most of us they don't dictate our food supply or our overall chances of survival.

While you'll still see the occasional reference to "angry storm clouds" popping up in writing, the use of pathetic fallacy appears to have waned with our continued disassociation with nature. The further we move away from the natural world, the less she becomes part of our frame of reference. For instance, when we refer to a place as being our home land we are referring to the space defined by lines drawn on a map and a name representing a social/political entity not the land itself. Your far more likely to read an urban landscape described using natural terms, the canyons of Manhattan, or man made articles being imbued with human emotions, the angry tooting of a car's horn, than references to natural events in order to create mood. No longer able to identify with nature, we look to what we are familiar with and designate it as a replacement.
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This was driven home to me recently while listening to, and reading the translations of their lyrics, the newest release from the Kel Tamashek (more commonly referred to by the name given them by conquering Arabs, Touareg, or rebel) band Tinariwen. Tassili, being released in North America on Anti Records Tuesday August 30 2011, wasn't recorded in a studio in the midst of some urban centre. Instead it was recorded in the Sahara dessert in southern Algeria. The band spent five weeks coming up with material and recording it inside a large tent offering only minimal protection from the elements. For while this is a band who experienced some international success after playing at music festivals all over the world, they have never lost sight of who they are and their reasons for making music.

While the romantic image of band members riding camels with an electric guitar slung over one shoulder and an automatic rifle is appealing, times have changed. True some of the founding band members participated in the uprisings in Niger and Mali while recording music on cassettes that broadcast the message of the rebellion; a rebellion and a message designed to promote and protect the rights of a nomadic people from the policies of repressive governments. With peace treaties now signed supposedly offering the Kel Tamashek guarantees, their situation remains fragile as years of drought and encroachment on traditional territories have wrecked havoc on their world. Perhaps it's because of this for this recording the band has relinquished their grips on electric guitars in favour of acoustic and utilized unamplified percussion in order to forge an even stronger connection to both their environment and their traditions. Now, just as much as during the rebellion if not more, their people need reminders of who they are and why the desert is an important part of their lives. They may no longer be carrying machine guns, but Tinariwen are still actively fighting to ensure the survival of their people. It's not just the subject matter of the songs communicating to the listeners now, it's the manner in which it is being presented. This is very much a case of the media being as much a part of the message as the message itself.

Those who have listened to Tinariwen will know of the almost trance like quality of their music. How it seduces and entices you to let your mind sink into an almost dream like state in an attempt to reproduce some of the sensations created by living in the dessert. One can almost imagine the vistas of sand spreading out in an endless tableau before you as you listen. The lyrics, in Tamashek, and sung/chanted primarily by front man Ibrahim Ag Alhabib, wash over the steady throb of the percussion and scratch of the electric guitars, occasionally interrupted by an outburst from one of the guitars. These burst of sound are like alarms reminding us to not to be hypnotized by the environment as while the sands may appear lifeless and barren they actually team with life and sudden changes.

On Tassili the band's new approach not only allows you to go deeper into the atmosphere they have always created, it conveys far more of the emotional and spiritual bond their people have with the desert. The intimacy of the acoustic instruments and the focus required to play and record on location has strengthened the ties their music has with the environment to the extent its influence is an almost palpable presence. You would think that this type of recording would be the least likely for the band to start introducing performers who come from other places into the mix. In fact one would almost expect the inclusion of North American guest on the album to be jarring interruptions that would take away from what they were seeking to create.
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However, that's not the case. I don't tend to read liner notes prior to listening to a CD as I want to create my own impressions of the music without being influenced by what anyone else has to say about a recording. On my first listening, even though the contributions of outsiders included vocals sung in English on the third track, "Tenere Taqhim Tossam", by Tunde Adebimpe of the band TV On The Radio and horns by New Orlean's Dirty Dozen Brass Band on the fourth track, "Ya Messinagh", they barely registered. I was so caught up in what the band had created, and the additions were so carefully worked into the mix, the contributions of the other musicians were merely another part of the whole experience Tinwariwen were creating. Even on listening a second and third time, knowing there were additional musicians involved and listening for them, it didn't make any difference.

It would be easy for a band in Tinwariwen's position, gaining international acclaim and being lionized by pop stars like Robert Plant and Carlos Santana, to drift away from who they are and lose their focus. However, instead of succumbing to any potential temptations to make their music more accessible to wider audiences they have moved in the opposite direction to return even closer to their roots. It's as if they have decided that after introducing us to their world, they are now prepared to take us another step deeper into it. On the other hand one always has to remember the circumstances under which they began playing music in the first place. They may have put down the rifles and the fighting might be over, for now, but the war is far from done.

As the world encroaches further and further into their traditional territories and more and more of the Kel Tamashek are being forced to leave the desert to live in cities, they are being disconnected from the life and traditions which gave them direction as a people. Tinwariwen, and other Kel Tamashek bands and musicians are continuing to do their best to ensure the survival of their people and their culture through their music. They know they can't keep the rest of the world at bay, hence the inclusion of those sympathetic to their music and cause on the album, but with this disc they are telling their audience, both Kel Tamashek and the rest of the world, we can still be who we once were no matter what the rest of the world throws at us. This beautiful and haunting recording is not a plea for help, rather it is a statement from a proud and dignified people proclaiming their right to live as they want to and celebrating who they are and the land they love.

(Band photo by Marie Planeille)

Article first published as Music Review: Tinariwen - Tassili on Blogcritics)

August 7, 2011

Music Review: J D Malone And The Experts - Avalon

When you write about music for any length of time there comes a point when you've become so inundated with press releases describing this band or the other you forget there was a time you actually enjoyed listening to it just for pleasure the experience brought. Part of the problem is how much of the music industry has been taken over by the celebrity mania that has gripped all of popular culture. With the huge number of what are nothing more than glorified talent shows clogging the air waves celebrating stardom and the pursuit of fame, music has become a means to an end instead of the raison d'etre for far too many so called performers.

When somebody stands up on stage and sings a song for some other purpose than serving the music the heart and soul have been torn out of it. There's only so much of this you can take before you start to turn your eyes and ears elsewhere in the hopes of finding people who at least perform the music they play with a passion born of the music not for personal aggrandizement alone. At least that's what I've found myself doing more and more over the past couple of years as I've begun looking further and further abroad in search of music as fulfilling as what I used to be able to find played in almost every local bar and tavern.

However, once in a while you get lucky and still stumble across a band or a musician who play for the sake of playing. They might just be some local bar band with more passion than talent, but there are also those out there, outside the spotlight and the limelight, who haven't forgotten what it really means to play rock and roll. A group of guys who play because they love to play and have the ability to communicate that love and remind you that rock and roll was supposed to have been about having fun. Such a band is J D Malone and the Experts, and the proof is in their first full length CD release, Avalon, on the aptly named It's About Music label. This is actually a two disc set, a CD and a DVD, with the DVD containing footage of the band doing final rehearsals in the studio for some of the tracks on the CD.
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Malone has been kicking around music for years, paying his dues, and the same goes for the rest of the band; Tom Hampton on pedal steel, baritone, twelve string electric and lap guitars as well as dobro, and mandolin, Tommy Geddes on drums, Avery Coffee on electric guitars and Jim Miades anchoring them all on bass. It would be tempting to paint these guys as blue collar musicians and give them some sort of romanticism, but that would be doing them a huge disservice. They are all dedicated musicians who have been working steadily in a field where being able to make a living at what you love is a major accomplishment in itself. We get so hung up on fame and celebrity that we lose track of what it might mean to be able to pay the bills doing what you love. Of course it's not the most secure profession, it doesn't come with health and dental or a pension plan, but only a small minority of musicians ever become celebrities and the rest of them are still doing it for more love than money.

The love part of the equation really shows through on the DVD when you get to see and hear the band. However, even on the studio tracks on the CD - the last four tracks on the CD are audio tracks from the DVD, basically live versions of songs played earlier - you can't help but be aware of how much this has been a labour of love for all of them, and especially Malone. Save for covers of the old John Fogery tune "Fortunate Son" and Tom Petty's "I Should Have Known It", Malone has written all the songs the band plays on the disc, so he's naturally the most emotionally invested in the release. Yet in spite of that, there's an obvious easy camaraderie between him and the rest of the band which allows the music to find that perfect spot between sloppy and uptight which makes rock and roll come alive.

Taking their lead from Malone the band makes it sound like they're enjoying every note they play in each song. When a band is too uptight they can give the impression they're working to finish the song without making any mistakes, The result is a letter perfect recording, but one that sounds like it could have been played by machines. Here what you have is a group of guys who are taking that extra fraction of time required to enjoy the moment while they're in it which imbues a song with life. Whether an up tempo rocker or something closer to country it doesn't matter, you can't imagine these songs being played any better.
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As for the material itself, none of them are going to be anything new or innovative either lyrically or musically. Most of them are along the lines of the traditional rock and roll song dealing with guy and gal relationships. However within that formulae Malone manages to work in some turn of phrases which take tunes out of the realm of cliche and give them their own identity. "I've seen you crashin' angry/I've seen you paper thin" he sings at the opening of the disc's title track "Avalon". The second line sticks in your head with its mix of ambiguity as to what he might mean by it and the vulnerability it suggests in contrast to its predecessor. It hints at an understanding of emotional complexity you don't usually find in most relationship songs and tells you Malone is willing to push a little deeper than normal for this type of music.

Vocally Malone occasionally falls into the trap of equating strain with emotional intensity, but if he were to stop and listen to himself he'd realize that he's far more effective when he allows himself to relax and open his throat when he sings. Listen to the difference between how he sounds on some of the slower tunes when he doesn't push as hard and you'll hear how much more believable he becomes. He just needs to trust in his own abilities as a vocalist a little more and it will make the world of difference. He has the potential for an interesting and expressive voice that would make already good music even better.

J.D Malone and The Experts aren't doing anything that's new under the sun with their release Avalon. However, what they are is a timely reminder that rock and roll was meant to be fun and that when played as well as it is by these guys it doesn't need to be anything else to justify its existence. Far too many bands today seem to think they have to do something with their music in order to be taken seriously. Unfortunately in the process they end up taking themselves way too seriously and don't really sound like they're enjoying themselves. How they expect us to have fun listening to them if they don't have any fun playing I don't know, but you won't have to worry about that with Malone and his band. These guys definitely love what they're doing and you'll find that you can't help but love it too.

(Photo Credit: Picture of band Joseph Tutlo)
(Article first published as Music Review: JD Malone and The Experts - Avalon on Blogcritics.)

July 30, 2011

Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II

It's easy to see how at first glance it would be hard to find any connection between punk rock and Mariachi music. With the former being all black leather, short cropped hair and three chord angry music and the latter being flamboyant costumes, intricate musical arrangements and romantic themes they appear to be world's apart. In fact the gap appears so wide between the two the idea of bridging it seems almost ridiculous. However, it's not without precedent for American popular musicians to either be influenced by Mariachi or to play Mariachi tunes themselves.

First there were all the Latin tinged pop songs of the early 1960s (ever hear of a song called "La Bamba" or a guy named Richie Valens?) and the show bands from the same era with their Bosa Novas, Rumbas, and other assorted Hispanic influenced dance tunes. Listen carefully to the old Phil Spector wall of sound songs from the 1960s and you'll hear castanets, bongos and other Spanish influenced percussion holding the songs together. For those looking for that influence in bands with a harder edge I'd like to point you in the direction of a guy named Carlos Santana or how about a band called Los Lobos? Then there was the Mink DeVille Band of the 1970s who drew heavily upon the sound of the Lower East Side of New York City for songs like "Spanish Stroll". When he went solo, Willy DeVille, the band's lead singer, went so far as to release a Mariachi version of the old Texas blues number made famous by Jimi Hendrix "Hey Joe".

One shouldn't be so surprised at the widespread influence of Spanish music - they were the first European power to establish colonies in the Americas after all. Remember, the lands which people are now so concerned about keeping Mexicans out of were territories stolen from the Spanish through conquest. Texas, New Mexico, California and others were all Spanish until they were invaded and conquered by America. African American blues and gospel and British folk music get so much of the credit for developing rock and roll, we tend to forget the third major influence on popular music in North America. So if any group of American musicians, be they punks or rappers, decide they want to sing Mariachi music, it's really not that much of a stretch. All that matters is how well they do it, and their intentions in performing it.
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All that being said, when I first heard about Mariachi El Bronx, punk band The Bronx's excursion into Latin music, I had my doubts about the whole idea. Mariachi music isn't the easiest music to play and requires band members to play instruments most musicians in Canada and the US aren't overly familiar with. While the basic six string guitar has proven a popular import from Spain (no, neither it or the banjo are American as the banjo came over with African slaves and the guitar with soldiers returning from the Spanish American wars at the end of the 19th century) others essential to the Mariachi sound aren't as well known. The huge oversized base guitar known as guitarron, the round backed vihuelas, five stringed guitars, and even folk harps with twenty-eight to forty strings.
However, after listening to their second recording in this incarnation, Mariachi El Bronx II, which will be released on the White Drugs label August 2 2011, I'm not only convinced of the sincerity of the band's effort, but was blown away by their ability to carry it off. Expanding their line up to include Vincent Hidalgo (son of Los Lobos' David Hidalgo) and the Beastie Boys' Alfredo Ortiz means they have sufficient musicians to meet the demands of the music's more complex arrangements and a Latino presence to ensure they keep faith with the music, and keep faith they do. What's so wonderful about this record becomes obvious right from the first song "48 Roses", their complete and utter sincerity when it comes to performing the music.This isn't some camp joke at the expense of the music, these guys are genuine in their attempts to not only play the music but to capture its heart and spirit as well.

Now I don't know enough about the technicalities of Mariachi music to critique the band on how well they are playing all the subtle nuances those more familiar with the genre would be aware of. However what I can tell you is they do a magnificent job of sounding like they know what they're doing musically. From the rhythms of the guitars and guitarron to the melodies played on trumpet and accordion, they have mastered the elements that make the music so instantly recognizable. The only thing the least bit disconcerting is how un-Hispanic the lead vocalist sounds in comparison to how Spanish the music sounds. Yet what's slightly jarring in the beginning ends up being reassuring. The fact that they are singing naturally, without affectation of any kind, is further proof of the band's sincerity.
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Whether the song is about a guy who is in trouble because he has four girlfriends, the opening "48 Roses", about hope in the face of hardship, "The Great Provider" (which has the wonderful line "faith isn't magic it's just keeping my foot in the door") or the guy pleading with the girl to give him a chance even if her family don't think he's good enough for her, "Norteno Lights", the music and lyrics work together beautifully. The feel and tempo of the music not only create a thematically appropriate atmosphere for what each song is about, it works with the lyrics to help tell the song's story. Instead of the swelling strings we're used to hearing in order to clue us in that the singer is in the grips of some really strong emotion, here they do everything from providing joyful counterpoint to a moment of happiness or work together with other instruments to create any number of emotional settings.

Unlike most pop songs which will tack on strings almost as an afterthought, Mariachi music is very carefully orchestrated and arranged. It's a sign of just how good a job Mariachi El Bronx have done that each of the tracks on their latest release are beautiful examples of the above. The closest analogy I can come up with is that it's like listening to a chamber music ensemble where one of the instruments is also a vocalist. Perhaps because there's less emphasis on horns and brass instruments than there is in jazz or show bands it reminds me more of classical music than anything else. But I also think its the way everything works together to create a whole in a way that I've only heard in classical music before. All of which means these guys have done a remarkable job in making the jump from playing punk rock to playing Mariachi music.

Mariachi El Bronx II is not just an album that's remarkably good for a group of punks, its a remarkably good album period. The music ranges from being infectious enough to drag you to your feet to start dancing to introspective enough to have you listening to a song's lyrics and nodding in recognition. On the band's web site they talk about how living in California you hear Mariachi music being played all the time which is definitely not the case up here in Canada. Thankfully the boys in Mariachi El Bronx have taken their fascination with the music and let it inspire them to start performing it, giving those of us not lucky enough to live near where Mariachi music is played the opportunity to hear it anyway. This is a great album of great music by a great band - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: Mariachi El Bronx - Mariachi El Bronx II on Blogcritics)

Music Review: Keb Mo - The Reflection

The biggest casualty of the 1970s and disco was after all the Saturday Night Fever had died down finding a good R&B or soul track became next to impossible. In the 1960s and early 1970s Sam Cooke, Sam & Dave, Otis Redding, Gladys Knight, Chaka Khan and others took the passion of blues and gospel music, smoothed over some of their rougher edges, emphasized rhythm slightly more then the blues and sang about subjects not covered in church. While R&B never had the street smarts nor the overt sexuality of funk a la James Brown or Issac Hayes, it wasn't the easy listening shit you hear passing itself off as soul or R&B on so called contemporary adult stations today.

After listening to Areatha Franklin hitting her stride in something like "Respect" the idea of even mentioning non-entities like Hall and Oates in the same sentence as her is as close to sacrilege as you can get in the secular world. In fact only Pat Boone covering Little Richard's "Tutti Frutti stands out as a bigger abomination. So, when I first started listening to the forthcoming release from Keb Mo, The Reflection on the Yolabelle/Ryko label August 2 2011, it took me a couple of songs to even recognize the style of music he was playing. It's been so long since I've heard R&B played and sung like it should be that I spent the first two songs trying to figure out what they reminded me of before the pieces fell into place. From the elegant, almost jazz like, phrases coming from the guitar, the gently compelling rhythms to their smooth, but not too smooth, production values, "The Whole Enchilada" and "Inside Outside" epitomize all that is great about the genre.
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Of course it takes more than two tracks to make a CD, and there are a total of twelve on The Reflection. On each of them Keb Mo gives an object lesson in just what it means to sing and play R&B. What's even more impressive is that in this era of so many singing other people's material, he had a hand in writing ten of the twelve songs he's performing. On top of that, not only does he handle or share lead vocals on every track, he's does double, if not quadruple duty, on the majority of the tracks as he handles lead guitar duties on tracks one through eleven, and plays drums and electric piano on occasion as well. All of which would be enough to distinguish his efforts from those of others with pretences of being R&B singers, but that's just the beginning. For it's not just what he does, it's how he does it that makes him so special.

The hardest thing for a performer to do is to take a song you don't like and not only manage to have you enjoying what they do with it, but are able to make its transformation so complete you don't even realize what they've done. I've never been a particularly big fan of The Eagles and their sentimental version of country/rock music that swamped the air waves in the 70s, and in particular I always despised the song "One Of These Nights". There was a time when it was a damn staple on FM stations and I swore that if I never heard it again it would be too soon. So I don't know what kind of magic Keb Mo wove, but he was about three quarters of the way through his cover of it before I even clued into why I thought the lyrics sounded familiar. Calling it a cover does him a disservice as he's completely reinterpreted the song, turning it into something with infinitely more heart and soul than I could have thought possible. Instead of the facile, oh yeah baby sentiments of the original, he's managed to infuse the lyrics with a sense of yearning and hope that turns the chorus into a kind of prayer.

I doubt Keb Mo had any trouble convincing any of those he worked with on this disc to collaborate with him. In fact I wouldn't be surprised if he has to beat people off with a stick when he puts out the word he's working on a new recording. Listening to him sing and play is an object lesson in how this music is supposed to be, and the chance to be part of that would be impossible for anybody who truly loves music not to be part of. So it's no wonder that Vince Gill not only sings and plays his trademark mandolin on this disc, he co-wrote "My Baby's Tellin' Lies", the song he's featured on, with Keb Mo. Gill isn't the only guest on the album, as India Arie joins him on vocal duties for a wonderful version of the old standard "Crush On You" and while she doesn't sing, Melissa Manchester shares writing credits with Keb on the genuinely soulful "Walk Through Fire".
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One of the distinguishing marks of the great soul and R&B singers was the apparent effortlessness of their delivery. Keb Mo is no exception. There's none of the histrionics you've come to expect from so many of the singers you hear today. However, neither does he have one of those bland, characterless voices with all the spice of processed cheese products either. When you listen to him sing you don't only hear his lyrics, you feel the emotion behind them. For while his delivery might be as smooth as velvet, there's a distinct edge of sandpaper to his voice that gives everything he sings a ring of truth you can't help but feel echo inside of you. While there are moments on the disc where the production values might have overwhelmed a lessor singer, that roughness of tone ensures he's able to cut through anything that might detract from the integrity of his music.

There are still a few performers out there who understand what it means to sing R&B, but far too much of what you hear being passed off as the genre have forgotten that the initials stand for Rhythm and Blues. Well some might remember what the the first initial means, the blues part, the part which gave the music its power in the first place, of the equation might as well not exist anymore. It's only when you hear someone like Keb Mo performing that you realize how much of the heart has been cut out of the music by most people. With a foot planted firmly in each camp, and the ability to open his heart and soul to a listener through his voice, he has created some of the finest R&B you'll have heard in ages.

While The Reflection won't be for sale until August 2 2011 if you pre-order it now through i-Tunes they'll include three bonus tracks for you. Take advantage of the deal, 'cause once you hear his music you'll agree, the mo' Keb Mo you can get, the better.

Article first published as Music Review: Keb' Mo' - The Reflection on Blogcritics.)

June 30, 2011

Music Review: Terakaft - Aratan N Azawad

If one were to belief the more sensationalistic movies and books you'd end up thinking the deserts of the world were endless wastelands where no life could possibly exist. However, while it's true life in the desert is hard, it does exist, and people native to the world's deserts have managed to find ways of carving out an existence for themselves. From the Hopi of the American South West who grow crops of corn in tiered gardens on the side of mesas, the bush men of the Kalahari in South Africa who live as hunter gathers, to the nomadic Kel Tamasheq of the North Sahara who shepherd their flocks of goats and camels across some of the harshest landscape in the world, they've all found a way to live in their chosen environment.

Unfortunately, the modern world doesn't seem to make allowances for people who elect to live a life outside of what is considered normal. Where once the caravans of the Kel Tamasheq could wander freely from what is now Algeria in the north to their major southern camp of Agadez in what is now Niger, there are now borders to be negotiated and lands both fenced off and depleted by the mining and industry. However, the Kel Tamasheq have a long history of resisting incursions upon their territory and attacks on their way of life. The Arab armies attempting to spread Islam in the 1400s named them Tuareg, rebels, as even when defeated they refused to surrender who they were entirely to their conquerors. Instead they adopted the camels of their invaders and expanded their caravans to include trade as well as herds and adapted elements of the new religion to suit their own beliefs.

Known to some as the Indigo people for the distinctive deep purple colour of their robes, the Kel Tamasheq travelled the caravan routes of the Sahara without any major interruptions until well into the twentieth century. Even colonial expansion and two world wars did little to interfere with their centuries old traditions. They lived in some of the least forgiving and harshest climates this side of the Arctic and Antarctic Circles after all, and while it might have made for a hard life, it pretty much guaranteed little or no outside interference. After all, there wasn't anything in that wasteland to make the effort involved in controlling it worth while. All that changed with the end of colonial rule as the once broad expanse of their traditional territory was arbitrarily segmented by the borders of emerging nations, some of whom didn't appreciate the Kel Tamasheq's independence. The early 1960s saw the beginning of what would turn into close to forty years of sporadic fighting between Kel Tamasheq warriors and government forces from predominately Niger and Mali.
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Whole families were forced into exile from Niger in the early 1960s by government anti-Tuareg policies with the majority winding up in Libya. It was here, growing up removed from their traditional lifestyle, a dissatisfied generation of young Kel Tamasheq became the nucleus of those who picked up arms in the 1980s and 90s in an attempt to regain the territories and rights that had been taken away from them. It was also in Libya that some of these young men began to discover Western pop music and began blending it with their own traditions to create the distinctive sound which has become their hallmark. While the life of a musician has on occasion been no less risky than that of an armed rebel - the Niger government made possession of "Guitar Music" illegal and targeted its performers for assassination - it was seen as an ideal way of communicating with their people in order to keep their traditions alive and letting the world know about their struggle to survive.

Although only founded in 2001 the band Terakaft has roots that date back to the earliest days of the guitar revolution. Both current and former members of the band were involved with the founding, and retain close ties with, arguably the most famous Kel Tamasheq band, Tinariwen and its enigmatic leader Ibrahim Ag Alhabib. For its third release, Aratan N Azawad, on the World Village Music label June 14 2011, the band's line up includes Liya Ag Ablil (aka Diara), formally of Tinariwen, Abdallah Ag Ahmed and Sanou Ag Ahmed. The disc features a combination of material written by Diara and his late brother Inteyeden Ag Abil (another founder of Tinariwen) during the uprisings twenty years ago and those by the current line up, ensuring the recording retains the fire and spirit of rebellion that made the music so compelling in the first place while recognizing the need for moving into new territory.

Listening to Aratan N Azawad (Children Of The Azawad) without translation or liner notes due to a postal strike in Canada preventing me from obtaining a hard copy, I had anticipated having difficulties in finding the means of connecting with the music. While in most cases the lyrics are impressionistic and lose something in the translation (usually they are translated from the original Tamasheq into French and then into English) on previous discs by Terakaft and other Kel Tamasheq bands what's available has been enough to formulate an idea of what a song is about. However, the music on its own is so compelling it draws you into a world, like their desert homeland, which is both familiar and alien at the same time.

Online promotional material describes how the title track "Aratan N Azawad" insists Kel Tamasheq children study their language, history and culture, which is "written in the mountains", for there to be hope for the future. Even this snippet of information is revealing as it tells us how deeply they as a people are intertwined with their environment. Reading this you begin to understand a little of the passion which fuelled the rebellions of the past and continues to fuel today's music. The land they live on, the land they see being gradually taken away from them by encroaching cities, pollution and the exploitation of natural resources, is not just something to be used and exploited, but is part of the very fabric of their beings and culture. Separating them from their territory becomes the same as taking away their language and a sizeable chunk of their identity.
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If that sounds like I'm reading a lot into a little, wait until you hear the music accompanying songs like this one and others which stress Terakaft's vision of national unity for their people that has nothing to do with today's borders. "Akoz Imgharen", Four Patriarchs, advocates a council of elders representing the four corners of the Kel Tamasheq territories and reminds listeners how they were part of life in the Sahara long before any of the countries trying to control them existed. It's not just the past or other serious issues the music celebrates either. Listen to "Idya Idohena" and "Hegh Tenere" and you hear a band who understands music can be fun as well. While the former is a tribute to the midnight dance parties young people enjoy under the desert skies, the latter shows the band pushing their music in new directions as they incorporate bass and drum grooves which give the song a funkier sound then anything we've heard from the desert before.

However, as is only fitting as it leant its name to both the genre and those who played it, the guitar still takes pride of place in all their material. Both in propelling the rhythm and defining the passion behind the stories through soaring leads, the duo guitar work of Diara and Sanou are in the forefront of each and every track. While the blues based rock of Hendrix and others still predominates, other styles have now begun to flesh out the guitar sound including neighbouring West African pop music. While this provides a lighter tone to some of the material, it doesn't diminish the intensity of its overall effect, nor the trance like elements of the sound which made it so compelling to listeners in the first place. In fact it's one of the finer examples of a band expanding its sound without surrendering anything of what made it appealing in the first place.

Aratan N Azawad, the new album by Terakaft is a wonderful example of both the music of the Kel Tamasheq people of the Sahara desert region of North Africa and how traditional and modern music can combine to make something spectacular. Even without being able to understand the lyrics one can't help but be impressed by the passion and the intensity of the feelings that have gone into the creation of this work. Even if you were unaware of the history behind the music it would be breathtaking. As it is, knowing what we do about the Kel Tamasheq's fight to preserve their way of life in the face of nearly overwhelming odds, it's impossible to listen to this disc without being moved. This is music generated by a soul's powerful belief in something greater than itself and it shows. There's no other popular music that can compare to it.

(Photo Credit - Nadia Nid El Mourid)

(Article first published as Music Review: Terakaft - Aratan N Azawad on Blogcritics.)

June 29, 2011

Music Review: Marianne Faithfull - Horses And High Heels

The world is full of pop singers who have been carefully manufactured by record companies to make as much money as possible. Packaged and moulded their popularity is not based on their talent, as a great deal of their appeal comes from an audience's desire to be just like them. Talent and artistry take a back seat to glamour and celebrity as videos, stage shows and public appearances are carefully orchestrated in order to capitalize on their potential as image making tools. The practice has been refined to the point where pretty much anybody can be slotted into the part of the "Star" and given their hour in the sun until it is deemed the public has bored with them and they are replaced by the next in line.

Fortunately, in a kind of alternative universe, there exist those whose glamour does not need to be artificially generated as they their art gives them the ability to cast spells without anybody's machinations. Edith Piaf, Maurice Chevalier, Lotte Lenye, Jacques Brel, and Marlene Dietrich were all singers with the gift to hold an audience in the palms of their hands just by opening their mouths. While the age of the great singers has pretty much passed us by, there are still a few out there who possess both the talent and charisma required to bewitch an audience. It takes more than technical proficiency, as the elements essential to accomplish this, heart, soul and passion, aren't those which can be learned or taught. Listening to Marianne Faithfull's new release, Horses And High Heels out June 28 2011 on the Naive Records label, is probably one of the few opportunities you'll have to experience a contemporary singer worthy of being included in the list above.
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Faithfull has been around for a long time now, first coming to public attention with her performance of Jagger and Richard's "As Tears Go By" in 1964. While she achieved a certain degree of popularity in the 1960s, performing in films and singing, drug and alcohol abuse caused her to fall out of the public eye. Just when she had probably been dismissed by most as another lost child of the 1960s, another talent gone to waste, she released Broken English in 1979 and was thrust back into the spotlight. While most of the attention focused on the explicit nature of some of the materials' lyrics and for what the songs had to say about her ex boy friend Mick Jagger, the album's true significance was the changes it marked in Faithfull. Gone was the young ingenue of the early 1960s with the sweet voice. Superficially it seemed like she had been replaced by a world weary and justifiably bitter woman with a voice sounding like it had been rubbed raw by emotion and experience.

However instead of letting herself become trapped in a role as confining as the pretty young thing of her early career, after the cathartic outpouring of Broken English she was able to put the anger behind her and begin her career as a singer and actor again. Now when she performs and records she is able to bring not only her years of experience to bear on her renderings of the material she elects to perform, but her abilities as both an actor and singer as well. As a result she doesn't just simply sing a song, she delves into its very heart allowing the listener the chance to experience it to the fullest. That's not to say she makes a meal of a song by emoting all over the place or indulging in any of the melodramas so many seem to think passes as genuine emotion. Like any decent actor, once she has understood the song emotionally and intellectually, she merely serves as a conduit to transmit whatever she's performing for her audience's appreciation.

It doesn't matter whether she's written a song or if she's covering someone else's material, Faithfull is as capable of creating from scratch as she is as interpreting. On Horses And High Heels she's leaning more towards interpreting other people's work than performing originals, but the four tunes of her own, including the title track, are solid reminders she has a great ear for life and recording it. The title track, which is about two of the great European cities she has lived in, Paris and Dublin, manages to evoke both the romanticism and sadness that everyone associates with them but in a way I've never heard before. The sound of high heels and horses hooves on cobble stones in the grey hours of early morning conjures up images and scenarios in one's mind of romantic trysts, funeral processions, romantic endings to evenings and lonely walks home alone at the end of a long night's work.
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As we listen to Faithfull sing the song we can almost see her leaning from her apartment window overlooking the morning street, observing the slow progress of a carriage and the weary footsteps of the woman. There is something about Faithfull's voice which gives her the power to make what she sings about come alive for the listener. It doesn't matter whether she's rocking out on a song like "No Reasons" or doing a slower, bluesy number like "Prussian Love", her reading of the lyrics is never rushed or forced and is nearly always able to create images in our heads of what she's describing. To be honest I was quite surprised at how effective she was on a song like "No Reasons" as I didn't think her voice would be flexible enough to handle the demands of singing at speed.

Her throaty rasp might be wonderful for languid ballads and mid tempo blues, but you don't expect it to be able to handle belting out a rock song. Yet she not only didn't sound bad, she sounded right at home as she compensates for any lack of range or power with the expressiveness of her voice. Others might have been able to rip through the track, but nobody could have matched her for making sure we understood each word of the song and just what it was about. A great singer is not just somebody with incredible range and ability, it is one who knows their own abilities and knows how to achieve the best results possible using what's at their disposal.

While there might be people with prettier voices in the world than Marianne Faithfull, there are very few singers of popular music who can match her for artistry and character. I don't know about anybody else, but I usually find pretty but empty wears thin very quickly while expressive and intelligent have the potential to live forever. People will be listening to Marianne Faithfull long after most of those ridding high on the pop charts are long forgotten. Horses And High Heels is confirmation of her status as one of the all time great singers of popular music.

(Photo Credit: Patrick Swirc)
(Article first published as Music Review: Marianne Faithfull - Horses And High Heels on Blogcritics.)

June 14, 2011

Music Review: La Cherga - Revolve

As borders have opened and computer technology has improved communications, the exchange of information between countries on opposite sides of the world has become commonplace. Gone are the days where the only music you could listen was what was available on the local radio or what you were able to pick up via short wave on clear nights. Now you can simply turn on your computer and the whole world is at your fingertips. Music and video from every country in the world can be heard and seen with just a click of the mouse while more and more sites have been set up to encourage collaborations between musicians thousands of miles apart who might never meet except through their exchanges of music. A bass player in Belgrade can contribute a rhythm track for a guitar player in New York and a drummer and keyboardist in Tokyo.

With the amount and variety of music people are now exposed to it should come as no surprise to discover that musical styles are no longer confined or defined by a person's geographic location. Still that doesn't stop it being somewhat disconcerting to hear the familiar pulse of a reggae beat being played underneath the commanding tones of the clear voiced Bosnian native Adisa Zvekic on the new disc from La Cherga, Revolve, being released in North America on the Asphalt Tango label June 14 2011. A new addition to the band for this recording, Zvekic joins with the other members in continuing their forays into fusing Eastern European, (other band members are from Croatia, Macedonia and Jamaica) Balkan with British and Jamaican style dub music.
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As odd sounding as that mix might first appear, after listening to the eleven tracks on this disc one is left thinking there is either less difference between musical styles than you might imagine, or La Cherga have found some secret formulae which allows them to mix seemingly disparate ingredients together harmoniously. It soon become obvious that the reality lies somewhere in the middle of those two thoughts. Right from the disc's opening track, "Melaha", we can't help but acknowledge how well the syncopated reggae beat works with the sounds of the Balkan style brass it accompanies on this tune. Bands like Britain UB40 had used a horn section to great affect in their pop/reggae tunes of the 1980s and there are echoes of that sound in this song. Yet the horns don't just accentuate the rhythm, they also provide a flavour to the song which separates it from being just another pop tune.

If you were at all taken aback by the opening tracks Balkan reggae, the second song, "Sufi Dub" will leave you reeling. One of the major flash points in the ethnic violence that cursed the countries of the former Yugoslavia, especially Zvekic's native Bosnia, were the attacks on the Muslim communities. "Sufi Dub" draws upon the mystic Islamic sect's philosophy of love for its lyrics, which are sung in both English and Bosnian, (Unfortunately neither the liner notes nor the press materials accompanying the disc detail which of the various Balkan languages the band used on individual songs) while musically it uses what sounds like traditional Eastern European and Middle Eastern instruments to lay down what is essentially a hip-hop beat. Then instead of electronically overdubbing the vocals and music and relying heavily on bass tracks to create the layers of sound we associate with "dub" music, both Zvekic and the musicians create the effect by echoing their own efforts manually.

The result, at least in this case, is a refreshing change from what often just sounds like somebody skipping a record on one note over and over again in time to the rhythm. Here it sounds like an organic extension of both vocal and instrumental lines, creating an emphasis that makes us pay more attention to what is being said. Far too few dub songs carry meaningful messages anymore, they've just become so much fodder for the dance floor, and most people are used to ignoring their lyrical content. By creating the dub style live in the studio, not only does La Cherga re-energize a format that has become overused and tired, they have shown that it can be used for any style of music.

As most of the band members came of age during the horror of the civil wars in the Balkans during the 1990s and the recriminations and war crimes trials that followed, they can't help but be aware of the impact a song named "Sufi Dub" would have in their various homelands. For while every nationality was on the receiving end of some sort of ethnic violence, the Muslim population were the only ones without a designated territory behind whose borders they could find a semblance of shelter. Serbians, Croatians, Macedonians and Bosnians all had their own countries they could flee to for shelter if necessary, but the Muslims were left with no choice but to face whatever might come. Thus the inclusion of this song, with its recognition of the peaceful aspect of Islam, is a slap in the face to those who preached hatred in the region.
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While there are none of the overtly political songs that other bands might have produced coming from similar circumstances, Revolve is in some ways one of the most intensely political albums you'll ever hear. For while the former Yugoslavia has divided itself along ethnic and nationalistic lines, La Cherga have steadfastly gone in the other direction and blurred the distinctions between the various people through their music. Maybe to people outside the Balkans this might not be obvious; most of us couldn't tell the difference between a tune from Macedonia and Serbia if our lives depended on it. However, for those who can, this disc will sever as a reminder of what has been lost by the segregation of the various people.

Above and beyond all other considerations remains the fact La Cherga are an immensely talented group of musicians who create music that is both interesting to listen to and fun to move to as well. They have taken both the infectious Eastern European and Balkan sounds which have provided the basis for so much great music and successfully combined it with the rhythms of a music whose beat could make even the dead want to dance, reggae. Lead vocalist Zvekic has the type of voice that immediately commands your attention no matter what language she is singing in. She not only has a great range, she is able to communicate through sound and intonation as much as she does with actual words. As a result even on songs where we may not understand the lyrics we've a fairly good idea what's going on.

While the fall out from the wars that followed the dissolution of the former Yugoslavia are still going on today with people still being arrested to face charges of crimes against humanity, La Cherga offers a ray of hope for the people of the region. They are a reminder that there is an alternative to the ultra-nationalism and ethnic isolation that has marked the Balkans in its recent history. Even if they only succeed in getting people onto the dance floor and moving to the music of those a previous generation took up arms against they will have done more to heal the wounds scarring the region than any tribunal or committee of reconciliation could ever hope to accomplish. Music might not be able to save the world, but in this case it offers people the chance to take a couple of steps in the right direction. This is a great band playing smart and danceable music whose very existence is a message of hope - what more could you ask for?

(Article first published as Music Review: La Cherga - Revolve on Blogcritics.)

June 8, 2011

Music Review: Flogging Molly - Speed Of Darkness

Overtly political music is some of the most difficult to pull off well. First of all there's the whole credibility factor. It's really hard to take pop stars seriously when they start preaching about hunger, poverty and the environment when their lifestyles are so opulent. Maybe if they'd start showing up for gigs in something slightly more fuel efficient than fully air conditioned stretch limousines their messages regarding social change might be taken a little more seriously. On the other hand you have the politically earnest types who are undeniably sincere, but who are as musically interesting as watching grass grow. Rock and roll has the vitality to fuel a revolution, but those who have the ability to marry the media to their message are few and far between.

So hearing a band like Flogging Molly for the first time is akin to the proverbial breath of fresh air. While Speed Of Darkness, released at the end of May 2011 on their own Borstal Beat Records label, turns out to have been their fifth studio recording it was the first time I heard them. I have to admit the press materials accompanying the disc billing them as a "Celtic punk" band combined to both make me intrigued and reluctant to give it a listen. If you've been weaned on the barely controlled chaos of The Pogues you tend to approach anyone claiming to be Celtic punk with some scepticism. It's not just another genre label you can casually pick up and put down by learning how to play tunes in a certain way. Bands like The Pogues made it clear this was a music that grew out of life experience not the studio or rehearsal hall. If you don't have it in you, you can't fake it.
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That doesn't mean you have to have grown up on the streets of Belfast or some such nonsense. What it does mean is you have to understand how little difference there is between traditional Irish folk music and so called Celtic punk. It can't just be a matter of picking up some electric instruments, tossing them into the mix alongside the fiddle and tin whistle and then stomping your way through tunes at light speed. You have to be able to hear the wildness in the fiddle, the way the throb of the bodhran moves the blood, why the skirl of the uillean pipes raises the hair on the back of a person's neck and how a tin whistle can cast a spell over a listener. If you can ride what you find in there and push its natural inclination towards anarchy and chaos further along the road, you'll create something riveting.

From the opening opening bars of the first, and title cut, "Speed Of Darkness", Flogging Molly's Speed Of Darkness reaches out, grabs you, and doesn't let go until the final echoes of the disc's closing song, "Rise Up", fade away. Musically they understand how much power there is in silence and how important it is to let an audience absorb your performance. They are equally comfortable riding the whirlwind as parking themselves carefully in the eye of the hurricane to bring those essential moments of calm. The material ranges from verging on Mach 1, like the title track, to the ballad tempo of "A Prayer For Me In Silence" and nearly everything in between. Yet the speed of a song has no bearing on the intensity of its passion or the amount of impact it has on the listener. While there are some bands who think speed on its own is sufficient to convey intensity and others who think a slow song has to be milked to the point of melodrama to be effective, Flogging Molly aren't one of them. Even the fastest song never descends into a simple drone of noise as individual instruments remain distinct and the lyrics are understandable. On the slower material they simply have the common sense to trust in their abilities and let the music and the lyrics speak for themselves instead of trying to dress them up with excessive emoting or any other such nonsense.

Yet, for all their musical prowess, the true power of this band resides in their ability to use the music as the vehicle for conveying the message of their lyrics. Taking for their inspiration the economic collapse and its impact on America's workers and middle income people in general, the songs on the disc reflect just how severe a blow its been both economically and mentally/emotionally to those hit the worst by it. Lead singer and founder of the band, Dave King and his wife Bridget Regan (violin,tin whistle, classical guitar, Uillean Pipes and vocals) have been living in her native Detroit for the last three years which has given them ample opportunity to witness the depth of the damage.
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For the worker whose been laid off after twenty-seven years at the same factory in "Revolution" left wondering what happened, "I'm a working man without any work/Well is this the way it's meant to be 'cause I singed up for the American Dream/Now I write my name to the welfare state and the money in the bank is history". It's not just how the song captures how those who the politicians have referred to so blithely as the backbone of America, have had their economic world shattered, it's the way it also manages to convey the depth the betrayal they are feeling. The song's ability to convey their confusion and bitterness at seeing all they've been led to believe was their God given right, the pursuit of happiness, be taken away by forces beyond their control is what makes it so potent. Anyone who wonders where the anger is coming from that fuels movements like the Tea Party and other voices of dissent need only listen to this song to begin to understand.

I"m not saying Flogging Molly endorse the Tea Party, but without direction the alienated anger of people like the person in the song is only waiting for the first strong voice offering a solution to come along and it will jump on board. Flogging Molly don't pretend there are any easy answers to the plight of people who have had their lives destroyed by this so called "downturn". However, they do make sure, to remind people who the real culprits are. "Don't Shut "Em Down", rails against corporate America for foreclosing on the dreams of those whose labour built their empires. The haunting "Oliver Boy (All Of Our Boys)" warns against those offering the easy solution of blaming are troubles on those who are different from us. Attacking Illegal aliens, other cultures or those who believe differently than we do won't give anyone their jobs back, and to paraphrase the song, under our clothes we're all the same anyway.

Speed Of Darkness concludes with what is both a rallying cry and a reminder that we're not as powerless as we might think we are. "Rise Up" offers the reminder that when we work together we can accomplish more than we could dream possible. Drawing upon, and quoting, "We Shall Overcome", it offers us a glimpse of our potential to bring about change, but only if we can put aside our differences and work together. It's not a pie in the sky type of song with promises of a worker's paradise nor does it make any naive demands about overthrowing the system. It does offer a message of hope, and although it might not restore anybody's faith in the American Dream, it will stir hearts to believing the future does not have to be as bleak as the present.

Flogging Molly is one of those truly remarkable bands who have found a way to put a political message to music without compromising either the quality of their sound or coming across like preachers or hypocrites. Part of that can be traced to the fact their content feels like a natural extension of the music, as if either the music grew out of the lyrics or vice versa. Like old Irish folk tunes, which are the heart that drives their engine, the songs on this disc seem to have grown out of their passion for speaking out about what they see around them and putting into song the hopes and angst of those who have been overtaken by events. If you truly want to understand the impact of the economic collapse on the people around you, don't read the papers, listen to politicians or watch the news - listen to Speed Of Darkness instead. It cuts through the bullshit and leaves the truth behind.

(Article first published as Music Review: Flogging Molly - Speed Of Darkness on Blogcritics.)

May 25, 2011

Music Review: Group Doueh - Zayna Jumma

After close to six years of reviewing music I don't whether it's less forgivable or more understandable that I would get trapped into assuming to know what to expect musically from a band based on the region of the world they come from. There's no use denying that after a while as a reviewer you come to expect to hear a particular sound from musicians based on where they live. However, it's also a disservice to any artist to automatically attempt to pigeon hole them for any reason. People changing, evolving, growing bored with an approach and looking for new ways in which to express themselves is the very nature of art. Therefore, just because a band is from an area of the world which has become known for a very distinct style of music is no reason to expect the same from them, no matter what they've recorded in the past.

Over the past decade or so the music of the Tuareg, or Kel Tamashek, people of the sub-Saharan desert region of North Africa has been heard more and more in Europe and North America. Its distinctive mixture of traditional rhythms and modern electric guitar has grabbed the attention of world music and popular music fans alike. Bands like Tinarwian and individuals like Bombino (Omara "Bombino" Moctar) have garnered international recognition with their performances and recordings and have done much to popularize the music. Born out of rebellion, most of the first generation of musicians had taken part in uprisings by the Kel Tamashek against the governments of Mali and Niger, as a means of inspiring their people to keep fighting for their rights and reminding them of their cultural traditions. the music has gone from being banned by regional governments to being in demand at international music festivals.
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While not as well known internationally, Group Doueh, a family band headed by father Salmou Bamaar on guitar, has been around since the early days of both the Kel Tamashek rebellions and the guitar driven music it spawned. Like others Bamaar lived with the knowledge that just be playing his music he was risking his life. Members of Bombino's original band were assassinated by the Niger government and at one time possession of any "guitar player" music was against the law. Its only been since the peace treaties of late 2009 that it has been safe for musicians from Niger to return from exile. Still, cassettes of their music was made and passed from hand to hand, listened to by the people, and made their way into the hands of interested outsiders.

Hisham Mayet from the Seattle based label Sublime Frequencies has been in and out of the sub-Saharan region filming and recording the music of various groups for years now. Primarily field recordings made on portable equipment the results are sometimes spotty, but their immediacy and ability to capture a moment are usually sufficient compensation for any deficiencies in quality. His latest recording of Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, made on location in the group's home in Dakhla, West Sahara, and scheduled for a May 24 2011 release, is probably the best yet. Not only is it technically superior to any of the previous releases, it also captures the band as they are in the midst of making a musical transition. Bamaar has expanded his band to include his next two eldest sons and three additional vocalists. In the process he has also incorporated more pop influences as his one son, Hamdan plays a full drum kit and the other, El Waar, organ and keyboards.

However, while this album is definitely more rock and roll oriented than any of either their previous work or any recordings I've heard from bands from this region, it's still not, thank goodness, what you'd call a standard pop offering. First of all, how many bands can you name where one of the vocalist also is credited with playing Kass - tea glasses? Secondly, the female voices, lead vocals provided by Halima Jakani, Bamaar's wife, and background/harmonies by Tricha, Lamnaya and one uncredited vocalist are nothing like anything you've heard on the radio. Pitched to a point sometimes just slightly shy of shrill, they cut through the sound of the accompanying instruments like a knife blade. They are both the emphatic statement punctuating the background music and an extension of the rhythms driving the music forward. Part chant and part lyrics they rise and fall throughout the songs giving them shape much as the desert wind folds sand into dunes and troughs.

The eight songs on the disc (originally released as an LP so the song list is actually divided up into sides A and B) move back and forth between what we've come to expect from music from the region and the group's new forays into a more popular sound. "Zayna Jumma", the title and opening track, is along more traditional lines, with the lead instrument being the traditional four stringed tinidit. All of which makes the second and third songs on the disc, "Ishadlak Ya Khey" and "Zaya Koum", more surprising with their almost straight ahead rock and roll drums and guitar. Just when you think you've found your bearings, they bring you right back to their roots again with "Met Ha", featuring guest vocalist Bel Kheir, singing what sounds like a traditional styled song of the region.
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While it's a little jarring to go back and forth between the modern and the traditional like this, these first four tracks prepare you for the fifth where the band starts to combine the elements of both into one song. "Jagwar Doueh" is a stirring song featuring driving keyboards and drums supporting the vocals of Halima. While the sound is modern and electronic, the feel is still something wild that would never be recorded in our studios in North America or Europe. Over the last three tracks on the disc the band never quite goes as far into popular music again, but they also never completely go back to their traditional base either. In some ways "Aziza", "Ana lakweri" and "Wazan Doueh" are, for lack of a better word, the most typical of what we have come to assume music from sub-Saharan region will sound like, with the only differences being the inclusion of instruments, drum kit and keyboards, not normally associated with it.

The latest offering by Group Doueh, Zayna Jumma, is probably not the type of music most people familiar with other groups from the sub-Saharan region of Africa would expect to hear. It might not be to everyone's taste, and it might even disappoint some, however it is an exciting and challenging collection of music by a group of musicians not afraid to experiment and push themselves and their work in new directions. As far as I'm concerned that's something which should be encouraged at all times as it's the only way for music to continue to grow. Unfortunately, while the quality of this recording is still a big improvement over earlier field recordings done by Mayet, there is still lots of room for making it better. While Sublime Frequencies and Mayet have to be given credit for bringing bands like Group Doueh to the world's attention, we will only discover their real quality with proper recordings. I hope somebody is encouraged after hearing this disc to offer them that opportunity. Their music deserves it.

(Photo Credits: Hisham Mayet)
(Article first published as Music Review: Group Doueh - Zayna Jumma on Blogcritics.)

April 10, 2011

Concert Review: Jackson Browne Live In Kingston Ontario April 8 2011

I'm beginning to understand why some performers stop touring. Aside from the wear and tear it takes on them personally and how it takes them away from family and loved ones, there's having to put up with the array of idiots who show up for concerts. Why is it that people think that attending a concert gives them permission to act with complete disregard for either the performer or those in the audience around them? Perhaps more pertinent is the question why a facility would not only be unequipped to enforce their own policies, but create an environment which fosters this sort of behaviour. We are asked to pay upwards to $100.00 per ticket to attend an event only to be forced to put up with drunken assholes carrying on conversations at the top of their lungs, people talking on their cell phones during the concert (and talking loudly enough to make sure they can hear themselves over the music) and having our eyes continually assaulted by the illegal use of camera flash equipment.

Sure concerts are going to be boisterous events; a large group of excited people brought together to listen to something as stimulating as popular music isn't going to be restrained. However, considering that, is it really a good idea to sell alcohol, and allow people to take cans and bottles back to their seats, during these events? Isn't that just adding gasoline to a fire? When I used to attend concerts back in the dark ages of the late 20th century everybody entering the arena was at least patted down to see if they were carrying anything and bags were opened to make sure no one had camera, recording equipment, or bottles. The latter would be confiscated while in the case of the former the person carrying them would be given the option of either leaving them with security personal and collecting them after the concert or turning around and going home.

Last night, Friday April 8 2011, someone who I've been wanting to see since the late 1970s performed in Kingston Ontario. To be honest I never thought Jackson Browne would show up here, but on Wednesday, April 6 2011, I found out he was going to be playing at the local arena, the K-Rock Centre. After a brief flurry of e-mails I was able to not only arrange for tickets to the event but permission to photograph with Jackson Browne's management/public relations team in California, Jensen Communications. I had originally asked about the chances of interviewing Browne, and they were most apologetic saying that no on site interviews were being conducted, but would I be interested in tickets and a photo pass. Even though I had already purchased tickets on my own, I gave them to a friend for a birthday present, I was thrilled. Not only could we attend the concert, my wife, who has among many careers been a professional photographer, would be able to take photos. Sure there were stipulations, no flash, only during the first three songs and only from the designated area, but since we figured no one else was even going to be allowed to take photos, this was great.
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While I'm enormously pissed off at the facility for not only their inadequate security and lack of staffing in the arena - there was no one in the section I ending up sitting in to show people where their seats were, even after the concert started, which resulted in people trying to find their seats on their own in the dark - I have to say the individual working with the media not only did a fine job, she went above and beyond what was required. She not only did her best to accommodated the needs of each photographer, she made sure my wife who suffers from vertigo was escorted directly to her seat.

Of course by then I was wondering why they had even bothered with requiring us to sign a permission release for taking photos as the whole damned arena exploded with flash eruptions the second Browne took the stage. Not only that, but the press photographers were all forced to cram themselves into a nook beside the stage and shoot sideways across while standing on wires and cables. They were also the only ones who apparently had to surrender their cameras before they were allowed into see the show, as while all around me people were taking pictures my wife's cameras were sitting at a security station.

What about the concert itself? Well it was Jackson Browne on his own, either sitting at a piano or with a guitar, running through his entire repertoire. It should have been an amazing experience, as the man is one of the most heart-felt and gifted singer writers around, and at times it was. When the audience allowed him to sit and play he immersed himself in the music and transported us along with him. Initially he attempted to keep things loose and friendly, allowing the audience to suggest songs and happily agreeing with the requests. Unfortunately, due to the audience, this process gradually became a distraction. As a result, every time he tried to talk to the audience he was shouted down by requests for the same four songs over and over again.

Thankfully Browne's a wonderful enough performer he was able to rise above the circumstances and deliver moments of pure magic. There aren't many people who can sit alone on stage and command one's attention to the extent he was able to on this night when given the chance. "Fountains Of Sorrow" has always been one of my favourite songs of his, and his performance of it was everything I could have wished for. That's not to say there was anything lacking with any of the material as Browne didn't skimp or hold back ever. There were songs I was disappointed not to hear, but some of his material just wouldn't translated from the full band sound to solo that well. Although I would have preferred to hear "Looking East" and "I'm Alive" over crowd favourites "Rosie" and "The Load Out/Stay" any day of the week.
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That being said, he did a remarkable job of taking familiar pieces and transposing them for solo performance. The versions of "Running On Empty", "Taking It Easy", and "The Pretender" he delivered on this night were not only adapted for solo performer, they seemed far more introspective than the studio versions. Slowed down, and without a rock and roll accompaniment propelling them, the first two songs were far more coloured by the patina of memory then ever before, and much more emotionally powerful for it. To be honest I'd never been the biggest fan of either song, as I thought that Browne had been a bit young at the time to write something as retrospective as "Running", and there was always something just a little distasteful about "Taking It Easy", its homage to 1970s California Me Decade hedonism, always rubbed me the wrong way. However, as they were performed on this night, more then thirty years after each were written, there was a certain wistfulness for days gone by - a loss of innocence mourned and life was simpler then - (not better ) that lent them a compelling air neither have had before and far easier to accept and believe as a result.

Quite a number of songs he played over the course of the evening could have easily be called memory songs. Not nostalgia for a better time, but a looking back on the hopes and dreams of a generation. A song I hadn't heard before, and the title escapes me, recounted an encounter he had with a young woman during a concert forty years ago. He introduced it with a rather sheepish laugh about the days of "free love" (which resulted in the disappointing but hardly unexpected reaction from the idiots in the crowd). What could have been an awkward or sentimental song in the hands of another was under Browne's delicate touch a sweetly gentle reminder of what was actually meant by the "free" in free love. It was something individuals could control, not another commodity to be bought and sold on the open market. It was free not in the sense of everybody should take what they want from whomever they wanted, but in it is the one thing that is ours to give as we choose, which makes it all the more precious.

Jackson Browne has shown he has the ability to transcend the usual simplicity associated with the popular music format through the depth of his integrity and his heart centred music. Compassion, humour, intelligence and an acute awareness of the world around him combined have over the years allowed him to write songs that speak truths about subjects as diverse as love, war and the human condition in general without ever falling into the trap of sentimentality, offering simplistic solutions to complex issues or knee-jerk reactions. Seeing him in performance one can't help but be struck by his generosity of spirit and the genuineness of his sincerity..

However that doesn't mean time has not had its effect on him, but like an oak age has merely made him sturdier and increased his substance rather than wearing him down and eroding his message. Proof of this can be found on his most recent release, Love Is Strange, a two disc recording of concerts he gave in Spain with his long time confederate, musician and polyester fashion statement, David Lindley and various friends of theirs. It's only a pity those of us who attended the concert in Kingston Ontario on Friday April 8 2011 were not given the opportunity to appreciate Jackson Browne's abilities to their fullest. It's a shame when such a talented artist's performance is overshadowed by a facility's inability to properly stage an event. Only Browne's extraordinary abilities allowed those in the audience there for his music a chance to enjoy the experience at all as Kingston's K-Rock Centre failed dismally in its responsibilities as host.

(Photo Credits : Jackson Browne in concert Eriana Marcus. Portrait of Jackson Browne Danny Clinch)

(Article first published as Concert Review: Jackson Browne - Kingston, Ontario, April 8, 2011 on Blogcritics.)

Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans

Looking at the images that came out of New Orleans in the weeks and months following the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina combined with reading about government policy of deliberate neglect when it came to rebuilding the city, I have to admit to feeling pessimistic about the city's chances for recovery. What was especially worrisome was reading about the losses suffered by the city's musical community. Not only were many of the bars they relied on for their livings destroyed, but their homes and musical instruments were washed away as well. Further compounding the loss was the destruction of local recording studios and their precious stores of master tapes representing the musical legacy of so many gifted talents.

Concentrated efforts by musicians and organizations dedicated to the welfare of musicians to raise funds for everything from replacing lost sound systems for clubs whose insurance didn't cover so called acts of God to helping struggling musicians pay the rent and put food on their tables was a sign that some recognized how important New Orleans is to the musical soul of America. Yet would these band-aids be enough? Could the people come back from both the destruction of their homes and the antipathy their government was displaying towards them? Hearing elected officials call the destruction of your home "an opportunity" to revitalize an area is bad enough. But then to watch as they proceeded to tear down public housing that wasn't even damaged by the hurricane in order to make way for expensive convention centres and condominiums would be enough to destroy anyone's spirit.

However, two conversations I had with musicians who had both lived in New Orleans during their careers went a long way to reassuring me that no matter how bleak things might look, the people and the music would be back. Grayson Capps came home from being on tour to find his home gone after Katrina and was forced to relocate after living there since his University days while the late Willy DeVille had lived and recorded in New Orleans for most of the 1990s. When I talked to both of them about the city's chances for recovery, while naturally saddened by what had happened, they were both positive the spirit of the city could weather even this. In his song "And The Band Played On", on his final album Pistola, DeVille calls out as the music fades "New Orleans will rise again" so firm was he in his belief in the city's resilience.
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Any last doubts that may have lingered in my mind after talking to them have now been completely dispelled after listening to the new release from the New Orleans tradition, Rebirth Brass Band. The aptly titled Rebirth Of New Orleans, being released on April 12 2011 by Basin Street Records, gives proof to the truth that the band still plays on. And this ain't no band playing while the Titanic sinks around them either, this is a band playing in celebration of life lived being lived to its fullest as only those who have come close to losing it all seem to be able to do.

The first time I saw the Rebirth Brass Band play was on a DVD (From The Big Apple To The Big Easy) of a benefit concert given to raise money, and awareness of the plight facing them, for the musicians of New Orleans. Musicians from all over the world converged to honour the debt they felt to the music of the city. The event in New York City opened with the Rebirth marching in through the audience playing a funeral dirge that segued into a celebratory stomp when they reached the stage. Most of them had been made homeless, and as fellow performer Aaron Neville's baseball cap so eloquently put it, "evacuees", by the Hurricane and had lost most of their belongings. So instead of what they might normally wear in concert they were dressed in whatever street clothes they were able to scrounge and white T-shirts with individual messages of hope, and in some cases anger, printed on them. (Although none quite matched the message on Cyril Neville's shirt: "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans)

Even then, at a concert only a few months removed from the hurricane, it was impossible not to be impressed by the power of their music and the strength of spirit it revealed in the individual musicians. Now here we are five years later and these guys are not only going strong, they're blowing the doors off the world to let us know that New Orleans is alive and well and just as wild and unpredictable as ever. The disc kicks off with bang as the opening track, "Exactly Like You" opens with a snare drum solo letting you know Rebirth Brass Band are revving their engines. When the horns kick in, in full flight, you can see them in your mind's eye marching down Bourbon Street pulling bystanders from the sidewalks to dance in their wake as they parade by.
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These guys are a street party celebrating New Orleans waiting to happen in every song. Saucy and reverential by turn their lyrics range from the fairly blatantly sexual on "I Like It Like That", introspective on "The Dilemma" to the just plain fun of "Why Your Feet Hurt" where they question why somebody's feet should hurt if they haven't got any moves. Musically they move effortless from Dixieland, jazz laced funk, hip hop, to their own version of a horn driven afro-Cuban sound. Sometimes their music sounds like its seeped out of an old soundtrack from a movie like Shaft, with the horns lashing out the urgent clarion call of a big city. At other times they pull back from their all out assault and let each instrument speak its piece. Yet unlike other bands where sometimes solos seem to have nothing to do with each other, here it sounds like they are having a conversation with each other about the song's content.

When dealing with a brass band it would be easy to lose certain instruments in the mix, but that's not the case with Rebirth. For not only can you hear each individual horn distinctly when they are playing en masse, even the percussion comes through loud and clear. Not only does that help contribute to the fullness of their sound it helps prevent the multiple horns from becoming too overwhelming. Horns and nothing but horns can occasionally be harsh on the ears, so to have the earthier sound of congas and other percussion permeating the sound makes sure this isn't the case with this disc.

You hear a lot about how some band's are better in concert than they are in a recording because of the energy they create when on stage with their performance. Somehow or other a fair number of bands just don't seem capable of recreating it in the studio. Well, you don't need to worry about Rebirth Brass Band's recordings lacking anything when it comes to energy or exuberance. Heck, you should worry about whether or not your stereo system or music player will be able to contain the energy they are producing, I don't know if I've worried about whether or not the CD I was listening to could actually manage to contain the band's sound before, but so potent and alive are Rebirth Brass Band, you can't believe they can stay trapped forever in that small disc and sooner or latter you're going to end up with them hanging out in your living room.

If you can't get to New Orleans in the near future and you have any doubts about whether or not the spirit of the place is still alive and well in spite of what's happened down there over the past six years, one playing of Rebirth Of New Orleans and you'll doubt no longer. Neither acts of God, oil companies or idiot government officials can stamp out the spirit of this city that easily and we all should eternally grateful for that fact. The world is becoming more and more homogenized as it is, and we need as many unique places as we can get. The Rebirth Brass Band is one of the reasons why New Orleans is what it is, and this disc lets you bring that into your home.
(Article first published as Music Review: Rebirth Brass Band - Rebirth Of New Orleans on Blogcritics.)

March 24, 2011

Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down

Musical styles come in and out of fashion as often, if not more frequently, than clothing styles. However, unlike trends in clothing or other transitory fads, many of the musical genres which become flavours of the month had their small pool of adherents who both played it before it became popular and continue to play it long after its popularity has waned. Ironically it's not even those who have been playing and keeping the genre alive who are usually the ones who enjoy the benefits of their style's fifteen minutes in the spotlight as they aren't usually the types a record company feels comfortable with as star material.

Once the brief flurry of interest in the genre has died down most go back to being played and appreciated by those who had all along, while everybody else has moved on to the next "new" discovery. Sometimes the only record to mark a genre's passing is if a commercially viable form of the music is created which allows for the creation of a new top one hundred chart in its name. Aside from that, for most of the world it's as if the music ceased to exist as miraculously as it appeared. Thankfully, that's not usually the case, it's just that the music is out of the public eye again, but it's still being played and recorded if you know who to look for.

Ever since the movie O Brother Where Art Thou? was released about a decade ago there have been periodic revivals of interest in what's called everything from roots music to Americana. Now most of the songs used in the soundtrack were familiar to people already, but what made them so fresh was they were performed in the style they would have been during the time the movie took place. Instead of the overblown production that's been associated with country music for the last thirty or forty years, the songs were stripped down to their basics and sounded amazing. Somehow or other though, that point got lost, and it's become harder and harder to hear the music played as it was originally.
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Thankfully, for those who want to hear this music played as it should be, there remain select groups of musicians scattered around the country dedicated to keeping the legacy of this music alive. One of the finest examples of this are Eden & John's East River String Band. Eden and John are Eden Brower (ukulele, kazoo and vocals) and John Heneghan (guitar and vocals), and on their latest disc, Be Kind To A Man When He's Down, the band is rounded out by Robert Crumb (mandolin), Pat Conte (fiddle) and Dom Flemons (guitar). (For those wondering, Robert Crumb is indeed the illustrator of underground comics from the 1970s. Not only does he play with the band on occasion, he has created all their album artwork).

On this disc the band has focused on traditional songs and adapted and arranged them to suit their needs. One of the first things you'll notice when looking at the album credits is the lack of any mention as to who has written the material. These songs have obtained the status of being so ingrained into the social and artistic fabric of American culture who wrote them no longer matters; they are a part of the country's cultural heritage in the same way songs like "John Barley Corn" are part of the heritage of the British Isles. In fact two of the titles on the disc are most likely ones that a high percentage of Americans will hear at least once in their lives and whose names will be recognized by nearly as many: "Oh Suzanna" and "Swanee River".

Both songs were written by the first great composer of American popular music, Stephen Foster, in 1848 and 1851 respectively. A product of their times, their original lyrics aren't what anybody would call racially sensitive as they were written in faux slave dialect, and in the case of "Swanee", have the narrator yearning for life on the plantation and by implication life as a slave. Both songs gained their initial popularity through being performed in "Minstral Shows", white performers appearing in black face singing and playing Dixieland jazz style music. While this may sound offensive to us, the songs were a reflection of contemporary attitudes and in no way diminishes their quality musically.
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While these two songs are well known, others of the fourteen included on the disc have a slightly more obscure provenance. Take "On The Banks Of The Kaney", it was originally recorded in 1929 by Big Chief Henry's Indian String Band, a Choctaw Indian string band from Oklahoma. From what little I was able to find out about this group they wrote and recorded songs for Choctaw audiences and were discovered playing at the Choctaw Indian Fair in Mississippi. Just like the fact there were African American string, or country/bluegrass type bands, back in the 1920s and 1930s has almost been forgotten, probably very few people are aware there were Native American bands as well. That alone would make contemporary recordings of this song and the others on the disc worthwhile, but these are more than just dusty pieces of history of interest only to musicologists.

For, as performed by Eden and John and friends they sound as fresh and alive as if they were written today. The combination of their enthusiasm, energy, skill and the sense that all of them are having the time of their lives playing the songs on the disc make it far more enjoyable to listen to than the majority of contemporary music. There's something irrepressible about Eden's vocals which makes her sound like she's tapped into the secret of knowing how to have the best time in the world. She and the rest of the band might take their playing seriously and are as good a group of instrumentalists as you'll find anywhere, but they don't take themselves seriously and always remember to have fun with what they're doing. Maybe it's the fact that a kazoo features predominately in the mix on quite a number of tunes (I've always had a soft sport for a well played kazoo), but listening to this disc was the most fun I've had listening to music in a long while.

With all the the talk of Americana and roots music, the irony is how much of the real roots of American popular music is still being ignored today. Or even worse, far too many people forget that it was meant to be listened to and enjoyed. They forget that it was performed at county fairs under tents so people could try and forget about the troubles of the world for a little while. Sure its important culturally as it integrated African and European music in ways that had never happened before, but it was also the dance and good time music of the day.

The music on Be Kind To A Man When He's Down comes from another age - spanning the years from just before the American Civil War to just before WWII - but it can bring a smile to your face and a spring to your step far more readily than most of what passes for popular music today. In these days of war, famine, pollution and other horrors it's hard to remember there was a less cynical time when music could make you feel glad to alive. This album is not only a collection of timeless treasures, it's a reminder that popular music can be fun. Be Kind To Be A Man When He's Down is available in both CD and 180 gram yellow vinyl. If you have a turntable buy the LP as that way you can not only enjoy a full sized piece of Robert Crumb's art, but I have a feeling this is the type of music that will be best appreciated listened to on a turntable.

(Article first published as Music Review: Eden & John's East River String Band - Be Kind To A Man When He's Down on Blogcritics.)

March 17, 2011

Music Review: A Hawk and a Hacksaw -Cervantine

A couple of my pet peeves are things I call cultural colonialism and cultural appropriation. In some ways they're close to being the same thing, in that it usually involves a person of one culture stealing from another for a variety of reasons. Quite a number of times it means a member of the dominant Western culture looking upon something from across the world, seeing it as exotic and then picking out the bits and pieces of it that amuse them without ever bothering to learn about the context they came from.

In some ways it's a lot like putting on a police officer's uniform because you like the way it looks and then walking the streets. You may look like a cop on the surface, but the reality is you nothing of what doing the job involves. Most of those who are cultural appropriators are guilty of something similar. They dress themselves up in the trappings of a culture without knowing what it really means. Whether it is the pop star who picks up the sitar because it sounds cool or the new age musician who tries to make themselves sound more "spiritual" by using Native American flutes in their compositions, it amounts to little more than thievery.

However, music is supposed to be a universal language is it not? We're always hearing stories of musicians from different backgrounds getting together and being able to find common ground through the instruments they play even if they can't speak each others language. There are also classical musicians who spend years studying and training in order to be able to play whatever music they chose, including pieces written by composers from other cultures and times. Their study have not only given them the technical ability to play a multitude of music and styles, but the means to understand the context they were written in. If a musician is willing to immerse themselves in a culture, or the music, then he or she will be able to play it, no matter what their own background.
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Which goes a long way in explaining how a band from New Mexico in the United States can play the music of the Balkans and Eastern Europe and sound like they were born to it. On their most recent release, Cervantine, on their own L&M Duplication label and distributed by Midheaven, A Hawk And A Hacksaw perform eight glorious songs which not only sound like they're being played by people from their originating regions, but people steeped in its musical traditions.

Starting in 2004 core members and founders, Jeremy Barnes (accordion and percussion) and Heather Trost (violin/viola) made a pilgrimage through Eastern Europe learning and experiencing the music of the Roma, Hungary and the Eastern European and Asian influences that have permeated both. For two years they were based out of Budapest, Hungary and toured Europe with some of that country's finest musicians. They have played on the streets of Amsterdam with Roma, a road outside of Jaffa, in Israel, for Palestinians and Hassidic Jews and in a small village in Romania, in a house with no running water, recorded with the famed Fanfare Ciocarlia (The band who play "Born To Be Wild" in Borat) However, in spite of the obvious influences these adventures have had on the band, they say they have no interest in simply recreating the music they've heard or in being some kind of ethnographic sampler.

All it takes is just listening to the opening track on the CD to hear they how well they live up their word. Sure "No Rest For The Wicked", a knock down, drag out, wicked, almost eight minute long instrumental piece, starts off sounding like your fairly typical Roma/Eastern European/Klezmar mix - which when you think about it isn't so typical to begin with - but they throw in this sudden break where the music slows to almost a stop, and when it picks up again the song has morphed into something different. In some ways it's almost as if they've taken the title of the song and translated it into musical action; the music might slow down, the beat might change, hell even the tune might not always sound the same, but there can be no rest for the wicked.

They've got a crazy sense of humour these folk who call themselves Hawk and a Hacksaw. But they also play music that shakes the earth. It's got a pull you can't help but respond to; something that reaches right inside and appeals to some part you might not even know exists and sets your blood to stirring. They've tapped into something that would be downright scary if it weren't so exhilarating, and then translated it into music. Perhaps it's because they are able to draw upon musical traditions from cultures normally in opposition to each other, like Turkey and Greece in "Mana Thelo Enan Andra", and create something beautiful out of a centuries long hatred, that we respond so readily to what they have to offer. On the other hand it could be just because they are such bloody wonderful musicians and they could play anything and make it a miracle of sound.
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While the majority of the emphasis is placed on the instruments, when their is need for a vocalist Stephanie Hladowski steps centre stage and is a match for anything her band mates throw at her. Her voice is filled with the raw passion of a violin scrapped raw by its bow but her control is such that she can turn it from a caress into a challenge in the blink of an eye. There is none of the awful refinement to her that you'll find in pop singers and their meaningless songs of adolescent romance, instead you'll hear the grief and joy of lives lived to their fullest echoing through her singing.

The instruments you'll hear played on this disc are as diverse as the countries represented by the music. Chris Hladowki's Greek bouzouki, Issa Mallug's Turkish dumbek and riq, Samuel Johnson's trumpet and flugelhorn, Mark Weaver's tuba and euphonium and Charles Papaya's bass drum and cymbal swirl, keen, pound, stomp, and soar in a kind of frenzy that occasionally borders on the chaotic, but which never actually loses control. Listening to them play is like watching the funnel cloud of a tornado and being amazed a thing of such uncontrolled power can hold its shape.

Listening to Cervantine you'll hear the sound of the Balkans, mixed with Klezmer, rhythms from Turkey and tinges of the Latino sound of the band's native New Mexico. While on the surface that sounds like it has the potential to be a discordant mess, Hawk and a Hacksaw somehow weave it all together to make incredible music. Anyone who ever doubted that the music of such diverse cultures could be brought together in harmony only needs listen to this band at work to become a believer. This is truly world music.

(Article first published as Music Review: A Hawk And A Hacksaw - Cervantine on Blogcritics)

March 10, 2011

Music Review: Bombino - Agadez

I've been sitting with a CD for a couple of weeks now, listening to it, thinking about it and sort of letting it percolate inside of me. It's not often I have the luxury of doing this with a recording that I've been asked to review, but the company sent this one out to me well in advance of its release date hoping I could give them some quotes to help promote the performer. All of which is very cool, but the problem is that I'm sitting here and I don't really know what to tell anybody who reads this about the music. It's not that I don't like it, because I do, I think the music and the performer are bloody amazing, and what he's doing with his music is important.

You see there's the rub, there's a lot of history that comes with this recording, not just of the person whose made the recording, but something like 1400 years of a people's, and a place's, history. Writing about the music on this CD without touching upon any of that would be ignoring at least half of what has gone into the music's creation. So, while people don't read a critique of a CD for a social/political history lesson, the specifics of this man, this music, these people and this land are as important to talk about as the music. As you'll see, in some ways, that's the point of the music in the first place.

The land is some of the harshest in the world, the Sahara desert, specifically the parts of it which fall within the boundaries of Algeria, Mali, Burkina Faso and Niger. The people are the Kel Tamasheq, more commonly referred to by the name given them by the Arabs who invaded these lands, Tuareg, or rebels, for their refusal to accept Islam without a fight. Nomads and herdsmen, they have guided caravans from Algeria to Niger and raised their flocks throughout the Sahara for centuries. Steadfastly refusing any outside influence they have fought to remain independent against any and all who have tried to control them. The music has roots that can be traced back through the history of the people, to the electric guitars of modern rock icons Jimi Hendrix and Jimmy Page, and the armed rebellions against the Niger and Malian governments during the 1980s by the Kel Tamasheq. For it was veterans of those uprisings who put down their machine guns, picked up guitars and changed the nature of their rebellion.
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Omara "Bombino" Moctar, whose given name is Goumar Almoctar, was born in 1980 in a desert encampment adjacent to Agadez in western Niger. When the Niger government lashed out against Kel Tamasheq people living in their territory in retaliation for the rebellion in the 1980s, Bombino's family fled to stay with family in Algeria. In the early part of the 1990s his family returned to Agadez when it appeared there was a chance for a settlement of the conflict with the Niger government. While he had started learning guitar while in exile, upon his return to Agadez Bombino was taken under the wing of a more experienced musician. He was the youngest and smallest member of the band and they gave him his nickname, "Bombino", as a play on the Italian word, bambino, baby.

For as long as the peace lasted in the 1990s and into the new century Bombino's musical career grew steadily. However in 2007 the uprising began again and the Niger government began targeting "guitar players", naming them enemies of the state. When two of the musicians he played with were killed by the army, Bombino went back into exile again, this time to the west and Burkina Faso.

It was here, after a year of searching, he was tracked down by a documentary film maker named Ron Wyman who had heard a cassette of his music while making a movie about the Kel Tamasheq (Agadez - The Music And The Rebellion) Wyman was so impressed with Bombino's music that he took him back to America where they began to record Agadez, which will be released on April 19 2011 on the Cumbancha label. Then in 2010 the army in Niger overthrew the government and signed a peace treaty with the Kel Tamasheq rebels and exiles were able to return home. So Wyman and Bombino returned to Agadez where they completed recording the CD and finished the movie at the same time.

Like the first generation of musicians who play what they call "Ishoumar", a derivative of the French word for unemployed, chomeurs, and which is now synonymous with rebel music, Bombino's sound is a mixture of the modern and the traditional. Electric guitars overlay the steady beat of the drum to create an almost hypnotic effect which wraps the listener in a cocoon of sound. Periodically Bombino's guitar will take flight into a solo, weaving in and around the rhythm like an expression of his people's desire for freedom. Unlike far too many rock and roll guitar solos which always seem to interrupt a song, Bombino's feel like emotional extensions of the material. At times they capture his excitement and enthusiasm for the promise of the better future he obviously hopes lies in store for his people, and at others they express a yearning that can make the heart ache.
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In interviews quoted in the press materials accompanying the CD he talks about his relationship with the desert and how it serves as his inspiration and how, like for the rest of his people, its his home. While I can't understand the lyrics he sings, nor are translations included with the CD, reading the English translations of individual song titles, and listening to his guitar and his voice when he performs them, you begin to understand just how deeply these people and where they live are interconnected. Of the three traditional songs on the disc he has adapted, two, "Ahoulaguine Akaline" (I Greet My Country) and "Tenere" (The Desert My Home), by their titles alone, tell you all you need to know about the depth of that bond. Listening to them, and maybe this is because I've seen footage of the Sahara, I couldn't help but visualize the stark beauty of the land and experience the same feelings that pictures of it evoke.

During the uprisings the Niger government first banned the music of, then targeted the "guitar players" because their songs spread the message of the rebellion. They weren't calls to arms, rather they were reminders to the people to take pride in who they were and to hold onto their traditions. With so many of the Kel Tamsheq displaced into the cities because of drought and loss of their territories to uranium mining, those messages have become even more important as a means of helping them retain their identity and instil within them a sense of pride in who they are. Of his original material, two of Bombino's songs, "Tigrawahi Tikma" (Bring Us Together) and "Azamane" (Mr Brothers United), on this disc are obviously meant to encourage his people to stand firm against anything that would take away their freedom or force them to change how they live their lives.

The Kel Tamsheq have survived this long by being able to live in one of the harshest environments on the planet and by learning how to adapt to the changing realities of the world around them. While they have fought fiercely over the centuries to preserve their independence, they also know there are many different ways to fight and win a war. The music of Omara "Bombino" Moctar and the message his songs have for his people, are one of the strongest weapons they have in their arsenal right now. A passionate voice, a guitar that sings and the ability to communicate through sound alone will bring tears to your eye and a send a shiver running up and down your spine. Agadez is being released on April 19 2011, and it will take your breath away.

Photo of Bombino and band members Ibrahim and Kawissan by Ron Wyman.
(Article first published as Music Review: Bombino - Agadez on Blogcritics)

February 16, 2011

Music Review: Andrea Gauster - Reverie & We're Not Lost

Love songs on Valentine's Day are usually about as appealing to me as a prostrate exam. In fact, now that I think of it they have a lot in common. Both involve someone you don't know well being a royal pain in the ass and inflicting themselves upon you for no other reason than they can. At least the person doing the prostrate exam has something passing for an excuse for trying to make tears well up in your eyes which is more than the person singing about either their broken heart or their truest love can say.

It's obvious I'm a cynical bastard who can't be moved by anyone or anything. Well you're only half right. I am a cynical bastard and have had my fill of watching people have their emotions manipulated by politicians, singers, advertising executives and all the other whores out there trying to get you to open your wallet by squeezing your heart with sentimentality and false feelings. None of which means I can't be moved by genuine emotions, including songs about the weirdness that passes for relationships between human beings. You see my problem isn't so much love songs, it's the fact they usually reduce something as complex as the interaction between two human beings to a pithy phrases or cute hook.
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All of which means that when I come across someone who not only makes the effort to delve a little deeper than normal into those murky depths, but does so with intelligence and flashes of quirky humour, I want to make sure as many people know about them as possible. So the other night when my wife came home and said she had seen this really amazing young woman performing I was intrigued enough to listen to the two CDs she brought home with her. Most of you won't have heard of Andrea Gauster yet, or probably know any of the material from either her six song debut CD Reverie or her follow up full length release from August 2010, We're Not Lost, both on the Toronto Canada based independent Broken Window Records label, but you should run, not walk, to either buy or download either one you can get your hands on as soon as possible.

The first thing you'll notice about Gauster is the fullness of her voice. In a world filled with pop tarts with squeaking out three minutes of drivel about either their cheating boy friends or their undying devotion to the same, the shock of hearing a voice with range and expression was so great I didn't even start listening to her lyrics until playing her CDs a second time. What got to me was the complete absence of artifice; there was no climbing up into the nether reaches of a scale in an attempt to show the depth of her emotion, just a real woman's voice singing. The hardest thing for any performer to do is to simply be, to open up and let their voice come out the way it wants dependant on how what you're doing or saying affects it.

There are very few performers out there who are either allowed to or let themselves be that exposed and vulnerable when they sing. By that I mean honesty, not wearing a bleeding heart on your sleeve to show the world what a sensitive guy or gal you are. As I was listening to Gauster singing I was puzzled as to why she was one moment reminding me of the wonderful Canadian folk singers Kate and Anna McGarrigle and then the next moment making me think of the haunting country/gospel voice of Iris DeMent. While the four women sound almost nothing alike what they share is that wonderful ability to centre themselves in their material and let it guide their performance.
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As I implied earlier the majority of the songs on her recordings are about what goes on between two people, which for a lack of a better term are usually called love songs. However, there's nothing usual or typical about any of Gauster's material. I mean how many love songs do you know with titles like "Tandoori Chicken"? Yet listen to the lyrics and its full of the mundane shit in life that passes between two people which somehow add up to a relationship and love. "Your underwear on my floor/your blond hair in my Tandoori Chicken/I cooked all day/come sit down this should not go to waste". Now, that's not what you'd call romance, but the song is all about familiarity breeding love. How "when your flaws are the reason I love you just the way you are", is more a proclamation of love than a dozen roses or avowals of eternal devotion will ever be.

Of course she also deals with the some of the nastier aspects of the games we play when it comes to the couple thing in a kind of stream of conscience babel about another woman called "Secrets". "And am I so wrong to wonder why/you can live your life lost in your mind/a place so empty, you have betrayed/every thought but how to get laid". But then she admits to something of her own feelings of inadequacy by saying she doesn't know how to compete with a woman like her "and though I try on most days/to put on a face I can display/I sometimes wish I could pay the world to look away". Yet she still manages to find a defiant note to end on, for even though she likes pleasure just as much as the next person she's not about to make it her life's work to find it. "I choose to see the world I'm living in /that doesn't mean I'm not enjoying it/oh I'm enjoying it/ya I quite like it/so eat shit".
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What makes this song work so well is how much of what's really behind the words Gauster lets through while singing. There's a real sense of how difficult it is for her to not envy the other, obviously more physically attractive woman, and how much she's warring with her desire to put her down in order to feel better about herself. As a man there have been times in my life where I've run through the same gamut, putting down the guys who seemed to be able to get laid whenever they wanted as shallow and vacant while part of me was eating my heart out with envy. There comes a point though when you grow out of that and realize you both can't, and don't want to, play that game and you don't care what anybody has to say about decision not to.

What's really quite amazing about both the EP ReverieWe're Not Lost is Andrea Gauster's ability to pull you into her material when basically she's a solo act accompanied only by her guitar. Sure other instruments make their appearances on various tracks, but the production team have done a great job of keeping her front and centre at all times so our focus is squarely on her. With a less interesting performer, or one lacking what's necessary to hold a listener's attention, that can be a recipe for disaster. However that's not the case with either of these discs as the combination of Gauster's vocal abilities and song writing talents are more than enough to keep a listener's attention.

Andrea Gauster is a rarity (aside from her musical career she's also a medical student at Queen's University in Kingston Ontario) as she's not only able to write songs about relationships based in reality, she's able to sing them in a way that rings true. By the time you read this Valentine's Day will most likely have been and gone but that shouldn't stop you from running out and buying one or the other, if not both, of her releases and listening to some of the best songs about love and the whole damn thing you'll have heard in a good many years.

(Photo of Andrea Gauster taken by Bob MacKenzie February 10 2011 at The Mug & Truffle, Kingston Ontario)

(Article first published as Music Review: Andrea Gauster - Reverie & "We're Not Lost on Blogcritics.)

February 14, 2011

Music Review: New York Dolls - Dancing Backward In High Heels

I'm the last person to sentimentalize drugs and a lot of the sleaze that accompanies them. Nor am I one to wax nostalgic about the good old days, especially when the only people going on about how great they were never actually lived through them. However, it's hard not to feel something like regret over what was lost in the gentrification of New York City and the face lift in underwent during the process. Sure something needed to be done about the fact the city was teetering on the edge of financial ruin in the late 1970s while crime, the sex trade and drugs were creating a black hole far too many were being lost in. Yet, as the great documentary, NY 77 The Coolest Year In Hell (which you can watch at the link) shows, that same atmosphere was responsible for one of the greatest burst of creative energy the city had seen. 1977 was when hip-hop was bursting out in the Bronx, punk was exploding in the Lower East Side and disco was flowering in Soho.

Very little of the anarchic energy behind those explosions existed once Mayor Rudi was done with New York City. While there's no denying your chances of being propositioned in Times Square are far fewer today then they were forty years ago, something of the soul also seems to have been sucked out of the city along with the peep shows and the hookers. There needs to be grit in the cogs pushing artistic creation - resistance and friction for the sparks necessary to light the fires of inspiration. Thankfully, while the streets might have been cleaned up and most of the edge dulled off the knife blade that was New York City, the spirit of the times still lives on in the hearts and minds of a few die-hards too set in their ways to ever, thank fucking god, change.
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Sylvain Sylvain and David Johansen are all that's left of the original line-up, but since they resurrected the New York Dolls a few years back rock and roll has become a little less tired and a lot more fun. I think a lot of us would have been content with the warm fuzzy feelings generated by just knowing their version of anarchy was back in the world, and not really given too much of a fuck what they did musically. Thankfully they have way too much integrity to fall into becoming a sort of Glam/punk version of Norman Rockwell. Creating a mawkishly sentimental vision of what the times were like so people could say "What cute little punks - gee weren't things so much better back then when we were all shooting speed and heroin and people were getting knifed in the subway"? Boy I miss the good old days".

What's going to be released March 14 2011 in the United Kingdom and North America (March 18 2011 in Europe) on The Global Music Group's Blast Records ( UK) and 429 Records (US) is a celebration of rock and roll, New York City and the attitude that made both of them great in a twelve song CD and bonus DVD package, Dancing Backward In High Heels. While in many ways this forthcoming disc epitomizes everything you love about the Dolls, musically you're going to be surprised at how many directions they push themselves and the risks their willing to take at this point in their career. Best of all is the fact they haven't forgotten that rock and roll is supposed to be fun, and they refuse to take themselves too seriously.

Musically they've drawn upon almost every influence you can think of that's been part of New York City's soundscape for the past fifty years from the disco flavours of "End Of The Summer" to the British folk tinged "You Don't Have To Cry". They also go back to the roots of pop music with echoes of the Phil Specter produced songs of the sixties showing up on "I Sold My Heart To The Junkman", complete with strings and female backup singers, and the rockabilly sounds of "Round And Round She Goes", an ode to the joys of abandoning yourself to rock and roll through dance. In fact every song on the disc is, in one way or another, a tribute to their home city either musically or lyrically.

The Dolls were never what anybody would have considered an overtly political band lyrically, and they still aren't. However they've always had a great sense of irony and a sardonic mode of expression that let listeners know they didn't give a rat's ass what anybody thought of them. Originally their existence was enough of an up yours to the establishment they didn't need much more than that to make people nervous and to upset the status quo. While they may no longer wear their girl friend's clothes on stage they're still as uncompromising as ever when it comes to their take on the world.
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Johansen's introductory rant (given its on title, "Fabulous Rant") and the lyrics for "I'm So Fabulous" sums up the scorn they feel for what the straights have attempted to do to the city they love. "Nebulous New Yorkers is blasphemous/it makes a giant ass of all of us/What would the dear departed Murray the K say." The track's final few lines really drives the point home for those who might be too stunned to miss it. "Don't come around here making new clothes for us/I don't need them I'm already fabulous/I'm so fabulous I don't want to hear about it/I'm so fabulous I don't want to look at you". Johansen pretty much spits out that last "I'm so fabulous" before dismissing those who don't get it with the final line as they're not even worth his attention.

On the DVD included as a bonus with this package you follow the Dolls around as they're working on this CD and see them on stage in a small club in Newcastle on Tyne where they made the recording. Listening and watching them perform you can't help but be impressed by their irrepressible energy and love for what they're doing. Even more interesting is watching how that comes out in the studio. Sylvain's genuine excitement over the fact they've managed to track down some old electric organs so he can get the exact sound he wants for a particular song and Johansen's intensity while working on the lyrics tell you all you need to know. They take what they do seriously and put a hell of a lot of thought and energy into their creations, but they never forget to enjoy it either.

When you listen to Dancing Backward In High Heels the results of that combination are obvious as the songs are masterfully created and performed while a hell of a lot of fun to listen to. I don't think I've smiled and laughed as much out of pure enjoyment listening to a rock and roll album in ages. If you've been a Dolls fan forever you'll love the disc because they've retained all that was great about them originally while not being content to just do what they did in the past. They've taken their in your face attitude that used to come out in their stage show, and channelled it into the music and lyrics. So while they may not be as overtly disconcerting they're actually more of a challenge to the establishment then ever. This a great album from a great band, and a reminder that rock and roll is at its most subversive when it does what comes naturally - throw a little old fashioned anarchy into people's lives by encouraging them to let go.

(Photo Credit: Sylvain Sylvain & David Johansen by Anna Victoria Best)

(Article first published as Music Review: New York Dolls - Dancing Backwards In High Heels on Blogcritics.)

February 6, 2011

Music Review: Susan McKeown -Singing In The Dark

You'd think we'd have matured enough by now we could talk about mental illness openly and honestly. Instead the stigma attached to even the most basic of emotional difficulties is so great most people are still loath to even admit they're seeing a psychiatrist or therapist. All you have to do is watch people squirm and try to change the subject when you bring up the fact that you've been seeing somebody to help you deal with emotional problems to understand what I'm talking about. The only thing worse than dealing with the rest of the world's reactions to your circumstances are the way the majority of the medical profession - especially those who treat them specifically - deal with mental illnesses.

They see their job as doing their damnedest to take your square pegged self and make you fit into the nice little round holes society wants us all slotting into. The problem is that far too much of the time its been trying to fit into those little round holes that have caused you all the problems in the first place. The usual answer offered by the profession is to medicate the crap out of you so you don't notice the shit that caused you to slip off the rails. So if you've been having the perfectly normal reaction to the tensions of living in our world today of having anxiety attacks they'll pump you full of pills to deaden your emotions and turn you back into a mindless sheep content with career, house in the suburbs and the ability to swallow what you hear and see in the media as the gospel truth.

While for some that might be the answer to their troubles, others might find that a cost their not willing to pay for easing their minds. It's probably no coincidence that throughout history artists, specifically poets, have been troubled by what we would call mood disorders. What has been commonly referred to as the "artistic temperament" may actually have been an indication of something deeper: depression, manic/depression, anxiety or some other form of emotional imbalance. During their lifetimes a great many poets lived lives of intense suffering and poverty as they were shunned by "normal" society and it was only in their art they were able to find solace. The insights into human nature and emotions which have been the hallmarks of some of the world's great poetry, ensuring their places in history, are in most cases a result of the writer suffering from some sort of trouble of the mind.
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When singer/songwriter Susan McKeown began researching her family tree she was startled to discover the high incidence of disturbances among the creative members of her ancestry. Fascinated by this correlation she set out to discover more, and soon realized her family wasn't an anomaly. In an effort to try and reduce some of the stigma attached to people dealing with these issues McKeown has created an album adapting the work of poets who wrote about those feelings. The result, Singing In The Dark, is a beautiful and haunting collection of work capturing both the emotional highs and lows experienced by the creative spirit.

McKeown has gathered together the work of poets throughout history whose work either reflects their own struggles with emotional imbalances or has something to do with the subject. Trawling through the ages she has reached back into our earliest works, "Mad Sweeny", whose origins lie in the 5th century and travelled through to modern times and Leonard Cohen's "Anthem". Along the way she pays her respect to writers on both sides of the Atlantic including Lord Byron, "We'll Go No More A Roving" and John Rowland, "In Darkness Let Me Dwell" from England; Nula Ni Dhomhnaill, "The Crack In The Stairs" and James Clarence Mangan, "The Nameless One" from Ireland; Theodore Roethke, "In A Dark Time" and Anne Sexton "A Woman Like That (Her Kind)" from America and Spaniard Violeta Parra, "Gracias A La Vida" (Thanks To Life) amongst them.

As you can tell from their titles these songs, poems, go places most of aren't used to, or interested in, going when listening to music. However, there's a reason these works have survived and are around today for McKeown to have adapted, and that's because no matter how depressing you might think the topic at hand is, there is something uplifting or compelling about each of the works. Part of that is McKeown's abilities as a performer and her incredible command of her voice which allows her to sing one song, "The Crazy Woman" by Gwendolyn Brooks, in an aching tenor and another, Cohen's aforementioned "Anthem" in a rich alto.

The material isn't hurt by the fact she has surrounded herself with what is obviously an amazingly gifted group of musicians and technicians who have helped her bring her vision to reality. I mention the latter because as I was listening to this disc I couldn't help but notice how cleanly the songs have been mixed so each instrument sounds like its been nestled in a cocoon keeping their integrity intact while still being obviously only one small piece of a much larger picture. With the variety of instruments being used it would have been easy for the sound to have turned to mud, instead it is crystal clear.
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Musically she also has some surprises in store for listeners. Upon reading the disc is composed of songs adopted from poems dealing with mental illness, one could almost be forgiven for assuming the material is going to be full of sweeping electronics, melodic strings, and other typical means of creating atmosphere. So it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear the amount of fuzz being used on the electric guitar on the Roethke piece opening the disc and the rocking lead guitar searing through the adaptation of Sexton's piece that follows. While in the opening track the fuzz serves as a contrast to McKeown's voice, on "A Woman Like That", she develops the roughness of voice to match the guitar. I like the irony of her dealing with a topic that's been subject to so much misconception by shattering a great many of the preconceived notions most people would have had about how this type of material would be presented. Just because its poetry doesn't mean its going to be pretty or precious. Of course if you think about it, with such gritty subject matter it makes sense for the music to be equally real.

However, no matter how interesting and well played the music on the recording is, its still the words which lay at its core. Here's where McKeown shows her amazing capacity for understanding the various aspects of emotional conditions. The material reflects not only a variety of experiences but the diversity of emotions felt by those who deal with them their whole lives. Again expectations are probably going to be dashed as in spite of what anyone might think, people suffering from emotional disturbances, even sever ones, are still quite rational and aren't necessarily depressed or manic all of the time. In fact one of the more prevalent emotions you can hear being expressed on this disc is hope. Whether its in the firmness of the convictions expressed by the woman in the "The Crazy Woman", "I'll not sing a May song/A May song should be gay/I'll wait until November/And sing a song of grey", or the knowledge that even when the darkness seems complete light still has a chance as Cohen's "Anthem" makes sure to point out, "Ring the bells that still can sing/Forget your perfect offering/There's a crack in everything/That's how the light gets in/That's how the light gets in".

There's no denying though, there are some pretty torturous paths being followed by the minds of some of the poets she has drawn upon. However when you read about their life stories, or the history surrounding a specific piece, as described in the CD's liner notes, you will see how a great many of these writers were pushed into darkness by their circumstances. Too often we tend to look at someone's behaviour and judge them without searching beyond to see what might have caused it. The number of abused women who are punished for being overtly violent, put into anger control programs, or worse, for lashing out at those who have been torturing them is only one indication of how deeply we are failing those dealing with emotional disorders.

Easing their burdens shouldn't be so difficult, and Susan McKeown's is another voice being raised on their behalf in an attempt to demystify these types of "illnesses". Not only does Singing In The Dark offer moral support, a portion of the proceeds from its sale are being donated the following groups helping people: National Alliance on Metal Illness (NAMI), Fountain House, BringChange2Mind and The Mood Disorders Support Group (MDSG). This is an album of spectacular singing, great musicand intelligent lyrics in support of a good cause - what more could you want?

(Article first published as Music Review: Susan McKeown - Singing In The Dark on Blogcritics.)

February 1, 2011

Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music

The cello is not most peoples idea of a glamourous musical instrument. Even in the world of classical music, where there have at least been pieces of music written specifically for it, it plays second fiddle (couldn't help it) to its sexier kin in the string section, the violin. Outside of the concert hall it receives even less recognition, for while instruments like the trumpet, saxophone, clarinet, violin, and even its larger cousin the double bass have become staples in the world of jazz, you don't often hear a cello leading a jazz combo or showing up in your average rock band.

What most people don't realize, save those who have taken the time to sit and listen, is the astounding variety of sound and the wondrous richness of tone a cello can produce. As a child my parents decided, in spite of an almost complete lack of aptitude, I should play an instrument as part of my education, and I somehow ended up paired with a cello. For three years I learned proper bowing and fingering techniques, but it was soon obvious I was no match for the demands of the instrument, surrendered to the inevitable and stopped inflicting myself upon the poor long suffering music teachers in my school system. However, even my pitiful scraping of the strings were enough to convince me that in the hands of someone who knew what they were doing the cello would sound wonderful.
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All of which brings me to the intriguing new project released earlier this month by Six Degrees Records entitled Chamber Music. Normally the term chamber music refers to pieces performed by a condensed version of a symphony orchestra with the number of musicians reduced from its usual over a hundred to around thirty or forty. In this case though, we're dealing with something even less traditional as cellist Vincent Segal of France is joined by the kora playing Malian Ballake Sissoko. While this may seem like a strange combination at first glance, a twenty-six string traditional harp like African instrument being paired with an instrument from the European classical repertoire, the gap between the two men and their instruments isn't actually that large.

Both Segal and Sissoko, while trained in the classical traditions of their instruments, have worked in what most would considered non-standard genres musically before. For Segal this has meant working with everything from jazz combos to hip-hop groups while Sissoko has collaborated with people like Taj Mahal and contemporary composers. At the same time the music both men were initially trained in has far more in common than you'd think. In spite of increased exposure due to the proliferation of world music labels there is still the widespread misconception that music from African countries is either high energy pop music or tribal based drumming. Sissoko's training was in a much different type of music as like his father and grandfather before him he had been prepared for the role of historian, praise singer and bard for his people. The music he played was designed to help tell stories and create an atmosphere that was conducive to people listening to him, not to pulling them on their feet.

Even if you don't know anything about the two men or their backgrounds, as soon as you listen to them playing together the connection between them and their music is obvious. From the opening, title track "Chamber Music", to the closing song on the disc, it sounds as if they have been playing together for decades. First of all the two instruments compliment each other perfectly as the kora, much like a European harp, has a light almost ethereal sound that blends beautifully with the cello's rich, earthy tones. However, instead of the cello being relegated to being a support instrument, as is the case most often in European classical music, playing the bass line to the higher pitched instrument's melody, the two men have created pieces in which neither is confined to any set role.
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Some of the pieces are based on traditional African melodies Sissoko suggested and in those Segal has improvised an accompaniment. It's fascinating to hear the sounds of the two instruments interweaving as Segal mixes bowing, plucking and slapping his strings to create a solid foundation for the complex tunes Sissoko picks out on his kora. Then there are tunes like the more jazz sounding "Oscarine" where the leads they pass back and forth build off each other in much the same manner as you'd hear in any jazz combo. On this occasion the contrast between the sounds of the two instruments is at it's most striking and potent, pulling the listener into the music through our anticipation for the next interesting combination of tones.

While the disc is primarily a collection of instrumental tunes, the two men are joined by Malian Awa Sangho on the track "Regret". The song is a tribute to Sissoko's late friend, singer Kader Berry, and is a stirring and emotional piece in which you can hear the feelings of the title expressed in almost every note. Sangho's vocals are a third instrument and serve as a focal point for both the listeners and the two other instruments. While the cello delves into the depths of regret one can hear in the singer's voice, the kora echoes the sharpness of the pain felt from the loss of a dear friend.

Musical collaborations between cultures used to be few and far between. Times have changed however, and we are starting to see more and more musicians searching for the common ground which will allow them to work with others from different traditions. While it might seem a cellist trained in European classical music would have little in common with a traditional Malian kora player, Chamber Music proves otherwise. This is a wonderful combination of sound and style that will both surprise and delight listeners from all backgrounds

(Article first published as Music Review: Ballake Sissko & Vincent Segal - Chamber Music )

Music Review: Various Performers - Louisiana Swamp Stomp

After the American Revolutionary War in the 1700s, those soldiers and civilians who had either fought on the side of, or remained loyal to, the British were rewarded for their actions with tracts of land in the nearest crown colony. In order to accommodate this sudden influx of people looking for space the former subjects of New France, themselves only recently conquered by the British, in the Maritimes region of what would become Canada eventually, were displaced from their farms and cast adrift. With nowhere else to go these Acadians headed south to the last remaining French colony in North America, Louisiana. Here they not only joined other Francophones, but the closest thing to a multicultural community to be found in the New World at the time. For not only did they find Spaniards left over from its time as a Spanish colony, but ex-slaves from all over the Caribbean, settlers from the British Isles and sailors and pirates from home ports scattered around the globe.

When Jefferson purchased the territory from the French government, and its important access to the Mississippi River from the Gulf, the social order was shaken up as the majority non-anglo/non-white population became second class citizens in keeping with the laws and conventions of its rulers. Of course having laws and enforcing them are two entirely different matters, so life in places like New Orleans probably continued on much the same as it did before the purchase. In fact, if the new American government had harboured any hopes of subduing and assimilating the polyglot population of its newest territory they were sorely mistaken. For not only have the distinct cultures stayed around with only minor variations - Acadians have become Cajuns - they have cross pollinated and created a culture unique to the region.
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While it's doubtful few will remember its true significance as the last big blow out before Lent, Mardis-Gras is a reminder of the area's Catholic heritage, and the sounds of France, Spain and Africa can still be heard in the languages people speak and the words that come out of their mouths. However, where the glorious multicultural nature of the region really blooms is in its music. Where else are you going to find a place where music with origins in so many different cultures not only happily co-exists, but has merged and mingled with such ease and wonderful results? While its probably impossible to ever come up with a compilation that would include samples of all the musical influences present in the region, a new disc out on the Honeybee Entertainment label, Louisiana Swamp Stomp, provides listeners with a good indication of the diversity at play.

Aside from being an amazing collection of music, which I'll get to in a second, the other reason for picking up a copy of this disc is all the proceeds from its sale goes to the Northern Louisiana Brain and Spinal Cord Injury Foundation (NLBSCIF) to help fund their programs, including research into finding cures for the various neurological disorders that effect the brain and the spine. The inspiration for this disc comes from the remarkable story of Louisiana musician Buddy Flett's recovery from encephalitis. Upon waking from the medically induced coma required to save his life Flett was not only unable to play guitar, he had also lost the ability to walk and talk. Amazingly, only a few months later he was well enough to play at his own benefit, and because of the support of his family, and the music community at large in Louisiana, he was able to make a full recovery. Now that same community, plus visual artists who have donated their work for the CDs cover and accompanying booklet, are hoping to help others by raising money to help neuroscience research in Louisiana.
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Unlike other benefit discs of this type which often feature big names parachuted in for an event, this is a true local community effort. Only one song isn't by a Louisiana native, and the only "name" on the disc is Percy Sledge, and his contribution is a live recording he made of Buddy's song, "First You Cry", at a concert in Baton Rouge. While the rest of the names on the disc may either be only slightly familiar or not ring any bells at all for people outside of the Gulf Coast area, once you listen to them, not only will you not forget them in a hurry, you're going to want to search out more of their music.

Omar Coleman kicks off the disc with a rollicking blues number, "Scratch My Back", and although both it and his other contribution to the disc, "Mojo Hand", were recorded in Chicago with local musicians, there's just as much bayou in his music as there is the concrete of the South Side. The connection between Chicago and New Orleans can't be measured by the miles that separate the two cities when it comes to the blues as the influences have run both ways. Eighty-five year old Henry Grey only reinforces the connection with his two contributions, "Times Are Getting Hard" and "How Could You Do It". Born in Louisiana, Grey played with Howlin' Wolf from 1956 - 68 in Chicago and a variety of others across the country including Jimmy Reed, Bo Diddley and Billy Boy Arnold, showing just how much Louisiana gets around.
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While the men make some great contributions, including Buddy Flett playing all the instruments on his own aptly titled "Livin' Ain't Easy", the women of Louisiana, and in particular Carol Fran, are present and accounted for as well. Ms. Fran has had to overcome many of the same problem Flett did after she suffered a stroke, but listening to her sing on this disc you'd never know she'd been sick a day in her life. She starts off with "Tou' Les Jours C'est Pas La Meme" (Everyday Is Not The Same) a bilingual blues/cajun tune that will blow you away. While she does a great job of performing both it and her second tune, "I Needs To Be Be'd With", I was just as impressed by the fact they are both her own tunes. Why this woman has not achieved international, let alone national fame is beyond me. Just listening to her you can feel the amount of presence she possesses and I can only try and imagine how amazing she must be in person.

Of course the same goes for everybody on the disc. Each of them: Little Freddie King, Paul "Lil Buck" Sinegal, Sonny Landreth, Dwayne Dopsie, Larry Garner and Charlene Howard, whether we've heard their names before or not, have distinct personalities that shine through during their performances. Unlike so much of our cookie cutter world today where everything sounds the same, looks the same and tastes the same in order to make sure nobody is offended, and nobody is ever satisfied, Louisiana is full of a variety of tastes, sounds and sights. The musicians on this disc, and the colourful, flamboyant art included as part of the CD's packaging, might only be a small sampling of that wonderful diversity, but compared to what you'll normally hear or see around you it will be like a cornucopia of delights.

There must be some sort of magic down in Louisiana that helps them survive with their spirit intact. For in spite of the American government allowing oil companies to rape her; destroying her natural protection against the post Katrina floods and spilling massive amounts of oil off her shores with impunity, they haven't attempted to violently secede from the US. In fact, instead of telling the rest of us to piss off, they keep sending us their wonderful music and inviting us to enjoy what they have to offer. Listening to the music on the disc Louisiana Swamp Stomp is to be given a little bit of that magic to carry around with you and you might just find yourself smiling a little bit more because of it.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Louisiana Swamp Stomp on Blogcritics)

January 24, 2011

Music Review: Gang Of Four - C O N T E N T

I've said it before and I'll probably say it again, nostalgia is a dangerous thing. Especially if you're like me and fifty is not only on the horizon but is looming in the very near future like some sort of measuring stick against your perceived success or failure. So naturally there is something seductive about the past; your supposed wild and free youth. However, the trouble with the rose coloured glasses most of us use to look back in time are their tendency to induce myopia. So the visions they offer of a supposedly better time often have little or no bearing on reality. Heavy thoughts to start a music review I know, but when ghosts from the past start issuing press releases about new CDs - which hadn't even existed when they were first making records - the ground tends to shift under you somewhat and your mind wanders.

It was the end of 1982 and there were probably about a thousand of us scattered over the floor of the old Masonic Temple in Toronto to see the primary exponents of British punk/funk, the Gang Of Four. While they had had some marginal success with songs like "To Hell With Poverty", they had been too blatantly political for even the most liberal of radio stations to give them much airtime in North America for the first part of their career. A line up change in the early 80s saw their original bass player replaced by former Robert Fripp side-woman, from his group League of Gentlemen, Sara Lee and whether it was a coincidence or not, their music underwent a change at the same time. They toned down the stridency of their political message somewhat and smoothed the edges of their raw sound. The result was radio airplay in a real way with the song "Man In A Uniform".
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While there were the usual mutters of sell-out, and sarcastic comments like "Gang Of Four meets the Human League", if anybody bothered to listen to the lyrics of the song they might have realized subversion doesn't have to be blatant. Unfortunately satire is lost on left wing punks just as much as it is on everybody else. However if the band lost some of its more hard core followers, they more than made it up for it with increased air play and the chance to have their message heard by a wider audience. With the Clash on the verge of collapsing in on itself, Gang Of Four were one of the few overtly political bands left at the time. With the air waves gradually becoming awash with abominations like Duran Duran and Rick Astley, it was something of a relief to have them still out there slugging. The concert that night back in 1982 was hard edged punk/funk of a type I'd not seen or heard before live, and it blew me away. Unfortunately the band disappeared from my radar screen shortly after, and even though they put out albums through to the 1990s, I didn't hear anything else they did after that night.

So it was with understandably mixed feelings I decided to listen to their first new release in something like fourteen years, C O N T E N T, on Yep Roc Records, hitting shelves on January 25 2011 in a store near you. The first thing you'll notice is whatever else the passing of the years might have done it sure hasn't changed their intensity. There had always been the feeling you were listening to the equivalent of shock troops with these guys. Their songs had been like quick strike attacks targeting a specific subject and shooting straight to the heart of the matter. The driving music combined with vocalist Jon King's impassioned singing not only brought you to your feet but compelled you to listen to what was being said. While the make up of the band has changed since I last heard them in the early 1980s, bass player Sara Lee and drummer Hugo Burnham have been replaced by Thomas McNiece and Mark Heaney respectively, it's like the band hasn't missed a beat.

Andy Gill's guitar still does the remarkable job of laying down chopping funk rhythms with a primal edge that reminds you of why rock and roll scares the crap out of the establishment. Age may have imposed a few limits on King's vocal range, but it hasn't done anything to restrict the level of his intensity and his ability to make himself understood even while he is spitting out lyrics railing against the system. For while other supposedly political bands might think it's "A Beautiful Day", Gang Of Four aren't about to paint pretty pictures today any more then they would have thirty years ago. "Who can lie when everything is true?/Who wants old when everything is new?/Who am I when everything is me?" they ask on "Who Am I". As scathing an attack on the loss of personal identity in a time when self expression is being able to personalize your profile on Facebook as you'll ever hear.
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But not every song is in full attack mode, as they give listeners a much needed break now and then. However just because the music is little bit mellower the message is still pretty pointed. Take " A Fruitfly In The Beehive", where the music is less funk and a little more soulful, but lyrics like "And when the true believers die/more and more get born again/If the queen can't cope at all there's a number she can call." are as biting as ever. We're all just buzzing around in our little beehive, and the only way it keeps running is because we're all willing to play the game. It doesn't matter which game it is either: religion, social networks, or believing that working forty hours a week for fifty years and then retiring is a definition of a life well lived, if we didn't play along none of it could exist. We're all just little worker bees in the hive following orders, and if the leaders ever have doubts they're not about to show them to us.

You always worry a little bit when bands you admired thirty years ago put out new albums. First of all you wonder at your own motivations for wanting to listen to them - are you only trying to recapture your misspent youth? Then you have to wonder if the band aren't doing the same thing by putting out a new release. Thankfully, in the case of C O N T E N T from Gang Of Four, what you'll find is a recording far more musically and lyrically interesting than most of what's being released today played with enthusiasm and more than a little passion. You might not want to sit down and listen to it all the time, but when you feel the need for a jolt to bring you back to reality, or you're tired of people oversimplifying a complicated world, you'll be amazed at how much better it will make you feel. The Gang Of Four are proof that expressing anger at the system can be done creatively without being violent or mean spirited. A lesson a good many in our world need to learn these days.

(Article first published as Music Review: Gang of Four - C O N T E N T on Blogcritics.)

December 20, 2010

Top Ten Listens Of 2010

Another year is drawing to a close and now is the time for all those with pretences of critical prowess to pontificate on what they thought of as the best music of the past twelve months. We all take pride in our taste and discernment; we all wish to show how unique we are in our judgements and impress you, our readers, with our worldliness through the obscurity of our choices. To be honest, after five plus years of receiving at least a CD a day in the mail I've been finding it harder and harder to find anything original to say about what I hear. While this has probably more to do with my inability as a writer rather than any lack of talent in the musical world, it doesn't change the fact its taking more to excite me enough to sit down and review a piece of music.

Whatever the reason, I've reviewed far fewer CDs this year then in the past, and its from that much reduced pool that I've selected the following ten discs (plus two honourable mentions) as the ones that impressed me most. There's no real rhyme or reason to my choices, they just all happen to be ones which distinguished themselves sufficiently they stuck out when I surveyed my past year's worth of reviews.. If you wish to read the full review for any of the following their titles serve as a link to its location. So without further ado, and in no particular order, here then are the ten music CDs which stood out the most for me in 2010.

Sin Rumba no hay Son Septato Nacional. Formed in Havana Cuba in the 1920s this is the fourth generation of musicians to perform under the banner of Septato Nacional. While true to their roots as one of the originators of the Afro/Cuban sound, their ebullience and skill keep the music as fresh as if it were only just being discovered today instead of eighty years ago. You'll have difficulty believing there are only seven people performing so full is their sound. So infectious is their enthusiasm, not only will you find yourself swaying to the beat of their music, don't be surprised if you find yourself on your feet dancing. Truly a Cuban national treasure for all to enjoy.


Koonyum Sun Xavier Rudd & Izintaba. Hailing from Australia Rudd has long been associated with surfers, a laid back reggae influenced sound and the Aboriginal influences in his music. Originally a one man band, playing guitar, kick drums and yirdaki (commonly known as digeridoo) his sound has evolved over the course of his career to the point where he now is accompanied on this album by the South African drummer and bassist duo known as Izintaba. Even more impressive is the growth he has undergone as a lyricist and the emotional commitment to his music he now displays. While he has previously penned songs about conditions among Australia's Aboriginal population, the environment and his personal connection to both subjects, on Koonyum Sun he has taken the next step in his development. He has taken his personal feelings on the dissolution of his marriage and translated them into universal expressions on the nature of love, freedom and individuality. This is the work of a mature artist who can write about personal experiences in such a way that all can identify with them.


Homeland Laurie Anderson. Not many people have hit records by accident, but one has the feeling that's what happened to Anderson back in the late 1970s when her song "O Superman" brought her to popular attention. Even referring to her simply as a musician fails to do justice to the complexities of her creations as they have far more in common with stories than they do with songs. Homeland has her focusing her unique talents on the state of the world, specifically the United States, today. While she is well known for her use of technology in her work, vocoders to alter her voice and effects for her violin, there is something infinitely human and intimate about it. While definitely intelligent, Anderson also possesses a wonderful sense of the absurd which when combined with her apparently innate appreciation for the beauty in the world makes her material as close to sublime as possible for a secular artist.

Elephant: An African Tale Francis Jocky. Hailing from the Cameroon Francis Jocky has had to deal with other's expectations that he play "African" music when his interests have stretched far beyond his home continent's borders. So there is almost something tongue in cheek about his sub-title "An African Tale" in this instance. For while the story he recounts over the course of this song cycle is firmly rooted in his birth nation, it is not blinkered to the fact there is a huge world out there waiting for all of us. His recounting of one family's struggles expresses the hopes and fears of people all over the world. It may be based in Africa, but this is a truly international recording.

Woman In Sin Fishtank Ensemble. Every once in a while a band comes along who manage to convey a wildness of spirit with their music that no matter what they play your can't help envisioning people dancing with reckless abandon around a bon fire in a forest glade. There's something about Fishtank Ensemble, no matter if they are covering a torch song or playing a crazy reel, which makes you remember what it is about music that can upset the status quo. It frees the spirit and releases you from your inhibitions just as easily as booze and drugs, but without the nasty side effects. This group of extremely talented musicians are the perfect antidote to the deadening effects of the mundane. If you ever feel the need to remember what it means to be alive in body, mind and spirit again - this is the band for you.

Oooh La La Crash Test Dummies. Brad Roberts' voice, intelligent lyrics filled with wry humour and emotional insights combined with weird and obscure musical toys from the 1970s; what more could one ask for? Heck I could sit and listen to Brad Roberts sing pretty much anything and be content, but thankfully the main creative engine behind Crash Test Dummies has never given into the temptation to just get by on his voice. Oooh La La is no exception as he and co-producer Stewart Lerman used a stock of musical toys as inspiration for the musical accompaniment to Roberts' lyrics and created something truly distinct. The result was a delightful mishmash of styles tinged with that slightly mechanical feel one identifies with the sound of electronically produced music from before the age of digital recordings. The contrast between his rich baritone and the undertone of cheap circus music the old toys give the music might disconcert initially, but, in the end, made this one of the more original and invigorating releases of the year.

Sub City 2064 Erdem Helvacioglu & Per Boysen. Erdem Helvacioglu changed my perspective on electronically enhanced music forever the first time I heard one of his recordings. Unlike others who rely on machines to create their music, for him they are another instrument to be used in the creative process. On Sub City 2064 he and collaborator Per Boysen have created a series of atmospheric creations that bring to life an imagined future where we live beneath the waves. In turn beautiful and frightening the two men have created a recording which should serve as the benchmark for composers of electro-acoustic music in terms of emotional honesty. A work of intense beauty, it will remind you its the artist behind the instrument who matters, and artistry and creativity will shine through no matter what the circumstances.


Leva-me Aos Fado (Take Me To The Fado House) Ana Moura. Fado music is said to have been borne out of the songs Portuguese sailors sung when missing their loved ones while sailing the oceans. That will give you some idea as to the nature of the music and how, in the wrong hands, there is the potential for it to be tiresome. However, in the hands of Ana Moura, Fado becomes more than the sum of its parts. These aren't merely love songs bemoaning missing sweethearts or broken hearts as the ache expressed by their yearning could be caused by the loss of freedom to tyranny, worry for one's loved ones in a time of war or any of the numerous ways in which the world can break one's heart and spirit. It's no wonder the former military dictatorship of Portugal closed the Fado Houses upon taking power; the last thing they would have wanted were such vivid reminders of the emotional costs of their reign. Don't listen for overtly political lyrics in Moura's words, but if you can't hear the crying of a mother who has lost her child to an act of violence in her voice, you need a hearing test.


Metal Machine MusicLou Reed. In 1975 Lou Reed set records for the number of returns generated by a newly released popular musical album when he first released Metal Machine Music. Ironically if it had been released as a work of contemporary composition it probably wouldn't have raised any complaints. Reed's experimentation with sound, electronics and electricity was very much in keeping with work being done by composers John Cage and others in the avant-garde. His mistake was in hoping people would be able to forget that he was a pop musician and listen to his music in its proper context. Now, finally, Metal Machine Music has been released as it should have been it done thirty-five years ago. Taking advantage of digital technology he has re-mastered the original quadraphonic sound to accommodate modern audio equipment and offered both CD and DVD versions of the recording in one package. Hopefully the world will be ready to listen to this other side of Lou Reed a little more readily today then it did years ago.


I Can See The Gates Of Heaven Marta Sebestyen. Probably the best thing about the fall of Iron Curtain that separated Eastern Europe from the West has been the new accessibility we've gained to musicians previously denied us. Marta Sebestyen is from Hungry and sings a mixture of traditional sacred music and folk songs from her homeland. A beautiful singer, she has an expressiveness to her voice that makes an understanding of Hungarian moot as she is able to convey emotions and feelings through her tone alone. One of the real treasures of Eastern Europe, Sebestyen's music will lift your spirits no matter which God you believe in and what part of the world you come from.

Last, but not least, are two albums released in 2010 that couldn't be ignored. Compilation and greatest hit type releases aren't normally titles I would consider for this type of list, but these two merit special consideration. Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is just what its title claims, and is one the best collections of material from that time period that you'll ever hear. While you might still have trouble getting half of it played on the radio today, the majority of the songs on this collection are far superior to what passes for the equivalent you'll hear on today's airwaves. The second release probably wouldn't present any problems with obtaining air time as Hank Williams: The Complete Mother's Best Recordings gathers together all of Hank's old radio broadcasts sponsored by the Mother's Best Flour company originally recorded in 1951. While some of the material is hokey and sentimental, having the chance to hear Hank play live with his band and offering up trial version of new material, is something not to be missed. The collection comes with a book detailing the history of the recordings and providing full notes for each song on the fifteen CDS. There's also a DVD included featuring Hank's daughter Jett interviewing two members of Hank's band and one of the engineers from those broadcasts. Either one of these compilations would make a great addition to anyone's collection and are great fun to listen to.

So there you go, that was the music that stood out the most for me in 2010. A completely subjective and personal list of preferences, but than again, what did you expect, objectivity?

(Article first published as My Favourite Listens Of 2010 on Blogcritics.)

December 1, 2010

Music Review: Various Performers -Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s

After more than five years of reviewing what feels like thousands of different music CDs a great many of the titles I've covered have vanished into the haze of my memory. It's one of the reasons I don't review nearly as many titles as I once did, there's only so many different ways I have of saying basically the same thing over and over again for music that's all beginning to sound suspiciously similar. For someone to stand out enough for me to remember not only their name, but exactly what they've done, means there was something remarkably distinctive about them. In some cases that might mean they were such an absolute horror show that you can't help but recall them with a shudder.

But as in the case of the Eden & John's East River String Band's disc, Some Cold Rainy Day, there are recordings where a love of the material being performed combines with the skill and passion necessary to bring it to life results in the creation of something truly special. On the above album Eden and John went deep into the past of American popular music for their material and play the tunes on instruments - vintage archtop guitar and resonator ukulele - from the era. However, these are not just lovingly presented museum pieces, Eden and John throw so much of themselves into the pieces they take on new life and are just as relevant as anything written today.

It turns out that John Heneghan, the John from the group's name, is not only a fan and performer of music from the 1920s and 30s, he's also an avid collector of recordings from the era. Blues, jazz, country and Hawaiian are only a few of the genres that are apparently represented in his vast collection of old 78 rpm discs. It was this resource that Heneghan drew upon when compiling the latest release for the Dust To Digital label. Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s And 1930s is a three disc collection of over sixty tunes that cut across race, genre, geographical boundaries and gender. While the historical significance of this release is obvious, its a brilliant snap-shot of the variety of popular music created during those two decades, listeners are also going to be surprised and delighted by the material for its own sake. In fact you'll probably even experience quite a sense of regret that this music has been forgotten over the years, as a great deal of it is every bit as good, if not better, than most of what's being written today around the same themes.
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I think what might surprise people the most is how graphic some of the material is. If Tipper Gore had problems with the "Mature Content" of rap songs, I wonder what she'd make of songs with titles like "Let Me Play With It" or lyrics like those of the song "Pussy" where the singer talks about stroking his woman's pussy. The sexual innuendo isn't exactly subtle and the double entendres fly fast and thick in quite a few songs, but especially on the second disc of the set, subtitled "Lust". Oh and if you think only the male singers are raunchy, well you really have led a sheltered life haven't you. Don't worry, Mississippi Matilda will set you straight as she sings to you what's it like to be a "Hard Working Woman". There's also songs that won't offend the more delicate sensibilities out there as well like "Tip Toe Through The Tulips With Me", the original version by Eddie Peabody not Tiny Tim. It's still done on ukulele, and still annoying, but make sure you listen closely to the lyrics, you won't regret it.

While there are a few other familiar names that pop up in the credits and titles; Cab Calloway and His Orchestra, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Mississippi John Hurt are probably the three most widely recognized names; the reality is that even they aren't what you'd call household names anymore. While some of the material and the people performing them have very rightly been swallowed up by the mists of time, the majority are tunes well worth listening to, and if there were any justice in the world, would still be listened to on a regular basis today.

As previously mentioned the second disc in the set contains material that revolves around the theme of "Lust". Each of the other two discs are similarly organized with the first focusing on "Love" and the third on "Contempt". While you might be tempted to skip over the first disc in order to sample what "Lust" and "Contempt" have to offer (Love songs are a dime a dozen these days, but how many good contempt songs have you heard recently?) don't let yourself be prejudiced by thoughts of contemporary songs. Where else are you going to hear bands like Banjo Ikey Robinson and His Bull Fiddle Band or Little Kimbrough and Winston Holmes and songs with titles like "That's What The Bachelor's Made Out Of " (Taylor's Kentucky Boys) and "Insane Crazy Blues"? (Charlie Burse with Memphis Jug Band) Believe me when I tell you they don't write love songs like these anymore, and while not all of them are going to appeal to everyone, the great thing about this collection is if you don't like a tune - skip ahead to the next because its going to be something completely different from what's come before.
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Of course some of the best titles are to be found on the "Contempt" disc; "You Gonna Look Like A Monkey When You Get Old", "Wimmin-Aaah!", and "Its A Shame To Whip Your Wife On Sunday". The latter very pleasantly reminds listeners that there's no need to whip your wife, or do any manner of things on Sundays, as there plenty more days of the week for you to take care of those tasks without violating the Sabbath. While there is great material throughout the collection, there seems to have been something about "Contempt" that inspired people that little bit extra. Not only are there more songs on this side than either of the other two, there's no denying that on the whole they're a good deal more interesting. It's been said that love and hate are the opposite faces of the same coin, but in the case of popular music from the 1920 and 30s it seems like people might have spent a little more on despising then they did on adoring.

A lot of trouble has been taken with creating an appropriate package for the music on these three discs and you can't help but appreciate both the artwork and the photographs used as covers, labels for the CDs and in the accompanying booklet. The booklet and the disc's gatefolds are adorned with period photographs reflecting the title's themes and each disc comes complete with a label done in the Art Deco style of the period.

Baby How Can It Be: Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s is a veritable cross section of American popular music. What's truly wonderful about it is that no matter what genre the song, it predates the era of slick presentation and commercial concerns whose end result was to reduce everything to its lowest common denominator. This is a trip back to the days when not all popular songs sounded alike or adhered to some industry dictated formula for success. The material on these discs are the real roots of American popular music, but much of it has been forgotten or ignored over the years. While unfortunately a great deal of what was recorded in the time period represented by this collection has been lost, the samples offered by it give us some indication of just how rich and vibrant our popular music culture once was. If nothing else, maybe this collection will inspire people who hear it to seek out more of the same and others to open their eyes to the limitless possibilities of popular music.

(Article first published as Music Review: Various Artists - Baby How Can It Be? Songs Of Love, Lust & Contempt From The 1920s & 1930s on Blogcritics.)

November 5, 2010

Music Review: Jefferson Airplane: Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition

Back in the dark ages - the early 1970s when disco ruled the airwaves and before punk reminded us that rock and roll should make the establishment nervous not be part of it - I was your typical lost teenager looking for direction. As the present looked so dismal and I was lousy at looking into the future, the only viable alternative seemed to involve looking backwards for guidance. Reading about the previous decade with its protests against the war in Vietnam, the fight for Civil Rights and the music that accompanied it all made the 1960s seem a far more exciting time to be alive then the decade I was living through.

Needless to say the reality was lot different than any romantic notions my teenage self might have had. For while the lofty ideals of people like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were indeed worthy of being kept alive and venerated, a great deal of what I was first attracted to didn't bear up well under close scrutiny. Mind expanding drug trips could just as easily be heroin addiction and overdoses, the sexual revolution was just another excuse for men to exploit women and a great deal of the music was as manipulative and corporate as what was being put out in my own era. The more music I listened to the more I began to appreciate how the era's reputation for being a golden age of popular music was based on the achievements of a few gifted people and what I can only assume was a diminished capacity for critical evaluation caused by drug use.

However, while there were many groups which disappointed, one who lived up to their press clippings and whose reputation wasn't based on hazy memories was Jefferson Airplane. While psychedelic bands were just about as common as weeds in the Airplane's home town of San Francisco in the 1960s they stood out from the pack. Not only were they musically versatile, equally capable of burning the house down with acid rock as they were playing traditional blues numbers and ballads, what really caught my attention was the interplay of voices between their three main vocalists; Marty Balin, Grace Slick and Paul Kantner.
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While Slick would swoop in and around her male counterparts like a circling bird of prey, it was when she stepped up to the microphone for her leads the true scope of her talent was revealed. It wasn't just that she was powerful, anybody can be loud, it was her ability to modulate her voice to suit the requirements of the material that was so impressive. Whether it was her in your face demanding of her audience whether they wanted somebody to love or not on "Somebody To Love" or the harmonies she wove with Balin and Kantner that could take you to a place few other female rock vocalists had even attempted before her, she was far different from any other female vocalist I had ever heard.

Yet Slick hadn't been there when the Airplane first took flight, not joining the band until the fall of 1966. Around a month after she joined, while they were still recording Surrealistic Pillow, the band introduced Slick to their audience over the course of two concerts at the end of November that year. Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition, being released on November 9/11 by Collectors Choice Music, brings those two concerts to CD for the first time and gives listeners a glimpse of what was to come with Slick as a member of the band. The concerts were a mix tunes taken from the soon to be released Surrealistic Pillow, covers and songs either from their first album or that would end up on other albums further down the road.

While the set list for both nights was pretty much identical, listening to how much the songs changed from performance to performance gives one a good idea of both their willingness and ability at improvisation. Whether it was just a matter of changing the guitar solos or taking a different approach to the song on a different night it's hard not to be impressed by the way they were will to tinker with new material in front of an audience. You get the idea that they were still finalizing their forthcoming album and taking this opportunity to try out ideas for each of the new songs before they came up with a final version for the record.

The other thing the recording does is show the different musical and intellectual interests at play in the group. Bass player Jack Casady and lead guitarist Jorma Kaukonen's interest in the blues, that would see them forming Hot Tuna as a side project in the future, comes through in the band's performance of Jorma's "In The Morning" and his passionate guitar work during the same. At the other end of the scale is Balin's biting and sarcastic "3/5 Of A Mile In Ten Seconds" with his plea to "Do away with people wasting all of his precious time". Floating above and around all of them are Kantaner and Slick's early explorations of the fantastic and psychedelic as can be heard in the early versions of Slick's "White Rabbit" and the only known live recording of Kantner's "DCBA-25".
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While these divergent interests were what made Jefferson Airplane so much more vital a band than the majority of the so called acid rock groups showing up in the Bay area, it was also the eventual reason for the demise of the original line up within a few years of this concert. However in 1966 what it made for was an exciting group who refused to be nailed down as one thing or another. Their cover of Fred Neil's "The Other Side of This Life" takes the one time folk song into territory its writer probably never imagined, while their version of Donavon's "Fat Angel" is remarkably sensitive to its origins.

Many times there are good reasons why previously unreleased material never sees the light of day, usually because the sound quality sucks. However that's not the case with Live At The Filmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition as the sound is remarkably clean. Far too often live recordings see some part of the mix washed out for one reason or another, but in this case none of the band's subtler nuances are lost in the recording process. In fact considering the sound systems of the day, I wouldn't be surprised if these discs aren't in some ways superior to what the audience at the concert heard.

More then forty years after this concert took place, and some thirty odd years after I first listened to Jefferson Airplane, their music remains as interesting and exciting as it was originally. While the group is still only in the earliest stages of their career when this disc was recorded, not only does their potential for greatness shine through, but they are already delivering performances far superior to what you'd expect from a group who had only finalized their line-up a month or two previously. This recording is more than just a curiosity piece that will be of interest to no one but die hard Jefferson Airplane fans, its a great record that will give people an opportunity to experience one of the best bands to come out of the San Francisco scene of the 1960s. If you ever wondered what all the fuss was about when people talk about Jefferson Airplane, this will go a long way towards answering those questions.

(Article first published as Music Review: Jefferson Airplane - Live At The Fillmore Auditorium 11/25/66 & 11/27/66: We Have Ignition on Blogcritics.)

November 2, 2010

Music Review: Mark Newman - Walls Of Jericho

It's a long walk to the centre stage microphone from either the right or left side of the stage where a band's lead guitarist usually hangs out. Oh sure it might not look like a great distance physically, but to make the trip from being a sideman to fronting a band involves much more than just taking a few steps in one direction or the other. Think of all those times you've been impressed by either a background singer or a lead guitarist in a group and then compare that with how many of them have ever gone on to have a really successful solo career. To be honest the only one who springs instantly to my mind is Ry Cooder. I can't begin to count the number of people who've made me think, "Wow I'd like to hear them do something solo", only to be disappointed by what they produce on their own.

There's a big difference between being a really good musician and being a front person for a band. He or she will be the focus of an audiences' attention no matter where they are standing or what they are doing while on stage. Even when the spotlight temporarily leaves them to focus on another's solo, it always seems like they are only lending the attention to the other and things only return to normal when the spotlight finds them again. Call it charisma, call it a certain je ne sais quois, call it whatever you like, but there just seem to certain people who are made to be in the spotlight and others who are destined to support them.

The first time I saw or heard Mark Newman was on a telecast of a concert given by the late Willy DeVille on his last European tour. Newman wasn't a regular member of DeVille's touring band and in fact had never played with them before. What impressed me the most about watching Newman was seeing how he didn't try to copy the work of the man he was replacing, but had the confidence in his own abilities to bring his own interpretations to the material. It's very difficult to parachute into a band and replace somebody who has played with them for years, but not only did Newman not look out of place, he brought a new flavour to familiar material while remaining true to DeVille's distinctive sound. DeVille must have been happy with him as well, because after his death his widow presented Newman with her husband's dobro.
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Aside from playing with DeVille and others over the years, Newman has also been forging his own solo career and his first release, Must Be A Poney, came out in 2006. Not having heard the previous CD I was intrigued enough by what I had seen him do in the telecast to check out his brand new release, Walls Of Jericho, and see if he was as capable a front man as he is a sideman. As ten of the twelve tracks on the disc are his own material it should provide a good indication of his ability to live in the spotlight rather than just sharing it for a few seconds a song.

For anyone who has seen Newman play guitar it should come as no surprise that right from the first track, "Until The Morning Comes", his playing is what grabs your attention. Yet it's not because he's doing any of the typical guitar hero stuff involving playing a million notes at high speed or tearing a hole through the middle of a song with any of the other pyrotechnics that seem to be the stock in trade of lead guitarists. Instead what you'll notice about his playing is its clarity of tone and how he has integrated it into the overall flow of each song. His songs aren't simply excuses for him to unleash blistering guitar solos or to show off in any manner, they are fully crafted pieces of work made up of more than just his own talents on stringed instruments.

I say stringed instruments because Newman is not only a highly skilled guitar player, but also shines on pedal steel, mandolin, and bass and slide guitars. No matter which of these instruments he happens to pick up he plays it with the same clarity of tone and restraint that was so appealing on the opening track. Of course there's more to songs and an album than just someone's ability to play their instrument; there's a couple of things called lyrics and vocals which go a long way towards making or breaking a tune. To be honest, Newman's vocal abilities don't jump out and strike you immediately as there's nothing that marks his voice as instantly distinctive. On the other hand he's not one of those people who initially impress you with some specific vocal quirk but who lose your attention after a song or two when you discover they have nothing else to offer, including sincerity.
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What you'll learn about Newman over the course of listening to the recording is that while there doesn't seem to be anything particularly remarkable about his voice, you can't ignore it. Like his guitar playing his vocals aren't about wowing you, but about being in service to the material. Whether he has a particular message he's trying to put across, like "Fire On The Water" and what it has to say about oil spills caused by the recklessness of oil companies, or is being a little more abstract as is the case with the haunting "White Bird", he doesn't have any trouble holding your attention. The only exception for me was the 7th track on the disc, "Vacation" and that was just a matter of personal taste as it wasn't the type of song I like. That's not to say it wasn't as well written and performed as the rest of the disc, it just wasn't my cup of tea.

Anyone who has heard Mark Newman play guitar, or any of the other instruments he is so highly proficient with, will be well aware of what a talented sideman he is. After listening to Walls Of Jericho you will see he's equally capable of taking the large step from the side of the stage to the centre. His abilities as a singer, songwriter and interpreter of other people's material, including a cover of his former band leader's, Willy DeVille, "Mixed Up, Shook Up Girl", are such that he can more than hold his own in the bright glare of the spotlight. Even better is how he uses the light in order to serve the material and not his ego, sharing it with others, like his duet with Naomi Margolin on "White Bird", so that the listener is able to get the most out of a song as possible. Mark Newman may not be a name everybody recognizes as a band leader right now, but after listening to this album you can't help but think that will change in the not too distant future.

(Article first published as Music Review: Mark Newman - Walls Of Jericho on Blogcritics.)

October 27, 2010

Music Review: Hank Williams - The Complete Mother's Best Recordings

Hank Williams was only twenty-nine years old when he was declared dead on arrival at a hospital in Oak Hill West Virginia. The previous night he had been loaded barely conscious into the back seat of a Cadillac. His body wracked with agony from back surgery that had never been allowed to heal properly, emotionally and physically exhausted from the break up of his first marriage and a killer touring schedule, he had passed out in the back seat of the car never to wake again. He had a history of battles with the bottle and by 1952 promoters were leery of booking him as there was no guarantee that even if he showed up he'd be sober enough to go on. However, for two years, from 1949 to 1951, he had dominated the Billboard charts with a series of number one hits and was one of the most popular performers in America.

In 1951 alone he performed 130 shows across Canada and the United States. While that may not seem like a lot to some people, you have to remember this was in the days before bands had tour buses or you could hop a plane to take you across the country in a few hours. Hank and his band, The Drifting Cowboys, did all their travel by car, which was exhausting enough on its own. However, most weeks, no matter where they were, they also had to make sure they were back in Nashville for Saturdays in order to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Aside from touring and recording, in 1951, Hank was also featured on a fifteen minute radio spot every morning that was broadcast across the midwest and the south. From 7:15 am to 7:30 am kitchens in thousands of homes would have the pleasure of Hank's company brought to them by the good people of Mother's Best Flour.
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As there was no way he could record the shows on a daily basis, each time he and the band were back in Nashville they would lay down a number of shows that could then be broadcast over the airwaves at some time in