Thursday, February 14, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1229: Eddie Vedder

I often refer to this blog as my pilot light. It isn’t my best writing, but when I’m not penning the next Great Canadian Novel, it keeps my brain engaged creatively. It takes me about an hour to knock out a review and after a hard day of using my brain for worky-work, that’s about right.

Every now and then I get an extra spurt of creative energy, as I did yesterday when I came up with a new short story. I’ll keep working on that as well, but you won’t read it here – I only give away music reviews for free. If you want my other writing, you gotta pay me.

Disc 1229 is… Ukulele Songs
Artist: Eddie Vedder

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Davey Jones’ personal secretary attempts to figure out how to type up a memo for the boss when he can’t even keep the paper dry.

How I Came To Know It: I am a big Pearl Jam fan so when I read a review of this side project of Eddie Vedder’s I decided to check it out

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Eddie Vedder solo albums – this one and his soundtrack to “Into the Wild” released in 2007. Of the two, I’ll give “Ukulele Songs” the edge.

Ratings:  3 stars

Given Eddie Vedder’s love of surfing and all things Hawaii we shouldn’t be surprised that he decided to do an album full of ukulele music. We should be surprised it took this long and ended up being this good.

It would have been easy for Vedder – who isn’t lacking for cash – to mail this in as a vanity project and call it a day. Instead, he shows a true dedication to the genre, creating a set of heartfelt ukulele numbers.

The album is composed roughly of 2/3 original compositions and 1/3 traditional standards and it is a testament to Vedder’s writing that apart from songs I happened to already know, I couldn’t tell which was which. Listening to “Ukulele Songs” I hope one day some guy on a Hawaiian beach 80 years from now, playing a Vedder original, after it too had become a standard.

The songs have simple themes, principally around damaged love, and evoke a wistful tone that speaks of knowing heartache yet finding a way to let that grief settle comfortably around you. Vedder’s crooning are the mournful wind of loss blowing across the sand at night, and the ukulele is the campfire keeping the centre of the song warm and reassuring. It creates a beautiful balance.

Vedder remains one of rock’s great vocalists, but on “Ukulele Songs” anything too powerful would overwhelm the simple understated tone on the record. Instead, he wisely opts to let his voice gently lilt in accompaniment to his instrument of choice. His trademark vibrato is still there, but it is a bit more relaxed and sweeter than we’re used to hearing.

As for the ukulele playing, I’m no expert but it sounds competent and heartfelt, although a far cry from mastery. The tone lacks a bit of the softness around the edges overall, although on the short instrumental “Waving Palms” Vedder rises to the occasion. Other than that song he doesn’t blow me away, but he does successfully harness the light pluck the instrument needs to work its sprightly magic. Could it be better? Yes, but the authenticity of his playing is more important for these songs than any virtuosity.

The album is 16 songs long, which is at least two songs too many. The overall album length is a restrained 34 minutes but keeping your album to 14 songs maximum isn’t just about overall playing length, it is also about letting the mind focus in on each song. Here I found the combination of very short songs and the large number of them made focusing on individual tracks difficult. Maybe that was the point, but I would have preferred Vedder’s 12 best, rather than his 16 favourites.

Overall, this is a record I put on when I need some calm in my life. It is gentle and joyful, despite its sometimes sad subject matter, and well worth a listen and – dare I say it – a lightening of your wallet. Think of it as a restorative trip to Hawaii in the dead of winter, only much less expensive.

Best tracks: Can’t Keep, Sleeping By Myself, You’re True, Sleepless Nights, Waving Palms, Tonight You Belong To Me (that’s 4 Vedder songs and 2 covers if you are keeping score…)

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1228: Jethro Tull

After a long day at the office I spent the first part of my evening shoveling snow. I love the feel of a winter wonderland when it snows, but after a few days of it, I could do without the shoveling.

Disc 1228 is… Crest of a Knave

Artist: Jethro Tull

Year of Release: 1987

What’s up with the Cover? It’s…the crest of a knave. This particular crest is a fraidy-cat sable on a field of azure and argent. I assume this particular noble is a cousin to brave brave Sir Robin.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Chris played some tracks off of this album at a recent music night and I liked what I heard. Then he went one step further and gave me his copy of the CD (he is now a vinyl devotee so CDs are either too old school or too new school, depending on your perspective).

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Jethro Tull albums. I’m not sure how that happened, but for the most part I blame Chris. I like “Crest of a Knave” a lot, but I’m going to put it in at #2 and leave a little space at the top.

Ratings:  4 stars

It is not every day that a record could best Metallica in its heyday to win music’s most prestigious honour – a Grammy – but that’s exactly what Jethro Tull’s “Crest of a Knave” did, beating out “…and Justice For All” for best hard rock album.

Just kidding! The Grammys aren’t music’s most prestigious honour; they’re shite and have been for years. Also, “Crest of a Knave” is not a hard rock album. It’s more of a cross between synth-rock and prog-rock. The beating Metallica part is true, though. The Grammys may have a hundred different categories but that doesn’t mean they can’t consistently fail to nominate albums in the right ones.

But enough about how much the Grammys suck!* Let’s talk about “Crest of a Knave” which despite winning an award in the wrong category is still a fine record.

While for most of the sixties and seventies Jethro Tull was a mix of progressive rock with a dash of traditional English folk, in the eighties they discovered a more synth-driven sound and their music took a different turn. By 1987, Jethro Tull had balanced out all that synthesizer with more traditional instrumentation the sensibility remained. This was made easier by the ever-present flute in all their music, which is the synthiest of the woodwinds.

Balancing those ethereal sounds is guitarist Martin Barre, who shows off some inspired playing. His tone is reminiscent of Mark Knopfler and if you are going to sound too much like someone else on the guitar, you couldn’t pick any better than Knopfler. Barre has some fine solos on the record, particularly the bluesy meanderings he displays on “Said She Was a Dancer”.

 Said She Was a Dancer” is the star of the record, a song about a chance encounter with a Russian woman that is less romantic than the narrator would have hoped for. The song walks a fine line between mystery, romance and some self-effacing humour from a man who is getting played by a lady out of his league but enjoying every minute of it.

The theme is explored further with “Hot Night in Budapest” which is twice and long and sees the narrator twice as successful as well. Again, the song is heavily reminiscent of Dire Straits in its base groove, before departing down more proggy side paths of jazz flue and creative syncopation.

Lyrically the record is sneaky good, with Anderson delivering many a clever turn of phrase. “Said She Was a Dancer” ends with:

“So I stole one kiss, it was a near miss. She looked at me like I was Jack the Ripper.
She leaned in close. “Goodnight” was all she said
So I took myself off to bed.”

Missed it by that much!

Mountain Men” is a love song from Anderson to his native Scotland, starting the song with:

“The poacher and his daughter throw soft shadows on the water in the night
A thin moon slips behind them as they pull the net with no betraying light.”

Instantly you can feel yourself grounded in the scene and as the song unfolds Anderson’s love for his homeland becomes more and more clear. The song feels heartfelt throughout without ever feeling contrived or emotionally manipulative.

Anderson is a natural story teller, although I sometimes found myself wishing his elfin vibrato vocal had a bit more gravitas. While this is part of what makes Jethro Tull’s sound, on an album designed with such a lush soundscape he sometimes sounds a bit thin by comparison.

This is a minor quibble though, and overall “Crest of a Knave” was an enjoyable listen, melodically interesting, lyrically engaging and featuring some fine work on both the guitar and the flute.

*while I maintain the Grammys suck, a big shout out to two of my favourite artists who overcame the usual bad decisions made there to win one this year – Brandi Carlile and St. Vincent!

Best tracks: Said She Was a Dancer, Budapest, Mountain Men, The Waking Edge

Monday, February 11, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1227: The Sword

Let it snow! It is snowing hard in my part of the world, which doesn’t happen very often. I kind of like the snow, as long as it doesn’t stick around too long. After about a week I’ve pretty much had it with shoveling the sidewalk, for example.

Anyway – on with the next album review!

Disc 1227 is… Gods of the Earth
Artist: The Sword

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? Lo, even though their temples be smashed to rubble, the Gods of the Earth shall rise up! Lightning shall illuminate the sky over the Canyon of the Ancient Ones! Also…there shall be a sword! A shiny one!

How I Came To Know It: Youtube recommended the band to me and once I was on to them, “Gods of the Earth” came along as I drilled through their back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Sword albums. Of the four, I rank “Gods of the Earth” last, but even at #4 I still really like it. As this is the final Sword album in my collection, here is a full recap:

  1. Warp Riders: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1165)
  2. Apocryphon: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1138)
  3. Age of Winters: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1055)
  4. Gods of the Earth: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings:  3 stars

If you thought the album cover for “Gods of the Earth” was heroic, wait until you hear about the music. This is “majesty of rock” action right down to the core and while it doesn’t quite have the same standout singles as my favoured Sword albums, it rocks just as hard.

I listened to this album while walking home in a blizzard. The last time I listened to an album coming home in a blizzard it was Big Daddy Kane (Disc 1108, if you are inclined). I almost wrecked my MP3 player that day as I insisted on pulling it out in the snow and looking at each song title on the walk.

I was determined to avoid this mistake today, so I put the Walkman into my jacket’s breast pocket where it would stay both warm and dry. This, plus the Sword’s propensity to ROCK OUT at equally awesome levels throughout a record, had me losing my place on the album.

It turns out…this was kind of fun. It made the record feel even more like a cohesive whole. It also kept me firmly connected to the band’s churning crunch without giving my frontal lobes a chance to be part of the conversation. They would have just waxed poetic anyway. More on that later.

But first, another tip of my hat to the band. At the forefront of the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal – the Sword show that you can honour traditional musical forms and still sound fresh and current.

What’s more, these guys are a true ensemble. JD Cronise’s vocals have a nice throaty power, but they aren’t going to shatter any glassware. Kyle Shutt’s guitars are thick and confident, but he doesn’t shred solos often. Instead, the two of them (plus drummer Trivett Wingo and bass player Bryan Richie) play as an ensemble, creating a rich power pocket that lurches inexorably forward like a tank across a muddy field of battle.

When I got out of the blizzard, I was able to pay a bit more attention to what these songs are about. Like Iron Maiden before them, The Sword revel in tales of epic fantasy. “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” takes its title and most of its plot from an original tale of Conan the Barbarian, as a man chases a beautiful but dangerous giantess across the tundra. “To Take the Black” is straight out of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” about the members of the Night Watch who forsake their former lives to guard a wall against the undead.

Both “The Frost Giant’s Daughter” and “To Take the Black” are filled with equal amounts of heroic derring-do, even though the first one is someone risking his life trying to get laid, and the second is about a bunch of guys risking their lives while agreeing to never get laid again. Hey, heroism is complicated.

My personal favourite title is “Fire Lances of the Ancient Hyperzephyrians.” I have no idea who the Hyperzephyrians were, but it all sounds Terribly Important:

“Our legends tell of weapons
Wielded by kings of old
Crafted by evil wizards
Unholy to behold.”

Hmmm…I hope those fire lances come with a warning on the label, like “not recommended for nobility below the level of king” or “behold at own risk”. But I digress.

I liked “Gods of the Earth” best when it delivered a mid-tempo crunch and a bit of groove, less so when it got frantic and busy and sacrificed melody for crunch. Even in full gravel-mixer mode, though I couldn’t deny the band’s energy. These guys rock out and they sing about the kind of cool-assed stuff that appeals to the fifteen year old Dungeon Master in all of us. Well, in me anyway.

Best tracks: The Frost Giant’s Daughter, How Heavy This Axe, Maiden Mother & Crone

Friday, February 8, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1226: Amelia Curran

I had a nasty cold for the first half of the week but it has receded just in time for the weekend. Huzzah! My MP3 player also had a cold this week, mysteriously dying Thursday afternoon only to be successfully revived this morning with a reset. I had a brief spell of panic, but such are life’s perils for the music lover.

Disc 1226 is… Watershed
Artist: Amelia Curran

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? A part of Amelia Curran’s head, coloured in soothing blue tones. I like it.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review of this album in a folk music magazine (Penguin Eggs, I believe) and decided after hearing a couple of songs it was worth a try.

How It Stacks Up:  Amelia Curran has eight studio albums but only two caught my attention sufficiently to warrant a purchase. Of those two, “Watershed” is the lesser record. This puts it last in my collection but second best if you consider six albums didn’t even make the cut.

Ratings:  3 stars

“Watershed” is like a gentle mid-summer rain; a bit sad, but with a warmth that makes more soothing than depressing.

The record straddles the worlds of alternative country and pop, and it had me thinking alternately of Mary Chapin Carpenter and Aimee Mann depending on which tradition a particular song was cleaving to. Her vocals have the same smooth, low register delivery of both those artists, and a slight bluesy element to the delivery. Regrettably, I often found myself wishing I was listening to either of those artists instead.

There is nothing wrong with Curran’s vocals. She isn’t a powerhouse, but she writes songs that fit it well, and the tone of her voice is rich and conversational. There are moments where I wish she’d chosen a different phrasing, but for the most part she sings with a relaxed confidence that sits down comfortably in the pocket and tells you a story.

When the songs stray to the pop side of the equation, which they do a fair bit, they tend to lose their gravitas. There are moments on “Watershed” where it felt like the music was just a smooth inoffensive back drop, like something you’d hear in the background at an upscale urban lounge. This might be good for some, but for me music should be centre stage, not part of the scenery.

When she switches to a more folk-country style it is a definite improvement, and in these songs she sounds uncannily like more recent Mary Chapin Carpenter. I love Carpenter, and Curran’s songs are just as good melodically. Lyrically, they didn’t always grab me as much however, with imagery that felt comfortable but didn’t hold my attention. I’d recall an example but…like I said.

The best song on the album is “Sunday Bride” and it is a good one. With a smooth jazz style backbeat, and a lilting melody that showcases Curran’s voice at her best, I suspect this song was a big reason I bought the album in the first place. “Sunday Bride” also juxtaposes a mournful Aimee Mann like vocal performance with some accomplished electric guitar work from Dean Drouillard.

There are plenty of reasons to like “Watershed” and the 3 stars I’ve given it isn’t me having a soft moment – Curran earns it. It is just that apart from a couple of stand out tracks, I don’t see myself putting this album on over other similar music already in my collection. And so I will reluctantly let this one go and save the shelf space.

Best tracks: Watershed, Sunday Bride, Act of Human Kindness, Stranger Things Have Happened

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1225: Okkervil River

After feeling a bit off on Sunday I awoke Monday to a raging cold and it has been hitting with a vengeance ever since. Argh. I’m trying to blink my way through my watery right eye long enough to get this review in the books.

Fun fact – this is my second straight review of an album released in 2013 and the last time I reviewed this next artist was also 2013. And yes, it was all totally random – thanks for asking.

Disc 1225 is… The Silver Gymnasium
Artist: Okkervil River

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Getting work as a giant-bird man must not be easy, but this fellow has found a career in moving houses. He’s brought along his ghetto blaster for music, which is pretty common in that profession and his dead frog, which is less so.

How I Came To Know It: I am a pretty devoted Okkervil River fan, and tend to just buy their new albums as they come out. That’s what happened here.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine Okkervil River albums which to this point is all of them. “The Silver Gymnasium” is solid, but only can manage 6th best.

Ratings:  3 stars

“The Silver Gymnasium” is a lush combination of narrative tales and confessionals; the latest brain-child of lead singer and songwriter Will Sheff who has blended alternative rock, Goth and Americana into something all its own.

Early albums in the band’s discography are a lot more stripped down and folky, but “The Silver Gymnasium” follows the more ambient rock stylings of the band’s 2011 release “I Am Very Far” but with a brighter more up-tempo sound.

Much like my last review (Typhoon’s “White Lighter”) there is a lot going on here. The band has been through many iterations – this one has nine members, plus another seven sessionals adding such instruments as the glass harmonica, handclaps and (because the trumpet, trombone and flugelhorn weren’t enough) a saxophone. Overall, Sheff does a solid job of juggling all these musical options and I never felt like it was too lush, although it definitely approached that line in places.

In terms of standouts, you generally don’t think “radio single” when you listen to Okkervil River. Sheff adamantly refuses to conform to ear-pleasing melodies, favouring music to match the mix of melancholy and reverie that Sheff infuses into his lyrics. The closest he comes is “On a Balcony” which benefits from a soaring chorus and some well-placed horn flourishes. Sure, the protagonist is high on pills, fine wine and “something-and-soda” but it is a song that captures the crazy triumph of excess, even while recognizing the falsity of it all.

Over the years I’ve learned to trust Sheila’s ear for music and when she goes out of her way to praise a song I go out of my way to listen carefully. On “The Silver Gymnasium” that song is “Down Down the Deep River” and once again I was not disappointed. Like “On a Balcony” it has a triumphant sound riding on some well-placed horn. It has a mid-eighties groove and a youthful nostalgia that made me feel like I was back in high school. Then – just when I thought it couldn’t get better – the aforementioned handclaps make an appearance. Handclaps make every song better.

I didn’t particularly like the meandering and unfocused “Lido Pier Suicide Car” or how that phrase trips awkwardly off of Sheff’s tongue. “Walking with Frankie” tries to work a rockabilly beat into the album and it is a poor fit for the record, but these are exceptions. For the most part the record is smart and while it isn’t restrained, it has the good sense to stretch in the right places.

Lyrically, these songs are like a lush piece of narrative short-fiction and it takes a lot of listening and attention to follow along, but it is usually worth the effort.

The record ends with “Black Nemo,” a song that starts with a gently played guitar and piano piece that feels like a cool breeze after a late summer squall. The whole album is an exploration of coming-of-age experiences, and “Black Nemo” feels like a summary of the journey, rich and accepting and maybe a little regretful as each year has those memories farther and farther away. Or as Sheff sings it:

“In the fizzed-out snow of a cathode screen
I saw a broken ghost in an old soap scene.
I let his dead and dreamy eyes follow my eyes.

“And I had a vision of everything hidden but always around me.
It fought me. It found me while going away, floating away on the tide.
Shooting through time with my eyes getting glassy and lined,
While I watch seasons rocketing past me.
They’re going away – a little more every day, all the time.”

The song pulls in both imagery and musical elements from the ten that came before it, making you feel like you’re at the end of a dreamy vacation to a youthful time when things were slower, and everything seemed to mean a little more. And in a way, you are. Way to end on a blue note, Mr. Sheff.

Best tracks: On a Balcony, Down Down the Deep River, Where the Spirit Left Us, Black Nemo

Saturday, February 2, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1224: Typhoon

I’m right in the middle of a very busy weekend of activity. Today I managed to squeeze in a quick trip to the record store where I found one album that was on my wish-list (Phoebe Bridgers’ “Stranger in the Alps”) and took a chance on another one (“The Unforgiving Sounds of MAOW” MAOW was an early project of Neko Case that I’m excited to explore.

But first, here is my next review. For the third album in a row we have more pop music.

Disc 1224 is… White Lighter
Artist: Typhoon

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Dr. Rorschach: “Look into the inkblot and tell me what you see.” Me: “I see a moth, Dr. Rorschach.” Rorschach: “Why do you think you see a moth?” Me: “I don’t think I see a moth, I see a moth because there’s a moth, right there, sitting in your inkblot. I think your slide needs cleaning.”

How I Came To Know It: I read about this album on a “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums of All Time” article. I got a lot of great music through that article and I used to link to it, but the page got very buggy, so I’ve stopped doing so.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Typhoon albums. Of the two, “White Lighter” is the better record so it ranks…#1.

Ratings:  3 stars but almost 4

There is a lot going on in Typhoon. “White Lighter” is an album replete with great musical ideas. When it works it is complex and inspiring, and when it doesn’t it is usually because they are trying to jam one too many concepts into a song that is already at maximum carrying capacity.

There are 11 members in this band and yet – strangely – the music isn’t even remotely ska-like in flavor. Instead it is like a mini-orchestra, mixing traditional rock instrumentation with a horn section, a string section and a bunch of other seemingly random things that they throw into the auditory soup.

As you might expect from a band with 11 people in it, this is not simple straightforward indie pop. The songs are filled with layers of sound, multiple bridges, change-ups and complicated arrangements. They all know what they’re doing and things never get muddy like they might in the hands of lesser musicians. However, the sheer weight of things going on still threatens to tilt the whole structure over.

When I liked them they reminded me of Ages and Ages with uplifting choral sections, and splashes of string and horn that provide the songs’ emotional underpinnings. When I didn’t like them they reminded me of Arcade Fire, with too many flourishes and a penchant for throwing in something weird into the mix like a xylophone that delivers a hint of smirky clever, but no emotional underpinning.

This is important, because band leader and principal songwriter Kyle Morton clearly sees this band as having an emotional resonance at its core. You can tell by the anguish in his voice and the way he’ll repeat phrases to underscore how serious he is, like on “Possible Deaths” where he looks at the stars and mournfully repeats “it burned out 500 million years before I saw it.” A good line once, but a bit overwrought on multiple iterations. My advice: say your great line once and then go write a different one.

But this is part of Typhoon’s sound, building a mood through musical and lyrical repetition and then shifting both to pull you through a song’s emotional journey. When it works it puts a knot in your throat. When it doesn’t work it feels manipulative. I felt equal measure of both.

On the plus side, you have “Young Fathers” with a mindful exploration of the mistakes and doubts and confusion we absorb as children and pass down as adults:

“I was born in September
And like everything else I can’t remember
I replaced it with scenes from a film that I will never know.

“When I blinked it was over
I was thinking my life would get slower
That I would sort this shit out when I’m sober.”

On the negative side you have the self-absorbed “Hunger and Thirst

“Caught pining for the things that I could have been
I could have been a gold digger
I could have been a gunslinger
I could have been a little bigger
I could have been my own ringer
I could have been a pop singer (x3)
But what I am is the silence.”

Yes, Morton sings that one line three times which is ironic, given that he is a pop singer, but if that’s the point he’s making then it is a bit too on the nose.

For all the things that frustrated me about “White Lighter”, the record is a beautiful – if overly-ornate – collection of music. I expect it was a critical darling and for many it would earn an easy 4 stars. I would have been happier with a 10% less maudlin and if two or three band members took a few songs off but now and then but overall it is still a solid record.

Best tracks: Young Fathers, Morton’s Fork, Possible Deaths, Dreams of Cannibalism, Common Sentiments

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1223: No Doubt

I’ve been trying to take on new experiences in 2019. Today I received my first ever professional straight-razor shave from a barber. Many thanks to Mo at Atmosphaire for the experience, and to Sheila for the gift card that encouraged me to go!

Disc 1223 is… Rock Steady
Artist: No Doubt

Year of Release: 2001

What’s up with the Cover? A bunch of annoying writing. This looks like what happens to a wall downtown when you don’t paint a nice mural on it: a bunch of idiots tag it. Here No Doubt plays the part of “bunch of idiots” and tags the cover of their album.

How I Came To Know It: This album came out before Youtube so I discovered it through a couple of videos back when Much Music actually played them. I remember one where the band is riding around on Seadoos and another one where Gwen Stefani is rolling around on a bed in her underwear. The second one left an impression.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only No Doubt album we own, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings:  2 stars

Having just reviewed Mother Mother I was in a pop-friendly mood, but “Rock Steady” was not as good as I remember it all those years ago when I bought it.

This is still a solid record, with some solid hooks and a lot of head bobbing beats but I felt like was being manipulated by all the bells and whistles, tricking me with clever production into liking songs that weren’t as good as they should have been.

I tend to delay discussion about an album’s production until later in a review, but on “Rock Steady” it plays too central a role for that. The songs have their basis in traditional rock and roll arrangements – guitar, bass, drum and vocals – but they are also replete with beeps, chirps and distortion effects. All this window dressing is done very well and given the style of music I don’t think the album would sound right without it but it gives the impression of a kid pulling on your sleeve to get your attention; a bit too insistent.

There also isn’t a lot of depth to the message. A lot of these songs make you want to party, but you’re not sure why. When I listen to music I’m like a difficult actor in rehearsal; I need to know my motivation in the scene. This is true even when I’m just enjoying a dance tune.

I forgive a lot of this because the songs are so much fun, even if they are often empty calories. “Rock Steady” is a party record and that’s OK, and whatever tricks are being employed you can’t deny the songs are catchy.

When they do strip it down and you can see the bones of the songs, they stand up pretty well. The best example of this is “Underneath It All” which mixes a reggae back-beat with a sugar-pop vocal delivery from Gwen that makes you think she’s about to whisper “I wanna be your girlfriend.” Of course, she never does. This is probably just as well, as my heart now belongs to St. Vincent. Sorry, Gwen. You’ll always be my Hollaback girl, but I needed to move on. But I digress…

Stefani’s vocals aren’t powerhouse but she’s always been amazing at sitting down in the pocket and singing with gusto. She is a born performer and it is easy to see why she has become a huge star: she is steeped in presence.

Sometimes the songs don’t really go anywhere, such as the meandering “Start the Fire” which is mostly a lot of repeating of “baby, get the lighter/we’re gonna start the fire.” I didn’t mind though, because it has a nice hip-swirl beat and makes you feel like you’ve spent the day at a beach party.

After 11 songs of relaxing reggae-pop fusion you are in a pretty good headspace, but unfortunately the album doesn’t end there. The last two songs “Waiting Room” and “Rock Steady” are annoying and self-indulgent techno-beats that were annoying in the day and have not aged well. While the whole album has a lot of production, these two songs take it to a whole new level, to the point where there is no melodic underpinning to build from or if there is, it is buried too deep to matter.

With the exception of these two tracks, though, I have a soft spot for this record, which is a fun and carefree experience. If you had to hear the music coming from a ghetto blaster one campfire over at the beach, you could do worse than “Rock Steady.” For this reason it stays in the collection although I’m more likely to pull a single off for a dance mix than I am to give the album a full listen.

Best tracks: Hella Good, Underneath It All

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1222: Mother Mother

Last weekend I took a chance on the new Daniel Romano album despite some reviews that gave me pause and my last foray into his catalogue (2017’s “Modern Pressure”) being less than successful.

Romano’s new album, “Finally Free” didn’t even get so far as to earn a review. It is a bloated, self-indulgent mess from beginning to end. Since my requisite three listens would have been two more than I can stomach (three if I could go back in time) I will be free of “Finally Free” the next chance I get to sell it back to the record store. No I won't be reviewing it - you're welcome.

The funny thing is the only reason I took a chance on the album was because we were going to see Romano in concert next month. This album disappointed us so much we've decided not to go.

Like “Finally Free” I bought this next album in anticipation of going to their show and wanting to be familiar with their new material. The review of that album – and the show we saw last night – are both below. It is a much happier tale.

Disc 1222 is… Dance and Cry
Artist: Mother Mother

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? While this album is called “Dance and Cry” both people on the cover have opted for dancing. Good choice! Then again, we can’t see their faces so it is possible they are also crying, but I hope not – crying will just restrict their lungs and negatively impact their dancing.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve been a Mother Mother fan for a while now so this was just me buying their new album when it came out. Plus, I was excited at the upcoming live show.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Mother Mother albums. Of the five, I put “Dance and Cry” in at third spot, bumping both “No Culture” and “Eureka” down a spot.

Ratings:  3 stars

Some bands just now how to write a pop hook, and Mother Mother is one of them. On “Dance and Cry” they take a similar anthem pop-rock approach as on “No Culture,” but has rounded out the edges and provided a slightly better record in the process.

“No Culture” was lead singer and writer Ryan Guldemond’s “getting sober” album and “Dance and Cry” features many of the same themes, and while the celebration of getting his life back is just as palpable there is a less manic quality to the work as a whole that gives it a more organic feel.

The party atmosphere still takes center stage and even on songs that explore depression like “So Down” there is a core of celebration in the melody that convinces you that everything is going to be OK. On the more upbeat songs like “Get Up” you get wolf howls and rapid-fire lyrics, plus a hook that would drive you to dance in a bank lineup. Even “Get Up” has its elements of doubt and this is the charm of Mother Mother; they realize that when you feel good, there will still be some nagging doubt, and when you’re down there will always be a core of optimism.

My favourite tracks are “It’s Alright” and “Bottom Is a Rock,” both of which have this same dichotomy built into them. “It’s Alright” is a reminder to anyone who has suffered from bad judgment or maybe just a little non-specific anxiety. Guldemond sings about a bad day filled with perceived mistakes, before the angelic voices of Molly Guldemond and Jasmin Parker respond with a verse reminding him:

“It’s alright, it’s OK
You’re not a monster
Just a human
And you’ve made a few mistakes.”

Molly Jasmin are critical to the band’s sound, giving songs texture and light with bright vocals that ride the song like a wave, sometimes matching and reinforcing Ryan’s delivery, and sometimes playing foil against it.

On “Bottom is a Rock” Guldemond observes that sometimes you are going to fall, and sometimes that fall is going to be something we need to rise up again. It is a fist-pumper of a sing-along party song, with a back-eddy message reminding us that even after you hit rock bottom there might be a few bounces still in you.

The music has solid guitar licks, but this is not guitar rock by any stretch – this is mainstream pop, given gravitas with thoughtful lyrics and arrangements. All three singers are talented but a big part of what makes the band so enduring is their ability to write solid hooks and build both lyrics and arrangements around those hooks that keep your ear interested even on repeat listens.

In their early years Mother Mother was a lot more raw in their song construction. “Dance and Cry” feels very polished by comparison, but this is not a detriment. Because while there is a lot of complexity and production going on the music never loses its jump and joyful energy.

Best tracks: Get Up, So Down, It’s Alright, Only Love, Bottom is a Rock

The Concert – Monday, January 28, Save-On Foods Memorial Arena, Victoria BC

Sheila wasn’t feeling one hundred percent and I wasn’t sure we were going to make it out last night, but I’m glad we did because once again Mother Mother did not disappoint.

We last saw them almost two years ago at the Save-On-Foods Memorial Arena and I was looking forward to the better experience – both visually and acoustically – offered by Victoria’s historic Royal Theatre.

Said the Whale

The opening act was Said the Whale, a fellow Vancouver band with a very similar sound that complemented Mother Mother well. They had two vocalists with different styles (one a bit more indie folk, the other on the pop side) who took turns at the mic.

In addition to warming up the crowd, Said the Whale ticked all the boxes for an opening act. They praised the headliner, they said their own name clearly at a time when there wasn’t too many shrieks drowning them out, and they shilled for their new record (even waving a copy around on stage, which I liked).

Said the Whale had some pretty solid tracks, and I recognized a few from trying to familiarize myself with the tunes in the lead up to the concert, but ultimately I decided against adding any of their albums to my collection, at least for now.

There was also a lot of genuine love between the band and Mother Mother, with many hugs and expressions of mutual appreciation.

Mother Mother

Mother Mother took the stage with a commanding presence following an intermission that felt overlong but was worth the wait. They had a pretty great light show, which was some combination of spooky forest and disco dance party. It set a good mood even when it was flashing in my eyes, which was often.

Mother Mother in concert has an incredible energy. Ryan Guldemond is a natural front man, and he is flanked on either side by the aforementioned Molly and Jasmin, both of whom are fully comfortable in the lights.

This is particularly true of Jasmin Parkin, who whirls around like a dervish and has dozens of dance moves, each groovier than the next. Molly isn’t as accomplished as a dancer, but she did steal the show when she sang a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Bonus points for singing a song that Radiohead are too stuffed up to play themselves. It is a great song, Thom – play it!

In concert, Mother Mother is a lot more rock focused, with the guitar heavier in the mix and a lot of tasteful soloing. For all that, they make sure that even when they dress up their old songs in heavier production, they keep it true to the original melody and heart of the tune. Everything is recognizable, if a bit more bombastic.

The setlist was a fine selection of about half the new album getting played, plus a bunch of old standards including a few of my favourites, including “Ghosting” and “Hay Loft.”

At one point someone in the audience shouted for “Hay Loft” a second time to which Guldemond replied with “we already played it” and then noted that in every audience “there’s always a Hay Loft guy”. Sad, but true.

The audience was generally well behaved and came in on just the right side of boisterous – exuberant and energetic without becoming aggressive. They were even dressed pretty well, and I spotted more than a few parents taking their teens to the show.

My only disappointment was that during slow and quiet songs (Jasmin Parkin’s stripped down delivery of “Biting on a Rose” comes to mind) there were too many shouts and cheers. Shouts and cheers are for up tempo rock songs – when someone is getting quiet and poignant, have the courage to go there with them.

Overall, another great Mother Mother show at a venue that had great sound, a good crowd and a band with plenty of presence and talent.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1221: The Weepies

Sometimes an album can sit in my collection for years before the dice gods say I should roll them, and sometimes they get called upon within the first week or two. This next album is one of the latter.

Disc 1221 is… Say I Am You
Artist: The Weepies

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? Two birds meet and fall in love. It is all very dear.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Casey played one of their songs and I liked what I heard. That song is on this album!

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Weepies albums, but they are both so new to me it is hard to stack them up. Because I enjoyed it a lot, I’ll say this one is the better of the two but I may change my mind. It is my blog, after all.

Ratings:  4 stars

Is ‘twee’ ever a good thing? Before I heard “Say I Am You” I would have been inclined to say no, but the Weepies do such a good job of it they made me rethink that position.

The Weepies are husband and wife team Steve Tannen and Deb Talan and together they make a folk-pop record that is as light, airy and sweet as a perfectly baked pastry. This is a record made for sunshine and ocean breezes. It is good for a walk in the rain as well, although you should ideally be wearing bright pink or yellow gumboots.

“Say I Am You” goes for a very stripped down approach (there is only two people in the band, after all) with a lot of songs just Deb and Steve singing along to a single strummed guitar, or maybe a bit of string or piano in the background. Less is more here, because too much business would interfere with the simple soulful picture the songs create for you.

Lyrically there is no mighty literary prowess. The songs are light on metaphor, and the metaphors that are there are well-worn or generic. In this way, “Say I Am You” reminded me of a modern pop album, where the writing is kept very high level to encourage universal appeal. Over a third of the songs here have been used in the soundtracks of movies or TV shows, so the universal appeal thing is definitely working for them.

However, there is more going on than just this. While there isn’t a lot of new ground being covered, the Weepies pull it together in a touching and resonant way. The melodies of the songs have a sing-a-long charm and feel timeless and compelling. Talan’s voice in particular has a good mix of hurt and sugar. It isn’t all-powerful like Patty Griffin and it doesn’t bowl you over emotionally like Emmylou Harris. It draws you in and gives you comfort, like a call from a friend on a Sunday afternoon when you’re feeling down. Maybe there’s no better example than this line from “Painting by Chagall”:

“Sometimes rain that’s needed falls
We float like two lovers in a painting by Chagall.”

Is that all a bit precious? Yes, it is, but somehow it works when you hear it – and I don’t even like Chagall that much.

I admire “Say I Am You” in part because they don’t mess around. The songs have a message – both lyrically and melodically – and they get right into it without a lot of intros and outros. This is rare, with a lot of indie music, which can tend toward half-formed thoughts and a lot of added clangor and distraction in place of completing them. Here the songs are quick (nothing longer than 4:13 with “Suicide Blonde” clocking in at a mayfly-like 1:36) but they live a lifetime in their brief time between your ears.

Your enjoyment of this record will be directly proportional to how willing you are to overlook the sugarcoating. Even the sad songs seem weirdly comforting. “Nobody Knows Me At All” is a song of isolation, but it also creates a community of the misunderstood. Kind of like Emily Dickinson did when she wrote:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!

The Weepies get this, and they get you too. If they don’t get you, then at least they make you realize you’re not alone in your aloneness.

There is a lot of music out there about uncertainty and doubt, but very little of it is wrapped in an embrace of hope. And that sugarcoating might appear dear, but once in a while we need a community of the pale and wan, rather than isolation. I enjoyed letting the Weepies might make me feel uncertain, while they simultaneously gave me a great big hug to let me know everything was going to be alright.

Best tracks: Gotta Have You, World Spins Madly On, Citywide Rodeo, Painting by Chagall, Nobody Knows Me At All, Not Your Year, Slow Pony Home

Monday, January 21, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1220: Wagakki Band

My last review was an album entirely filled with songs about the St. Lawrence Seaway. This next album is about as far as you could get from that, but equally enjoyable.

Disc 1220 is… Yasou Emaki
Artist: Wagakki Band

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? The Wagakki Band strike heroic poses. This cover demonstrates that poses always look more heroic when you brandish a sword.

Despite all the swords, there is no reason for alarm – they’re musicians not swordfighters. And don’t worry about the fact that there are eight of them; they aren’t a ska band either.

How I Came To Know It: I was reading an article online and someone was pointing out how weird this band was. I’d never heard them so I watched the embedded video to decide for myself. The video was over the top, filled with fantasy fight scenes which were pretty cool but as for the music I didn’t find it weird at all - I just liked it.

I then set out to find a Wagakki Band album but that is not easy on this side of the Pacific Ocean. In 2017 Sheila and I went to San Francisco and I brought my ‘hard to find’ music list to the legendary Amoeba Records. Sheila quickly became bored watching me dig through the stacks so she amused herself by helping me look for rare records. I gave her this one as an assignment not expecting much but low and behold – she found it.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have one Wagakki Band album. I am on the lookout for their 2014 effort “Vocalo Zanmai” but it might be a while. Even Amoeba didn’t have that one. For now, there is no stacking to be had.

Ratings:  3 stars but almost 4

Imagine Jethro Tull, Iron Maiden and Madonna had a baby and you might have an approximation of Japanese folk-metal group Wagakki Band. The group blends pop, traditional Japanese folk and heavy metal into a high-energy soup of syncopation and soaring melodies.

The band’s front woman is Suzuhana Yuko. Suzuhana’s vocals are pure pop, pure and light with a little sugar around the edges, like she’s smiling at you while she’s singing. Her vocals carry most of those uplifting melodies I noted earlier, and she delivers them in long, furious bursts that must take incredible breath control. She doesn’t blow you away with power, but there is a technical mastery there, and whatever she’s singing (all the songs are in Japanese) she sings it with conviction.

Wagakki Band is famous for blending Western rock and roll with traditional Japanese forms, and their commitment starts with their instruments. Alongside the standard guitar-drums-bass approach they add Japanese folk instruments including the koto (a thirteen string sideways harp), the tsugaru shamisen (a kind of thin-necked banjo/guitar), and the shakuhachi (an end-blown bamboo flute). The blend of east and west works fabulously here, creating an undercurrent of heavy metal, with the bright and more whimsical traditional instruments.

I am particularly fond of Kaminaga Daisuke’s work on the shakuhachi. When Suzahana’s vocals aren’t casting their spell, you can be sure Kaminaga’s flute will be. His shakuhachi alternates from a blur of fantasy-evoking notes to a ghostly whistle as the song requires. There is plenty of great guitar licks on “Yasou Emaki” but I like it best when the shakuhachi is rocking out.

The entire album has a driving energy that makes it rush forward. Despite clocking in at a rather bloated 61 minutes the experience was over before I knew it.

Lyrically, I had no idea what was going on. The tracks are all listed in Japanese and while the CD booklet prints all the lyrics, those are in Japanese as well. There are some English words in the titles (Track 3 is called “Perfect Blue” and Track 12 has the words “Attack on Titan” embedded in the middle of a bunch of Japanese characters, but that was far too little information to form a guess about what the songs were about.

It was a bummer, because I suspect these guys sing about cool stuff, but I have no idea. It reminded me a little of when I listen to Celtic folk music in Gaelic, catching the energy but not knowing what is happening, except in this case everything is sped up and electrified.

Wagakki Band is not for everyone. You need to like both folk and metal, and you have to have an open mind to hearing some arrangements and melodic structures that aren’t exactly what your ear is accustomed to. However, if you can open your mind to the experience, these guys will quickly draw you in with their skillful playing and enthusiastic delivery.

Best tracks: I know what I like, I but I don’t know what they’re called so I’ll just list them by track: Track 1, Track 2, Track 3, Track 6, Track 11, Track 12