Sunday, May 21, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1007: Paul Ngozi

I’m in the middle of a four day weekend and getting my money’s worth out of every minute of it so far. On Friday I went a little crazy and bought 13 albums, which is a lot even for me. Here’s the list:
  • She & Him, “Volume 3”
  • Mountain Goats, “Tallahassee”, “The Life of the World to Come,” and “Goths”
  • Gillian Welch, “Revival” and “Time (the Revelator)”
  • Dawes, “Stories Don’t End”
  • The Civil Wars, “Self Titled”
  • Nick Drake, “Pink Moon”
  • Josh Ritter, “Hello Starling”
  • Hem, “Rabbit Songs”
  • Shangri-Las” “Best of the Mercury Years”
  • Sun Kil Moon “Ghosts of the Great Highway”
I’ll review those as I roll them, but for now you can rest assured that there is still plenty of sailing before the CD Odyssey reaches its Ithaca.

Disc 1007 is…The Ghetto
Artist: Paul Ngozi

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? A blue and white drawing depicting an African ghetto, complete with straw shanties, old boots and bins full of garbage. The disembodied head of Paul Ngozi looks on from the Land of Awkward Photoshopping.

How I Came To Know It: I was in one of my local record stores a couple of years ago and I heard some very cool music being played in the background. I asked the clerk what it was and he told me it was the Ngozi Family. I bought that album that day and loved it, so when I saw another record featuring Paul Ngozi I snapped it up as well.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Paul Ngozi albums: this one and another where he performs under the name Ngozi Family. Both are awesome, but since this is where I am supposed to stack them up I’ll give the slight edge to “The Ghetto”

Ratings: 5 stars

Paul Ngozi is one of the principal artists of the Zamrock movement, which took place in Zambia in the seventies. A lot of Zamrock didn’t survive because there wasn’t much care taken to preserve the master recordings over the years, but what we do have is pretty awesome.

“The Ghetto” is a mix of African rhythms, crunchy guitar riffs and sixties psychedelic rock, blended to perfection. Guitarist and vocalist Paul Ngozi is at the top of his game, laying down riffs so thick with fuzz and feedback that they practically generate their own gravity. There isn’t anything musically complicated here, just the insistent chugging of Ngozi’s guitar summoning the gods of rock.

At the same time to construct so many solid and amazing rock riffs, each one unique, is a miracle in itself. If these songs don’t make your head bob along in time then there may be something wrong with you. Perhaps your groove is broken? If so, please see a doctor, as a broken groove is no laughing matter.

As you might expect, the production on this record is limited, and I can only imagine what limited resources Ngozi had to record this stuff in his native Zambia. While this would detract from a lesser record, the crunch of songs like “Who Will Know” and “Can’t You Hear Me” is undeniable. The only impact the limited production has on these masterpieces is to make them feel more raw and visceral.

With all the heaviness on the record, Ngozi wisely throws in a few palate cleansers. “Anasoni,” “Bamayo” and “Ulesi Tileke” all have an easy flow, and are given a bit of added jump through the tasteful application of African rhythms. “Bamayo” in particular feels celebratory and relaxed. I have no idea what the song is about, but the tune makes me want to dance at a backyard barbecue while sipping a mint julep. It is just…chill.

Ngozi does more than rock and relaxation, though; this is also music with a message. “In the Ghetto” paints a picture of poverty and despair, and calls on parents to “reduce your drinking” which I found interesting. Not “stop your drinking” but “reduce your drinking” as though he knows a full stop is not a realistic goal for people this badly off.

The album also has religious overtones but never feels preachy. Even on “Suicide” when Ngozi warns “God will punish you,” it feels more like he’s trying to get you to hold on, rather than threatening you with damnation. On “Jesus Christ” Ngozi tells the story of Christ’s crucifixion, reminding us that “Jesus Christ, he was a man of peace” and when he sings “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing” it feels half like he’s quoting Jesus and half like he’s personally asking God to forgive the Romans.

“The Ghetto” is a record that is loaded with the frustration and aggression of Ngozi’s surroundings but it never descends into despair. Instead, it channels that rage into powerful music and a message of hope and forgiveness. It does all this while rocking as hard and heavy as anything you’ll hear.

Best tracks: all tracks

Friday, May 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1006: Imelda May

Chris Cornell tragically took his own life Thursday morning at the age of 52. It is still hard to process that he is gone.

I did not start out loving grunge as much as everyone else my age did (I am 46). At the time I was more interested in Celtic folk music. However, my roommate brought a steady stream of grunge into our house throughout the early nineties and I learned to appreciate it.

Of all the bands we listened to, Soundgarden was the first one that appealed to me. With their groovy guitar licks and driving energy, their music energized my soul and Cornell’s voice was one of rock and roll’s all-time greats. Back in the early nineties I was dirt poor, and songs like “Outshined” and “Hunger Strike” spoke deeply to me, giving a voice to the rage and frustration that seethed during some of my blacker days. It ended up being just as therapeutic as the upbeat life-affirming qualities of Celtic folk music.

After I moved out, I ended up missing all those Soundgarden albums, and eventually bought them all – and the ones that were released later besides. When Audioslave came along, I bought those too.

RIP, Chris Cornell. I won’t speculate on what led you to do what you did – there’ll be plenty of people doing that in coming weeks. Instead, I’ll thank you for all the great music, and all the lives you’ve changed through it. You may be gone but your memory will never be outshined.

Disc 1006 is…Life.Love.Flesh.Blood
Artist: Imelda May

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Herein lies a tale, as gone are Imelda May’s delightful rockabilly style and upswept neo-pompadour hair style. In its place we have a stripped down May, with jet black hair, non-descript outfit and a pensive look on her face.

She’s still alluring as all get-out, but I admit I miss the wild woman look.

How I Came To Know It: I love Imelda May so when I saw she put out a new album I bought it after only hearing two tracks. Some people just get a pass.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Imelda May albums. I like them all but competition is tight, and I must regretfully put “Life.Love.Flesh.Blood” and its annoying punctuation in fourth place.

Ratings: 3 stars
“Life.Love.Flesh.Blood” doesn’t just feature a fresh haircut for Imelda May, it also represents a shift in her music. Her rockabilly roots are no longer showing, replaced with an interesting mix of pop and lounge-style crooners. It is still a good record, but I missed the wild and rambunctious aesthetic of her earlier records.

The album’s first track is also its best. “Call Me” is a perfect mix of pop and lounge, and May’s voice has never been sweeter as she reaches out tenderly but insistently to a wayward lover. It is a good thing I don’t have May’s number, because I’d be calling her every time this song came on.

May wrote or co-wrote all the songs on the album, and her ability to make a new song sound timeless is as brilliant as ever. “Black Tears” sounds like that last slow song at the end of a 1940s USO dance, where the ladies picked their favourite sailors, crossed their wrists behind their necks and let the music sway their hips just this side of respectable.

This playful sexuality has always been part of Imelda May’s music, but on “Life.Love.Flesh.Blood” she trades the more overt flirtation of earlier records for a more subtle and sultry delivery. The songs are slow seductions, best played in low light.

Lyrically there isn’t anything special going on here, but May delivers the lines with a believability and easy power that helps them punch above their weight.

Her rockabilly roots return briefly on “Bad Habit” where May playfully tells the story of a spendthrift who can’t resist a pair of Louboutins or anything else on sale for that matter. She goes to the doctor to see if she has a problem, but he only replies “there’s nothing wrong with you but your bank account!” Nice.

The album features guest appearances by guitarist Jeff Beck on “Black Tears” and keyboardist Jools Holland on “When It’s My Time” and both artists do a stellar job of playing second fiddle to May. Pompadour or not, she is a frontwoman who cannot be ignored.

The album feels a little too mainstream in places, and songs like “Leave Me Lonely” are good, but sound like the kind of power pop I would hear on the radio (if I ever listened to the radio). I found myself wondering if May was trying for something with a broader appeal. I can’t judge her for that; she’s long been under-appreciated, and has the talent and charisma that should have made her an international star a long time before now.

The record’s final track is “The Girl I Used To Be” which is a stunner of a folk song dressed up in pop clothing. While the song is about May’s childhood and upbringing, it also seems to express an affirmation that while her musical style has shifted a little, she is still very much in touch with her earlier work.

“Life.Love.Flesh.Blood” has less obvious standouts than May’s previous albums, but it is a nice slow burn. I enjoyed it more and more on each listen, appreciating the subtlety of these songs as they crept up on me. It is a good sign for the years to come.

Best tracks: Call Me, Black Tears, Bad Habit, The Girl I Used To Be

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1005: Emmylou Harris

I’m feeling restless today, but I think I’m just eager for a long weekend.

Disc 1005 is…The Ballad of Sally Rose
Artist: Emmylou Harris

Year of Release: 1985

What’s up with the Cover? The tyrannical run of Giant Head covers has ended at five, replaced with this…tiny head cover. This cover features the head of Emmylou Harris, which is lovely at any size, and a tasteful script and floral border. The whole thing looks rather timeless.

Except, of course for the advertisement of “A DIGITAL RECORDING” at the top. On a CD that came out in 1985, this is not a good sign. More on this later.

How I Came To Know It: I recently went through Emmylou Harris’ back catalogue to see if any I didn’t have struck my fancy. Three did, and the other two were both recently reviewed (“Cowgirl’s Prayer” reviewed back at Disc 979, and “Bluebird” reviewed back at Disc 973). "The Ballad of Sally Rose" is the third.

How It Stacks Up:  I am still missing one Emmylou Harris album I want (1990’s “Brand New Dance”). Even without that album I have fourteen of Emmylou’s albums. Of those fourteen, I’m going to bump “Roses in the Snow” down yet another spot to make room for “the Ballad of Sally Rose” at #9.

Ratings: 3 stars

It’s not every day you get a country music concept album but I guess if you’re Emmylou Harris you’ve done everything else, so why not?

On “The Ballad of Sally Rose” Emmylou makes succeeds in making this strange combination work. The album tells the tale of titular songstress Sally Rose who meets her musical soul mate, falls in love and then drifts away from him as he returns to his rakish ways. Even as she translates the inspiration he provided into a music career of her own, she misses him and intends to reconcile, only to find he has died in a car accident. It’s a fairly obvious story (some say is a loose allegory of Harris’ relationship with Gram Parsons) but Emmylou makes it work.

The story is aided by songs that hold together well, and naturally flow into one another. The eighties were responsible for a lot of country music disasters, but Harris manages to navigate through some of the more artificial aspects of eighties production for the most part unscathed. She even makes it work for her, creating an orchestral feel in contrast to a lot of her more stripped down early work.

One of the reasons the songs are so cohesive is all of them are composed by both Emmylou Harris and then-husband Paul Kennerley (who if this album is about Gram Parsons deserves extra credit for letting art come before ego). Emmylou will often write one or two songs per album and they are always great, leaving me wishing she composed more. With “The Ballad of Sally Rose” I finally get that wish fulfilled.

Woman Walk the Line” is my favourite track, powerful and perfect, telling the story of a woman being wronged and willing to hit the bars and let herself be tempted by strange men, but still in control of her desires enough to go home alone:

“Tonight I wanna do some drinkin’
I came to listen to the band
Yes I’m as good as what you’re thinkin’
But I don’t wanna hold your hand
And I know I’m lookin’ lonely
But there’s nothin’ here I wanna find
It’s just the way of a woman
When she goes out to walk the line.”

Harris sets it up she makes it clear that she knows how to walk up to the line and not cross it, showing up her partner’s weakness all the more by comparison.  The song is further aided by a majestic two-note guitar flourish that punctuates Sally Rose’s pride. It feels like Neil Diamond dropped by the studio, strummed a few notes to jazz the place up and then left before he drowned the place in too much schmaltz. Of course, that didn't happen. For one thing, Neil Diamond can never have too much schmaltz - his capacity is limitless. For another he wasn't involved on this record.

But I digress...

The album is also aided by Emmylou’s incredible vocals, her signature quaver a little back in the mix at times because of all the business in the production, but forcing itself to the front when called for, such as on the opening track.

Unfortunately hearing Emmylou (and her great songs) is not made easier by the aforementioned DIGITAL RECORDING advertised on the cover. This album was released in 1985 when albums were still made with records and tapes in mind, and CD technology was a distant third. That is very evident here, with song volumes that sounded muddy and distant.

No matter how much I turned it up it still sounded like I was listening to it through the wall. Only unlike most music you hear through a wall (like from a party going on in the suite next door at three in the morning) I wanted to hear more of it, not less. However, I could tell from the production values that if I turned it up any further it would still sound dull and distant, only louder.

This was a major detraction from what is otherwise a solid record, with thoughtful compositions that successfully marries eighties country sensibilities with old school bluegrass and vocal virtuosity. This is a largely forgotten gem in Emmylou’s discography that deserves more love than it gets in the modern era.

Best tracks: The Ballad of Sally Rose, Rhythm Guitar, Woman Walk the Line, Timberline, White Line, Sweet Chariot

Saturday, May 13, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1004: Sarah Jarosz

This next review is my second Sarah Jarosz review in just eight albums. Good thing I like her music.

Disc 1004 is…Undercurrent
Artist: Sarah Jarosz

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? Holy crap – it is the fifth Giant Head cover in a row. While the Giant Head theme has provided some variation (Alice Cooper went with just eyes, and here, Jarosz’s Giant Head is framed to the right) there is no denying a Giant Head conspiracy is upon us.

Fortunately, Jarosz’s Giant Head is a lot more pleasant to look at than Alice Cooper’s, even when it is obscured by hair.

How I Came To Know It: I just told the tale of how I discovered Jarosz when I reviewed another one of her albums (“Follow Me Down”) back at Disc 996 so go check that out for the details. The short version is I discovered her through another bluegrass artist, Aoife O’Donovan.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Sarah Jarosz albums, and while they are all new to me, “Undercurrent” is my early favourite so I’m ranking it at #1. Sometimes you just gotta take a stand.

Ratings: 4 stars

“Undercurrent” is Jarosz’s most recent album and easily her best to date, showing her growth as a songwriter, singer and instrumentalist. There is a maturity in this record that reveals Jarosz’s old soul, despite her being only 25 years old.

While Jarosz’s traditional training is evident throughout the record, “Undercurrent” takes the flourishes of jazz, pop and blues I noted on 2011’s “Follow Me Down” and better integrate the different styles into something that is unique to her. She reminds me favourably of Lera Lynn, with a bit of Sarah McLachlan pop and Heather Masse folk thrown in.

Artists often gain confidence in their singing after a few albums, and that is the case here, with Jarosz maintaining a lovely sweet tone, sometimes breathy and sometimes bright, depending on what the song calls for, without ever feeling like she has to belt it out or over-sing to make her point.

The record opens with “Early Morning Light,” a song featuring some sublime guitar picking from Jarosz. Whether playing guitar, octave mandolin or banjo, Jarosz has a style that is rich and attention-grabbing. She serves the song first and foremost, but the skill she displays is impossible not to notice, with a mix of controlled energy and easy flow. While I first fell in love with her mastery of the octave mandolin, on “Follow Me Down” it is her guitar work on “Undercurrent” that grabbed my attention. On “Take Me Back” she manages to capture that elusive big sound that approaches Mark Knopfler in both style and delivery, while never being derivative of his work.

Jarosz’ songwriting is also top-notch on “Undercurrent” capturing the nuance and heartache of relationships at the crossroads on “Early Morning Light” and “Still Life” with an honest confusion about where to turn, and the wisdom to know that is a normal state of being in these moments.

House of Mercy” reminded me of mid-career Bob Dylan, and I can see why she features Dylan covers on her earlier albums. On “Undercurrent” she spreads her wings and writes her own Dylan-type songs instead, again without feeling derivative. “Back of My Mind” sounds like Sarah McLachlan. In this case maybe a bit too much, but the song is so good I forgive it all.

The only slight misstep for me is “Green Lights” but my issue here is the production, which is a bit too lush and takes away from Jarosz’s vocals and mandolin playing. It is a minor quibble on a pretty amazing record.

The album ends with “Jacqueline”, a haunting track inspired by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. I’m not much of a fan of the whole JFK story. I grew weary of the idolization of what was a pretty below average president many years ago and I’ve never understood the fascination with Jacquie O. either. However, Jarosz draws out the vulnerability of the first lady so well I not only sympathize with her, I felt like I was seeing her for the first time, through the power of the song. Pretty impressive, given that Jarosz was only three years old when Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis died.

Jarosz has gotten better and better with every record she has released, and “Undercurrent” represents yet another high water mark in her development. This is a record that has me excited for what she’ll do next.

Best tracks: Early Morning Light, Everything to Hide, Comin’ Undone, Take Another Turn, Lost Dog, Take Me Back, Jacqueline

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1003: Alice Cooper

For those who have been waiting to discover which artist I have the most albums by, it is time for the reveal – it’s Alice Cooper.

I’ve been a fan of Alice Cooper since the tender age of five, and while this next album came out when I was 35, time has not reduced my zeal for his music - then or now.

Disc 1003 is…Dirty Diamonds
Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? This is now the fourth Giant Head cover in a row. On this cover, Alice Cooper’s head is so large that only the eyes show up. Also, a really large and hard to read font gets in the way. Are those diamonds in your eyes, Alice, or are you just glad to see me?

How I Came To Know It: “Dirty Diamonds” came out around the time I was rediscovering the joy of Alice Cooper after losing track with his new material in the late nineties and early oughts. I believe I bought this one when it came out, but my memory is hazy.

How It Stacks Up:  I have all 26 of Alice Cooper’s studio albums, and once even had a weird early import of live and rare tracks (“Science Fiction”) before I parted company with it. “Dirty Diamonds” holds its own well in that large company, coming in at #13.

Unless Cooper releases a new album (something he hasn’t done since 2011) this will be my last review of him. Here’s the full recap of how everything stacked up at the final tally:

  1. Billion Dollar Babies: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 228)
  2. Love it to Death: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 604)
  3. From the Inside: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 99)
  4. Welcome To My Nightmare: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 449)
  5. Killer: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 429)
  6. Muscle of Love: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 357)
  7. Alice Cooper Goes to Hell: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 447)
  8. Da Da: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 18)
  9. School’s Out: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 406)
  10. Lace and Whiskey: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 180)
  11. The Last Temptation: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 710)
  12. Dragontown: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 950)
  13. Dirty Diamonds: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  14. Along Came a Spider: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 164)
  15. Zipper Catches Skin: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 355)
  16. Flush the Fashion: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 264)
  17. Special Forces: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 354)
  18. Constrictor: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 89)
  19. Raise Your Fist and Yell: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 286)
  20. Easy Action: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 444)
  21. Pretties for You: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 152)
  22. Hey Stoopid: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 345)
  23. Trash: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 343)
  24. Welcome 2 My Nightmare: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 956)
  25. Brutal Planet: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 833)
  26. The Eyes of Alice Cooper: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 439)
  27. Science Fiction: 1 star (reviewed at Disc 661)
Ratings: 3 stars

After starting out the decade with three heavy metal albums, in 2005 Alice Cooper returned to his roots on “Dirty Diamonds”; catchy but heavy rock riffs with clever lyrics designed to both shock and amuse.

It is clear that the return agreed with Cooper, who delivers a tight little album that borrows from pop, boogie woogie, blues, metal and even rap, constructing songs that are both catchy and edgy. Like he did with the original Alice Cooper Band, Cooper shares songwriting duties with his band-mates and the collaborative approach does wonders to rejuvenate his sound, while still remaining Alice Cooper at the core.

All that praise aside, I admit it took a while for this album to grow on me. The preceding records (“Brutal Planet”, “Dragontown” and “The Eyes of Alice Cooper”) put my ear in a very heavy mood, and this record can seem almost flippant in comparison. However, after a few listens you tune in to what Cooper is trying to do, as he mixes all the lessons he learned from eighties metal and even dalliances with hair and nu metal, and bend those genres to his will.

Like most acts that endure as long as he has, Cooper knows how to adapt. He is a chameleon, able to connect with the sound of the time, without ever losing his inner lizard. After a lot of angry records preceding it, Cooper seems almost giddy here as he sings about the perils of pretty girls, fame and riches, and cross-dressing truck drivers. It is delightfully over the top, sometimes too much so, but if anyone can shamelessly stand in the glare of too much kitsch and make it work, it's Cooper.

The album launches with “Woman of Mass Distraction” a pelvic thrust of a song, dirty guitar riffs and ominous beats growing into a chorus that is basically a strained pun that Cooper makes work. It is corny and catchy in equal measure.

Other standouts include the neo-nu metal “Dirty Diamonds” a track about the empty lives of the rich and famous. Cooper is one of the most down to earth rock gods that currently walk the earth, and his mockery of the wealthy manages to ring true where in lesser hands it could have come off as hypocritical.

Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)” is a song about bad girls walking the strip looking for trouble, and it the way Cooper sings “I don’t know if it’s safe to pet one” makes it clear he’d like to find out. This song also has a sweet little guitar solo that is restrained and well-placed.

My favourite track on the record is “The Saga of Jesse Jane” the tale of a cross-dressing trucker who runs afoul of some rednecks at a truck stop and ends up murdering the lot of them. Cooper is a natural storyteller, drawing you in instantly with this opening:

“I’m in jail in a Texas town
In my sister’s wedding gown
I drive a truck all night long
Listening to Judy Garland songs.”

The song is done in a haunting murder ballad style that would make the Handsome Family proud, as Cooper exchanges his usual raspy vocals for something halfway between Nick Cave and young Elvis.

The album ends with “Stand Up” featuring rapper Xzibit, but even that awkward crossover with rap is kind of fun.

Cooper’s joy in making this album is clear, and years later “Woman of Mass Distraction” and “Dirty Diamonds” are both common songs in his concert setlists, where many other albums from this era are completely ignored. As a devoted fan, I always wish Cooper would pull something off other records from around this time, but there is no denying that it would be hard to replace some of the great material available on “Dirty Diamonds.”

Best tracks: Woman of Mass Distraction, Dirty Diamonds, The Saga of Jesse Jane, Sunset Babies (All Got Rabies)

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1002: Hard Working Americans

Today is voting day in British Columbia, so if you live in the Province I sincerely hope you voted. No matter how slow the lineup is at my polling station, I remind myself how lucky I am to live in a modern and functioning democracy. A small wait in order to exercise a right many people around the globe do not have is an easy price to pay.

Disc 1002 is…Rest in Chaos
Artist: Hard Working Americans

Year of Release: 2016

What’s up with the Cover? The third Giant Head cover in a row. I believe this Giant Head belongs to band front man Todd Snider. I recently got a pair of aviator sunglasses myself and dare I say I rock them better than Todd Snider. Sorry, Todd.

How I Came To Know It: I don’t remember. I think I read a review of this album somewhere and it encouraged me to go and look them up. I briefly put this album and their 2014 self-titled debut on my “to get” list. Then I thought about it for a while and decided to take both albums off the list.

About two months after that I saw this album in the local record store. It was now officially off my list, but I decided on a whim to chance it anyway.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one album by the Hard Working Americans, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 2 stars

This album is a timely reminder that when I take an album off my “to buy” list before I buy it, there is usually a good reason.

According to Wikipedia, The Hard Working Americans are an American “super group.” I put that designation in quotations because in my world, combining members of Widespread Panic, Chris Robinson Brotherhood and Great American Taxi with vocalist Todd Snider hardly qualifies as a super group in my book.

Unfortunately, while they don’t have the record sales cred of a super group, “Hard Working Americans” do have other key features often associated with them. These include overblown production, generic sound and an album that is in desperate need of an editor.

The style of the band is traditional rock and roll, alt-country and bit of psychedelic alt-folk thrown in for good measure. I like all these things at various times, but the combination on “Rest in Chaos” didn’t work for me. Rather than showing range, it just felt like it lacked focus.

Most of the songs tend to wander, laying down traditional blues rock riffs and then either wallowing in them too long, or degenerating into feedback and guitar noodling.

Snider’s voice is a strong point, and he delivers a cool stoner vibe and a nice rasp that feels like it has been transplanted from the seventies.

However, while Snider’s voice is good it is not good enough to overcome some basic blues riffs that sound like anything you might hear at the local bar on a Wednesday night. One of those places like in the Blues Brothers, with the stage encased in chicken wire. For that experience, these guys would be great, but for a studio act I had a hard time feeling it.

It also didn’t help that this record is over 60 minutes long, with over half the songs longer than five minutes and two longer than seven. None of the songs needed to go on this long, and the cumulative effect of the experience wore my interest out long before the album decided it was done with me.

There are some bright spots, notably “Dope is Dope” a song that feels like the second coming of Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show. This song, and its more laid back acoustic partner, "The High Price of Inspiration" explore the complex (and often dangerous) interplay between drug use and creative endeavour. Together they are the album's high points (pun intended), benefiting from solid and painfully honest lyrics, good delivery and clocking in at under four minutes each.

Unfortunately, for every song like these there are two like “Acid,” meandering its way through three or four musical concepts, without fully delivering on any of them.

I didn’t hate this record, but it did tire me out, which isn’t exactly a vote of confidence. And so I will be parting with “Rest in Chaos” only a few short months after I foolishly ignored my own advice and bought it on a whim. Live and learn…

Best tracks: Dope is Dope, High Price of Inspiration

Saturday, May 6, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1001: Frank Sinatra

This weekend I got a bit out of hand on the music purchasing front. I’ve recently discovered a whole bunch of new (to me) bands and having the day off yesterday I hit the local record store with a vengeance. I’ll talk about those albums when I roll them, but here’s a teaser:
·         Imelda May “Life Love Flesh Blood”
·         Jens Lekman “Night Falls Over Kortedala”
·         Avett Brothers “I and Love and You” and “Emotionalism”
·         The Mountain Goats “Beat the Champ” and “The Sunset Tree”
·         She and Him “Volume Two”
·         Johnny Flynn “Sillion”

I listened to most last night and I’m looking forward to getting to know them all a lot better in the days, months and years to come.

This next review is an album I’ve already known for many years.

Disc 1001 is…Frank Sinatra’s Greatest Hits
Artist: Frank Sinatra

Year of Release: 1968 but featuring music from 1957-1967

What’s up with the Cover? The second Giant Head cover in a row! This one also has that sixties practice of listing all the songs on the front cover. I prefer them on the back, but I guess there was a bit of extra space, despite the chunk of real estate being claimed by Frank’s Giant Head.

How I Came To Know It: Back in the mid-nineties I went through a brief but torrid affair with swing music, and during that time I bought a bunch of Frank Sinatra albums, including this one.

How It Stacks Up:  Greatest Hits albums don’t stack up.

Ratings: Greatest Hits albums also don’t get rated. If you’ve been carefully following along for the past 1,000 reviews you will know this. If you’re here for the first time, now you know.

When I got into swing twenty years ago, it didn’t take me long to realize that Frank was the king and everyone else toils in his shadow. Hearing this greatest hits record, it is not hard to see why. Sinatra is the personification of cool, meandering his way through each song like he’s out for a stroll in a country garden.

A big part of this is Frank’s uncanny phrasing and timing. He can slide on or off the beat with ease, and he has an innate understanding of just when to do it. He holds a note a fraction of a second longer, then steps into a line just a bit early. The experience is like a Viennese waltz, twirling through the room, with Frank leading, drawing your ears to just the right note at just the right time.

Sinatra is from a generation where singers mostly didn’t write their own songs, but you would never know it when you hear him sing them. When Sinatra tells you: “the summer wind came blowin’ in, from across the sea” it is his wind and his alone. We’re just lucky he’s invited us into the resort so we can enjoy it with him.

And you can enjoy it with him! Despite Frank’s vocal prowess, he sings in a way that makes you feel like you can sing along. Not as good as Frank obviously, but like most good pop hit, these songs encourage you to jump in and participate.

Being the king and all, Frank is able to get the best studio musicians of his day and it shows. The band backing him up on these songs is sublime, playing with a grace and ease that is the perfect match to Frank’s laid back sound.

This isn’t music that is going to explore a lot of complex issues, or dig deep emotionally; the closest Sinatra comes here is probably “That’s Life” where he reminds us that whether you’re on a streak of good luck or bad luck, you gotta just roll with it. Chill out and have a martini or two and don’t take it personal.

This album was originally released on vinyl and the running length (a skinny 34 minutes) is a reminder that there was only so much space back in the day. Nowadays a Sinatra compilation would be easily over an hour and I’m not sure all those extra songs would make it better. “Greatest Hits” has 12 carefully curated songs that show various sides of Sinatra – playful, romantic or rakish – and leaves you wanting more.

About a month ago I went on a journey through around 15 of Sinatra’s most famous studio albums to see which ones I was going to get. While there were plenty of excellent options I realized that my infatuation with sixties swing has gone a little dormant. When I do want a shot of it, this Greatest Hits package will give me the fix I need.

Best tracks: Summer Wind, It Was a Very Good Year, Somethin’ Stupid, That’s Life, This Town

CD Odyssey: The First 1000

One thousand posts! Hard to believe I’ve made it this far, but here we are.

The last 100 discs saw some more noticeable shifts, both in terms of overall rating and which decade the album was coming from.

There were 10 5-star albums in the past 100, which is about even for the entire Odyssey overall, but there were considerably more 4 star reviews (33% of the last 100 vs. only 23% of all reviews). I ascribe this mainly to my new approach to checking out albums first on Youtube before I decide if I want to buy them.

Another shift is the most listened to decade. While the 1990s still has the overall lead with 236 albums, only 13 of the last 100 albums were from that decade. Instead, the 2010s have taken over, with fully one-third (34%) of my last 100 reviews being of records released since 2010. This is because since Disc 904 I’ve been alternating between a random album from the main collection and a random album from my backlog of recently purchased albums. While I’m still buying music from every decade, it isn’t surprising that a lot of my new music is, well, new.

Here are the ten albums that scored the full 5-stars from Discs 901-1000:

·         Warren Zevon– Excitable Boy
·         Courtney Barnett – Sometimes I Sit And Think and Sometimes I Just Sit
·         Frank Sinatra – A Swingin’ Affair
·         Allman Brothers – Idlewild South
·         Dori Freeman – Self Titled
·         Bruce Springsteen – Nebraska
·         Blondie – Parallel Lines
·         Sera Cahoone – Deer Creek Canyon
·         Beastie Boys – To the 5 Boroughs
·         Alela Diane – To Be Still

Four of these ten are albums released within the last ten years, so don’t let anyone tell you that “no one is making good music anymore.” There is plenty of great music being made every day.

Once again there was only a single 1-star review, which was Duran Duran’s “Rio”. Duran Duran is just one of those bands I love to hate. If Sheila decides to bring another one of their records into the house it’ll get similarly rough and unfair treatment.

As I run out of room for my collection I have become a lot more ruthless on getting rid of albums. Here’s the full list of albums that were dismissed from the collection out of the last 100:
  • Billy Joel, “Storm Front” – just a bit too mopey.
  • Steve Earle and Shawn Colvin, “Colvin & Earle” – I admire both artists, but this album didn’t work for me. One of the few I bought without an exploratory listen first.
  • Tom Waits and Crystal Gayle “One from the Heart Soundtrack” – A bad run for collaborations, although I do still want to see the movie.
  • Dar Williams “End of the Summer” – an example of how my new “listen first” system isn’t perfect. I bought this album after listening to it on Youtube, but still couldn’t find it in my heart to keep it.
  • Annabelle Chvostek “Resilience” – the only Wailin’ Jennys solo album to not make the grade so far. I liked it though, and probably could’ve kept it but I knew someone who would enjoy it more than me and so passed it along.
  • Steve Earle, “Terraplane” – Another “buy it on faith” album, but after this and “Colvin & Earle” the next Steve Earle album is getting vetted first. Sorry, Steve!
  • Kills, “Ash & Ice” – Also bought on faith because I love the band. It was close, but I just see myself listening to one of the other four every time, so I let it go. Also, I know of a good home for it.
  • Dido, “No Angel” – I bought this on a whim because it was in a bargain bin. I liked it, but just not enough to keep it.
  • Sheryl Crow, “C’Mon, C’Mon” – this was a tough one because I love “Steve McQueen” and “Soak Up the Sun” but again, space is of a premium and I don’t see myself choosing this one over “Tuesday Night Music Club” when I want to hear Sheryl belt one out.
I also got rid of the two Beastie Boys albums that are instrumentals. I had previously reviewed “The Mix Up” and kept it, and hadn’t yet reviewed “The In Sound From Way Out” but when I reviewed “To the 5 Boroughs” I realized I wanted to hear the Beasties rap, and these albums didn’t provide that thrill so they are both gone.

In terms of overall reviews, Alice Cooper remains in top spot with 26 albums (two up from 100 albums ago), and Steve Earle stays in second place with 19 albums (two up as well). The third place tie between Tom Waits and Bob Dylan is broken in Dylan’s favour. Waits had a review, but Dylan had two, and now sits alone in third at 18 reviews.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1000: Alela Diane

In 2009, when my wife Sheila encouraged me to start this crazy journey, I just wanted to keep my writer’s pilot light going on those days where the day job didn’t leave me enough energy to work on a book. Listening to music was going to happen anyway, so why not shake the rust off the fingers while I was at it?

Eight years later here I am with 1,000 reviews under my belt, and no plans to stop. Thanks to everyone who is still reading, and thanks to all the artists who continue to fuel my love of music.

Best of all, we’re hitting this milestone with a masterpiece.

Disc 1000 is…To Be Still
Artist: Alela Diane

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? Mostly just Alela Diane’s Giant Head. There are some other things going on (including another Alela Diane doing something partly out of frame that I can’t make out, but will assume is very folksy).

How I Came To Know It: It was ranked #1 in Jim Vorel’s “20 Great Folk Albums to add to your indie rock collection” and when I listened to a few of the tracks, I had to agree. It was impossible to find locally, so I couldn’t support my local record store and had to order online. I’ll make it up to you, record store!

That article also got me interested in Paste Magazine and I am currently working my way through their 100 best indie folk albums of all time. I’ve only got twenty albums to go, and I’ve identified 11 albums I must have so far. It is going to be an expensive journey, but if you’re going to spend your money on anything, spend it on music. It’s good for the soul.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Alela Diane album I have. I’ve heard her other stuff and liked it, but for now “To Be Still” lives alone on my shelf.

Ratings: 5 stars

“To Be Still” has a wild and fey quality to it that makes you feel like you’ve stumbled into some elven forest. The music is haunting and timeless, like it was made by someone for whom the passage of time has little meaning.

Alela Diane is no woodland spirit; she’s an exceptional musician with wisdom beyond her years and an old soul who knows how to tap into universal truths and capture them with the clarity and power of a master painter.

“To Be Still” finds its inspiration in nature. This is an album where snowbanks, streams, and mountains mirror the landscapes of our minds. Diane explores deep within herself, and in so doing draws her audience into a similar introspection. Listening to her reminded me of those times in my youth where I would wander among the trees and lose myself, letting my mind wander and shed away my cares like an old skin.

Individual lyrical brilliance is everywhere on this record, but as a songwriter Diane is more of a landscape painter, and the individual images form a tapestry in your mind where you can’t help but let your mind wander in and out, half hypnotized by her picture perfect phrasing. This is an oil painting, where you need to take a step back, quieten your energy, and let it slowly come into focus.

Of course, it helps draw in your audience when you can sing like Alela Diane. Her upper range is unearthly, and she has that clearly enunciated folk style without ever slipping into a sing-song delivery. She lilts through songs that most people can’t sing at all, with a grace that lifts you up into the clouds. Some music is for singing along; “To Be Still” is about doing exactly as the title suggests; being still and letting it flow over you.

While Diane’s vocals are the star of the show, the musicians on this record are amazing, the more so because they willingly play a laid back style, adding brush strokes here and there to support the lead singer. Kudos in particular to the string section. Rondi Soule on violin and Luke Janela on cello. The violin on “White as Diamonds” is particularly powerful, crisp and expansive like the winter’s snow it helps evoke.

Singling out verses on an album this good is hard, but these lines from “Take Us Back” hit me in the core:

“I’ve a friend who lives out by the river’s mouth
He knows the fiddle’s cry is an old sound
A lonesome bow, the creaks and moans of empty houses
Are songs like falling rain”

Just typing those words puts shivers up my spine. When coupled with some fine playing and Alela Diane’s gifted vocals they cast a spell that puts you right at the river’s mouth, hearing a fiddle sing to you across the untold ages that instrument has inspired us.

Alela Diane writes all the songs, which are innovative and yet have an old school traditionalism in their foundations. You get a strong sense she understands what has come before, and knows how to build from there without ever being derivative. Rarely do you hear songs this ambitious that don’t overreach or come across too clever, yet Alela Diane manages it with apparent ease.

My friend Josh and I listened to this album together for the first time and argued about what kind of music it was. Josh determined it was pop based on the chord progression (he is more musically educated and a stickler for tradition). I said folk based on the style and arrangement of the songs. It doesn’t really matter, of course. Great music transcends genre, and “To Be Still” is a modern masterpiece.

Best tracks: All tracks – because that’s how five star albums work, my friends.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 999: Cranberries

I’m just back from my first game of Ultimate Frisbee for 2017 and I’m feeling stiff and sore, but happy.

Five albums I ordered online arrived this week, and I gave them their maiden voyage last night. I’m not reviewing them now, but here’s a teaser:
  • Ages and Ages “Alright You Restless” and “Divisionary”. Choral indie pop that just makes you feel good.
  • Andrew Combs “All These Dreams” – mopey indie folk. I have a bit of buyer’s remorse on this one, but I have a feeling it is better on headphones, which is how I first heard it.
  • Sera Cahoone “From Where I Started” – Sera Cahoone is one of my favourite new discoveries. Check out my reviews of her previous two records if you want to read me wax poetic about her.
  • Ancient Empire “Other World” – I am just getting into the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal, and this is one of the genre’s better offerings.
OK, on to some music that has been in my collection a long time.

Disc 999 is…No Need to Argue
Artist: The Cranberries

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? A classic nineties cover – the band sits around on a couch, looking pensive. I guess the couch is OK, but this room needs a floor lamp or a TV or something. And maybe a chair, so that guy on the left will be able to sit down properly.

I’m also pretty sure this is the same sofa from their earlier album, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?” (reviewed back at Disc 446). On that cover they once again don’t have enough places to sit, but a different guy (the guy on the right) is left out. I guess they take turns using the couch.

How I Came To Know It: I liked the Cranberries first album, and I heard a couple songs off of this one on MuchMusic and liked them as well, so it seemed like a pretty safe bet.

How It Stacks Up:  The Cranberries have seven studio albums but I only have two. Of the two, “Everybody Else Is Doing It, So Why Can’t We?” is my favourite, dropping “No Need to Argue” into second.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

The Cranberries were the quintessential nineties indie band, playing pop melodies that tried very hard to express angst and confusion but just always seemed a little too…happy.

That happiness comes from the up tempo music, and the lush production values, where keyboards, guitars, bass and drums all cycle around one another in a joyful susurrus of sound.

Vocalist Dolores O’Riordan is the treasure here, and her Irish lilt curls itself around the lush production, grounding it with a healthy helping of angst the lyrics demand. The combination lets you wallow a little in the uncertainty of youth, without falling into full depression. For this I’m very thankful; the nineties were morose enough.

The notable exception is “Zombie” which is full-on raw and angry, as it explores the ongoing violence and unrest in the band’s home country of Ireland. This isn’t a song about zombies, but instead the way hate can turn anyone into a mindless monster. O’Riordan’s vocals range from soft and sad to rough and powerful, with the music also shifting from light and thoughtful to full-blown crunchy rock guitar. Despite having been badly overplayed over the years, it holds up very well.

The other hit, “Ode to My Family” is the light to “Zombie’s” dark, as O’Riordan’s voice takes on a sweetness as she sings about her family having her back.

The rest of the record is solid, but not spectacular. “Empty” is pretty and while it is a little maudlin, it was fun to wallow in it in my early twenties. Also, the way O’Riordan sings “empty-eee-eee” over and over again is haunting and poignant.

Other songs like “The Icicle Melts” and “Disappointment” try to accomplish the same emotional rawness, but land a little flat, and lack direction. They’re not bad, but when you are trying to dig deep, anything short of devastating will have a tincture of insincerity.

Daffodil Lament” is an ambitious six minutes long and a slow builder that shouldn’t work, but it does, partly because it is just pleasant to hear O’Riordan sing “and the daffodils look lovely today” over and over again. They must look really lovely, because she says it a lot, but I didn’t mind. Since when is more flowers a bad thing?

There are places the album feels a bit twee, but in my early twenties I didn’t notice. And besides, I’d rather an album be overly sentimental than not sentimental at all, which is the problem with some modern indie music. If the Cranberries seem to sigh a little heavily, at least they’re not afraid to share their pain.

Overall, this album doesn’t speak to me emotionally the way it did when I was 24, but there are enough solid tracks on it that I’m keeping it in the collection. I expect every now and then when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll pull it down and put it on.

Best tracks: Ode to My Family, Zombie, Empty, Daffodil Lament