Saturday, March 25, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1629: Emily Barker

Greetings, gentle readers. My apologies for the lateness of this review – a combination of my having to travel for work, and a need to grok this record in its fullness before putting pen to paper.

Disc 1629 is…Photos.Fires.Fables

Artist: Emily Barker

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover?  Does this qualify as a Giant Head cover? On “face” value, it is definitively a giant head – in this a sad girl clutching a crow – but it isn’t a portrait, it’s a watercolour painting.

I’ll say that this is a giant head cover, thus clarifying forever more in common law that a Giant Head doesn’t have to be the artist, nor does it have to be a photo. It just has to be a head, and that head has to be giant.

How I Came To Know It: Originally through Barker’s collaborative work on “Applewood Road”. This album was part of a glut of five records I ordered on Bandcamp direct from the artist about four years ago. The others were all quickly picked off from the “new” section in a four month span shortly after I bought them. Somehow “Photos.Fires.Fables” slipped through to the main stacks where it has patiently waited for my critical attention. And here we are!

How It Stacks Up: I now have six Emily Barker albums, all of which are solid. “Photos.Fires.Fables” only manages to land in fifth place, but as you will read, it is an honourable fifth. This completes my Emily Barker collection, and so as tradition dictates, here’s a recap.

  1. The Toerag Sessions: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1290)
  2. Dear River: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1282)
  3. A Dark Murmuration of Words: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1429)
  4. Despite the Snow: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1262)
  5. Photos.Fires.Fables: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Almanac: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1276)

Rating: 3 stars

Emily Barker’s debut record has a quiet moodiness about it. Later in her career she’ll blow this style into a full haunting but on “Photos.Fires.Fables” she’s content with a gentle summer rain of sadness, punctuated by muted sadness and an occasional murder.

If you don’t know or remember Barker (it’s been a while, gentle reader) she is a contemporary folk artist who sings and plays acoustic guitar, with both possessing a and a delightful birdlike trill.

Future iterations of Barker’s sound have added production, or changed up the way she arranges her thoughtful introspective songs, but on “Fables.Fires.Fables” you get the pure stuff. Absent on any extra paint around the edges, and much more in line with the stark watercolour on the album’s cover.

The record opens with its best track. “This is How It’s Meant To Be” a character study of someone who can’t find their light. Barker’s narrator plays the role of someone trying to carry them forward, essentially following the logic of Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem” that there is a crack in everything and that’s how the light gets in. The song does not have “Anthem”s quiet resolve of hope, however, and focuses on how sometimes people who are lost just stay lost. It is sad to its core, but no less beautiful for its failure to find answers.

The record is understated and subtle throughout, and I found I needed three or four listens before it had fully worked its way into my soul. I was glad I spent the extra time, as it was worth the investment of time. Nevertheless, there were times when I wanted the songs to jump out at me more.

This was never more so than on “Fields of June”, a gender swap of the traditional murder ballad where it is the woman who decides she’s done with her lover and resolves to murder him and bury him in a field. The song is a duet, and I’d first heard it sung in a 2012 remake featuring CD Odyssey regular and favourite, Frank Turner. On the album original we get Steven J. Adams, and while it is OK, he’s no Frank Turner. Careful readers will thus not find mention of the tune below in my list of favourites.

That’s OK, as “Fables…” is less a collection of singles, and more a single mood piece, and the record should be approached that way. It requires a contemplative soul and a willingness to sit down, invest some time, and let it soak in slowly.

I loved it and having been separated by a few years of exposure to Barker’s greatness, I resolved to place it first among equals. When I revisited her other work however, I couldn’t bring myself to lower their estimation to fit it in. While it may land low on a comparative analysis as a result, it has an overall greatness that is undeniable.

Best tracks: This is How It’s Meant to Be, Blackbird, Home, If Love Could Save, Reason for the Rain

Saturday, March 18, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1628: Amyl and the Sniffers

I had a very healthy week. I got two runs in at lunch time, and last night had a lovely games night out with friends where I drank very little, and woke up this morning early, feeling refreshed.

I might even wash my car today, but first…a music review!

Disc 1628 is…Comfort to Me

Artist: Amyl and the Sniffers

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover?  This person looks like they need an ear, nose, and throat doctor in a bad way. Also an ophthalmologist.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Nick has been extolling the virtues of this band for some time. I have casually listened but taken no action. Then a couple weeks ago we were in the local record store browsing and he mentioned them again, and I decided to do something about it. I had heard a couple songs courtesy of Nick, but otherwise it was a leap of faith.

How It Stacks Up: I only have this one album by Amyl and the Sniffers but I am on the lookout now for their self-titled debut. It will have a tough time beating out this record.

Rating: 5 stars

I don’t know if it is something in the water but lately Australia has been pumping out some amazing punk rock bands. Close on the heels of the Chats (reviewed/fawned over at Disc 1619) comes Amyl and the Sniffers, once again answering the question “what if old school punk rock never died, but just got better production?

“Comfort to Me” was indeed that, although not the “cup of cocoa/sorry you lost your peewee hockey game” kind of comfort. This is comfort derived from the joy of letting loose a primal scream. The comfort of the mosh pit and the clash of guitar. That anonymous feeling where you can subsume your fury to the music, and stretch whatever metaphorical chains life may have laid upon you upon you to their utmost length.

And yeah, I turned this album up a lot when driving around with this record for the last three days. And yes, I probably held the gaze of passersby a little longer than was polite. “Comfort to Me” is an album that raws you out and dares you to interface a bit more directly with the world.

It all starts with lead singer Amy Taylor. Taylor sings like she gives exactly zero shits what you think. She is part of a tradition of tough and talented punks with something to say stretching back to Patti Smith, Poly Styrene and Wendy O. Williams. Those are big names, but Taylor belongs in the conversation alongside them. She sings (or shouts) with the same level of fury, bringing songs to life with a full understanding of her own fury and how to deploy it.

Despite the singularly angry approach, Taylor has plenty of range in her delivery. “Angels” has a short phrase driven, beat poet feel underneath it, and “Freaks to the Front” goes more for straight up hard core. This latter song is about the acceptable level of violence that goes on at a rock show close the edge of the stage. It’s a reminder it is going to get hairy in the pit, and a reminder if you’re not freak enough, then leave the space for those that are braver.

Now in my middle age, I don’t brave the mosh pit much anymore, but I love watching the young and restless down there shoving one another, understanding the unspoken rules of what’s OK and what’s not (and the occasional punch thrown when the rules are overstepped). “Freaks to the Front” is the closest thing you’ll find to reliving the experience, only minus the danger of a black eye.

Security” is another club-centered favourite. This time, the youthful experience is trying to convince the doorman you’re not too drunk, and won’t cause trouble. At least on the surface, but underneath the song is an exploration of that scene’s undercurrents of punks vs “normies” and the troubled interplay of bouncers in that mix.

The band plays tight but in a raunchy way. “Hertz” starts with a killer guitar riff that could almost be a pop song, before Taylor’s vocals arrive like a live rattlesnake thrown into a pre-teen slumber party. Time to turn off the Miley Cyrus and panic, mofos.

Knifey” is a song about what it is like for a woman trying to get home safely after dark. While stylistically very different, it pairs well with Dessa’s "Fire Drills". “Fire Drills” calls out a society that allows women to feel unsafe in these situations. “Knifey” is the other side of the same coin, only this time capturing the raw fear of the moment. With verses like:

“Nothing more important to me than just living
I'd rather be alive and well, and lockŠµd up in prison
I turn around and backtrack
Because I ain't that tough”

And a chorus that sums it up in all its stark reality:

“Out comes the night, out comes my knifey
This is how I get home nightly”


If you want to dig in that way “Comfort to Me” is a powerful album with a lot to say. Or maybe you just want the music to wash over you and invigorate you with its power. Maybe shove a few people at the live show in a friendly way. That works too. It is one of the best albums of 2021 which I missed earlier by not paying close enough attention to the very good advice of friends. I got there eventually. Consider me converted.

Best tracks: All tracks

Tuesday, March 14, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1627: Frank Turner

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey. This review features time travel! Sort of.

Disc 1627 is…FTHC

Artist: Frank Turner

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  An artistic take on the old punk cross-quarters where you put H and C opposite each other to represent “hard core” and two other letter for whatever you consider to be hard core (in this case, Frank Turner or “F T”). Usually it looks like this:

But instead, all the letters are all poorly drawn and the X that should separate everything is instead red and just sort of hanging out in the bottom left. Is it as good as the original? No, but it’s hard to get mad at a bunch of letters.

How I Came To Know It: I am a huge Frank Turner fan, so this was just me buying his latest album when it came out.

How It Stacks Up: I now have nine Frank Turner albums, which is a lot of Frank Turner albums. A couple days ago, when I was only halfway through my first listen, I was certain FTHC would finish last, but it rallied and narrowly bumped “No Man’s Land” down to the bottom to take over 8th spot.

Rating: 3 stars

If five years ago my future self were to have appeared and told me I’d one day give the great Frank Turner two consecutive three-star reviews, I would have scoffed at the notion. I also would have noted that I’d let myself go, and could stand to lose a few inches around the middle. Not because I’m cruel or anything; it would have just been me feeling hurt at the Frank Turner comment and lashing out. I would’ve then apologized to future me and asked if the Dolphins had won the Super Bowl again.

But I digress…

Frank Turner named this record “FTHC” with purpose. He is signaling to the listener that you should expect things to be a bit louder than usual. In his youth Turner was a punk rocker, and while he retains the rebellious core of punk, his musical style has steered more into a folk-rock lane. I have loved Frank in this lane, which felt just as hard core and emotionally raw as anything more shouty might.

FTHC starts out quite a bit shouty with “Non Serviam” is 100% in the punk lane, with a furious thrashing beat and little in the way of Frank’s natural talent for a sing-along melody. It is followed immediately by “The Gathering” which is a bit that, mixed in with lots more thump and bump.

The challenge I have with these songs – and the ones like it elsewhere on the album – are that while they feel angry and angst-ridden on the surface, they don’t feel soaked through with that fury in a way that punk music needs. I don’t doubt Frank Turner’s cred – it is much greater than mine – but despite the metal guitar solo, songs like “The Gathering” don’t feel out of control enough for what they are going for.

After these two tunes are over, Turner mostly settles back into what fans of my “Tape Deck Heart” vintage expect of him. Songs built for raising beers, singing in unison and generally designed to make you feel OK about not feeling OK. “Haven’t Been Doing So Well” is a fine example of the form, with a title (and chorus) that reminds you that if you aren’t doing so well, shouting it to the heavens with wild abandon can be an excellent balm.

My favourite in this genre on FTHC is “Punches” with classic Frank pushing back on a bad day with a triumphant chorus of:

“But hey, every once in
a few months when
All the punches land
That day, I'm a tiger
a prize fighter
At least worth a damn”

A great expression of rebellion and possessing an infectious rhythm that will have you throwing your fist in the air and singing along.

My other favourite is “A Wave Across a Bay”. It is a song of loss and – I think – suicide, or at least untimely death. It is a beautiful song of resolved grief and forgiveness. Frank has done these emotional soul-baring narratives before (try “Song for Josh” for a similar exploration) but that doesn’t take away from the fact that he is an absolute master. “A Wave Across a Bay” will make you think of every untimely death that’s touched your life and leave you with glistening eyes and a restful smile. It’s not easy to land that combo of sadness and calm, but Frank lands it with ease.

This record is not perfect. It is not even one of Franks’ best, and there are moments I found the production a bit loud (but without purpose). The punkier elements he clearly wants to incorporate don’t land with the intensity they intend, and even the folksy elements are a mix of hit and miss.

Despite all of that, this is still Frank Turner we are talking about. There are enough awesome tracks (see below for a list) to easily buoy this record and make it a worthy addition to the catalogue. I didn’t believe that when I started listening, but fortunately it is future me writing this review, and I’ve since seen the light.

Now if only the fucking Dolphins can win a championship…

Best tracks: Untainted Love, Miranda, A Wave Across the Bay, Punches, Perfect Score

Saturday, March 11, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1626: The Hu

The weekend has arrived and not a moment too soon. I will be enjoying some lovely activities this weekend including taking my cat to the vet and doing the laundry. I’ll also squeeze some fun in there, starting with the writing of this next review.

Disc 1626 is…Rumble of Thunder

Artist: The Hu

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  Based on their previous album having a song called “Wolf Totem” I’m going to say this is a wolf. A seriously bad-ass wolf, that looks like he’s partially made of electricity. In short, a wolf you most assuredly do not want to fuck with.

How I Came To Know It: I loved the Hu’s 2019 album, “The Gereg” (reviewed back at Disc 1388). I hadn’t realized they’d put out a new one until I found this while thumbing through the “new arrivals” section of the metal records in my local shop. I bought it on spec and hoped for the best.

How It Stacks Up: That first album is very good, meaning that “Rumble of Thunder” can only manage to land in second place, but it is an honourable second place.

Rating: 4 stars

If there is a band with a better handle on how to turn the thrilling motion of a galloping horse into music than the Hu I can’t think of one. Iron Maiden comes close, but against the restless never-ending energy of an album like “Rumble of Thunder” even they fall behind the pace.

If you are new to the Hu, they are a Mongolian folk metal band, folk metal being the blend of traditional instruments, stories and musical concepts of a band’s homeland with pure unadulterated rock and roll. I’m a sucker for this stuff (other examples you’ll find in my collection include Tyr (Faroe Islands) and Wagakki Band (Japan)).

Driving to “Rumble of Thunder” was an exercise in restraint. This shit makes you want to open up the throttle. With all the lights and stoppages of urban driving I assuaged myself by switching to manual mode, just to experience the visceral quality of shifting gears.

Even without the ability to fully open up on the highway, you’ll find yourself fist pumping in perfect cadence with each song, as you imagine a millennia’s worth of ancestors chanting along with you through the ages. No I’m not Mongolian, but the Hu will invite you to visit the experience all the same. I did so with relish.

The invitation comes immediately, with the powerful and insistent rhythm of “This is Mongol”. This song is a great opener, filled with guitar riffs that pound incessantly on the front of the beat, a caged beast of rock and roll snarling in fury as it is caged by the bars and perfect pocket of inspired musicianship.

This being the Hu, they throw in some traditional throat singing as well, and as with their previous record, it is dark, mysterious and invigorating, all at once. “Triangle” is particularly great, as the band plays around the edges of an eighties pop beat, throws in some great rolling “R” sounds and that ever-present guitar riff. The Hu know how to employ a modern rock guitar like a dollop of horseradish, spicing up every bite with a nostril-flaring thrill.

I speak exactly zero Mongolian, but the liner notes helpfully provided English translation of the songs, which feature heavily in national pride and evocations of ancient myth and tradition. Lots of references to ancient deities, the glory of a ride under a blue sky and the art of kicking ass. It isn’t necessary to know what the songs are about to enjoy the music, but if you read the translation later the reaction is likely, “yeah, that’s what I figured that song was about.”

The last song on the record is also the heaviest. “Tatar Warrior” has the rhythmic Mongol beat, but I also heard some melodic black metal influences in there that had me thinking favourably of the Viking-inspired Amon Amarth. Listening to it I could feel a brotherhood of kick-ass warrior culture across continents.

“Rumble of Thunder” doesn’t have the artistic range of “The Gereg”, which also has the advantage of novelty, but it is a worthy successor to that record’s greatness, and has me excited and hopeful for Hu albums for years to follow.

Best tracks: This is Mongol, Triangle, Upright Destined Mongol, Bii Biyelgee, Tatar Warrior

Tuesday, March 7, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1625: Jason Isbell

For this next review I did not roll randomly. This is because I was going to see this artist live and I like to match up a recent album release with a live show wherever I can. In this case, the most recent album dates all the way back to 2020, but that’s the last time they released a studio album, so little choice there.

Anyway, if you like this artist, and want to read about their live show just scroll to the end of the review and you’ll find it there. Or better yet, read the review first. Presumably that is why you came here in the first place.

Disc 1625 is…Reunions

Artist: Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover?  A very small Jason Isbell on a very stark and featureless plain. This album was released the same year as Anna Tivel’s “The Question” (see review at Disc 1408 for the cover art), which leaves me to believe stark grey expanses featuring tiny human figures were all the rage three years ago.

I assume what with that whole pandemic thing going on, depictions of social distancing were a natural choice for an album’s cover art.

How I Came To Know It: I am a big Jason Isbell fan, so this was me buying his new album and hoping for the best.

How It Stacks Up: Turns out this wasn’t the best. I have five Jason Isbell albums and Reunions comes in at #5.

Rating: 3 stars (hey, it is still good).

“Reunions” did not get off on the right foot with me, but it steadily improves across its tastefully restrained 10 tracks. By the end, I was content and glad to have yet another fine collection of Jason Isbell classics in the collection.

The initial problem felt like a friendly musical argument. Jason clearly felt that “What’ve I Done To Help” and “Dreamsicle” were the songs to catch the listener’s attention. Both did so in different ways, but in neither case was it a good thing.

What’ve I Done To Help” is an intriguing mood piece, and it showcases Isbell’s light and airy vocal style to good effect, so no complaints there. My problem with this track is it slowly adds more and more production into the tune, eventually decaying into the wail of an electric guitar that drifts around in the middle of the mix. That and it’s six-plus minute length makes it feel like it is trying too hard to be artsy.

Dreamsicle” is a pretty enough song, and I love the sound of Isbell’s guitar strum. It also has his oft-employed song structure of three internal rhymes followed by an effortless country hook to hang all the awesome off. My main gripe here was the chorus, which has a melody that connects awkwardly to the verses. “Dreamsicle” is also an odd image. Is this supposed to evoke something between old summer memory and a frozen ice cream treat? Maybe the loss of innocence as felt through old memories? If so I get it but that doesn’t mean it inspired me.

I am happy to advise that despite the false start, the album quickly gains momentum, with quality Jason Isbell singing and songwriting.

There is plenty to recommend from the mid-point onward, starting with the Drive-By-Trucker style rocker, “Overseas”. Isbell is a natural storyteller, capturing theme, mood and dramatic tension all through a few images, chosen with care and arranged in just the right order. The song starts with this emotional latticework of visuals:

“This used to be a ghost town
But even the ghosts got out
And the sound of the highway died
There's ashes in the swimming pool
But I saw you on your wedding night
And I watched you sleeping in my arms
You didn't wash your make-up off
And you woke up looking scared as hell”

Great stuff and on the chorus he even lets that famous guitar playing growl a little to remind you he’s mostly country, but he’s also more than a little rock and roll.

Another standout on the record is “It Gets Easier”. Playing off the old “easy does it” from AA, this song clarifies that there isn’t anything easy about it. Isbell often explores his journey and I hope he keeps doing so if it keeps bringing out such great songwriting.

This record grew on me with repeat listens. I could have lived without the first two tracks but after that I was all in, and enjoyed the rest of the journey right down the line.

Best tracks: Overseas, St. Peter’s Autograph, It Gets Easier, Letting You Go

The Concert: March 7, 2020, Royal Theatre ,Victoria BC

For the second straight show at the Royal, Sheila and I treated ourselves to “loge” seats. For those of you who don’t know, “loge” are those fancy box seats hanging off the side of the wall in old-timey concert halls. It’s where you can imagine royals or famous people sitting, or if you are a fan of the Muppet Show, the place from which Statler and Waldorf heckle Fozzie Bear.

Sheila and I did not heckle the show – we just like being in a spot where people can’t kick the back of your seat and there’s plenty of legroom. Also, it is a great perch for people watching.

Kathleen Edwards

The opening act was Kathleen Edwards. Edwards is a good thematic match to Isbell’s style, occupying that same space somewhere midway between country and rock, with a healthy helping of whatever “indie” means these days.

She was definitely a better match to Isbell’s vibe than when we saw him in Portland in 2017. Then he was matched with Frank Turner and while I’m a huge Frank Turner fan, the energy of the two acts make for a weird alignment. For more on that show, go read my review at Disc 1050.

Back briefly to Kathleen Edwards, who had taken a long break from music before returning in 2020. You could see she was glad to be back and recharged after a time away. She had a good energy and despite the limited set available to all openers, did a good job of mixing in the stuff the longtime fans wanted to hear with some modern material.

Overall I liked Edwards, although there were a couple of tracks where she and the band took off down a path of experimental noodle that bordered on the self-indulgent. Also, the sound guy needed to tone down the volume, as the natural acoustics of the Royal can easily overheat the mix if you aren’t careful.

Jason Isbell

When Jason Isbell took the stage the crowd was thunderous with enthusiasm, and I could tell immediately it was going to be a good show. Isbell seemed to sense it as well, waving with a disarming smile before getting into his usual schtick of standing still, and swapping guitars a lot.

Isbell has a lot of guitars, and dude can play. Through the course of the evening he showed off his country strumming, his rock and roll mastery, a bit of soul and everything in between. The highlight was him and fellow guitarist Sadler Vaden (yes, that’s his name) doing a bluegrass-infused version of “Tour of Duty”. Watching two masters play off one another and effortlessly trade solos without ever stepping on each other was a true treat.

In terms of setlist there was a good mix of the three corners of any good show: new tunes, old favourites, and a couple deep cuts.

The new tracks sadly featured those two songs I mentioned above, but I think he may have cut the noodle elements of “What’ve I Done To Help” short. If not, it felt tighter and more focused so, kudos.

Lots of crowd pleasers were to be had, including rocked out versions of “24 Frames” and “Something More Than Free” which were the songs that helped me discover Isbell years ago and remain favourites. I’m sick of hearing “Super 8” but at least he still plays it with gusto.

Isbell ended the main set with “Cover Me Up” which is touching and undertsated love song, and one that had a perfect mix for the room. As I noted in the Kathleen Edwards piece above, the Royal’s sound can get a bit overheated but they nailed it on the softer tunes, and none better than “Cover Me Up”.

Deep cut wise, I enjoyed Isbell pulling out “Goddamn Lonely Love” from his Drive-By Trucker days. If I were to quibble I’d note my disappointment that Isbell didn’t play “Speed Trap Town” which is one of my all-time favourites. He’d played it live in 2017 so I held out hope, but what the hell – you gotta change up the setlist, so no judgments.

The band wisely ended the show with the tear-jerking masterpiece that is “If We Were Vampires” which likely had couples around the room sharing tear-stained embraces as they thought about how damn lucky we are to find that special someone. I assume it was happening in the cheap seats – it was definitely happening in the loge.

As for the crowd, it was terrific. A mix of everyone from their mid-twenties to their mid-fifties with plenty of whoops and cheers, all placed at the right time to add to the ambience, and not interrupt the tunes. Even the two dudes sitting in front of me didn’t shift around too much, affording me an uninterrupted view of the stage throughout the night.

Finally, a quick note on the merch table. I have high standards for a merch table. It should have stickers, and it damn well better have more than one style of t-shirt in a medium. Isbell had all of that and trucker hats to boot. A-.

All around a pretty great show, and one that will have me hoping Isbell returns to Victoria soon.

Sunday, March 5, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1624: Lou Barlow

Had a lovely lunch out at what used to be my favourite diner. Unfortunately, the diner moved out of downtown (crime, high rents, the usual story) so I don’t get out to their new location very often.

However, since this isn’t a “what I had for lunch blog” let’s get back to music, shall we?

Disc 1624 is…Reason to Live

Artist: Lou Barlow

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover won’t bring you to your hands and knees but it will bring you to someone’s hands and knees. I assume the isolation of the small window is designed to be artsy, but it just made me want to know what the picture was all about. And not in an evocative and artsy kind of way, but in an annoyed, “seriously, what is up with this picture?” kind of way. The graphic design is equally trying to evoke an artful quality without success.

How I Came To Know It: I have a few people I work with who trade “best of” lists with me each year. I believe this was one of my favourite album’s off of Darb’s “Best of 2021” list.

How It Stacks Up: This is my only Lou Barlow album, so can’t stack up against anything.

Rating: 3 stars

Most people know Lou Barlow from his other musical projects, namely Sebadoh and Dinosaur Jr. Given my reaction to those bands it is a minor miracle I’m going to be saying nice things about his solo work.

My recollections of Sebadoh are mostly from the early nineties when my roommate Greg used to play them. I recall each Sebadoh album having a lot of songs, most of which seemed like a collection of pointless noise, with one or two tracks I liked; usually the ones that didn’t sound like the others. As for Dinosaur Jr., they get brought out by friends at music listening nights from time to time. My reaction usually lands somewhere between “meh” and “um…no.”

Enter Lou Barlow’s solo effort, the pandemic album “Reason to Live”. My overall reaction to this record was it surprised me, and the songs land somewhere between the aforementioned “meh” and “um…yeah, I like it.” Given my prior relationship with Mr. Barlow’s music, this is significant progress.

This record is stripped down, which is how I like my arrangements. Most tracks are fueled by simple guitar strumming and Barlow’s vocals and little else. This is very much in my wheelhouse. Less so the production, which is a bit lo fi for my tastes. Just because you’re not employing a lot of instruments doesn’t mean you should skip proper care and attention at the mixing board. These tunes feel very “one take” and the production is tinny, like it was recorded at a single mic around a coffee table.

The one exception is the tone of the guitar work on “Privatize,” which is quite lovely. It has lots of layers and places for the ear to travel up and down in the mix without feeling busy. The record would benefit from this level of care and attention across the rest of the selections.

Barlow’s lyrics are a sort of conversational poetry, and he has a natural talent for phrasing that lets it feel like you’re overhearing some hipster at a coffee shop, telling an interesting story to his tablemate. Often this person is having an anxious moment and would benefit from making the next round a decaf.

The record is only 43 minutes long but it has 17 tracks, which is three over my maximum. I felt there were plenty of gems, but also a fair bit of filler. Getting this thing down to 14 or fewer tunes wouldn’t have been an impossible task, and should’ve been undertaken.

This problem is exacerbated by the front-end loading of the “good stuff”. It makes the record’s second half really drag. The one exception is the record’s penultimate track, “All You People Suck”. This song’s title might leave you the impression it is going to be a negative reflection on the human race, but the reverse is true. Barlow is only saying the people who deny human connectivity suck. The majority of us, working together, leaning on each other, and generally doing what we can to help out are OK. It’s that other group of people that suck.

This record has a lot of darkness and doubt in it, and a quaver to Barlow’s delivery that fits well in the year it was released (2021). Back then we were all locked in our houses, hoping the pandemic would one day end and life could resume. This “what comes next” vibe comes across in spades on “Reason to Live” but there is a also a thread of optimism that is pervasive and lurking behind all the trouble. Better times are coming, and in the meantime, it is OK to keep it real and express a few doubts.

Best tracks: Reason to Live, Why Can’t It Wait, Love Intervene, Privatize, All You People Suck

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1623: Linda Ronstadt

I’ve been piling through this next artist’s back catalogue with wild abandon, which is he best way to pile through a thing. It is OK to pick through a back catalogue as well, but that should be done with discerning care.

Disc 1623 is…Prisoner in Disguise

Artist: Linda Ronstadt

Year of Release: 1975

What’s up with the Cover?  Linda sits on the floor of what is either a photo studio or an oubliette. If she is a prisoner here her disguise is a lovely sun dress and heels, which is not usual attire for serving time in an oubliette.

How I Came To Know It: I grew up listening to Linda Ronstadt but never got into her music directly until a few years ago. This album proved hard to find, then out of the blue a used copy showed up at my record store just last week. It pays to always check the stacks, even if you don’t think you’ll find what you’re looking for.

How It Stacks Up: I have seven of Linda Ronstadt’s studio albums, which is a far cry from the 28 she released, but I’ve now got most of the ones I want to own (I’m still missing “Mad Love” but then I’m done). Of the seven I have, I’ll put it in at #5, which just shows how great Linda Ronstadt is.

Rating: 4 stars

As Frank Sinatra teaches us, if you aren’t going to write your own songs, then you’ll need two things for success: a fantastic voice and a keen ear for picking the right songs to match it.

Like Sinatra, Linda Ronstadt has an incredible voice, but she has an advantage Frank could never manage; a versatility that lets her seamlessly adapt it to a half-dozen different styles. Sinatra is always that easy listening jazz crooner. Ronstadt can be a sweet country girl, a counter culture California hippy, or an R&B soul singer, all with equal authenticity.

The record’s opening number feels determined to prove my thesis wrong. Sure “Love is a Rose” was a small hit, and yeah, as a kid I liked it on a.m. radio just fine. But despite the beautiful lilting melody, this song gets tired quickly.

Nope, on “Prisoner in Disguise” give me the deeper cuts. Like her cover of James Taylor’s “Hey Mister, That’s Me Up On the Jukebox.” Sure this is more traditional Ronstadt going soulful country at a time when she was expanding in a half-dozen different musical directions, but sometimes the old sound is what I want, particularly when it is this sublime. When the chorus hits and the pedal steel hits, Linda’s inimitable tone will have you swaying and feeling all the feels.

I also dug her cover of Little Feat’s “Roll Um Easy” which is that “California hippy” rock and roll I mentioned earlier. This is one of my favourite Little Feat songs but just like the original, Ronstadt’s was never a hit. Ridiculous.

Then when you think she can’t shift gears any more she takes a classic like “Many Rivers to Cross” and, just voice and piano, she breaks every pane of stained glass in your heart. You might’ve thought your heart was made of meat and muscle, but this song will quickly clarify it is brittle, vulnerable, and liable to sharp-edged pain when given the right stimulus. This is the right stimulus.

Ronstadt also covers “I Will Always Love You”. I know what you’re thinking. She’s crazy to cover anything ever sung by…Dolly Parton, but this song is just as strong as the original. A little less quaver, and a bit more power down on the chorus, just like Whitney would do…17 years later, mind you.

The album’s other (lesser) hit was Smokey Robinson’s “Tracks of My Tears” which landed top 10 on the Adult Contemporary Chart and blipped a couple of other places. It ain’t quite R&B, but it is the Ronstadt equivalent, and deserves a lot more love than it got. This is not just for Ronstadt’s vocals, but also the great musicianship – something consistent across the record.

I wanted to say “Prisoner in Disguise” suffered from identity crisis with all these different styles battling away, but it feels smooth and natural throughout. A testament to one of music’s greatest voices.

Best tracks: Hey Mister That’s Me Up On the Jukebox, Roll Um Easy, Tracks of My Tears, Many Rivers to Cross, I Will Always Love You

Saturday, February 25, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1622: Josie Cotton

I’m sick, and it sucks. Not COVID at least, but also not fun. This delayed my review by several hours this morning, which I spent lying on the couch watching stand up comedy. Comfort view.

I’m now feeling sufficiently human to tackle the next review. After this I might even tackle a shower and put on pants, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Disc 1622 is…Invasion of the B Girls

Artist: Josie Cotton

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover?  It’s a B movie poster! Scenes from various B movies populate the background. We’ve got aliens, go-go dancers, muscle cars and even Godzilla himself. In the foreground we have Nurse Cotton, and she’s ready to give you your medicine.

How I Came To Know It: This was me digging through Josie Cotton’s back catalogue after I’d discovered her through the Valley Girl soundtrack. This record is much later. I could only find it digitally on Bandcamp but that’s OK, I’ve joined the digital world.

How It Stacks Up: I have three Josie Cotton albums and originally I had preserved second spot for “Invasion of the B Girls”. However, on balance I think “From the Hip” is slightly better, so I’ll put “Invasion” in last. Still good, mind you.

  1. Convertible Music: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1612)
  2. From The Hip: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1546)
  3. Invasion of the B Girls: 3 stars (reviewed right here)

Rating: 3 stars

Josie Cotton has spent most of her unheralded career doing whatever the fuck she wants. Nowhere is this clearer than on her 2007 album “Invasion of the B Girls” where she covers ten songs from the golden age of B movies.

I enjoyed a full week of listening to this album, which is a kitschy celebratory retrospective of old sixties and seventies movies that essentially invented the concept of “so bad its good”. We’ve got John Waters, Russ Meyer and a host of lesser lesser-lights who have their films theme songs “Cottonized”.

Cottonizing isn’t a major shift of approach for these songs. Josie is already naturally cinematic in the way she sings (she would have done a fine Bond film theme if she’d been given the chance). She adds an element of New Wave to the experience, but her love of sixties go-go tunes is already infused in most of these tunes. She does dress up the songs with a bit more oomph than the originals, however, and the New Wave element adds a pop to the beat in a way most of the originals lacked.

A lot of these original tunes - like the movies they’re featured in - have terrible production. I checked out the originals before writing this review and for the most part Cotton improves them, without losing any of the camp that makes them so much fun.

The album opens with “Get Off the Road” the theme song to the 1968 movie “She Devils on Wheels”. This movie looks atrocious, but holy crap is it a great song. Motorcycle growl effects in the background, and a driving guitar that makes you imagine leaning your bike into a corner a little too fast.

Female Trouble” goes instead with a big horn section, and a lascivious sway that does the original justice, but with much better vocals.

It is not all fun. While “Valley of the Dolls” may be a B-movie classic, the theme song is not. The original version by the Sandpipers is a saccharine crap-fest and Cotton’s version is equally bad. Cotton’s adds some plot voiceover which does not help.

Overall I enjoyed discovering these songs separate from the films they’re attached to, it made me want to watch the movies as well (I settled for the trailers this time around, but I’ll be keeping my eye out).

Even though this record is only 35 minutes long, it is still a lot of cheese in one sitting and you have to be in the mood for that. Cotton infuses what import she can, but there isn’t a lot of gravitas in these tunes. They are fun compositions written for carefree films that did not take themselves too seriously. Approach the album from this perspective and you will have a fine time.

Best tracks: Get Off the Road, Female Trouble, Faster Pussycat, Goodbye Godzilla

Sunday, February 19, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1621: Porridge Radio

As long time readers will know, I don’t listen to the radio. I find new music through reviews, my own research and the recommendations of friends. Regardless of the method, I listen to the album once before deciding if I’m going to buy it…usually. Sometimes I’ll take a flier on something new from an established artist that’s never let me down, but it only takes a couple of duds to make me default even old favourites back to the “listen first” camp (I’m looking at you, Steve Earle).

I almost never buy something based on someone else telling me to trust it, but yesterday I did exactly this…twice! In addition to two artists I was looking for (Caitlin Rose and Main Source) I also bought two albums blind, based on recommendation by a friend: Amyl and the Sniffers and Orange Goblin. Both are amazing, so thanks to Nick and Chris respectively for the good advice.

Disc 1621 is…Every Bad

Artist: Porridge Radio

Year of Release: 2020

What’s up with the Cover?  This cover plays hell with my blue/red colour blindness. It’s not totally invisible, but it is about as clear as mud. Are there tendrils reaching up to a moon? I think so… Do I care? I think not…

How I Came To Know It: I got into this band through their 2022 album, “Waterslide, Diving Board, Ladder to the Sky.“Every Bad” was me drilling through their back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Porridge Radio albums, and this one is the second best. Or last, depending on how pessimistic you’re feeling.

Rating: 3 stars but almost 4

Listening to Porridge Radio, I found myself wondering if growing up in Brighton, England, they spent a lot of rainy Spring afternoons listening to their parents Cure albums, staring at the sea and sighing a lot.

There is no shade intended here, however. The Cure are an amazing band, and while a lot of the production, arrangements and song structures are reminiscent of the Cure, lead singer and band leader Dana Margolin uses that inspiration to craft powerful music which is evocative, not derivative.

It starts with Margolin’s vocals which share a lot of their plaintive cry quality with Robert Smith. Slightly flat, urgent and desperate, and sad but in a triumphant kind of “losers unite!” kind of way. If Robert Smith annoys you, rest assured that Margolin will also annoy you. However, if you enjoy this kind of vocal delivery, Margolin will draw you into a delightful intersection of melancholy and dread import.

While there are tracks that I like better than others, “Every Bad” works best as a cohesive album. It is a mood piece, and it will make you want to wear black and take long walks at midnight. Most of the time I fell fully under its spell, the resonant and echoing production enveloping my mood. Once in a while the songs dragged, slowly unraveling at their ends and lingering past their welcome.

This could relate to individual songs, but more often than not it was how whether I was letting the music into my heart. This music is better when you are feeling introspective and emotionally open, less compelling when stuck in traffic.

Lyrically the songs are what you might expect from the music’s style, with a lot of introverted exploration of uncertainty and doubt. It might look something like this line off of “Give/Take”:

“How do I say no without sounding like a little bitch
And how do I say no without being contagious?”

Or from “Born Confused” this bit of sadness as celebration:

“Thank you for leaving me
Thank you for making me happy”

Born Confused” is a good song, but that refrain above gets repeated a lot at the end of it, and a good example of Porridge Radio’s propensity for doubling or tripling down on mood, sometimes at the expense of knowing when to wrap something up.

Overall, “Every Bad” is intricate, thoughtful and emotionally honest and has one of the key indicators of a good record – it improves on each listen. I look forward to exploring its depths further in coming years.

Best tracks: Sweet, Don’t Ask Me Twice, Give/Take, Lilac

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

CD Odyssey Disc 1620: Big Daddy Kane

Happy Valentine’s Day! With our wedding anniversary so close to Valentine’s Day, this is one Sheila and I tend to downplay, but I can’t help but think happy thoughts about having found (as one of my friends from work c) “my human.” Thanks for giving me this wonderful life with you, darling!

Disc 1620 is…It’s a Big Daddy Thing

Artist: Big Daddy Kane

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover?  Big Daddy hosts a pool party. There does not appear to be a pool (the guests are all sitting on the back of his limousine) but everyone’s in a bathing suit, so that’s my assumption.

Kane is shirtless and showing off a gold chain so thick it’s likely to give him back trouble in later years. Big Daddy often eschews a shirt, going with robes, togas, or - as is the case here - nothing at all. It’s a big daddy thing.

How I Came To Know It: Checking out old school rappers led me naturally to Kane, and once I fell for his debut album, “Long Live the Kane” (reviewed back at Disc 1108) it was an easy descent into all his awesome stuff. “It’s a Big Daddy Thing” is just part of that journey, which continues to this day.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Big Daddy Kane albums, twice as many as when I reviewed “Long Live the Kane” and I’m still growing the collection. Of the four I have, “It’s a Big Daddy Thing” comes in at a tie for #1, but since I don’t believe in ties, I’ll reluctantly put it in at #2.

Rating: 4 stars

Big Daddy Kane is considered part of the “golden age of hip hop”. This expression feels like it is pandering; a sort of “look what the old fellers used to do.” But it isn’t just that the celebrated rhyme concentration of someone like MF Doom wouldn’t exist without predecessors like Kane. It is more than that. This isn’t just musical history – this is some dope-ass, furious spitting as good as anything before or since.

Kane doesn’t get the same cred as some other early rap artists, but in terms of the sheer saturation of language few have ever done it so good. And fortunately, this being 1989, and one of the big topics to rap about is how well one raps, we have Kane proving it in his own words. Consider this little quatrain of pain from “Mortal Combat”:

“I seize and freeze MCs with these degrees
Put me to my knees, or at ease, chill'd please
I break it down, to bring on the next act
Rappers are so full of shit, they need ex-lax”

Now multiply the awesomeness of that by 10, and that’s what it’s like when Kane is delivering it out loud.

Kane is not alone in his brilliance, and the record features a laundry list of first-rate producers and DJs, including Marly Marl and Mister Cee among others. Kane produces half the tracks on the record on his own, and he is a natural. The samples on this record have a natural funk that makes this record not only a grab-bag of verbal delight, but a great party record as well.

This could be a dope bass line on “Smooth Operator” or a sampled horn riff on “Calling Mr. Welfare” but the choices are universally well chosen to bring the funk.

My biggest beef with this record is that it is too long. At 17 tracks and 76 minutes it is just too much – but what would I cut? Everywhere I turn there are incredible flows, rhymes, and samples. This record is saturated in excellence. What should go?

OK, one song can go. “To Be Your Man” tries to channel LL Cool J’s sensual slow jam, but it comes across as schmaltz, not sex. The chorus is an annoying earworm and the production includes a sample that sounds like a dental drill which, based on the number of times it recurs, was designed to annoy me.

However, this is the only song that annoyed me. The other 16 are various shades of great. I did not tire of this record once, and my only frustration is that I must reluctantly put it away and move on to my next random review.

Best tracks: Another Victory, Mortal Combat, Smooth Operator, Calling Mr. Welfare, Wrath of Kane (Live), I Get the Job Done, Pimpin’ Ain’t Easy, The House that Cee Built, Warm It Up Kane