Tuesday, August 9, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1577: Linda Ronstadt

Hard news yesterday, with the report that Olivia Newton-John had died at the age of just 73. Rest easy, Olivia and know that wherever you are…a million lights are dancing and there you are, a shooting star.

Disc 1577 is…. Hand Sown…Home Grown

Artist: Linda Ronstadt

Year of Release: 1969

What’s up with the Cover?  Who is this mysterious forest angel flowing toward me, with the morning light cascading behind her?

Fear not my friends, it is Linda Ronstadt. And if she is going to whisk your soul away, you’ll at least get a pretty song out of the experience. Perhaps the whippoorwills will sing backup…

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Linda Ronstadt since I was a kid, but never knew this particular record until about ten years ago when I was digging through her discography. It was hard to find on CD back then, but not only did I find a copy earlier this year, I also found a “3 in 1” CD with her first three records on it. All the same great music, but less space on the shelves.

How It Stacks Up: I now have five Linda Ronstadt albums (when I last reviewed one I only had two, but I’ve been busy). All those records are from the early part of her career, and competition in that golden era is tough. “Hand Sown…Home Grown is great, but I can’t rank it higher than #4.

Ratings: 4 stars

On “Hand Sown…Home Grown”, Linda Ronstadt opts for a wholesome vibe that lands somewhere between flower power and Tammy Wynette. It is sweet and simple, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it is undercooked; Ronstadt’s voice will roast you alive with its power.

Linda Ronstadt would go on to try on a lot of styles in her career, but the simplicity of her first record is a treat. It’s unadorned, yes, but it has a natural tone and vibrancy that makes it the Helen of Troy of sound. This voice would launch a thousand ships and burn the topless towers of Ilium. So, you know, a classic.

Ronstadt has the same power as Johnny Cash; once she covers one of your songs that song belongs to her. It is fitting then that the opening tune is a Dylan song, “Baby You’ve Been on My Mind” which Cash himself had covered four years earlier on “Orange Blossom Special.” Cash took it from Dylan, but Ronstadt just as deftly wrests it from Cash’s grip. Here she does something few singers can do, belting at full throttle and yet suffusing every phrase with passion and import.

Another standout is her cover of Waylon Jennings’ “The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line” as she hits with all the considerable sass and jump that this barroom two-step classic deserves. This song also exemplifies some solid musicianship from the backing band. While “Hand Sown…Home Grown” doesn’t have any memorable hits, at least the studio surrounded Ronstadt with some great players.

Sassy tunes like “Break My Mind” are simultaneously filled with heartache and triumph, both dialed up to 11. It had me thinking of modern acts like Jaime Wyatt, and how much this style of country music owes to the sound of early masters like Linda Ronstadt.

Even songs where the subject feels a bit stilted worked for me. For example, “We Need a Whole Lot More of Jesus (and a Lot Less Rock and Roll)” is pure preachin’ action. While I wanted to be offended at this offhanded attack on the glory of rock and roll, instead I found myself swaying to the siren’s call of the pulpit, at least if the preacher can sing like this. It helped knowing that on future records Ronstadt would come around to embrace rock and roll after all.

I’m fairly biased in favour of singer-songwriters. I just like the combo, and so for someone to impress me with a bunch of other peoples’ songs requires some top tier stuff. Fortunately Ronstadt is as good as it gets, an iconic voice that can still blow the door down and then break your heart, more than 50 years after she first cut these tracks.

Best tracks: Baby You’ve Been On My Mind, The Only Mama That’ll Walk the Line, Silver Threads and Golden Needles, The Long Way Around, Break My Mind

Friday, August 5, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1576: Alice Cooper

I took the day off today and I then loaded it with stuff to do. The various activities are evenly divided between chores and fun. I declare this day half full, because that’s how I roll.

Disc 1576 is…. Detroit Stories

Artist: Alice Cooper

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover?  In Gotham, when you need assistance, you flash the image of a bat into the sky. In Detroit, you go with Alice Cooper eyes. In either case expect a vaguely disturbed do-gooder to show up.

How I Came To Know It: I have been an Alice Cooper fan since I counted my years on this earth in single digits. This was just me buying his latest album.

How It Stacks Up: I have 28 Alice Cooper albums, which I think is all of them. Of those 28, “Detroit Stories” is neither the best of them, nor the worst. I rank it at #16, just after “Along Came a Spider” and just before “Zipper Catches Skin”. I don't feel like reproducing the whole list, but if you want to see it (and imagine the change above) just check out my review of “Paranormal” back at Disc 1038.

Ratings: 3 stars

Alice Cooper turned 73 the year “Detroit Stories” came out, and while most rock acts his age are out touring all their old hits, Cooper is out touring his old hits and putting new music into the world that is worthy of his long and storied career. “Detroit Stories” is the latest of these, a COVID-era release with a wide range of songs that covers the many styles Cooper has tried on for size through his 50-year career, tying them loosely to his adoptive home of Detroit City.

My relationship with Alice Cooper is almost as long as his career, first coming to hear his music on a compilation record released in 1974 my brother brought home one day. He’s had good records, and bad ones but he’s never stopped trying for something new and interesting.

As noted in the “stacks up” section above, “Detroit Stories” falls somewhere in the middle, and feels a bit like a retrospective. I guess we were all a little introspective as we were locked in our houses over the last couple of years, but Alice being Alice, he channeled it into music.

The record is mostly originals, but it starts with a cover of the Lou Reed song, “Rock & Roll”. It is hard to mess up this classic, but even so Cooper does some solid work with it, converting it a couple steps further into the thump of the rock world, without losing the visceral quality of the original. Cooper’s vocals are in fine form, showing very little wear and tear over his long career. This is no doubt aided by the many recent decades of sobriety under his belt.

The record shows much love to the various sounds that have emerged from Detroit over the past many decades, giving the record a hard, industrial feel overall. He also works in some Motown influences, most notably on “$1000 High Heeled Shoes”. This song features a funky guitar lick and some backup singers cooing “Shoo Doowop!” with a flair that would make the Supremes proud. Cooper pairs this with a chorus that is pure rock, but the transition from funk to rock is so smooth you hardly notice.

Cooper goes back to his early days with “Our Love Will Change the World” which would be at home on albums like “Muscle of Love” or “Welcome To My Nightmare”. It has that sing-song Broadway musical quality that Cooper loves to throw in on records when he thinks no one is looking.

On “Social Debris” he brings back the old Alice Cooper band. These guys can still play and it is evident they take a good bit of joy in doing it together again. The song has a bit of Cooper’s metal years, but infused with the energy of his old band, and once again the crossover is seamless. The band gathers again later on the record for “I Hate You” where they all get to mock and pretend to hate one another. I expect it was both therapeutic and fun in the studio, but both the lyrics and delivery are awkward and self-absorbed. Stick to “Social Debris” if you enjoy the idea of a reunion.

Near the end of the record, Cooper delivers the equally hokey “Hanging by a Thread” which is a COVID song reminding fans to have hope and not give in to despair. This one, despite its obviousness and a whole lot of Cooper making public service announcements like a congressman with some paid TV time, still ended up being a guilty pleasure for me. I think I just like the chorus, and as a result I’m willing to forgive the more stilted parts. You may feel otherwise.

Overall, this record is Alice Cooper returning to his roots, but in the process he reminds us those are complex roots that spread through multiple styles of music across many generations of evolution with each. Cooper is a key figure across the landscape of musical history, and this record is a fitting homage to his work, while also being a fitting homage to his favourite town.

Best tracks: Rock & Roll, Our Love Will Change the World, Social Debris, $1000 High Heel Shoes, Hanging by a Thread

Saturday, July 30, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1575: Confidence Man

Is a hangover worse on a hot day? This morning, I’m going to say yes, but I admit I am not an impartial observer on the matter.

Disc 1575 is…. TILT

Artist: Confidence Man

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  The band, all looking hip and stylish. The band makes the wise decision to give 80% of the face time to Janet Planet, no doubt on account of her being real good lookin’. No face time goes to DJs Clarence McGuffie and Reggie Goodchild. This is not because they lack in the looks department, it’s just tradition.

How I Came To Know It: I absolutely loved their previous album “Confident Songs for Confident People,” which was one of the best records of 2018. So good that I bought “TILT” having only heard one song.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Confidence Man albums ,and I think you already know which two. “TILT” is a distant second in the stacking game.

Ratings: 2 stars

Confidence Man’s 2018 debut is a whole lot of silly, empty fun, but it is very clever about how silly and empty it is. Unfortunately, “TILT” has all the emptiness, but lacks most of the silly, and all of the clever. This record isn’t terrible, but it is a disappointment given what I know they are capable of.

The basics are there once again, consisting of samples, hand claps, and breaks that combine to make up some catchy electronic dance music. According to the information encoded on the CD (which can be wrong) the particular mix of all this stuff is known as “breakbeat”. I had to read up on that, but it sounds about right.

Janet Planet remains the band’s greatest resource. She can sing, but she is best when she half sings, half jingles her way through a song. Her “coolest girl in the club” delivery reminds me favourably of the Shangri-Las. The other vocalist is Sugar Bones, and while he gets less time centre stage on this record, he has the same kind of party vibe to his singing.

It is Bones who takes the lead on the album’s best song, “What I Like,” although Janet Planet’s well-placed “woo!”s are a big part of the song’s fun. It is a song about dancing but deep down, they all are.

Confidence Man was never about narrative tales, but on their previous record you felt something that mattered was mixed in with the catch phrases, even if that something was playful fun. On “TILT” they go back to a purer dance beat vibe, and while there are some good lines, (my favourite is “Toy Boy’s”With an ass like that/there’s no conversation”) it doesn’t have the same charm overall.  I found myself getting bored halfway though most of the songs. This is my usual reaction to electronica, but I expected more from you, Confidence Man!

The vibe of the record sounds very early oughts club sound, and often had me uncharitably thinking it was made for people who “like anything with a good beat”. I need a bit more chunk to my oatmeal, I’m afraid.

It was a little better on headphones, but most things are. I also played this in a convertible, with the top down and driving in the summer sunshine, which for music like this should be a guarantee of success. Instead I found myself at red lights wanting to shout, “Their other record is really good!” at passersby who cast sidelong glances that suggested they wanted to respond with, “you’re a vacuous douchebag”.

I did quite like “Angry Girl” which was mostly Janet Planet singing “So mad, I’m an angry girl/So what’s your problem?” but had a few other lines actually strung together to at least dig in a bit. The song is not at all angry, it is more a feigned anger for the sake of a little fun and drama at the club. It has all the joy and whimsy of Confidence Man’s earlier work and if there had been more of these, I might be finding a space on my shelves for this record. Instead, I will be bidding this record an early adieu.

Best tracks: What I Like, Toy Boy, Angry Girl

Monday, July 25, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1574: Barton Carroll

For those who are new (or may have forgotten), for the past six years or so I’ve been alternating between a “new to me” album (rule # 5) and a random album “from the stacks”.  The “new to me” section is also random, as I select it from the backlog of albums that I haven’t put away yet. I never put an album away until it gets a minimum of three listens, with two of those listens happening consecutively. At any give time there are between 60 and 100 albums waiting for this event.

My first two albums by this next artist came out of this “new” experience back in 2017, but the last one made it into the stacks where it happily lurked until now. Don’t feel bad for it though, I gave it more than a few listens over the past five years. I was glad to give it yet another before writing this review.

Disc 1574 is…. Together You and I

Artist: Barton Carroll

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover?  Barton is pictured in the upper right. I don’t know who that woman is in the lower left (my guess is guest vocalist Anna-Lisa Notter, who is co-lead singer on a couple of the tunes).

There are two nifty features of this album cover. The first is that Barton Carroll signed it for me! I ordered it direct through his website. The second is that the case is made out of brown construction paper and folded up into a flat box with a tab to open it, rather than the usual centre-fold system. How do I like it? It is…OK.

How I Came To Know It: I read about a different one of Carroll’s albums (“Avery County, I Am Bound To You” reviewed at Disc 1073) on a list of obscure folk albums to check out. This led me to the rest of his discography, and here we are.

How It Stacks Up: I have three Barton Carroll albums. “Together You and I” comes in at #2. Here’s the full list

  1. Avery County, I Am Bound To You: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1073)
  2. Together You and I: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Love & War: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1058)

 Ratings: 3 stars, but almost 4

Barton Carroll is one of folk music’s best kept secrets, and that’s a damned shame. As near as I can tell he hasn’t made an album since 2013, and the internet was singularly unhelpful in telling me why. And I searched sites for ten minutes; an eternity when it comes to web searches.

The worst part is that Carroll was just getting better. “Together You and I” is his second last record and demonstrates his songwriting continuing to grow and mature as he mixes in other influences, converting each of them into his stripped-down folk arrangements, and quavering, confessional vocal style.

Carroll is at his best when he is telling stories, and “Together You and I” features some great ones. Often understated, Carroll’s narratives are small in scope, but rich in emotion and character. The best song on the record (and quite possibly the greatest song Carroll ever recorded) is “Shadowman”. It is a tale of sibling rivalry that walks us through the life of two brothers, one perpetually in the shadow of the other, seething with a combination of envy and admiration.

Shadowman” is one of those songs that is so powerful that I find it hard to listen to it – even in the background – while writing. I just want to stop typing and listen every time. The opening stanza sets the stage:

“I laid in the schoolyard with my face in the sand
There were bruises on my neck from an angry bully's hand
But when you came out to meet him, he was running like a deer
And you said, "Your brother's here."
And you'd think I'd be happy you were looking out for me
But how great you were and small I was, was all that I could see
And a younger brother's envy bored its way into my heart
And it was just a start”

From here it gets darker, as the elder brother is a hero in war, marries the woman his younger brother loves. The tale ends in both tragedy and epiphany. I’d tell you about it, but I encourage you to instead go listen.

…OK, then. Back and recovered, are we? Well, there are plenty more where that came from. “The Poor Boy Can’t Dance” is an up-tempo moment that flutters just like the heart of a boy asking a girl he fancies to dance for the first time.

And less innocent, but no less full of love, the title track, which is about a couple’s enduring love as he serves time, and she waits patiently for him to get out of the joint and go dig up his buried loot and so they can run off together and “slide off the edge of the world”. The song is a duet with the aforementioned Anna-Lisa Notter, who is equal parts sweetness and tough.

Carroll branches out from this narrative style in places, embracing some basic blues riffs and even a cover of a Sound of Music number with “Something Good.” Listening to the latter I knew I didn’t like it, but couldn’t place why. Once I realized it was from “Sound of Music” it all fell into place. Blech.

When Carroll does branch out stylistically, he never abandons his storytelling nature, singing in a light and gentle way that will not blow down any doors, but suits the songs well. If you want vocal gymnastics this won’t be for you, but if you’re interested in what a singer has to say as much as how well they sing it, you will find yourself pleasantly drawn into these tales.

Best tracks: The Poor Boy Can’t Dance, Shadowman, Let’s Get On With the Illusion, Together You and I

Thursday, July 21, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1573: Grace Cummings

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! I’ve taken a couple short walks down by the water this week, (I work near an inlet) listening to music and soaking up some sun. It has been very therapeutic, not least because this next album was keeping me company.

Disc 1573 is…. Storm Queen

Artist: Grace Cummings

Year of Release: 2022

What’s up with the Cover?  The stark monochromatic Grace Cummings balances a parrot full of riotous colour. Like Cummings music this cover is both beautiful and slightly awkward.

How I Came To Know It: The same old boring story. I read a review, then I listened, and then I asked my local record store to order it in. Which they did.

How It Stacks Up: I have two Grace Cummings albums. Both are amazing and it is very hard to pick between them. I’ll put “Storm Queen” slightly out in front…for now.

Ratings: 5 stars

Listening to Grace Cummings sing is an experience that is very hard to quantify. Just to say it is unique would be a disservice. It is more like a spiritual revelation. This is a record that will stop a conversation. That will cause you to look up from whatever you are doing and catching the attention of someone else within audio range, lock eyes as you both silently express, “can you believe we are hearing this?”

Listening to Grace Cummings is like being transfixed by the keening of a ghost as she warbles her fell and beautiful secrets to you from the underworld. It will create shivers up your spine, even as you feel its uncanny wisdom flood your mind.

After multiple listens to her throaty warble, I just liked it more and more. There was a small part of me that realized this might be one step too strange for some people. The intense way she modulates back and forth from head to chest voice, like a whistle in a cavern, might not sit well with some. I pity those folks though, because while Cummings vocal style requires full attention for best effect, it is hard to not want to give it to her.

So what kind of music is this? Well…folk, if I had to choose. Compositionally, she is a lot like Bob Dylan crossed with Leonard Cohen. The lyrics are rich with imagery and pathos, intensely personal and yet so poetic that it feels more like an abstract truth than a diary. I suspect it is both.

“Storm Queen” is much more ornately arranged than her first record, “Refuge Cove”. Like that record, the songs are held down principally by a guitar, strummed intensely, because to not strum intensely would be to have those vocals wash you out to sea. However, she works in a whole lot of other flourishes as well, with strings of various kinds and even a theremin. It is a lot, and while I love the stark beauty of “Refuge Cove” all that extra support just makes this record sigh a bit deeper.

Lyrically, Cummings knows how to string together evocative language that is further supercharged in the delivery. The album’s best example is the horrifically stark break up song, “Up in Flames”. My favourite stanza is the second:

“It's winter now, and I feel like Robert Frost
If only there was a birch tree to hang upon
If only I was a poem, sitting silently in the rain
And you were a dream, just swimming in its brain
But Notre Dame burns today, its beauty is up in flame”

That first line will freeze you with its cold despondency, and when Notre Dame burns at the end you are reminded of Frost’s poem about how the world will end. Ice or fire, or in the case of a Grace Cummings break up song…both. And if it feels a bit overwrought, well the whole record feels that way, but with her delivery you can be assured that overwrought ends up being just the right amount of wrought.

While you don’t need a visual for this stuff to hit you, I strongly recommend the video for “Heaven”. For maximum impact, make this full screen. As you watch this video, you will look into Grace’s eyes. You will be thrilled, invigorated, and made to feel slightly uncomfortable, all in a good way. At some point in your journey you will realize that you are not looking at Grace Cummings at all. She is looking at you!

As if I didn’t love her enough already, on the title track Cummings even invokes Townes Van Zandt:

“Townes Van Zandt
Took a hold of my hand
So I wouldn't feel alone
I just can't feel alone

It is a song for anyone who has ever taken solace in artistic creation, be it someone else’s or your own. This song is about every great turn of phrase that ever reached out and gave you comfort, when mere human touch wasn’t going to get it done.

Like that experience, Grace Cummings is beyond human. This record changes me when I listen to it, twisting and turning my soul like a tree growing in the wind, and making me stronger in the process.

Best tracks: All the songs, but I particularly like: Heaven, Up in Flames, Freak, Raglan, This Day in May, Storm Queen

Friday, July 15, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1572: Torres

In looking up my last Torres review I discovered a pretty crazy set of coincidences. That review was written August 20, 2021 and in the introduction I indicated the following:

  • I had taken the day off.
  • My day had begun with a trip to the dentist
  • I was looking forward to eating some Mexican food for lunch.

Literally all these things are happening today as well. The only difference is I’m going to have Mexican food for dinner, and it is going to be from a different restaurant (my city is festooned with great Mexican food joints).

I sincerely hope this strange coincidence will mess with the AI algorithm and create some connection between Torres, dentistry, and a good burrito.

Disc 1572 is…. Sprinter

Artist: Torres

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? This cover played havoc with my camera lens (yes, I take a picture of my album covers). It kept struggling to focus on both Torres’ face and also the purple concentric circles. The effect looks like half alternative night club, half “I just got out of the shower” which is a good visual for what you can expect from the music.

How I Came To Know It: I read a review when it came out and was intrigued. Intrigue led to listening…listening led to liking…and liking led to purchasing. And here we are.

How It Stacks Up: I have four Torres albums. I like them all so much it feels like they are all crowding around for first place. Such is the case with “Sprinter” which displaces 2021’s “Thirstier” to take over second spot.

Ratings: 4 stars

Torres approaches her art from a place that is raw and vulnerable to the point of feeling uncomfortable. However, like any good art it converts that discomfort to something beautiful and magnetic, drawing you in past the dissonance and into deeper truths.

The opening track, “Strange Hellos” is a good example, pulling elements of stark guitar plucks, and a flat delivery of harsh truths spoken in a way that leaves you feeling numb from the first few bars you hear:

“Heather I'm sorry that your mother
Diseased in the brain
Cannot recall your name
Heather I dreamt that I forgave
But that only comes in waves
I hate you all the same”

Yikes. This opening and the way it is delivered speaks of an almost off-handed cruelty. As the song moves into the B section, it launches into a grunge-like guitar attack as all the fury underlying that opening gets unleashed, like a ruptured pinata full of smokes and discarded needles (thanks to Casey for that image – a darling I could not kill…).

OK, back to the review. The record’s dangerous energy continues with “New Skin,” as Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) adds a fell and foreboding vibrato to her delivery. Scott’s vocals are sneaky good, rich and resonant in her lower register and filling the room.

These songs all have an element of introvert explosion. If the quietest and most sensitive among us could bring themselves to shout out, I imagine it would sound like this, tremulous but powerful and possessed of a deep inner core of strength.

The record has great dynamic range to it, as the alt-rock vibes of “Strange Hellos” and “New Skin” give way to the ambient experimentation of “Son, You Are No Island” and the undulating indie pop flow of “A Proper Polish Welcome.” The latter has the most amazing non-hook hook I’ve heard, just dropping the melody down as it delivers the title in a half-chorus/half-refrain.

All of the songs have the same high degree of thoughtfulness to musical structure, instrumentation, and lyrics, artfully intertwining all three into a single piece of art. Nothing seems done by accident, but despite the very deliberate choices the album feels organic and natural. Scott just knows how to tap into the Music of the Spheres and convert it to something mortals can understand without losing any of the magic.

The album’s “single” is the title track, “Sprinter”, which captures all these elements, and serves as an up-tempo pivot in the centre of the record. The song is one half guitar riff, capturing the energy of the sprint and the other half a mournful croon that stands in for the comforting isolation of the long-distance runner. The two elements of the song play off against one another, and all the while Torres makes a song that is about so much more than running.

Listening to this record you get the impression that Torres is an old soul. She has a heaviness to her music, delicately attached to youthful uncertainty. Or as she sings in “New Skin”:

“I am a tired woman
In January I will just be 23”

“Sprinter” is a classic piece of art, and while I add a lot of new music to my collection every year, I still consistently pull this one off the shelf for repeat listens. I was glad to roll it, and sad to be moving on.

Best tracks: Strange Hellos, New Skin, A Proper Polish Welcome, Sprinter, The Exchange

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1571: The Beaches

I’m back from an event-packed weekend, ready to provide you a music review AND a concert review. First the album, and then scroll down for the corresponding concert.

Disc 1571 is…. Future Lovers EP (as part of the “Sisters Not Twins” re-release)

Artist: The Beaches

Year of Release: 2021

What’s up with the Cover? The band, resplendent in colour. This is the second record in a row where the band embraces the old school “four of us stand in a line” cover and I’m liking it. I hope they keep it up. It isn’t a great T-shirt, though. More on that later.

How I Came To Know It: Somehow this album eluded me as an EP. I caught up to it by accident when it was re-released as the “Sisters Not Twins [the Professional Lovers Album]”. This was basically the 2021 Future Lovers EP paired with the 2019 EP, “The Professional”. I never did see “Future Lovers” on its own, but it all worked out in the end.

How It Stacks Up: I have five Beaches albums, consisting of four EPs and one LP. Or, if you count “Sisters Not Twins” as a full LP, the count is three and two.

This double count is because “Sisters Not Twins” combines the band’s previous two EPs. And it doesn’t just put them both on one disc, it mixes the tracks up in a whole new order. In this way it is all its own record and should probably be reviewed as such.

However, that ship sailed, because I reviewed “the Professional” EP back in February 2020 (Disc 1340).  Rather than talk about all those songs all over again, let’s just focus on what’s new to me, and that’s the five tracks from “Future Lovers”.

Still with me? OK, let’s rank it pretending it is just the EP, meaning I have four EPs and one LP. Of the four EPs, I rank “Future Lovers” at #4. Hey, something had to be last…

Ratings: 3 stars

“Future Lovers” has the classic Beaches sound: anthem-inspiring tunes with a little thump and a lot of jump. As Tom Haverford would say, these gals know how to write a quality banger.

The best of the bunch is “Bad Behaviour” which has fuzzed out guitar sound mixed with a jaunty vocal delivery by Jordan Miller:

“Said shе was tired
Of stayin' up getting wired
Now she lives in Berlin
With Steampunk Italians”

It isn’t a song about a lot of deep thought, mostly about living the fast life, but none of that matters. Like any good pop song it is barely over three minutes long, ends early, and leaves you wanting more.

I also dig “Blow Up” which is that antsy feeling of being at one club and wanting to go to another one hoping it will be better. I think. I understand this feeling, but in my clubbing days I was much more likely to want to nest in the first reasonable club I came upon. Nothing worse than feeling your sweat cool off and your beer buzz fade on a frosty Autumn evening, waiting in some line you could have avoided simply by staying at the club you were already at. But I digress…

While the album is mostly “bangers” or at least songs aspiring to the title, there are some sweet spots, notably “You Don’t Owe Me Anything” which features Jordan’s sweet, slightly sad vocals as she sings about a no-strings attached one night stand. The song rambles a little, with Jordan doing a bit of talking over the tune. Ordinarily this would annoy me (sing it!) but here she reminded me favourably of the Shangri-Las with her mix of tough and tender.

The record overall is solid, but it suffers a bit by comparison with their previous release. And it doesn’t help that my copy is mixed in with the five songs from “The Professional”. While good, with the exception of “Bad Behaviour” the tunes on “Future Lovers” just aren’t quite at the same level.

Fortunately, it is still a Beaches record, and even their weakest EP is still a lot of fun.

Best tracks: Bad Behaviour, Blow Up

The Concert: July 11, 2022 at the Philips Brewery Backyarder, Victoria

Yes, you read that correctly! Concerts have returned, and this was the return of the Backyarder, which after a couple years of COVID cancellations came back with a vengeance in 2022, with three separate weekends of music.

This past weekend was the second of the three, which was called “Tilt” for reasons that I did not care enough to investigate. I was just happy to have a show to go see, and even happier that my lovely wife Sheila (who usually hates any kind of outdoor festival) decided to give it a chance as well.

Tilt had five bands but since Sheila and I were only interested in the last two on the ticket we went for dinner first, and showed up late, just in time to catch the ‘opener’…

Before that started though, there was plenty of time for people watching in the late afternoon summer sun. Festival crowds are interesting, with a lot of people wearing boring but comfortable athleisure, peppered with every tenth person dressed up either nice, weird, or nice and weird.

While other middle-aged folks were there, we were decidedly in the minority and the vast majority were well under 35. Everyone was well behaved and the sheer variety in the crowd made for some quality people watching.

But enough about the people – here are the two bands we saw. Also, since we like to patronize the merch table, I’ve also provided a “merch rating” which I think a fine feature for these live show reviews, and something I may keep doing down the road.

Snotty Nose Rez Kids

First up were the Snotty Nose Rez Kids, which is a hip hop band from the Haisla Nation, located in Northwest BC. I’ve been a fan for a few years now, and if you want to know more about the band read my reviews at Disc 1377 and Disc 1526.

As for the live show, I was nervous. When I see hip hop live it sometimes feels like the bass overpowers any chance to hear the lyrics and you just get a bunch of close-mic muffling.

Not so the Rez Kids. They are old school in approach and keeping the arrangements simple also lets you hear what’s going on very well. They had a great energy and played a set full of my favourites. Their banter was a bit by the numbers, but it was full of energy (at one point just getting the crowd to chant the “Energy! Energy! Energy!” which seemed a bit on point.

Merch rating: A. SNRK had at least five different concert t shirts and they were all awesome. This included a play on Iron Maiden album covers, which featured hip hop versions of Eddie. Sheila got one of those. I went with a cool looking ghost/shipwreck design. I’m a sucker for a nautical theme.

Beaches

This is the third time I’d seen the Beaches. There’s a reason I’ve been that many times, and why I would go again tomorrow; the Beaches are great live. This time around I could really only see the top third of them from my vantage point, but that was still enough to know they still had the magic.

The Beaches are pure rock energy. This time around they were all dressed in bright colours, so even at a distance it was easy to pick up all their high kicks, hair twirls and general derring-do.

Armed with even more crowd-pleasing songs from their latest album (see above for details), they were once again on top of their game. The Beaches look young but they’ve been making music for a good ten years now, and it shows. They play as a true band, feeding off each other with an easy vibe that felt even more rollicking in front of so many drunk and stoned revelers.

They divided their show up into two equal halves that fully rocked out, with a caesura of three slow bummer songs that felt like they were there so you could grab a beer and your breath before the second half of the set kicked off. I thought the slow tunes were lost a bit in the bigger venue, but the overall effect of creating some layers to the performance worked well.

There were a couple of minor issues with the show. First, the sound was a bit over-amped to start causing the guitars to fuzz out in a not-good way, but by about song three or four, the mix was sorted out. I’ll always forgive a bit of off-sound early in a show, as long as it gets fixed, and here it did.

The Beaches do need to work on their banter. While they clearly like each other, they have a tendency to talk over each other in a way that prevents you hearing any of them very well. Also, when I could hear them, they tended to ramble. I know its artificial to do a prepared schtick every night, but they might want to have roughly blocked out a bit of the dialogue in advance.

These are both minor quibbles, however. The Beaches are one of my favourite bands to see live, and I’ve seen a few. They are all gifted musicians who love to perform, and it shows.

Merch Rating: Average. The Beaches had a cool new font and a funky yellow shirt, but it also had cutouts of all their heads. Band shirts should be artsy, not just a picture of the band.

Saturday, July 9, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1570: Tyr

For the second time in three albums I was treated to some Viking metal. I guess if you buy a lot of one kind of music in a short span of time, it is likely to show up on your playlist a fair bit.

Disc 1570 is…. The Lay of Thrym

Artist: Tyr

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? I believe this is a depiction of the end of the titular lay of Thrym. Thrym as a giant who stole Thor’s hammer and planned to ransom it back in return for Freya’s hand in marriage. Thor went and, after asking Thyrm politely, got the hammer back.

Just kidding, Thor dressed up as Freya to get into the wedding and then straight up murdered not only Thrym (lying dead in the foreground here), but also his older sister and all his kin (not pictured). The moral of this myth is self-evident: don’t steal another man’s hammer.

The two goats in the foreground also belong to Thor – they are called Tanngrisnir and Tanngnjóstr and in Norse myth they pull Thor’s chariot. It looks like Thor's post-murderous exultation has them wanting to bolt, but if you happen to find them later, return them immediately. Thor is fucking serious about defending his personal property. Not the guy you want to borrow a lawn mower (or goat) from, and not return it on time. 

How I Came To Know It: Originally by way of my buddy Nick, but in the case of this record it was me digging through the band’s catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have three Tyr albums so far. I’m on the lookout for a fourth (2013’s Valkyrja). Of the three I have, I rank “The Lay of Thrym” at #3. Sorry, Thrym: someone has to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars

For those who don’t know them, Tyr is a metal band from the Faroe Islands that mix heavy metal with flavours of Norse mythology with traditional Viking chants that have been metalized. So a little of Column A, and a little of Column B, where A and B tend to..er…intermingle.

“The Lay of Thrym” has the same qualities that made me enjoy previous albums “Ragnarok” (2006) and “Land” (2008). The heavy thump of Kari Streymoy’s drum remains the best part of the band, as he thuds his way through each tune with a deliberate power that evokes memories of Black Sabbath’s Bill Ward. Streymoy shines brightest on “Evening Star”, the album’s ballad, or what passes for a ballad on a modern metal album like this. He gets to show off both a slow thud and a ferocious speed in the same tune, giving the song the solemn gravity of a funeral march and the rousing anthem of a war march all in a single tune. Streymoy is the jarl of this band, and the others are all rowing to his beat.

Singer Heri Joensen has a big traditional metal vocal that soars and delivers the lyrics with conviction. This isn’t easy, as some of the lines on these songs are awkward or create cramped phrasing as they try to fit too many syllables into each bar. Sometimes it works, as in the breakneck “Hall of Freedom” whereas other times it feels awkward, as what makes Streymoy’s drumming so interesting can make the lyrics feel like square pegs being pushed into round holes. Also lines like “Nine worlds of lore/This is the place we keep the weapon’s of war” don’t sound less hokey despite Joensen’s heartfelt efforts to make them cool.

The guitar work on the record is solid, although the solos let me down in places, resorting to a “look how fast I can play” noodle fest. I believe great guitar solos are forged from an alternate exploration of the melody, both a part of and separate from the song at the same time. Hoping a whole lot of notes and technical precision can replace this artistry rarely succeeds.  

This being Tyr, they work in a solid bit of traditional Scandinavian chants with both “Konning Hans” (Danish) and “Ellindur Bondi A Jadri” (Faroese). I liked similar songs on earlier records slightly more, but both of these are good. As ever they ‘metalize’ the songs in a delightful way that lends itself equally to pulling on the oar of a Viking longship and throwing your hair around in a mosh pit. I wonder if Vikings back in the day moshed when these songs got busted out in the longhouse? I like to think they did.

Viking metal bands tend to have a reputation for singing about Viking history and mythology to the exclusion of pretty much everything else. You’d expect a record called “The Lay of Thrym” to do just this, but I was surprised to see Tyr mixing mythology with modern social commentary. The title track seems to explore the concept of corrupt governance where I admit I was hoping for a lot more descriptors of Thor wreaking havoc at Thrym’s wedding feast. That said, all was forgiven when I heard the over-the-top line, “Hammer home to any despot’s dome.” Hammer to the dome, yo!

This record isn’t Tyr’s best, but if you already have “Land” and “Ragnarok” and want to branch out a bit farther, it is a solid entry in their catalogue and worth exploring.

Best tracks: Flame of the Free, Hall of Freedom, Evening Star, The Lay of Thrym

Tuesday, July 5, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1569: Neko Case

Welcome back to the Odyssey – let’s get to the music!

Disc 1569 is…. Fox Confessor Brings the Flood

Artist: Neko Case

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? A deer lady (yes, that kind of deer – look at her legs) is having a stern talk with a pack of foxes. I suspect it relates to the head of her friend she’s cradling in one arm.

The foxes’ expressions suggest it won’t be difficult to wrangle a confession out of them. If anything the one behind her looks to be ready to skip further dialogue and add another deer lady head to the collection in short order.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve liked Neko Case a long time, but the reason why is lost in the mists of time. I think I heard a song from around this era (the first album of hers I purchased was 2009’s Middle Cyclone). This one was next, as I began my oft-employed system of drilling into an artist’s back catalogue.

How It Stacks Up: I have nine Neko Case albums. “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” is tied for #1 with the “The Virginian.” I originally gave the latter the edge, but I must revisit this hasty decision and put “Fox Confessor…” out front. It would have taken a perfect record to manage that feat, but…here we are.

Ratings: 5 stars

While Middle Cyclone was the album that first caught my attention, it was “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood” that made me realize just what a treasure I had unearthed in Neko Case. This record is a modern classic.

If you seek to define “Fox Confessor…” you’ll find the effort is in vain. Case blends country, folk, pop, and old-time church music together into a genre-defying swoon. The unifying factor is her innovative approach to songwriting and a voice as big and brassy as a steeple bell.

On her first three albums, Case lends her vocals to alt-folk and country, and these albums are all great – some of her best in fact. But on “Fox Confessor” she takes new paths in her approach to music, experimenting fearlessly through genres, delivery, production and arrangement. Despite all these shifts in approach, the songs have a common soul to them that makes the record feel united in something. It is hard to say what that something is, but Case’s approach makes it feel important.

The album opens with “Margaret vs. Pauline” a song that is loosely based on Richard Brautigan’s bizarre novel, “In Watermelon Sugar.” I liked “In Watermelon Sugar” well enough but it never connected with me emotionally. Case takes the story of a couple of those characters and grounds them in their tragedy with a series of deft lines that land with deliberate purpose. The different fates of our two titular characters ultimately summed up with a stark and simple set of images:

“Two girls ride the blue line
Two girls walk down the same street
One left her sweater sittin' on the train
The other lost three fingers at the cannery”

That song is immediately followed on by “Star Witness” which is the best on the record, mixing Case’s bold power through each stanza, matched with a light lilt in the chorus that feels like that breathless moment in a Viennese Waltz when the dancers start gliding across the floor. Yeah, I’ve been watching a bit of So You Think You Can Dance.

The second half of the record isn’t as full of immediately accessible singles as the first, but it is just as powerful as it explores multiple facets of Case’s style and imagination. She is a jubilant southern preacher on “John Saw That Number,” tells a dark and deadly fairy tale on “Dirty Knife” and then wraps herself up in a Patsy Cline-like croon on “Lion’s Jaws”. Every song is different than the last, every one dripping with first rate poetry, brought to life by Case’s vocal prowess.

With all those great lyrics, it was disappointing that the CD’s booklet was just a collection of art projects and photos. If you’re going to go to the trouble of giving me a booklet, putting the lyrics in there is the decent thing to do.

However, that’s my only criticism of a record that is brilliant at every turn. I’ve heard “Fox Confessor…” countless times over the years, and not only do I never grow tired of it, it reveals some new and wonderful beauty to me each time I put it on.

Best tracks: all tracks

Friday, July 1, 2022

CD Odyssey Disc 1568: Amon Amarth

Happy Canada Day! Here’s a review to get your holiday off on the right foot.

Disc 1568 is…. Berserker

Artist: Amon Amarth

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Our titular character, wading fearlessly into battle against a host of spearmen. Of course, a lot of these guys would have died behaving this way, but Amon Amarth has decided to capture that moment in time when the berserker is really feeling it.

Right at this moment, everything is looking rosy. Sure he’s been cut a couple of times, but there’s more blood on his axe blade than his chest, so it’s all good. Later, that rosy outlook will probably be replaced with the frothy pink blood that suggests one of those spears has pierced a lung. For right now things are looking up, and there’s more killin’ to do, ‘ere the end.

How I Came To Know It: My friend Greg played me a song off of this album called “Shield Wall”. It was pretty awesome and from there I’ve fallen pretty hard for this band, buying five of their albums over the past six months or so.

How It Stacks Up: I previously reviewed “Twilight of the Thunder God” and “Jomsviking” and, wanting to leave room for this record to beat them out. But having listened to all three, and with a better understanding of the band overall I think they are both better, dropping “Berserker” into #5.

Ratings: 3 stars

On “Berserker” Amon Amarth lighten up. In fact, this record is positively cheery by their standards – a couple songs even have intros featuring classical guitar and cellos. These don’t last long though, and it is important to understand that “cheery” here still means you will be enjoying an onslaught of Viking melodic death metal. This record is the most melodic of what I’ve heard from them so far though, so cheery within that context only.

The hallmarks of the band remain, with the guttural screams of Johan Hegg and the driving crunchy rhythm of Johan Soderberg’s guitar. These two things alone should be enough to get your head banging with enthusiasm. Soderberg is a stalwart of the band from the beginning. Amon Amarth is one of those bands, like ACDC, where the rhythm guy is king. He is the reason this stuff has a melodic structure and a gem of a musician. Lead Olavi Mikkonen is no slouch either. Together, these guys are magic.

Hegg’s vocals are a bit less guttural than usual here, but since that’s not angry rasp isn’t typically in my wheelhouse anyway, I was happy that the lyrics were easier to understand. If you are feeling participatory, I still wouldn’t try to sing along; with death metal you are better off employing air guitar or drums if you don’t want to hurt your throat.  It was awesome to be able to better hear the stories unfold, though.

With those stories you will be treated to a whole lot of Viking history and mythology. If you don’t consider that a treat, you should probably find a different band to listen to. I happen to roll just fine with that, and “Berserker” has a number of killer tracks that fit the bill.

The most notable is “Shield Wall,” the song that first drew me to the band. This song has an urgency and power that perfectly captures what I imagine what it would have felt like to stand in a shield wall, your trusted companions on either side of you, feeling invulnerable. Likely you’d also be wondering at the lunacy of the berserkers who’d torn their shirts off and run out in front. Like what the hell, man, get back here where we can help you! Big I digress…

Shield Wall” is a masterful display of Jocke Wallgren’s drumming. Wallgren’s work is a perfect blend of furious, precise, and heavy as fuck. It is only his second album with the band, and while we could all sit around bemoaning the loss of the brilliant Fredrik Andersson, I’m just thrilled to have one great drummer replaced with another.

On this record I also mused that Viking metal bands sing about Thor a lot. I mean, there is lots of Norse mythology to go around, but Thor is the guy who gets the most airtime. That he tends to fill that air with thunder and lightning must add to the appeal. On this record “Crack the Sky” edges out “Mjolner, Hammer of Thor” as “best Thor song” but they’re both solid.

Less good is “Ironside,” which is about a real-life historical figure that fans of the TV show “Vikings” will be familiar with. Here the band tells the story, but it feels like they sacrifice poetry in service to ensuring all the details are right. A good song needs to employ imagery and emotion as well as the specifics of the events.

But this is a minor quibble. After all, “The Berserker at Stamford Bridge” does the same thing, and it is tons of fun (spoiler alert – he eventually dies and probably should have stayed in the shield wall). Overall, this record is another brilliant entry in Amon Amarth’s discography and has me looking forward to the release of “the Great Heathen Army” due out in August. Bring it on!

Best tracks: Crack the Sky, Shield Wall, Raven’s Flight, Into the Dark