Thursday, October 19, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1063: Iron Horse

I was standing at the bus stop this morning when a woman pulled up, rolled down her window, and told me that she drove by me every morning and thought I looked great. She said my wardrobe always puts a smile on her face. It was a hell of a great way to start my Thursday, and the pleasant affirmation of it all stuck with me all day.

So, Unknown Lady, thanks for passing along a little joy to a stranger. It’s people like you that make a rainy day sunny around the edges.

Disc 1063 is…Take Me Home: The Bluegrass Tribute to Guns N’ Roses
Artist: Iron Horse

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? As you might expect, the Guns N’ Roses logo with a twist. Here the guns cross instead of point in opposite directions, and there is a skull with a top hat, no doubt because Iron Horse felt they needed to amp up the badassery of the log to make up for the lack of Slash’s electric guitar.

How I Came To Know It: I was in Vancouver on a holiday and saw it at the downtown HMV (when it used to exist). I had never heard it, but knew I had to have it based on the premise alone.

How It Stacks Up:  Iron Horse has done a whole bunch of these bluegrass cover albums, but this is the only one I have, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 1 mandolin, 1 violin and half a banjo, but since I don’t give out half-banjos…2 stars.

Have you ever wondered what Guns N’ Roses would sound like if it was a bluegrass band? I’m going to guess that you haven’t, but never fear – Iron Horse has done the wondering for you. In fact, they’ve gone ahead and recorded a bunch of bluegrass covers of Guns N’ Roses for your listening pleasure. And also for hilarity, since who doesn’t love a little hilarity?

In turning all these raunchy rock and roll songs into bluegrass, Iron Horse follows a pretty basic formula. Make sure everyone plays at the front of the beat, switch all the guitar solos for banjos and violins, and keep the beat with a mandolin instead of a drum.

The best thing about this album is the band plays it straight. They’re not hamming it up, or goofing off – they are just playing these songs as a bluegrass band. The banjo trills along and the boys sing in tight harmony as they drain out all of Axl Rose’s angry growl and replace it with something you might expect to hear walking past a stage made of hay bales at a country fair. Only in this case, you stop and turn to your companion to say “are they singing what I think they’re singing?”

When there is a Slash guitar solo, the band goes with banjo or violin, and it works pretty well. Although the violin feels a bit more appropriate to Slash’s original intent, both are pretty fun.
Another fun fact: it is a tradition that there is no swearing in bluegrass. This made songs like “Mr. Brownstone” and “Out Ta Get Me” even more fun, as Iron Horse came up with creative ways to remove all the f-bombs and sex act references from these songs. The old man in “Mr. Brownstone” becomes a “real troublemaker”. On “Out Ta Get Me” there are no invitations for the people out to get the narrator to perform a sex act. Instead the band opts to repeat a previous line and let bygones be bygones. Knowing how the song is supposed to go makes all this Victorian ankle-covering even more enjoyable.

Converting songs to bluegrass works better when the songs have a more country-style chord progression, and songs like “Dead Horse” and “Yesterdays” come out much better than most as a result. “Dead Horse” in particular, feels like it was written for this style that gave me a new appreciation for the original.

Classics like “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and “Paradise City” are also standouts. “Paradise City’s” chorus lends itself well to harmonies, and “Sweet Child O’ Mine” is just a great song in any style. Also, hearing a violin and then a mandolin play Slash’s solos is something you don’t want to miss. You don’t want a steady diet of it, but you should hear it at least once before you’re on the wrong side of the bluegrass, if you take my meanin’.

Sorry about that wanton apostrophe, I reckon listenin’ to this stuff for too long will make anyone lose an occasional ‘g’.

But I digress…

On the not so fun side, I found the banjo a bit too similar on all the tracks and I think they could’ve done more with it than just have it replace the rhythm guitar. Also, while singer Vance Henry sings OK he is no powerhouse like Axl Rose, and he could have used a bit more emotional oomph in his delivery, particularly on heartfelt tracks like “Patience.”

Mostly though, this album is a fun and heartfelt homage to the original tracks. It is obviously a labour of love by a band who long ago decided there were no barriers bluegrass couldn’t overcome in reaching new audiences.

Best tracks: Dead Horse, Yesterdays, Sweet Child O’ Mine, Paradise City

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1062: Josh Ritter

Another musical icon left us today with the death of the Tragically Hip’s Gord Downie. I had a complicated relationship with the Hip. I first discovered them through my roommate Greg, who had their first two albums on tape, and I loved it.

However, it was not to last – my local radio station adopted the Hip as their “House Band” and played them all the time. That would’ve been OK, except that station blared away in a warehouse all day where I worked one of my worst jobs ever. As the months passed I learned to loathe the Hip in much the same way that Alex came to hate his beloved Ludwig Van in “A Clockwork Orange.”

Then, years later my friend Chris reintroduced me to them, when I had enough distance to once again hear the music on its own merits. Nowadays I only have four of their 13 albums, but I like all four of them and may one day get more. I heard some songs from 2009’s “We are the Same” earlier today and I liked it quite a bit.

But enough about future purchases, let’s get to the review of the moment, shall we?

Disc 1062 is…The Animal Years
Artist: Josh Ritter

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? I’m not sure if this is a horse with a very bad swayback, or one with a bite taken out of it. Whatever it’s condition, it seems pretty calm given its back issues and the fact that it is floating on a log.

How I Came To Know It: I just kept bumping into Josh Ritter, reading reviews where critics raved about him or just new releases that hearkened back to all his good works. Finally, this one showed up at #11 on Paste Magazine’s oft-mentioned (by me) “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” so I gave it a listen. I loved it, but it took a while to find and only recently was lucky to happen upon a used copy at my local record store.

How It Stacks Up:  I checked out all of Josh Ritter’s albums in the meantime, and by the time I added “The Animal Years” I had already bought three others. It is early days and I don’t know any of the albums that well yet, but I’m going to start things off with ranking “the Animal Years” at number one. Ordinarily I’d give the other three a cursory scan to see if there was a possibility that I was wrong but screw it – this album is just too good. If I’m proven wrong down the road, that just means I’ve got two amazing albums instead of just one.

Ratings: 5 stars

I’ve had a lot of time to listen to “The Animal Years” over the last three days, mostly because I couldn’t bring myself to stop. The record has a lot to say, and the more you listen the more it reveals itself to you. This is a record about faith as it crumbles at its foundations, and of love full of doubt made stronger by the twists those doubts lay in your soul, like a tree growing up on a windy shore.

There is a bit of all these things on the opening track, “Girl in the War,” as Christian saint Peter expresses his doubts to Paul. The light trill of a mandolin adds a poignancy to the song as Ritter sets up two paragons of righteousness, starting to lose their way. The song begins:

“Peter said to Paul, you know all those words we wrote
Are just the rules of the game and the rules are the first to go
But now talking to God is Laurel begging Hardy for a gun
I got a girl in the war, man, I wonder what it is we done.”

In just a single stanza, Ritter dumps you into the deep end, questioning the nature of good and evil, free will and the absurdity of a world where war exists, akin to a skinny clown begging a fat oaf for a weapon. How could we come to this? For Ritter, the terror and beauty are in our humanity, which even when it is grieving, is enough to shake the foundations of heaven itself. The song ends with Peter lamenting:

“I got a girl in the war, Paul, her eyes are like champagne
They sparkle, bubble over, and in the morning all you got is rain.”

Not content with a single masterful song, Ritter takes imagery from one song and drops it into another one. “Girl in the War” is the first track, but nine tracks later Ritter invokes Laurel and Hardy a second time on “Thin Blue Flame”:

“If what we loosed on earth will be loosed up on high
It’s a Hell of a Heaven we must go to when we die
Where even Laurel begs Hardy for vengeance please
The fat man is crying on his hands and his knees.”

There’s little hope for those arguing saints when even the pompous bully at last trembles with the terrible choices his authority requires. This is a stark record, where Ritter confronts us and forces us to examine our actions directly, and not through some divine will, for the fault is in us, and he takes us there so subtly and gradually that when you finally arrive it feels as natural as it is inevitable.

On “Wolves” Ritter sings an upbeat ditty about singing to the wolves who later seek him out for his hubris, and four songs later on “Idaho” he sings a mournful dirge even as the narrator clings to his truth “Wolves, oh wolves, can’t you see?/Ain’t no wolf can sing like me.” Later, in the song our bold singer is grounded by the truth of his sins, drawing him, and pinning him like a lodestone to their source:

“Thought that I’d been on a boat
’Til that single word you wrote
That single word it landlocked me
Turned the masts to cedar trees
And the winds to gravel roads.
Idaho, Idaho”

I could explore the language and themes and connectivity of “The Animal Years” forever, but time and space compel me to lend some time to Ritter’s vocals, which add depth, complexity and emotional honesty to every song. When he needs it, Ritter has the rock power of Springsteen, and when he needs light and ethereal, he makes like Art Garfunkel, but with more soul.

In the modern era, if you aren’t writing catchy pop hooks and marketing clothing lines and signature perfumes there is a good chance people don’t know you. For good or ill, the era of folk giants like Bob Dylan or Simon and Garfunkel is largely over. I like the variety the new world order generates but I want to be clear about Josh Ritter – if this guy had done his thing in the sixties or seventies he would be a household name by now, and “The Animal Years” would already be a classic album. Twenty years from now that may still happen; time has a way of helping greatness rise to the top.

I don’t compare Ritter to Bob Dylan or Paul Simon lightly, but on “The Animal Years” he earns it. This is one of folk-rock finest albums I’ve ever heard. Ritter seamlessly blends hometown rock of Bruce Springsteen, the social commentary of Dylan and the romantic idealism of Leonard Cohen.

Over the past three days, I’ve listened to this album five or six times through, maybe more. I forget how many. All I’m sure of is that I wanted more, but the Odyssey is a harsh mistress and tells me I must move on. And so as I embark again on this crazy CD Odyssey I’m leaving Ritter Island sooner than I want, and with more than a little regret.

Best tracks: All tracks, but Girl in the War, Monster Ballads and Idaho will break your heart all on their own.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1061: Tom Waits

I’ve had a fun weekend, hanging out with friends, playing Ulti and watching the Miami Dolphins win in a thrilling second half comeback.

On Saturday, I went down to the local record store to get the new releases by St. Vincent and Courtney Barnett/Kurt Vile. Both records were amazing, and I’m looking forward to getting to know them better and one day – when the dice gods decide its time – review them.

Disc 1061 is…Alice
Artist: Tom Waits

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? An out-of-focus Tom Waits sits on a tire, looking devilish.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me digging through Tom Waits’ discography once I knew I loved his stuff.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 17 Tom Waits albums, and while I like “Alice” competition is fierce. I rank it at #10 overall.

Ratings: 4 stars

Tom Waits’ music has always been fanciful, but “Alice” is even more like a weird fairytale than usual. These songs have a playful quality that shows that many years into his career, Waits is still having fun exploring and developing his approach to music.

The opening and title track, “Alice” is a moody lounge piece, with a romantic sound matched to lyrics that are foreboding and creepy. This is Waits at his best, a master story teller rasping his way through the song, accompanied by sexy trumpet flourishes. The song is dripping with great language, but my favourite section is:

“But I must be insane
To go skating on your name
And by tracing it twice
I fell through the ice
Of Alice.”

Awesome imagery exploring the dangerous draw of the narrator’s obsession with the title character. The songs are co-written by long-time Waits collaborator (and wife) Kathleen Brennan, and together they paint amazing word pictures. Elsewhere on the album, songs speak of eyes that are “fish on a creamy shore”, swimming pools “filled with needles and with fools” and hearts that pump wine rather than blood. It is a sumptuous feast of language that keeps you interested even after many repeat listens.

Not content with moody and pensive songs like “Alice” Waits also goes full weirdo, with his signature bells and syncopated percussion. How he can turn all these bangs, clangs and whistles into compelling music is beyond me, but he does it. “Kommienezuspadt” isn’t even in English (I’m guessing German but I have no idea) but it has such an irresistible energy I usually try to sing along anyway.

Waits lets his imagination explore in a lot of different directions. On “Flower’s Grave” he observes that “no one puts flowers on a flower’s grave” and on “We’re All Mad Here” he observes that your hip bones are shaped like a heart, after all that flesh is removed and you’re reduced to a skeleton. Creepy but compelling stuff.

Poor Edward” tells the story of a man who has another face on the back of his head. We are never told why, it’s just another of Waits’ mad visions, and nestled among all the others on “Alice”, it somehow makes perfect sense.

Interspersed among all this delightful bizarreness, Waits mixes in tender ballads like “Lost in the Harbour” and “Fish & Bird” the latter of which tells the story of a bird that fell in love with a whale. They can’t be together, but yet their love endures. In the magical world of Tom Waits it all just makes sense.

Even though the record features plenty of troubling imagery there is a gentle romanticism that permeates “Alice” that draws you in and gives you comfort. This record is a favourite of Sheila’s and as a result gets a lot of airplay in the house, but despite the heavy rotation I’m always happy when it comes on.

Best tracks: Alice, Flower’s Grave, Kommienezuspadt, Lost in the Harbour, We’re All Mad Here, Fish & Bird, Barcarolle

Thursday, October 12, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1060: Laura Marling

I am feeling a little tired this week and looking forward to the weekend.

Disc 1060 is…I Speak Because I Can
Artist: Laura Marling

Year of Release: 2010

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a bit on the grey side, although it does evoke Greek statuary a bit, and I like Greek statuary. Nevertheless, I declare this cover…meh.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Laura Marling since I saw her perform on the Jools Holland show about seven or eight years ago. This particular album eluded me until earlier this year, when I was reminded of its existence via the oft-referenced (by me) “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” list from Paste Magazine. It came in at #36 on that list, and while I wouldn’t have ranked it so high seeing it there made me think “Hey, that’s a Laura Marling album I don’t have – I should check it out.” So I did.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Laura Marling albums and I like them all to varying degrees. I put this one in third, a hair behind “A Creature I Don’t Know”.

Ratings: 3 stars

I’ll admit when the dice gods offered up “I Speak Because I Can” out of my new music section, it wasn’t what I was hoping for. I had to remind myself that I bought it for a reason and to give it a chance.

The album is only 36 minutes long, and over the past couple of days I’ve heard it almost four times through so I had plenty of time to decide just how I felt. At first I was pleasantly surprised, by listens two and three I was genuinely impressed and by listen four I was thinking “solid record, but I’m ready to hear something else.”

Laura Marling is an English contemporary folk singer with vocals that tend to be a bit flat, but are more than compensated for by lyrics that are sharp. See what I did there?

Anyway, Marling’s tone has a husky hint in the low register and surprisingly sweet at the top end, but it isn’t her vocal prowess that keeps you listening, it’s her songwriting.

Musically these songs are restless to the point of sometimes being agitated, but never without a point. This is a record about uncertainty, both internal and external, and Marling’s ability to explore that shifting emotional ground is what makes her so compelling. She derives an awkward strength from the journey that she’s not afraid to express, such as these lines from “Rambling Man”:

“It’s funny that the first chords you come to
Are the minor notes that come to serenade you
And it’s hard to accept yourself
As someone you don’t desire.”

As you would expect from lyrics like that, Marling is also a thoughtful melody writer and while these songs aren’t exactly pop hooks, they have an interesting progression and tend to blossom into something subtly beautiful before they’re done. Marling also knows how to end the musical concept without resorting to flourishes and fade outs. Lesser indie folk singers, take note: it can be done.

I was also impressed by Marling’s guitar work. She plays with a style that fluctuates between classical and busker as the song and moment demands. It is easy to underestimate guitar in a folk song, but it would be a mistake here, where it is every bit as much of a star as the song construction and lyrics.

Production-wise, there are times that the sound is a bit too round and atmospheric where it called for a more stark treatment, but overall Marling is restrained in the arrangements, knowing when to bring in a little banjo or fiddle without making it all fussy in the process.

The record demands your attention for maximum enjoyment. All music suffers from being relegated to “background music” but “I Speak Because I Can” would suffer more than most. That’s a shame, because when I’m not listening for the purposes of writing a review, I’m often doing some second activity (playing a game, reading a book) and I expect that this record won’t get put on as much as it deserves.

Finally, I experienced some annoyance over the album’s presentation. The only song listing for the CD case is that hodgepodge on the cover photo above. Fine for when you are reading it off your digital device, but annoying if you are listening on your home stereo and having to constantly futz and count across to be sure of the song title. Also, the lyrics inside are presented in big blocks of hard to read print with no line breaks. If you’re going to publish the lyrics, at least make it easy for me to follow along.

At her best, Marling reminds me of Leonard Cohen or Angel Olsen, which is pretty good company to be keeping. While this album didn’t live up to the hype of the Paste article, I still am glad I gave it a chance.

Best tracks: Rambling Man, Blackberry Stone, Goodbye England, Hope in the Air, I Speak Because I Can

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1059: Broken Bells

Some days you wake up ready to face any challenge, overcome any obstacle and conquer the world. I’d like to say today was one of those days, but I just felt a little tired.

Disc 1059 is…After the Disco
Artist: Broken Bells

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A woman basks in the pink light of the geometric shape from the cover of the first Broken Bells album (reviewed back at Disc 462), while all around her the cosmos flows. Ordinarily, I’d warn her to put on that helmet if she is going out in zero gravity, but I doubt that just the helmet is going get the job done.

How I Came To Know It: Sheila bought the first Broken Bells album, and knowing she liked them, I might’ve bought her this one as a birthday or Christmas gift, but I can't be sure. The answer is lost in the mists of time and the hundreds of albums that have caught my fancy since then.

How It Stacks Up:  We have two Broken Bells CDs, and of the two I’ll put “After the Disco” in second.

Ratings: 3 stars

I tend toward rock music or folk music, and the artificiality of synthetic pop is just not my thing, but Broken Bells knows how to do that sound so well I ended up liking “After the Disco” despite my biases.

It helps that James Mercer just knows how to write a catchy hook (he’s done it for years in the Shins). Add in Danger Mouse’s talent at production, and the result is some very catchy pop songs. Mercer has a high, sonorous indie folk vocal, and it keeps things dressed down enough to balance out all the beeps, thumps and bass-riffs that Danger Mouse likes to groove on.

On my last Broken Bells review I mentioned the disco-like energy that Danger Mouse and James Mercer infused into the album. Given this album’s title and musical focus, I can only assume they are devoted readers of my blog. Welcome, gentlemen, to our club of dozens!

On many of the tracks it feels like Mercer is channeling Barry Gibb, and I liked it. When Mercer sings the chorus of “Holding On For Life” it feels like he’s trying to make it on the soundtrack for a Saturday Night Fever remake, maybe set on some far flung futuristic world. The title track in particular was a heavy dose of groove, science fiction and a whole lot of fun.

While “After the Disco” was the ‘danciest” of the album’s eleven tracks, the whole thing made me bob my head and look for a dance floor and a disco ball. Regrettably, for the first half I was on the bus and was stuck in a seat with very limited legroom, and for the second half I was walking home, so it didn’t end up being quite as celebratory as it felt in my head.

After a while, all those catchy beats made it hard for me to focus on what Broken Bells was singing about, although the opening track, “Perfect World” had a line that resonated, as Mercer expresses the desire for a little less stress and a little more oblivion:

“I was hoping for
An easy rambling life
Till the notion came to my mind

“We look for exit signs
But we can’t be changed
Into nothing overnight.”

A quick look at the liner notes revealed a lot of other songs with thoughtful lyrics as well, with a focus on people hurting and trying to party through the pain, even as their choices just hollow them out further. the album is aptly named, evoking that tension headache you get when you stayed up too late in an effort to have more fun, even though at some point in the wee small hours you started having less.

Ultimately, as good as it was, I couldn’t get past all that head-bobbing dance music. I get that it is supposed to juxtapose against Mercer’s lyrics, but at times it drowns them out completely. Or maybe it just takes a lot of repeat listens to let it sink in. I suspect it is a bit of both.

The musical influences are interesting, with the ghosts of both the Beatles and the Cure jostling with Sade and the Bee Gees. If you are a devotee of club music but wished it was a bit more self-examined, this is the album for you.

Overall, “After the Disco” is an ambitious record both musically and thematically, and I admired the effort. I enjoyed the music as well, even though it rarely reached down and grabbed me by the heart like I wanted it to.

Best tracks: Perfect World, After the Disco, Holding on For Life, Medicine

Monday, October 9, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1058: Barton Carroll

It is Sheila’s birthday week! After a couple days packed with social engagements, last night we chilled out and played board games into the wee hours, listening to some of our favourite Tom Petty albums. After all these years an evening in just chillin’ with the love of my life is still one of my favourite things in the world.

Disc 1058 is…Love & War
Artist: Barton Carroll

Year of Release: 2001 if you believe the “recorded in” section of the CD liner notes, 2006 if you believe the information downloaded onto the CD itself. I couldn’t find anything on the Interweb to confirm it one way or the other.

What’s up with the Cover? Plain old black and white. I’m not a fan of the ampersand, and making it bigger just makes it worse.

How I Came To Know It: I read an article on Paste magazine a couple years ago called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection.” Carroll’s 2013 album “Avery County, I Am Bound to You” made that list and I really liked it. That led me to the rest of his collection.

Then came the realization that this was so obscure I was never going to find it in a record store. Instead, I ordered my three favourite albums direct off Barton’s website, and “Love & War” was one of them. The other two came signed, but “Love & War” was all black, so there was nowhere to sign it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Barton Carroll albums. Sadly, I must put “Love & War” last on the list. Someone’s got to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

How Barton Carroll isn’t famous is beyond my understanding. “Love & War” is an early album, but his unique style and thoughtful songwriting are already evident.

“Love & War” is a somber affair, with Carroll confessing secrets to you, not all of which are pleasant to hear. His high, quavering vocals have a surprising amount of range. At the lower end he sounds a little bit like Michael Stipe and when he climbs into falsetto he reminded me of Bonnie Prince Billy. Part of both comparisons is the ever-present ache in his delivery, serving to underscore lyrics that are stark and honest.

The record is at its best when it embraces the subject matter of its title: the horrible impacts of war on our ability to love. On “The Way Back to Her” a man sets out for home, rejecting further death and carnage. His plan little more than an earnest prayer with no certainty of success:

“I’ve got a plan gonna set out at light
Won’t be taking me down, won’t be taking me down
Rock in my heart, there’s a rock in my heart
It’s enough with the guns, I’m returning to love
Her face is so sweet and her heart is so bare
And death comes to life at the smell of her hair
If her hand sits in mine I could shake off the blood
And lose sight of his eyes and lose sight of mine
I’m asking you, I’m asking God
Send me to hell, if it’s the way back to her.”

Later, on “Small Thing” Carroll flips the experience, exploring the horrors of war through the eyes of non-combatants swept up in its violence; in this case two German girls being raped in the final days of World War Two.

“I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same on their side
I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same during war time
I was a child, I was on the wrong side
I was broken in by broken men with drainin’ eyes
War sleeps deep in a man, long after guns are gone
He loses care for small things and I, I was a small thing.”

Gut-wrenching stuff, made all the more poignant by the narrator’s recognition that in some foreign town, similar war crimes would have been committed by her neighbours, maybe even her family.

Carroll’s guitar work is superb throughout the record. Whether he is laying down a basic strum on “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” or a sublime picking pattern on “Your Name Must Be Mercy” he delivers an exceptional tone that helps ground often heavy and difficult topics.

The album has the stark production I tend to favour as well, although Carroll brings in strings, horn or violin as the situation requires. I particularly like Jim Roth’s pedal steel on Carroll’s cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Dark End of the Street.” It adds a rich echo that fills that dark street with the weighty import of tainted love. At least I think its Roth's pedal steel…I’m an amateur in instrument identification. Whatever it is, I like it.

If there is a criticism of “Love & War” it would be that some of the melodies resolve in odd ways, and Carroll’s phrasing can occasionally get a bit too inventive. It showcases his understanding of music, but every now and then it detracts from the song’s emotional impact.

However, this is a minor issue and more about my personal preferences than anything wrong on Carroll’s part. “Love & War” is the promise of even greater things to come, and has me looking forward to a deeper delve of the other two albums in my collection.

Best tracks: Dark End of the Street, The Way Back to Her, Small Thing

Thursday, October 5, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1057: Indigo Girls

My weekend is starting early. As in…now! Let’s kick it off with a music review after which I’ll go watch that football game I’m taping.

Disc 1057 is…Rites of Passage
Artist: Indigo Girls

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? This cover answers the question “What’s the least amount of fun you can have with Microsoft Paint?”

How I Came To Know It: Back in 1992 I was pretty big into the Indigo Girls and I bought this album new when it came out. I’ve had it ever since.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Indigo Girls albums. Of those six “Rites of Passage” is way up there, but can’t quite dislodge their self-titled album so I must reluctantly put it second, but only by a hair. Since is the last of my Indigo Girls’ albums to review, here is a recap:

  1. Self-Titled: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 412)
  2. Rites of Passage: 5 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Strange Fire: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 50)
  4. Nomads, Indians, Saints: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 691)
  5. Shaming of the Sun: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 489)
  6. Swamp Ophelia: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 647)
Ratings: 5 stars

“Rites of Passage” is the Indigo Girls’ fourth album, and it is the perfect mix of what has come before. It follows the smoother sound from “Nomads, Indians, Saints” and blends it with the stripped-down emotion of their first two albums. The combination is masterful, and makes for one of the finest folk-rock albums I’ve ever heard.

As always, the contrast between the punk-tinged grit of Amy Ray’s voice and Emily Saliers sweet and light vocals is the engine that makes this band work. Ray and Saliers come in and out of harmony, echo one another in what is almost an ‘in the round’ style and simultaneously paint the background and the lead vocals, creating layers of soundscapes that thrill the ear. They have a natural timing, and an ease around one another that makes complex well-planned arrangements seem organic and improvisational.

The album begins with the hard hitting, beat driven “Three Hits” led by Amy Ray, and then immediately switches to Saliers singing sweetly on “Galileo”. Like Cuddy and Keelor from Blue Rodeo, the pair know how to use the contrast of their songs in a way that makes you appreciate both styles more.

“Rites of Passage” adds additional instrumentation to the vocals along with a smoother production, but unlike “Nomads, Indians, Saints” they don’t lose any of the emotional impact in the process. A big part of this is their ability to employ syncopation and beat to add oomph to the songwriting.

Not that these songs need the help. This album has some of their finest writing, as they explore everything from social justice to history to love. They even poke gentle fun at fear of flying at one point on “Airplane”. All the songs have a tenderness that lets you into Amy and Emily’s innermost soul making you feel vulnerable in the process.

There is no better example than “Ghost,” a painful exploration of love lost but still felt, like a limb that’s been cut off but still aches and itches. Lyrically, this song has few equals as it mixes the natural imagery of modern America:

“And the Mississippi’s mighty
But it starts in Minnesota
At a place where you can walk across
With five steps down.
And I guess that’s how you started
Like a pinprick to my heart
But at this point you rush right through me
And I start to drown.”

With literary allusions to mythological Greece:

“Now I see your face before me
I would launch a thousand ships
To bring your heart back to my island
As the sand beneath me slips
As I burn up in your presence
And I know now how it feels
To be weakened like Achilles
With you always at my heels.”

All in the service of making your heart ache for lovers gone. Later, the Indigo Girls do a cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” and show they can infuse the raw emotion of their singing into other people’s words with equally devastating effect. I heard this cover of “Romeo and Juliet” first and it felt so natural, I had no idea it was a Dire Straits’ cover until years later (note to self: read the liner notes).

The album puts the Girls’ hearts on their sleeves throughout. “Virginia Woolf” is an homage to one of their literary heroes, and “Nashville” is a bitter admission of how Nashville never embraced them. I got the feeling listening to it that the rejection still hurt, but like any bad ending to a relationship, the Indigo Girls get their licks in with lines like “Nashville, you forgot the human race/You see with half a mind what colors hide the face.”

Even in its quietest moments, “Rites of Passage” speaks to my soul. “Let it Be Me” is both a prayer and a promise to embrace peace and forgiveness, and “Cedar Tree” celebrates the dead with a light and reverent touch that lifts your mood, even as it sings about the people we’ve lost.

This album was very important to me in 1992, and deserves a lot of credit for helping steer me back to the light. Today it still resonates, filling my spirit with both peace and mindfulness. After 25 years – many of which I had very few albums to choose from – these songs still resonate as much as they did the first day I heard them. For this reason, this album gets five stars and my enduring love and respect.

Best tracks: All tracks

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1056: Cirith Ungol

Before I get into this next review, I need to say a few things about Tom Petty, whose death is weighing heavily on me. At 66, Petty was too young to die, and reminds me of my own mortality or (worse) the mortality of those I love.

Petty was a giant in the world of rock and roll, and one of music’s great natural writers. Over four decades he recorded 16 albums and there isn’t a bad one in the batch. For most of that span I knew his music and liked it, and in the last fifteen years I delved hard into his catalogue and never regretted a moment of it. Obscure albums from early in his career like “Long After Dark” thrilled me with discovery long after they were first recorded, while albums like 2006’s “Highway Companion” and 2014’s “Hypnotic Eye” showed Petty never lost his gift later in his career.

I do regret never seeing Petty live, but his body of work will always be part of my life. Thanks for all the music, Tom, and good luck out there in the Great Wide Open.

OK, back to the Odyssey where a second straight metal album underscores that I’ve added a lot of metal to my collection lately.

Disc 1056 is…King of the Dead
Artist: Cirith Ungol

Year of Release: 1984

What’s up with the Cover? Seventies artist Michael Whelan did a ton of fantasy novel covers when I was growing up, but he took a little time out to do this cover for Cirith Ungol as well. An undead king faces off against a warrior, while a pack of troglodytes lurks all around them. I imagine that troglodytes serve the ancient king as a god, and won’t be too pleased if our hero runs him through with that black and very ensorcelled-looking sword.

Also featured in the top left is the Cirith Ungol logo, consisting of the band name and two kneeling skeletons facing each other. I don’t know why this is their logo, but who doesn’t love a skeleton? OK, OK – obviously not the swordsman on the cover, but if he thought about it aren’t we all just skeletons, deep down? And once he realized that, couldn’t he and that King of the Dead fellow just hug it out?

How I Came To Know It: For the second straight week, Youtube gets an honourable mention. A few years ago my buddy Ross sent me a video to check out and while I was watching I saw Cirith Ungol in the sidebar. I remembered them favourably from when I was a young metal head, but I had never gotten that deeply into them back in the day. I quickly found their 1986 album “One Foot in Hell” (which is great) but “King of the Dead” remained inexplicably out of print. Probably that whole “who is going to buy it?” thing. Me, Soulless Record Exec! I’m going to buy it!

Anyway, for years I scoured faithfully at the local record store, hoping it would show up. Then one day a couple of months ago, it did! Not only reissued, but with a thick cardboard box, full booklet and even a bonus concert DVD (the latter not being the greatest part of the package, but more on that later).

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Cirith Ungol albums – the two every metal fan should have. Of the two “King of the Dead” is the best so…#1!

Ratings: 4 stars

Listening to Cirith Ungol I couldn’t help but think just how heavy they would have been back in 1984, and how influential they were on so many bands that followed, particularly Doom Metal. The last album I reviewed (“The Sword’s” 2006 record “Age of Winters”) definitely has some of its roots in this next record.

You can’t influence future bands unless you are pumping out some solid tunes, and Cirith Ungol definitely did that. They had a short career (only four records over 11 years) but they had a lasting influence on metal fans in the know. There is no better legacy for their work than “King of the Dead” the heaviest, doomiest, most glorious of all their albums.

Despite eighties production values, which tend to make things sound a bit tinny, the power and crunch of Cirith Ungol comes through beautifully, as they chug their way through songs that regularly exceed six minutes but never feel overlong.

Lead singer Tim Baker is an acquired taste, as he warbles and screeches his way through the record. His vocals are high and piercing but surprisingly majestic. He sings with an organic fury and has a natural feel for when to snarl or growl his way over Jerry Fogle’s sludgy guitar riffs. Personally, I love his style and don’t think Cirith Ungol would be nearly as interesting with someone else.

Fogle is also solid. His guitar solos are thoughtful, with a thick and powerful tone, and he knows how to stay connected to the melody while noodling. At one point he even tackles Bach’s “Toccata in Dm,”replacing organ with guitar. I’m not a huge Bach fan, but Fogle made me a believer.

Like a true metal band, Cirith Ungol love history, fantasy and literature – one of the features of metal that initially drew  me to that kind of music as a teenager. Hell, the band takes their name from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, where it is a tower in Mordor guarded by the giant spider, Shelob. That is some kind of awesome.

In addition to singing about “Cirith Ungol” (which they convert to a “Tower of Fire”) they also sing about Satan on “Master of the Pit” and the titular “King of the Dead” who is identified as follows:

“Crown upon his head
King of all the dead.”

Frankly, I think it would have been the fleshless skull that gave it away, but whatever. Regardless, the way Baker shrieks out “KING OF ALL…THE DEAD!” makes everything awesome. He’s a sucker for the proper nouns, and gives equal heroic treatment to “MASTER…OF THE PIT!” and “CIRITH UNGOL…TOWER OF FIRE!” You feel like you know these people and places.

These songs also bring out the best in the band, as they cross doom and gloom riffs with lyrics that are simultaneously terrifying and rebellious. Cirith Ungol isn’t worshipping the Master of the Pit, they’re warning you to keep the hell away from him. Public service announcements were never so cool. Also, the guitar solo on “Master of the Pit” is a thing of beauty; one part fury of the LA Freeway, one part Fall of the House of Usher.

The original album was a tasteful eight songs and 45 minutes, but my copy is a special edition with five more live tracks (two new ones, and three tracks where the studio version is already on the album). Together, these songs add 30 minutes of time to the record, but very little in terms of extra quality. The live tracks are not that well recorded, and mostly had me wishing to listen to the originals again. There is also a second bonus DVD in the package of a 1983 concert at the Roxy in West Hollywood. The sound on the DVD is so bad I couldn’t make it to the end (fortunately this is not the DVD Odyssey).

However, none of these things ruined the masterful original record, which shines through despite all the excess of the special content. “King of the Dead” is laden with tracks that are underground metal classics and a must-have for any metal enthusiast…once you find it.

Best tracks: Black Machine, Master of the Pit, King of the Dead, Cirith Ungol

Saturday, September 30, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1055: The Sword

It’s been a good week for music. On Wednesday I took in a New Pornographers concert which was pretty good. It didn’t blow me away, but they played well and it was a fun time. The opening act was Born Ruffians who were also solid. The crowd seemed to appreciate both, with many fans singing along every word, which was cool. It is always great when you see someone enjoying their favourite band.

New Pornographers aren’t my favourite band, but I like them. I’ve got two of their albums and their new one is solid and will soon grace my collection as well.

On to the next review as I continue to renew my love of heavy metal.

Disc 1055 is…Age of Winters
Artist: The Sword

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? An Art Nouveau-style painting of a beautiful blonde woman reclining, sword and shield nearby. Perhaps this is a Valkyrie on a coffee break? If so I hope she puts on some leather boots before she heads back out to collect the souls of those fallen in battle, because battlefields can be littered with all kinds of sharp objects.

How I Came To Know It: About ten months ago I was looking something up on Youtube (I don’t remember what, but some metal album) and “Age of Winters” popped up as “recommended for you”. I gave it a chance and loved what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  The Sword have five albums, and I own four of them (yeah, I fell for them pretty hard). Of those four I put “Age of Winters” third; Solid, but two others are that much better.

Ratings: 3 stars

Ever wonder what had happened to good old straight forward heavy metal? Well about a year ago, I did. Sure there are other kinds of metal that was birthed out of those early years. Doom metal, thrash metal, speed metal and death metal to name just a few. Lots of good stuff in there, but I was looking for that pure stuff – like what if eighties metal hadn’t died, but had just grown louder?

“Age of Winters” is the trunk of that metal tree, still alive and kicking. Called by some “the New Wave of Traditional Heavy Metal,” this is music that takes eighties metal riffs and makes them thicker and crunchier than ever before. No one does it better than the Sword, and “Age of Winters” is the album that got them started.

Musically, this stuff is three chords and a cloud of dust. Drums shake the earth, and guitars pound out basic riffs and assault your ear drums. When you think you’ve had your fill of riffs, the Sword shoves a few more down your throat. Eat it! Like it! If that sounds aggressive, that’s the point. This is music to mosh to. Plant your feet and sweat through your t-shirt while you let it soak into your spine and organs until it becomes part of you.

Care for a guitar solo? Well, there aren’t many of those on “Age of Winters,” just a series of competing riffs playing back and forth off each other. The boys play so tight, though, that you don’t miss any of the usual digital wizardry of other metal bands. Instead they focus on deep blues riffs, electrified and infused with iron ore and blood.

Care for some vocal gymnastics? Not much of that either. Writer and lead singer J.D. Cronise doesn’t have the operatic vocal range of a Rob Halford or Bruce Dickenson. However, he does know how to write a song that suits his more rhythm driven style. The influence of Ozzy-era Black Sabbath is obvious in Cronise’s delivery, but he adds a doom metal grimness that makes it all his own.

The whole thing is gloriously heavy, chugging along without ever descending into the stew that is Doom Metal, never furiously noodling its way into Thrash Metal but finds a nice common ground with both. Slow and heavy wins the race, my friends.

Lyrically, “Age of Winters” is all about fantasy, sorcery and – yes – swords, all of which painted with ridiculously majestic language. Here is some good stuff from the opening of “Lament for the Aurochs”:

“Laboring in the liquid light of leviathan
Spectres swarm around the sunken cities of the saurians
Rising from the void through the blackness of eternal night
Colossus of the deep comes crashing down with cosmic might.”

I’m not sure what’s going on here, but it sounds really fucking important, and more than a little Lovecraftian. Even the instrumental “March of the Lor” has eight movements. These are:
  1. Through the Breach
  2. Iron Ships on Seas of Blood
  3. Invocation of Halora
  4. The Black Web is Spun
  5. Misery of the Plague-Born
  6. The Spiders’ Descent
  7. Conquest of Kingdoms
  8. Age of Winters
This list of themes could cover a whole prog album for an hour but “Age of Winters” sorts it all out in a single instrumental in less than five minutes.

Despite the rather ambitious mythology the Sword is trying to create, there isn’t a lot of complicated arrangements going on with “Age of Winters.” This is straight ahead punch-you-in-the-nose metal, thick and heavy like metal should be. While later albums by The Sword would be more musically interesting, there is a lot to be said for “Age of Winters” pure and furious energy. I liked it a lot and if you enjoy metal, so will you.

Best tracks: Freya, Winter’s Wolves, Lament for the Aurochs, Ebethron

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

CD Odyssey Disc 1054: Julie Miller

Welcome back the CD Odyssey! I don’t know about you, but it is like I never left. Since I’m always listening to something that I’m preparing to review, for me it’s true.

Despite the constant effort, with 20 new albums in my collection from my holiday, the new section of my collection is more backlogged than ever. So after a brief dalliance with Neil Diamond (thanks for the memories, Neil) let’s get into something relatively new (to me), shall we?

Disc 1054 is…Broken Things
Artist: Julie Miller

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? This cover is very of its time, from the see-through blouse all the way down to the boring font. 1999 was not a great year in fashion.

How I Came To Know It: One of the many albums I learned about reading Paste Magazine’s “Top 100 Indie Folk Albums” where it came in at #54. I had about 20 of those albums when I read the list, and now I’ve got 36 and a whole lot of side purchases besides. That damned list has cost me a lot of money.

How It Stacks Up:  This is my only Julie Miller album, and I don’t have any plans at this point to get any more, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 3 stars

Sometimes you can recognize an album for its greatness and for whatever reasons it doesn’t grab you like you know it should. That was my reaction to “Broken Things” which is a solid piece of work marred only by my personal preferences around vocals and production.

Miller is one of those artists that has been around forever, and is heavily respected by other musicians. This album is proof of that, with guest appearances by Emmylou Harris, Victoria Williams, Steve Earle and Patty Griffin. However, like Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark, while Miller is heavily respected by insiders, she doesn’t get a lot of love on the charts. Fortunately that never stopped me from loving an artist – I don’t even listen to the radio, let alone care which songs are in heavy rotation.

“Broken Things” is a mix of styles, blending rock, pop and contemporary folk. The song constructions are very much the latter, but the way the songs are arranged and performed scream pop, and that’s how I’m going to tag the entry.

Miller is a gifted songwriter, and she understands how to build an interesting melody that serves the mood of the story she’s telling. The plaintive chorus of “I Know Why the River Runs” pulls at your heartstrings and bluesy excess of “Strange Lover” is exactly the right mix of suggestive, dreamy and aggressive to paint a portrait of unhealthy relationships and drug abuse.

The album covers a lot of emotional ground, and much as the album title promises, gets into a lot of broken things – mostly hearts and spirit. There is a lot of darkness on this record, and I imagine it would make for a very satisfying wallow if that’s where you’re at in your life when you first hear it.

Unfortunately, I don’t love Miller’s vocals. She sings better than Van Zandt or Clark ever could, but those guys write songs where vocal prowess doesn’t matter much. These songs are more like Patty Griffin or Emmylou Harris tunes, but I found myself wishing they were singing them instead. Miller also has a bit of waifish girl in her voice, which at its best can sound haunting and vulnerable, but can also sound affected or indistinct.

The bigger issue is the late nineties production, lush and full and aimlessly making noise in every direction. The bass and drums thud dull and empty and the beautiful piano and guitar work is buried in the jungle of sound that passed for “full bodied” back in the day. It was the sound of all albums back then, but as someone who likes a crisp sound with plenty of space, I have a hard time getting past it.

Worst of all, the production drowns out some great guest backup vocals by Patty and Emmylou. If you’re going to have those people sing on your record, I want to hear them better. Emmylou is welcome on "Two Soldiers" at the beginning, but the song adds a bit too much noise as it moves along. All that interference was the musical equivalent of trying to enjoy a barbecued steak while also having to shoo a wasp away from your plate the whole time. Steve Earle appears on “Strange Lover” with much greater impact, but it would be impossible to keep Steve back in the mix when you’re singing about broken hearts and cocaine. That’s his wheelhouse.

In terms of songwriting, I would give this album four stars, but the two star production drags it back to the middle of the pack. Still, on balance it is still worthy of a place on the CD shelves, and the occasional listen down the road as well.

Best tracks: I Know Why the River Runs, I Still Cry, Broken Things, Speed of Light