Friday, November 29, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1321: Yola

I’ve been on a bit of a music buying tear lately. Today I went downtown and picked up three more albums. All three of these records came out in 2019, bringing my total for the year to an even 50. I'll talk about those ones when I roll them but for now, here is a solid record from earlier in the year.

Disc 1321 is… Walk Through Fire
Artist: Yola

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Like the rest of this record, the cover is a throwback to the seventies. As a left-handed person I must once again point out that this artist is holding her guitar backwards. What’s up with 95% of the population getting it wrong?

How I Came to Know It: I read a review online and decided to give it a chance. I discover a lot of my music through good ole’ research.

How It Stacks Up:  This is Yola’s first full length solo album so it can’t really stack up against anything.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

If you read enough music reviews, you’ll eventually come across the expression ‘derivative crap’. It’s practically a frozen phrase at this point. However, could something be derivative yet, through its own sheer brilliance, end up sounding fresh and beautiful anyway? The answer is yes, and it is exactly what happens on “Walk Through Fire”.

Yola’s debut record feels like it fell out of a time capsule from 1977; the long-gestating baby of the Nashville country and A.M. radio schmaltz-pop of its time. Forty years later, fully formed, it arrived as though it had sprung from the forehead of Kenny Rogers or Rod Stewart or – somehow - both.

Those two styles of music have a lot in common, particularly the smooth, rounded production. Everything on “Walk Through Fire” sounds studio perfect, with every musician playing some form of earnest perfection designed to make you feel all the feels, while protecting you from trauma. You can get overwrought if you like, but it’s like you’re in a room where all the furniture is padded; you’ll be OK even if you have a fainting spell.

I happen to love studio perfection. I even heretically like my punk music to sound professional. As a result, all those pianos, steel guitars and soaring strings coming in at just the right time and then gracefully bowing out before they overstay their welcome is just fine with me.

It also helps that Yola employs some brilliant musicians, including Vince Gill on backing vocals, and the unmatchable Molly Tuttle on guitar. I would have liked Molly to have a bit more of a showcase, but that’s not how this smooth style works – everyone surrenders a little bit to the soft shoulders of the song.

You can take all this smooth too far, to the point where you strip the raw emotion out of a song. It is why the Nashville Sound (and its bastard child, New Country) rarely find a place in my heart. It is also why you won’t find my record collected festooned with A.M. radio classics of my youth. Get too far down the road of ‘just right’ and you end up in the land of ‘precious’ or even worse, ‘dear’.

For the most part, Yola avoids this plush-lined pit-trap, and she does it with the two things you can’t falsify; strong songwriting and an exceptional vocal instrument.

The songwriting duties are principally the collaborative work of Yola and Dan Auerbach and a few other folks here and there that you can read about if spend some of your damn money and buy the record. The songs are sneaky-simple, sometimes just consisting of an A section and a chorus and always wrapping up well shy of five minutes.

However, within this simplicity, they accomplish a lot, creating songs that feel like the soaring celebratory anthems and introspective soliloquys that makes you think you are in the musical of Yola’s life.

The second thing is her voice, which is as good as it gets. I’m no sucker for diva-style singing but there was just no resisting Yola’s combination of power and sweetness. Don’t expect a bunch of runs and vocal gymnastics on this record either; she doesn’t need to resort to such parlour tricks. She just settles back and belts the songs out, demonstrating exceptional controlled auditory horsepower at every level of her voice.

There are times when it feels almost too perfect, and I start worrying about that whole derivative thing again, but then like a fine engine she powers through the corner and sets my mind at ease.

A great example is “Lonely the Night” a song with all kinds of things that should go wrong. Indulgent piano, organ and an o-so-smooth production that sets you up for bathos of the worst order. A few lines of Yola singing mournfully about generic love and strained disco-era sentiments like “Once upon a time I wished for a love like you/But I guess sometimes wishes don’t come true” and I was getting nervous.

Then the chorus hits, soaring with authority into the God-damned stratosphere as she belts out:

“Lonely the night, lonely the night
Only the night belongs to those who’ve lost their love.”

It’s not much of a lyric either, but the way it launches its way out of that slow corner, propelled by Yola’s ridiculous power, with the electric guitar desperately wailing in the background and trying to keep up, it just can’t be denied. And yes, the guitar cuts out long before any excess is reached.

Topically, the songs stick to love and redemption, and the generic nature of the language might have survived another round of edits, but at the same time I’m not sure these songs would benefit from too much literary dynamics. It would take away from the simple emotion of a record where about the worst thing you can say is that it is a little too perfect.

Best tracks: Faraway Look, Ride Out in the Country, Rock Me Gently, Love All Night (Work All Day), Lonely the Night

Monday, November 25, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1320: Amelia Curran

I’ve had a lovely weekend filled with great music. I even bought some new albums, including the new Leonard Cohen, the new Bonnie Prince Billy and an old record by Gene Clark. However, I’ll talk about those when I roll them.

As for this next record, I could have reviewed it over the weekend, but I was enjoying it so much I decided to give it one more day of listening time.

Disc 1320 is… They Promised You Mercy
Artist: Amelia Curran

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? It’s an old-timey portrait of Amelia Curran. She looks a bit pale here, like she’s either getting over the flu or maybe just spent a lot of time in the studio.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of her 2017 album, “Watershed” (reviewed back at Disc 1226) that got me interested in her music. Then I drilled through her back catalogue, discovering “They Promised You Mercy” along the way.

How It Stacks Up:  Amelia Curran has eight studio albums but only “Watershed” and this one have thus far caught my attention sufficient to elicit a purchase. I’ve since parted ways with “Watershed” (on friendly terms). Even if it had not, “They Promised You Mercy” is easily my favourite.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

It’s not easy to manage both catchy and emotionally resonant in a single record, but on “They Promised You Mercy” Amelia Curran does just that. This record makes you want to tap your toes and look wistfully out a rain-streaked window at the same time.

At its heart, with its basic melodies and unadorned beauty this record is folk music, but I was tempted to label it ‘pop’ because of how damned catchy it is. It was a hard decision because, as every critic knows, arbitrary labels are critical to musical enjoyment. Just kidding – it’s the other thing.

Great records transcend labels and leave you with a feeling that is bigger than any arbitrary categorization. I still labelled it though (folk, by the way) not because it is just the one thing, but because I’ve got all these damned search options down the right-hand side and I think people looking for folk will be glad to find it.

In the end the catchiness is not from the sugary beats of pop music though, but rather from basic variations on up tempo guitar strums and licks that belie the thoughtful lyrics underneath. Some of the guitar sounds like Steve Earle, so maybe I should’ve gone with country. Stupid labels.

On top of those simple guitar strums, Curran’s vocals shine plain as truth. She’s a strong singer with a thick and resonant tone, but she doesn’t show off with a bunch of vocal gymnastics and is content to ride the melody and sing the story. In doing this she avoids the common pitfall of so many vocalists that feel the need to warble or throw in runs which don’t serve the song.

Instead, she holds you with the clarity of inspired phrasing and crystal-clear enunciation. Fans of Brandi Carlile (now relatively famous) and Heather Maloney (not famous yet but damned well should be) will recognize a like spirit in Curran’s approach and delivery.

Like them, she sings as though she’s caught halfway between the power of a truth that needs to be testified, and the whisper of an insistent memory that rises unbidden and refuses to fade.

This can give you some great range of emotion weaved into all that basic guitar strummin’, from the rising desire of “Coming for You”:

“I’m coming for you like a final round
I’m coming for you like a tempted hound
I’m coming for you like fury and sound.”

To thoughtful contemplation when love and life deal us a little loss and uncertainty on “The Reverie”:

“Am I born, am I born
Of the vine or of the thorn?
Am I holding to the sky or to the storm?”

There is tension locked in both songs, but the first is from the exertion of will on the external world, and the second from that same will, twisted inward. Curran rides them both with a relaxed and understated power. There’s a lot going on in the depths, but she keeps moving, sometimes the swimmer, sometimes the water.

Regardless of what effect she’s going for, Curran’s power over language is exceptional. She doesn’t have to knock you flat with vocal prowess because she accomplishes even more with her poetic gift and a simple, well-timed delivery. The effect is like a good Italian meal – only two or three ingredients, but in exactly the right proportion.

In short, if you like to dine on contemporary folk music, you will be hard pressed to find better.

Best tracks: Somebody Somewhere, Coming for You, I Am the Night, Time Time, The Reverie, The Matador, Strike the Band, You’ve Changed

Thursday, November 21, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1319: Marissa Nadler

For the second time in the last six albums, and the third time in the last 35, I’ve rolled an album by Marissa Nadler. This is what happens when you gorge yourself on an artist’s back catalogue.

Disc 1319 is… Ballads of Living and Dying
Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2004

What’s up with the Cover? “Why did we agree to take this creepy path? Now we’re lost among all these dead trees and brambles having to deal with whatever the hell that thing is.”

“Oh, no – wait. It’s just Marissa. We got separated earlier. Hi Marissa! Don’t worry – she always looks that creepy. It’s her thing.

“So…anyone bring a sandwich?”

Tragically, it was not Marissa and they were never heard from again, although this picture was found on their phone.

That’s the problem with Marissa Nadler album covers. Sometimes it looks like a vengeful spirit but it’s just Marissa in a black dress (see Disc 1314). Other times you think it’s her, but instead it’s a vengeful spirit.

How I Came to Know It: I just told this story five reviews ago, but I’ll assume you’ve never been to my blog (where the hell have you been?) and tell it again.

I heard her new album and it led me through her back catalogue. This is one of the albums that caught my attention.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Marissa Nadler albums and I’ll put this one…second, at least for now. I’ve still got two to review so while I suspect this could end up at #1, I’m leaving room for one of those to wow me.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

At the risk of sounding like a hipster douchebag, I really like Marissa Nadler’s early work. “Ballads of Living and Dying” is as early as it gets.

As Nadler’s first record “Ballads of Living and Dying” has a charm common to many first records; sparse production. Why is this so common? I suspect budget. If you don’t have money to hire a string and horn section, then a string and horn section don’t show up on the record, and if you don’t have time for a bunch of overlays and takes, then you don’t have those either. Not coincidentally, this is why a good sonnet is so powerful; when employed correctly, limitations can propel great art as much as any grander inspiration.

Despite this, Nadler has an ambience in her soul that must be expressed. With the skillful deployment of accordion, banjo and piano mixed in she manages to get her ghost on once again. However, these spirits feel like old ghosts, walking creaky floorboards in Edwardian manor houses. There is empty space for them to haunt. For all that Nadler doesn’t let them wander, keeping them confined to their rooms with tight little three- to five-minute songs.

The sparseness also let me really appreciate her guitar work. She plays most songs with a rolling guitar picking pattern that evokes Simon and Garfunkel songs like “April, Come She Will” or “Kathy’s Song”. Gentle, but urgent like a stream meandering its way through a forest. Never have apparitions felt so…comforting.

Nadler’s breathy whisper also has room to soar. Beautiful throughout, I particularly loved her adaptation of Pablo Neruda’s “Hay Tantos Muertos,” maybe in part because not being able to speak Spanish, I could just fully focus on her vocals trilling through words that sound wonderful in any language. The accordion was also pretty dope.

Hay Tantos Muertos” is one of two poems full of death that Nadler puts to music. The other is Edgar Allan Poe’s Gothic “Annabel Lee.” Nadler gives the poem the dread it deserves but loses points in the liner notes for both mis-spelling the name of the poem (she goes with “Annabelle Lee”) and Poe’s middle name (where she opts for an ‘e’ where she needed a second ‘a’).

As you may have guessed at this point, Nadler wasn’t kidding when she named the album “Ballads of Living and Dying” although frankly, I noticed a lot more dying overall. Two of the best songs “Undertaker” and “Cedar Box” come side by side in the middle of the album to underscore this theme good and proper. It was ominous, yes, but never overbearing.

If you want a nice slow meander through some deep thinking on the subject of your own frail mortality (as I sometimes do) this is an album for you.

Best tracks: Hay Tantos Muertos, Undertaker, Box of Cedar, Virginia, Annabelle Lee (sic)

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1318: Apotheosis

After my last selection walked the line between “new to me” and “from the stacks” I wasn’t sure how I was going to pick my next album.

I decided to go with a random roll from the stacks and was rewarded with this little amuse bouche to get me back on track; the CD equivalent of a 45 single on my road back to regularly scheduled programming.

Disc 1318 is… O Fortuna
Artist: Apotheosis

Year of Release: 1992

What’s up with the Cover? A smiling gal counts her fat stacks of counterfeit cash. You can tell it is counterfeit because the 5s are printed backwards. That winning smile isn’t getting those past the grocery clerk.

How I Came to Know It: This was a crowd favourite at my local dance club back in the day. I liked it so much I went and did something I almost never do. I bought a single.

How It Stacks Up:  This is my only Apotheosis album, so it can’t really stack up. Frankly, it isn’t even an album.

Ratings: 3 stars

In my wayward youth I spent many a night dancing at a place called Scandals; a dingy, cramped and altogether awesome alternative nightclub that was a big deal in Victoria back in the late eighties and early nineties. The apotheosis of my experience there was when the DJ would drop the needle on “O Fortuna”.

I used to go to Scandals at least once a week, and sometimes two or three times, but the best night was Alternative Tuesday, where they played the heavier stuff. This was the golden age of industrial dance music, before techno music became the exclusive realm of the shoe-gazers. This was the era of Ministry telling you how Jesus building their hot rod, and My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult turning you on like a tiger baby. For me, nothing compared with Apotheosis’ “O Fortuna.”

O Fortuna” is mostly forgotten now, but back in 1992 it was a sure-fire way to fill the dance floor. It was basically a liberal sampling of the most hard-core sections of Orff’s “Carmina Burana” crossed with a thumping back beat, plus a bunch of other synthy sounds so your hands had something creative to do while the magic happened. There was no better way to waste five minutes of your life away; more if the DJ was feeling charitable and extended the experience.

My CD copy has all the variable versions you could desire. There is the “Apocalypse Choir Mix” (although all the versions feature the choir), the “7” Single Edit” which appears to just be shorter, but otherwise the same and the “Live Action Remix” which has…live action. I like the “Apocalypse Choir” version best but I’ll take whatever the DJ is slinging on a given night. I’m not picky when it comes to “O Fortuna”.

For most versions, “O Fortuna” starts off with a clanging, awkward set of notes, then a synth flourish. If you rushed the floor fast enough you would arrive in time to raise your fist in triumph as the full apocalypse choir from Carmina Burana blasted you with all the pomposity it could muster.

It isn’t too complicated from there. One of two things is going to happen. There is going to be a slammin’ mosh pit where you will lovingly shove – and be shoved – by strangers or you’re going to claim your 2 ½’ x 2 ½’ of floor space and protect it with the sheer awesomeness and ferocity of your dance moves.

I like to think I was pretty hot stuff on the dance floor back then. Not the best, but good enough to take a guest run as Speaker Dancer when the designated Speaker Dancer took a bathroom break or got a drink and left their post unattended. These bouts of glory always ended all-too-soon with a polite request for me to get off the speaker, right when I was (in my own mind) really killin’ it. But I digress…

The important thing was that “O Fortuna” never failed to fill me with joy. As it wound itself up in techno-ecstasy I would pull out all my signature dance moves. The Forward Hand Shuffle, The “My Hands Are Two Repelling Magnets” and my personal favourite, the “Two-Minute Hate” Arm Pump.  The latter move consists of engaging in the 1984 “X over the head” move from the Orwell novel (in time with the music, of course). This was designed to make it clear that while I was having a wicked good time, I was also aware of the ironic ramifications of my happiness. I was an early adopter of irony.

Anyway, there isn’t much more to be said about a single song. It came on, I danced, and under the flashing strobe lights of Scandals I got some much-needed oblivion from life's troubles. Anyone who thinks youth is wasted on the young has simply forgotten what makes youth so great in the first place.

Best tracks: Of the three versions of “O Fortuna” on the CD I’ll go with the “Apocalypse Choir Mix”. The B-Side, “The Volume Is Loud,” is also good.

Monday, November 18, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1317: Alestorm

I made a minor departure from my usual album selection methods this time around. Ordinarily I review either a random album or an album selected (randomly or otherwise) from the ‘new to me’ section of my collection. When I see a live show, this latter approach usually allows me to review the album the band is touring to support at the same time as I review the show.

This next album is the band’s most recent, but it came out in 2017 and long ago it went into the main stacks since the band never came to town when it was ‘new to me’. So I granted myself a little deviation – some common law if you will – from the selection method and pulled down their most recent record. The result is a review of both their studio efforts and their recent show. First, the album but scroll down for the concert review.

Disc 1317 is… No Grave But The Sea
Artist: Alestorm

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Metal albums are generally the best for cover art, and Alestorm is one of the best. Here we have a skeletal pirate, refusing to rest easy in his watery grave. Some less animated skeletons are behind him as well as a chest full of precious booty, but I suspect he won’t be parting with it easily. The treasure, that is. Maybe the skeletons too, assuming he values their company.

How I Came to Know It: For the last year or two I’ve been exploring a sub-genre of heavy metal called ‘folk metal’. I stumbled upon Alestorm while on this journey.

How It Stacks Up:  Alestorm has five albums, of which I have two; this one and 2014’s “Sunset on the Golden Age.” I’m on the lookout for two more, but for now I rank “No Grave But The Sea” as the best.

Ratings: 4 stars

There is a moment in Monty Python’s Life of Brian where in order for Brian to join the People’s Front of Judea he has to really hate the Romans. Well, in order for you to enjoy “No Grave but the Sea” you have to really like songs about pirates. Because Alestorm sings songs about pirates a lot.

 If you’ve never encountered Alestorm, they are a bunch of guys who perform songs that are a blend of Celtic folk-rock music and European power metal. Think Dropkick Murphys crossed with Iron Maiden. It is infectious, anthemic, fist-pumping fun.

The songs jump and thump along, driven by lead singer (and keytar player) Christopher Bowes who is also the principle songwriter. Bowes has a barroom growl to his vocals and his Scottish accent rolls along with the perfect amount of “yo-ho-yo” that these songs call for. The rest of the band pitch in and there is plenty of unison singing where called for (which is often).

The keytar plays the role of both violin and bagpipes and any other Celtic instrument you might need. The band grounds this delightful tomfoolery with the snap of some grade A heavy metal drumming and the soar and precision necessary for any power metal to be successful.

On earlier records (which are also pretty much entirely about pirate themes) Alestorm is a bit heavier, but with “No Grave But the Sea” they deliver their most melodic and accessible record. This doesn’t take away from any of its power; songs like “Alestorm” and “Treasure Island” both have serious ferocity in them. It is just that the Celtic melodies are artfully employed to give that ferocity layers and dynamics.

But surely the songs couldn’t all be about pirates. Well, assuming you associate pirates with sea battles, looting, plundering and drinking then…yes, they are all about pirates. Just reading that you might be inclined to dismiss Alestorm, or think you’ll tire of hearing that many songs about the same thing. I beseech you not to do this, because this stuff is a very good time.

On “Alestorm” (yes, they do a song named after themselves) they deliver their manifesto with full unison braggadocio on display:

“Rum, beer, quests and mead
These are the things that a pirate needs
Raise the flag, and let’s set sail
Under the sign of the storm of ale.”

Other songs are variations on the theme. “Bar Und Imbiss” features the band entering a tavern to eat sausages, drink beers, shoot, plunder and run off with the proprietor’s wife. “Mexico” unconscionably rhymes “the alcohol is free” with a “the alcohol is free.” You forgive it because it is evident the excess is deliberate.

Nothing compares, however, with the full-blown combination of vulgarity and bombast that is “Fucked with an Anchor.” This one is a rare pleasure, and while my own propriety forestalls me from quoting the exceptionally rude lyrics, I will give full points for the creative rhyming of “anchor” and “wanker” the song manages.

If you don’t mind vulgarity (by which I mean you don’t mind it a lot) then I encourage you to give the song a listen and have a good laugh. If that sort of thing offends you then consider this your trigger warning.

In addition to being some of the best writing the band’s managed over their five full length records, “No Grave But the Sea” is also easily Alestorm’s most well produced record. It is sharp and clear throughout but never losing the energy that makes the band work. It has the energy of a live record, and the crispness of the studio wrapped up in one tight little package.

I’d be tempted to give this record five stars, but honestly, what did I learn about myself?  I already liked pirates.

Best tracks: No Grave but The Sea, Mexico, Alestorm, Fucked with An Anchor, Treasure Island

The Concert: November 17, 2019 at the Upstairs Lounge, Victoria, BC

My first challenge on deciding to go a power metal show on a Sunday night was what to wear. Ordinarily you don’t want to get fancy for a metal concert. Jeans and a tour shirt of either the band you’re seeing or something in the same genre, and that’s it. With Alestorm I had a funny feeling it might be a bit more extravagant, so I risked skin-tight zipper pants with my lace up boots on the outside. And a shirt from the Iron Maiden tour I saw earlier in the year – can’t get too crazy.

Apparently you can, because while most people stuck with jeans, tour shirts and leather, there were a goodly number of people in full pirate regalia. One guy even came in a shark onesie. As we waited to get in, one pirate even went up and down the line giving out party favours. “Who wants a pirate hat? Who wants an eye patch?” God love the enthusiasm of the metal community.


Before we even got in, the first of two opening acts, Scimitar, was already playing. This was a good sign, because it meant the show would start on time, rather than the old trick of driving the audience to drink before any entertainment begins.

The band, which is a local Victoria product, were also excellent. They played tight and the lead singer held a commanding presence on the stage. If you’ll pardon the pun, Scimitar was very much in Alestorm’s wheelhouse, mixing folk melodies with power metal, with a bit of black metal thump thrown in. They were good, and I’m going to check them out further in coming days.

During Scimitar’s show the mosh pit got going very early with some seriously big dudes seriously shoving each other around for fun. I demurred, being both too small and too old for that particular mosh pit. Horns up and rock out and all that, but even pirates flee a superior force.

I chose the path of discretion – and also a pretty good spot to see the show on a raised dais. Good sightlines in Upstairs are rare, and even worse since they reconfigured the place a few years ago. It is disappointing, because it used to be one of my favourite venues for live shows because of both the sound quality and the set up. Now it is the law of the jungle trying to find a good – and safe – place to see the band. More on that later.

Scimitar also gave voice to why the merch table behind my perch looked so bare. It was the tour’s last stop in North America and all of the merch for both Aephanemer and Alestorm were sold out.

This lack of merch at Victoria shows has fast become one of my pet peeves, and I’m beginning to suspect a conspiracy of bands that would rather not ship an extra box over to Vancouver Island. Plus, I really wanted an Alestorm tour shirt, damn it.


Back to the show, where the next band up was French melodic death metal crossover Aephanemer. Their name is a combination of French words that mean “ephemeral” and “wilted” and besides that, just sounds cool.

So did the band. Frontwoman Marion Bascoul was awesome, growling away with power and menace even as she flashed a toothy smile that let you know that, yes, she too was having a great time.

In fact, Aephanemer had a great positive energy to go with all that furious energy, and lead guitarist Martin Hamiche could really wail on the solos.


After a slightly longer-than-reasonable delay (and two rousing chants from waiting fans of “Alestorm! Alestorm!) Alestorm took the stage.

There are some bands where you get pretty much what you expected, and Alestorm is one of them. These guys are basically a moveable party that brings their own soundtrack. One band member had a hat reading “Oh Wow” and another wore a tank top with giant letters admonishing the crowd to “Get the Fack Up”. The crowd obliged.

Most importantly, the band could play. They were crisp and tight, and the songs sounded just like the album except with a bit of extra oomph. A couple of times it felt like the vocals were a bit low in the mix, but it was a minor gripe; for the most part it was solid.

The crowd also were fully into it, and while it wasn’t quite Frank Turner level in terms of their song knowledge they knew when to enthusiastically shout out the chorus. The songs were mostly from “No Grave But the Sea” with older favourites from their back catalogue mixed in. It was a set designed to please the crowd, and it pleased me; I couldn’t think of a track that I missed hearing.

The whole show had a bit of crazy mixed in. Mid-way through a mountain of a man joined the band on the stage who apparently went by the name of “Beef Guy” (with a ball cap emblazoned with “BEEF GUY”, in case you forgot). Beef Guy drank two beers in about 15 seconds total and then assisted the band in singing their cover version of Taio Cruz’s “Hangover” It was brilliant.

At one point Christopher Bowes had the dance floor separate into two halves and run at each other with arms extended as if they were airplanes. No one was apparently hurt and all the (mostly) drunk concert goers thought it was a jolly good time.

They ended the show with “Fucked with an Anchor” and audience and band spent the final few minutes good-naturedly giving each other the finger.

The only downside of the show was more of a function of the bad layout at Upstairs than any ill-will. There are simply not enough good places to stand and see the show, and while we got there early for a good spot, it is a constant struggle to hold your own against legions of people slipping in front of you to get a better view. I’m pretty chill about this overall, but all the bumping and jostling can affect even the most stalwart extrovert.

Given this is a common bar concert phenomenon, I think it needs a name. I’ve decided to call it…bishoping. No, not the practice of altering your horse’s teeth to make it appear younger (yes, that’s a thing). In this case the metaphor relates to the chess piece. First, because it usually involves a 45-degree angle slide between two people to move in front of them. Second, because when executed without the necessary grace and diplomacy, it can make you look like a dick.

Would I go see Alestorm again? Absolutely, but only if it were at a different venue; preferably one with more chairs for us old guys with stiff backs and bad knees.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1316: Mountain Man

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! Today we dive back into folk music. There was a time when folk music was all I listened to. I still love folk, but there’s just too much good music out there to limit yourself by genre. Whenever someone says to me “I only listen to [insert genre] I wonder what’s wrong with them. Are their ears broken?

Disc 1316 is… Magic Ship
Artist: Mountain Man

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Three women and two llamas. Or maybe those are alpacas. I’m really not sure what they are, but I am sure that they don’t belong in the house.

How I Came to Know It: The usual boring way. I read a review of this album (I believe in a folk magazine) and decided to check them out. After that, it became hard to find but eventually it showed up in the “Miscellaneous M” section of a big record store in Portland. Yes, I was looking for it. I keep a list.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one Mountain Man album, so there is nothing to stack it up against.

Ratings: 3 stars

Is it possible to have an album that is too folky? I would’ve said that would be impossible, but Mountain Man’s “Magic Ship” put that statement to the test.

Mountain Man is not a man at all, but rather three gifted women vocalists: Molly Erin Sarle, Alexandra Sauser-Monnig and Amelia Randall Meath. Together they play some of the most old school, stripped-down folk music you’ll ever hear. And by ‘stripped-down’ I mean sometimes it has a guitar. Often it has nothing but three voices.

If you’re going to make an album like that you better have some vocal chops to back it up, and Mountain Man does not disappoint. They sing with some of the most sublime harmonies you’ll ever hear. The songs are relaxed and whimsical, and the sweetness of the three voices combined will make you feel like you’re floating.

Despite many of the songs being a capella they don’t lose anything for it, with the three singers coming in and out of harmonies to create complex layers of sound. When there is a guitar, it is a light strum or an ambling pluck so casual you might miss it if it weren’t for the fact that there’s literally nothing else in the back of the mix.

Long-time riders will know that I am a sucker for a beautiful vocal, and sparse production so “Magic Ship” was ready-made to impress me and at times they did just that. “AGT” is a song built for high stepping in Scottish heather that filled me with joy. “Baby Where You Are” has a romantic meander to it that made me think of Simon and Garfunkel in song construction, and the Staves for the brilliant harmonies. The guitar helps on this song as well. It doesn’t do a lot, but the bass notes add an emotional underpinning to the song.

In other places, the band loses me in their virtuosity. Mountain Man are so good at what they do that sometimes it can feel like a choral singing challenge rather than a story that needs to be told. This is my issue, not the band’s, since it is often their clear intent to capture a passing image with their music rather than tell any epic stories.

Stella” is about a little girl reluctantly coming in the house to wash her face and have dinner. It is a brilliant example of harmony and syncopation, but I found it all a bit too domestic, even for a folk song.

On “Underwear”, a character pines for her mom’s t-shirt, her dad’s pants and “a chill pair of underwear”. The song is supposed to represent a deep familial love through some comfort clothes, and it does that well enough. However, it felt more like a writing exercise than the natural journey you might find on a similar but better executed song (think “This Shirt” by Mary Chapin Carpenter). In any event, ‘chill’ in either of its possible meanings are not what I look for in underwear.

Then, right when I was about to let the album go to a new home, it ended with a 55 second song called “Guilt” with just the right words to bring me back on board:

“You can think about it, you can think about it all the time
And all the ways you would have changed what you said or did or tried
You can think about it and be mean to your insides
And forget that you were ten or twelve or even twenty-five
Or it can just be something that happened that way
That makes you who you are today, and it hurts but that's alright”

This was both a gut punch and a gentle hug all at the same time and summed up this tight collection of songs well. Stripped to its essence, the record charts a course that is sometimes heartfelt, sometimes awkward, but in the end manages to find its way to something approaching grace.

Best tracks: AGT, Baby Where You Are, Stella, Slow Wake Up Sunday Morning, Guilt

Saturday, November 9, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1315: La Sera

Today is the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. I was in university at the time and I skipped classes the whole day. I just sat at home watching the spectacle unfold on TV, occasionally wiping tears away from my face as I contemplated a world where maybe, just maybe, love would prevail. If not love, at least a tomorrow where a nuclear holocaust was a few ticks further away from midnight.

Sadly, is also the 81st anniversary of Kristallnacht, the night were Nazi stormtroopers attacked German Jews, and destroyed their businesses and places of worship, a harbinger of the horror of the holocaust that would follow.

Both events are a reminder that liberal democratic values are important, hard won and easily lost.

With that said, let’s move onto something much lighter – like this excellent next album.

Disc 1315 is… Sees the Light
Artist: La Sera

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Principal singer/songwriter Katy Goodman, looking like she stepped out of some wistful sixties coming of age art film.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of their 2016 release, “Music for Listening to Music To” (reviewed back at Disc 1178) and dug through their back catalogue from there.

How It Stacks Up:  I had two albums, but after reviewing “Music For Listening to Music To” I parted company with it. I think this entitles me to an exemption on the ‘can’t stack up’ common law. “Sees the Light” is the better of the two albums. It won’t be leaving my collection any time soon.

Ratings: 4 stars

Much like the album’s cover, “Sees the Light” is a throwback to the early sixties. It will lead you to sitting on beaches, staring pale and wan into autumn sunsets, but loving every minute of it.

The album has a sneaky simplicity that makes it easy to fall into. After only a couple listens the songs feel like old standards. The simplicity holds the secret to every pop song – the ability to make you anticipate what’s coming next, and then reward you for being right. The songs lilt along with a carefree breeziness that evokes slow drives in a convertible or hikes through a park.

Despite that simplicity I didn’t get tired of the music, and that’s a testament to the sneakiness I referenced earlier. While it is mostly just vocals, piano, guitar and drum, Goodman has a talent for what arrangement to employ for each tune. “Real Boy” goes with a light and lively guitar picking pattern that evokes youthful romanticism. “I’m Alone” has a similar guitar treatment but throws in some sharp and poignant drumbeats that add gravitas and switch the mood from new love, to love lost.

Goodman’s vocals are light and diffuse, further adding to the dreamy reverie of the record. While it is just her singing, she employs layers that gives the impression of a chorus of singers oohing and aahing for added gravitas (n.b. – there is no actual oohing and aahing, it just feels like there is).

The instruments (including vocals) are all presented very evenly in the mix. This lets your mind wander from instrument to instrument. I appreciated the understated drumming, the guitar licks and Goodman’s masterful phrasing all in equal measure, and on each listen, it was a pleasure to drift my attention from one thing to another.

For dream pop, “Sees the Light” is remarkably crisp, made possible by a folk aesthetic that prizes individual musicianship. Unlike some music from this genre and vintage, I never felt like someone had been relegated to plunking a single note once ever bar or having everyone bang away in a song-ending flourish that reveals an inability to wrap up the melody. Instead, these are carefully crafted songs, where each instrument has a full part to play in the whole.

The album is very tight as well. Ten songs that clock in at just over 30 minutes total playing time. These songs have a sixties radio play aesthetic, that gets in, develop the melody and call it a day. Don’t expect long-winded solos. There are a couple, but they’re rare and very restrained when they do appear. That said, the guitar interlude on “Love That’s Gone” is sublime and a must-listen if you’re wondering what song to start with. Conveniently, it is the first song on the album!

Despite all the sweetness and light, the album has considerable emotional range. Yes, they’re mostly about love found or love lost, but you get a full exploration of the theme. If you’re going to overload a record about a single topic, love is an obvious choice.

When I reviewed “Music for Listening to Music To” I noted that while I liked it overall it never grabbed me at a deeper level or reveal some new facet of itself over time. Not so, with “Sees the Light,” which kept unfurling new discoveries both lyrically and musically on every one of several listens. If you are interested in checking out La Sera, this is the album you should start with.

Best tracks: Love That’s Gone, I Can’t Keep You in My Mind, I’m Alone, Real Boy, Drive On

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1314: Marissa Nadler

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! I’m reviewing a little less frequently these days. The good news, I get to leave for work later and get home faster. The bad news is that it shaves about 30 minutes of listening time off of my overall commute. Never fear, I remain committed to the mission – Ithaca or bust!

Disc 1314 is… July
Artist: Marissa Nadler

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? What strange apparition is this? A spirit, come through the casement to fetch us all to hell?

Calm down, Logan. It’s just Marissa Nadler and some backlight.  

How I Came to Know It: I heard her new album and it led me through her back catalogue. This is one of the albums that caught my attention.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Marissa Nadler albums. I had five, but after reviewing it back at Disc 1284, I decided to part ways with both “Little Hells” and also the majority of critics that loved it. I preferred “July” and while I haven’t given my Marissa Nadler collection the attention necessary to rank it definitively, I am feeling optimistic overall. That optimism leads me to put “July” in at #3, above at least one other selection, but behind two others. I’m not sure which is which yet – I’ll need more time to get acquainted with the other records better before I decide.

Ratings: 3 stars

Some albums just suit certain seasons, and despite its title “July” felt a good match for late autumn. The music is like a clear November day which is cold in a way that tells you it’ll soon be even colder.

“July” is relatively late in Nadler’s career, and well into the turn toward ambient production she took in 2009 with “Little Hells”. At their core these are folk songs, but Nadler dresses them up with heavy reverb and the deep thud of bass and a bit of ghostly whistling when the mood moves her.

Over this she plays very simple strum patterns on acoustic guitar and sings with a breathy semi-whispered delivery. Her voice has a sing-song quality that Nadler introduces at times as well. Imagine being serenaded by Kate Bush’s ghost and you’ll have an approximation. I felt like I was hearing songs whispered to me by spirits when I ventured into an old barn at the back of the property against my better judgment.

The album generates a wall of atmospheric sound and lets you sink into it. As an active listener I kept resisting the descent into reverie, intent on paying attention to what she was doing lyrically or vocally, but it was a struggle. It is music that is built to let your mind wander.

When I did focus, I was impressed with Nadler’s storytelling ability. Many of the songs on “July” are sad tales by damaged people not afraid to explore both their own frailties, and how those frailties translate into fragmented relationships. “Firecrackers” features all of what makes the record great. Nadler’s guitar strum is soft and somber, and her vocals high and sweet as she paints pictures like:

“I saw your face everywhere I looked, you sat across from me
Baby I'm a ghost when you're away
I told you all about my days, you told me where you lived
And we have drunk all our summers away”

Like a lot of songs on “July” the picture is painted by floating in the distance between two people, as much as the people themselves. Nadler is a master of negative space and unexpected focus. On “I’ve Got Your Name” she trades guitar strum for sparse piano and light chatter of an intermittent chorus. When she sings lines like:

“Changed in a rest stop into my dress
Be sure not to touch the floor
I've done that kind of thing before”

It’s the vastness of the story that isn’t told that draws you in, listening for more clues to what’s causing all that God-damned longing in her voice. Her characters are raw and real, but never boisterous – winning you over with their quietness and frailty.

As with “Little Hells” the songs have a uniformity that sometimes makes it hard for them to stand out, particularly given they put you in a constant state of absentmindedness. For whatever reason, it bothered me less this time around.

In fact, when I reviewed “Little Hells” I took two of Nadler’s records off my “to get” list thinking the magic was gone. “July” made me put them both back on. I won’t call it a match made in heaven, but it is definitely a date with a ghost that hopes to get there one day.

Best tracks: Firecrackers, I’ve Got Your Name, Desire, Holiday In

Saturday, November 2, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1313: The Mastersons

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey. Ten years in I’m still a long way from finishing my mission of reviewing all the albums in my collection. It would be easier if I stopped buying new ones. Musicians would need to stop producing such great art for that to happen, but I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Disc 1313 is… Good Luck Charm
Artist: The Mastersons

Year of Release: 2014

What’s up with the Cover? Supposedly, the constellation Lepus (the rabbit).  I’m not much of a stargazer, but the stars don’t look right here. Of course, cosmic-scale rabbits don’t make a lot of sense to begin with. Fun fact, Lepus is directly below Orion if you’re searching for it. Maybe find a better rendition of what stars to look for, though.

How I Came to Know It: I saw the Mastersons when they opened for Steve Earle about five years ago (and also formed part of his band at the time – the Dukes and Duchesses). I didn’t buy their albums at the show but regretted it and sought them out later.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Mastersons albums. (I once had three but I gave away 2017’s “Transient Lullaby” after reviewing it back at Disc 1130). Of all three, I put “Good Luck Charm” in at #2.

Ratings: 3 stars

“Good Luck Charm” launches with energy and enthusiasm, setting a high bar that’s ultimately too high to reach over the course of the record.

The formula for this record (the Mastersons’ second) is the same as others; uplifting alt-country tunes that rely heavily on the pretty harmonies of husband and wife team Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore. As ever, Whitmore is the star of the show. Her voice is an equal mix of sweet and power, with a tone that is comfortable like a long-term relationship. Think manic pixie girl, but five years into the relationship.

The record’s best effort is its first, with the title track “Good Luck Charm”, “Closer to You” and “If I Wanted To” delivering a 1-2-3 punch that had me genuinely excited for what was to follow.

The title track is a series of sad observations about the state of society, wrapped in an uplifting tune that makes you feel like the narrator’s plea for a good luck charm is going to be answered. The song is indicative of a record that approaches sadness, but never takes a full wallow.

This isn’t always what’s called for, however. Later in the record “Cautionary Tale” is a character study of self-destructive behavior. The lyrics are dark enough, but despite some well-placed minor notes the tune is a bit too polished and upbeat to land the requisite gravitas of the subject matter.

Back to the front of the record, where the second song “Closer to You” has a delightful swing that sounds like a cross between the country jump of a Dixie Chicks song and the whimsical contemporary folk of Dar Williams. The Mastersons write their music, which isn’t always critical - think Waylon Jennings singing Billy Joe Shaver songs - but I have a bias toward singers that also penned the tune.

Closer to You” is an example of a sad song (it’s about reminiscing about a lost parent) wrapped in a happy worldview. Yes, the father is dead, but the song’s resolution is to both appreciate the time you had, and to appreciate the great moments with those who remain. Sometimes the Mastersons are a bit too cheery, but on “Closer to You” it is exactly what’s called for.

The record is held back by a couple of things. First, while the lyrics are simple truths that suit the tunes, I could’ve used a bit more poetry. Strained phrases like “rhetoricin’ politicians make me mad” (from the title track) hide well enough in the strength of the tune, but don’t add much to it.

Second, the production is very polished. Despite their alternative country roots, the album has that smooth Nashville country sound that blunts the emotional impact. The violin on “Cautionary Tale” are an example. They are played beautifully but where a poignant musical note was needed, it reads as easy listening. While I’m picking a bit on this song, the problem rears its head in other songs as well.

While the opening of the record is the best part, there are some late-arriving gems that kept my head in the game, notably the carefree love song “Easy By Your Side” and the album’s final track, “Time is Tender.” The latter – like “Closer to You” – is a reminder not to waste the time you’ve got in life.

Time is Tender” is a song where Chris Masterson takes the lead. Usually I prefer Whitmore, but here he rises to the occasion, delivering one of his best vocal performances. “Time is Tender” also features some of the album’s best lyrics, including this delightful section in the second verse:

“Now the miles turned into memories
And the days don’t seem to end
What don’t kill you
Sure does leave you tired.”

It sure does. Hearing this song fading out as I type these words reminds me that despite the album’s strong opening, the Mastersons still managed to save the best for last.

Best tracks: Good Luck Charm, Closer to You, If I Wanted To, Easy By Your Side, Time Is Tender