Friday, October 19, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1190: The Crackling

I was out late last night so I’m quite pleased with myself that I got up early anyway. The day is mine! Then again, I am kind of sleepy so after I finish this review, maybe it’ll be nap time.

Disc 1190 is… Keep Full Ambitious

Artist: The Crackling

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? Fire at the mill! Or something. I’m not sure what is on fire here – maybe a dock on a lake? There appears to be a perigee syzygy underway as well.

Yeah – I had to look that term up. Feel free to do the same.

How I Came To Know It: Back in 2009 our friends Sherylyn and Joel introduced us to Dan Mangan through his “Nice Nice, Very Nice” album (reviewed back at Disc 879). We went to see him live at the Alix Goolden hall. Mangan’s drummer at the time was Kenton Loewen. Loewen was also the front man, guitarist and songwriter of a band called the Crackling and they opened for Mangan. I liked what I heard so I bought his album from the merch table.

Fun fact: Loewen briefly played drums in Mother Mother as well, although not when I saw them.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only album I have by the Crackling so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

Canadian folk-rock tends to feature a lot of layered sound, and the singer’s vocals tend to warble a bit. The lyrics are interesting but it takes a while to pick up what the songs are about. The guitar tends to have a bit of reverb, but only to make an echo, not a snarl. It’s smooth and polite on the surface; self-examined and complex underneath. This is the Cracklings.

“Keep Full Ambitious” is an apt title for this album. This is a record that eschews catch ear-worms for a broader sound with complex melodies that sometimes delighted me and sometimes left me frustrated and wanting…less.

There is plenty to like on the record, starting with “Geppetto,” a jaunty little tune with a ragtime jazz feel and some delightful work from pianist Tyson Naylor. This song is also as close to the album gets to radio friendly. It is a song that features themes of control, and how we both pull the strings of others, all he while having our own pulled as well. I’m not sure where Loewen lands on the whole thing, but I like the way he explores it, incorporating dark humour with lines like:

“Because I came to read your paper
And it was your dog that bit me
She knew that blood, that flavour
It’s not easy to forget me.

I also loved the heartbreaking “Of Deceit.” The tune is cold and stark, like a frozen lake where the ice is dangerously thin Loewen explores a love betrayed and as he sings “It’s not wrong for you to go now” you can tell the narrator doesn’t want that outcome, but realizes it’s what he deserves.

The rest of the album is good (particularly the first half) but the bravery the Cracklings display on song construction sometimes makes them hard to follow.

Loewen’s singing is heartfelt and honest, but not super powerful or rangy and the arrangements are lush and packed, making it that much harder to pick him out of the auditory crowd.

The album only has 11 songs but is over 50 minutes of music and many of the songs go on a bit too long. “I Am Your Rogue (Ode to a Woman)” is about as overblown as you’d expect from the title, and it ends with about a minute of idle guitar noodling that didn’t add anything for me. “First Drop” starts off as a promising duet with Debra Jean Creelman, but it ends in that oft-used mistake in indie music – a long outro of frenetic instrumentals. Loewen resolves the melody artfully at the end, proving he’s doing it all deliberately, not as a shortcut, but by the time he got there I was feeling fidgety.

For all my minor issues with production, on balance I still like “Keep Full Ambitious”. On my first listen I was planning to give it a way, but by the third time through it had won me over again, which is a good sign for any record.

Best tracks: Geppetto, Of Deceit

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1189: Lindi Ortega

It’s been a long day filled with ups and downs but here I sit at the end of it with my old friends: a keyboard and an album full of music.

Disc 1189 is… Liberty
Artist: Lindi Ortega

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Lindi Ortega rides out as a bandit, signature red boots high in the stirrups.

How I Came To Know It: I am a big fan of Lindi Ortega so when I heard she had a new album coming out I added it to my list. I waited impatiently for several months for it to be released. It was on my “to buy” list without a release date so I probably checked the stands three or four times before it was even out. Anyway, eventually it arrived at the local record store and I grabbed a copy.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Lindi Ortega albums. Of those, I put “Liberty” in at the bottom of that list – so fifth.

Ratings: 3 stars

When you release a concept album you live or die by the theme – sometimes you do both. So it is with Lindi Ortega’s 2018 release “Liberty.”

Up to this point in her career Ortega has explored bad, sassy, sexy and more than a few dissertations on the elusive nature of both love and fame. On “Liberty” she takes a new tack, embracing traditional western themes and music, and fusing them with her seductive alt-country sound.

Ortega goes all in on these notions, with references to tornados, lonely plains, gunfights the love of a good man, and the equally important love of a good horse. The album features an early attempted murder (and maybe some kind of resurrection from the dead), some revenge before closing with what I think is a happy ending and a ride off into the sunset.

Musically, Ortega’s smoky, sultry vocals remain and she sings many of the songs in a half-whisper that makes them feel conspiratorial – like a death-bed confession laced with just the right amount of sin. There are places where I wanted Ortega to belt it out a bit (she comes close on “In the Clear,” but stays restrained and slightly layered in heavy guitar reverb).

That reverb is ever-present on the record and although it creates a cohesive sound it also serves to water down a lot of the great old-time spaghetti western feel the songs have. All the trappings of old school westerns are there: trumpet flourishes, trail-riding harmonica and the ominous strains of the steel guitar played low and mournful, like a prairie haunting. I would have liked her to explore the combination of traditional western and her own more modern alt-country style from a few more angles, different angles, although that might have disrupted the mood of mystery she’s trying to establish.

Ortega divides the album into movements, separated by the instrumental “Through the Dust” divided into three sections. These short interludes sound like Ennio Morricone on Quaaludes which is trippy, but at times take away the record’s momentum.

In its darker moments, “Liberty” reminded me of Handsome Family murder ballads, but with less obvious violence. Instead, Ortega tends to cleave more toward dark romance, playing both the wounded lover and then the femme fatale depending on where you are at in the story.

The record is bass-heavy, and would have benefited from a bit less boom at the bottome end. I think the intent was to create a heavy foreboding, but a little lightness might make key moments sink in that much deeper when they’re needed.

Lovers in Love” feels like an old seventies croon-fest, and has a timeless quality that would have done Dolly Parton or Linda Ronstadt proud. There is an anthemic quality to songs like this and the inspirational “In the Clear” that leave you feeling like you are standing heroically on a wood-plank deck looking out at a Monument Valley sunset in a John Ford picture. Lindi’s wearing a cowboy hat and there’s a slight breeze but it doesn’t threaten the hat; it just makes her hair blow majestically.

The Comeback Kid” is the radio-friendly single, and features the mix of blues and country that I’ve come to expect from earlier releases. It may be a familiar sound but I liked it – it even has hand claps, and what song isn’t made better by hand claps?

All the songs work thematically, and most of them would also stand alone as pieces about a jilted lover; no gunfights required. The double meaning of the songs as both high-plains revenge and straight up romance works well overall.

I would have liked a little less murk and ambience and a bit more of the sparseness of a trail song in the Marty Robbins style, but the mix of styles Ortega is going for is a fragile balance and it isn’t easy to maintain the sweet spot. For the most part she lands it.

Best tracks: Afraid of the Dark, The Comeback Kid, In the Clear, Lovers in Love, Liberty

Saturday, October 13, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1188: The Beatles

Yesterday a coworker told me he had just discovered Gillian Welch and Townes Van Zandt. I’d known both for a while, but he’s also a musically deep guy and it got me thinking: just what seminal artists are out there still waiting for me to discover? It’s a comforting thought.

And now a band we all know probably too well.

Disc 1188 is… Revolver
Artist: The Beatles

Year of Release: 1966

What’s up with the Cover? The world’s worst combination of line art and collage. The line art looks like a set of suspects form a local grocery store robbery, as drawn by Scotland Yard’s composite portrait artist. The collage looks like it was taken from the bedroom of some 13 year old girl – likely the daughter of one of the grocery thieves who took one of the posters home as a lark.

How I Came To Know It: I know lots of these songs because…the Beatles. I know the album because Sheila bought a bunch of Beatles albums years ago.

How It Stacks Up:  We have seven Beatles albums. Of those, I rank “Revolver” seventh. That’s right, I put it last, although I probably would like it more than some of those early Beatles albums we don’t even own. This is also (mercifully) my last Beatles review so here’s the full recap:

  1. Abbey Road: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 441)
  2. The White Album: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 593)
  3. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 808)
  4. Help:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1134)
  5. Rubber Soul:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 71)
  6. Magical Mystery Tour:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 408)
  7. Revolver: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 3 stars

Have you ever gone and visited someone’s house warming and thought, ‘It’s a nice house, but I hate what they’ve done with the place.’  That’s what the Beatles’ “Revolver” feels like. Brilliant and often ground breaking melodies meander through songs that are often too clever for their own good.

Paul McCartney knocks melodies out with the ease of a lactose intolerant milk-shake lover – a torrent of music that sounds effortless. And yet, like that milkshake, on “Revolver” I find it can sometimes end up disappointing and a little painful. Even heartfelt and touching love songs like “Here, There and Everywhere” feel schmaltzy, like something from a bad sixties romance movie rather than a critically acclaimed album.

“Revolver” continues the Beatles journey into the land of bells and whistles as well. A lot of the goofy sound effects and production hijinks that bug me on “Magical Mystery Tour” are here in developmental form.

One of the worst examples is “Yellow Submarine,” a song I have always hated. The song has the bones of a drunken bar sing-a-long, but is so saturated with overwrought sound effects and self-absorbed in jokes that it feels more like something you’d hear on a children’s album.

Among the many excesses, we are subjected to: crashing surf; the smattering of a some horn playing oompa-pah-pah music; someone singing through a megaphone; and background vocals that sound like a drunk upper class twit of the year, complete with cackles. I listened with fervent hope for the sound of a depth charge that would sink the fucking thing, but it never came.

This is the Beatles “sitar phase” and they employ it with mixed results. I liked it for the most part, even though it delays the start of “Love You To” with an overlong intro. The Beatles have a good understanding of how to work a non-western instrument into western music in a way that is complimentary, not intrusive.

Also, for all the frustration this album gives me it is a ground-breaking record with some timeless classics. “Eleanor Rigby” is one of the greatest pop songs ever written. The melody is like nothing else, compelling and vaguely disconcerting to match the subject matter of loneliness. The violin flourishes add just the right amount of anxiety to the song. This is a song that shows the Beatles can be as serious as they want to be. Fifty years later this is still a song everyone knows, and this time that’s a good thing.

For No One” is also a solid track, again delving into the sadness of a love destroyed. The mix of piano, horn and the pure tone of McCartney’s singing all blend beautifully – in part because the band keeps the arrangement simple and lets the song’s beauty shine.

The album’s final two songs sum up what is great and terrible with the record respectively. “Got To Get You Into My Life” has an infectious swing, and a horn section that turns the blues into pop in the prettiest way possible. It is like a fine Italian style pizza – just two or three ingredients, artfully brought together.

Tomorrow Never Knows” is a drug-fuelled pile of excess with layer upon layer of sound, cleverly structured but so busy and overblown you can’t appreciate the cleverness. I expect music aficionados point to songs like this to show how “before their time” the Beatles are. I hear it and just think about all the bad songs inspired by this cacophony in the years since its release. “Revolver” is only 34 minutes long, but listening to “Tomorrow Never Knows” it felt like it was never going to end.

I admire the Beatles for knowing they could just write hit pop songs forever, but who also wanted to stretch themselves artistically. On “Revolver” this creates some of the world’s greatest music, but also some of the most annoying.

Best tracks: Eleanor Rigby, She Said She Said, For No One, Got To Get You Into My Life

Thursday, October 11, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1187: Bad Cop Bad Cop

There are so many ways to discover new music if you stay open to the experience. One of the best places are all those opening bands playing before the band you came to see. I always go to a gig on time and catch the opening acts. I think music lovers who show up later to watch just the headliner are cheating themselves of what could be a great experience.

Disc 1187 is… Warriors
Artist: Bad Cop Bad Cop

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Justice isn’t blind after all. Here she’s got four eyes, five if you count the one in her hair. That hair is made of flame, and there are more flames in her scales. In short, this version of justice also came to kick some ass, just like the band.

This particular painting brought to you by artist Jennie Cotterill, who kicks ass in many different ways (she’s also in the band). Thanks, Jennie!

How I Came To Know It: I saw these guys open for Frank Turner in back to back shows earlier this year. They were great, and Sheila suggested I go to their merch table and get an album. I did just that!

How It Stacks Up:  As it happens, I bought two Bad Cop Bad Cop albums at the show. When I did, a burly looking punk with a bald head and a massive beard told me “you won’t regret it – they are both great!” Turns out he was right. So much so, I’m not sure how I can rate one ahead of the other – it is that close. However, since I’m not one to equivocate I’ll put “Warriors” in first place…for now.

Ratings: 4 stars

When a band has a live show as high energy as Bad Cop Bad Cop you always worry they won’t capture the magic on their studio album. However, “Warriors” has all the visceral power of their live performance, but with better separation of sound. Live was great, but in studio I had all that power and I could hear the words.

Bad Cop Bad Cop are an all-woman punk band from Los Angeles who have a lot to say and aren’t afraid to say it at high volume. They were already loud on their previous record (2015’s “Not Sorry”) and here they turn it up to 11, replacing the ska touches on their previous record with a more straight ahead rock sound. I like both approaches equally, but there is no denying how infectious the rock riffs are on “Warriors”. It makes you want to raise your first and yell.

While all four women sing to some degree, main vocal duties are anchored by Stacey Dee and Jennie Cotterill. Dee has the more traditional punk snarl, but I also like Cotterill’s voice which has plenty of grit and a subtle hint of sixties crooner around the edges. Add in bassist Linh Le’s emotionally raw delivery and the three of them blend together for a good combination of harmony and punk power. “Warriors” shows off their various vocal talents a bit less than previous efforts but only because the arrangements have a stronger rock focus. Even with this thickened sound, they never lose their core of musicality.

The band is anchored by drummer Myra Gallarza, who hits the skins hard. In the first concert I saw of the band she broke a drum stick while playing. When you hear her on “Warriors” it is easy to see why. She thumps those things with a vengeance. A punk band without enthusiasm in the rhythm section will always sound bland, but the relentless punch of Gallarza’s drums (and Le’s frantic bass) give the record the right amount of gravitas.

I was favourably reminded of Green Day at their best. Green Day gets unfairly blamed for inspiring a lot of bad pop punk bands, but Bad Cop Bad Cop shows this power can also be used for good.

Thematically, these songs follow the traditional punk norms of rebellion, including quite a number of songs with social messages. The band isn’t afraid to explore dark personal topics either, addressing suicide and feelings of self-loathing. “Victoria” is a song about suicide which is indicative of their sound; crunching guitar and snarl, but with a strong melody that makes the songs equally good for moshing or singing along.

At the core of it all, this is a band that is not afraid to say the things they think needs saying – whether personal or political. “Womanarchist” and the title track are calls to action on a broad front. On “Kids” they call out an abuser and on the more subtle “Why Change a Thing?” they call on sleepy suburban professionals to join the fight for all the people who don’t have it as good as they do.

Like a lot of punk records, the songs on “Warriors” get their point across in a hurry and the whole record is over in less than 30 minutes. I ended up listening to it six times in just two days. Despite all this play time, I never got bored – I was infused with the energy of the record every time.

While there isn’t a lot of new ground being broken here, Bad Cop Bad Cop pulls anthemic rock and protest punk together at a high level. They write great songs and then they play them with a celebratory and furious power. “Warriors” is their most recent record and I’m excited to see what they do next. For now, a few more listens of this one are in my future.

Best tracks: I’m Done, Womanarchist, Victoria, Amputations, Broken, Warriors, Kids

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1186: The Smalls

I’m feeling a bit tired tonight after a fun long weekend of celebrating. It was a worthy cause, though – today is Sheila’s birthday. Happy birthday Sheila! I am so lucky to have you in my life.

OK, enough love and tenderness – I need to get my grunge on.

Disc 1186 is… Waste & Tragedy
Artist: The Smalls

Year of Release: 1995

What’s up with the Cover? In the days before either sitting or smiling were invented the only joy was to be found in a full and fearsome beard. It was a stark joy, for a stark time.

How I Came To Know It: I saw the Smalls on a reunion tour about four years ago and bought all four of their albums that night at the merch table.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Smalls albums and “Waste & Tragedy” is my favourite.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

The Smalls make music which is for throwing your hair in your face and pointing your face to the floor, with muddy guitar riffs that shake the lower spine. This is the nineties most famous sound: grunge. While the Smalls would never achieve the fame of Soundgarden, Pearl Jam or Nirvana they made some smokin’ grunge in their day, and “Waste & Tragedy” is some of their best.

Like all Smalls albums, “Waste & Tragedy” is filled with in-your-face ferocity, chugging out crunchy guitar riffs that are deceptively simple. On some of their records this ferocity threatens to drown out the song structure, but “Waste & Tragedy” finds the right mix of mud and lightning.

A big part of this is the playing of Corb Lund. Lund would later switch to a solo country career but here he just plays the bass and does a fine job of it. There are a couple of riffs that are a bit too similar to one another, but they’re good riffs, so it’s hard to complain.

Singer Mike Caldwell has an almost careless delivery, but his natural talent for staying the pocket keeps him on course. In terms of what he’s singing about, I couldn’t tell you. I could only pick out a couple of lines at a time, but what I heard was cool.  This music isn’t really for the lyrics anyway (although it is worth noting that many of the fans at the live show knew ALL the words, so maybe I’m wrong about that). For me it is about the groove and the restless energy so while the album came with a lyrics booklet I didn’t bother to look any up.

Hands down the best song is “Pity the Man With the Fast Right Hand” which has both a funky Lund bass riff, and a bit more sound separation than many of the songs. This lets it breathe and develop over time. In places it sounded like early Red Hot Chili Peppers crossed with early ZZ Top, topped with a layer of rocks.

Hollow Hello” sounds a bit too much like Kurt Cobain singing “Hello…how low” on “Smells Like Teen Spirit” but maybe that’s the point. “Uranusexplodes” lacks focus but the title is super funny, so I give it points for that. If you haven’t made some joke about the planet Uranus then you haven’t lived. I’ll never forget the day I learned that Uranus had deposits of methane gas and spent that afternoon quizzing my Grade Eight science teacher with this knowledge. While he tried to teach us far less interesting things about the planets I interjected with straight-faced queries of “Is it true Uranus has deposits of methane?” “Are these deposits ever in danger of exploding?” Comedy gold. I don’t recall if I pushed it into detention territory, but it was certainly possible. But I digress.

“Waste & Tragedy” is a good soundtrack for disaffected youth. It has a rebellious edge, filled with vitriol and bad choices. I couldn’t follow all of the lyrics in “Take It From a Ryeman” but the song had ‘sullen drunk’ written all over it. It also has a relentless lurch to the riff that makes you think of someone stumbling about after one too many of Canada’s answer to malt liquor.

“Waste & Tragedy” is the Smalls demonstrating just the right mix of power and groove, and while I couldn’t bring myself to grade it out at four stars, it came close. Lately I haven’t reached for a Smalls album often, but when I do it tends to be this one.

Best tracks: Pity the Man with the Fast Right Hand, Maybe That Prophet Scared You, (Take It From a) Ryeman, Waste & Tragedy

Friday, October 5, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1185: Brandi Carlile

I’m starting my second four day weekend in a row and it feels pretty good. The key to a good long weekend is to have fun with friends, try something new, and plan for some quiet time to recharge the batteries. If you can sneak in an Oxford comma along the way then all the better.

Disc 1185 is… The Story
Artist: Brandi Carlile

Year of Release: 2007

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a book. Please do not assume from the frayed edge on the left that I have mistreated this album. I take care of my CDs and my books. That effect was put there by the original artist.

How I Came To Know It: I had heard about this album a few times but it didn’t grab me the first time I played it. Then I got into Brandi Carlile through her latest release, “By the Way I Forgive You” (reviewed back at Disc 1135) and dug through her collection in reverse. This time “The Story” not only stuck, I was deeply impressed. I bought it that weekend.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four of Brandi Carlile’s six studio albums. Of those four, I put “The Story” in at third. I wish it could be higher, but competition is fierce.

Ratings: 4 stars

Brandi Carlile’s “The Story” is a critical darling and as a result it started off on the wrong side of my iconoclastic nature. It didn’t take long to win me over, however.

Most successful artists are lucky to have either great songwriting ability or superb vocals. Carlile has the rare gift of both. Her vocals have the ability to be both evocative and powerful. So many powerhouse singers just belt it out but lose the emotional content in the quest for landing a perfect 10 at the vocal gymnastics. Carlile never seems strained or insincere, even when she is cutting loose.

Her style is a mix of indie folk and power pop. On her folksier side she reminded me of Patty Griffin and her pop voice has a thunderous warble similar to Sia. Either way it feels like your hair is being blown back when she opens up.

On the songwriting front she is not alone; longtime bandmates and collaborators the Hanseroth twins are part of that success. That said, my favourite songs were just as likely to be written by just Carlile as to be a collaborative effort. In this way she reminded me of Emmylou Harris, fully able to do it all herself but naturally drawn to work with others. Based on the results on “The Story” she has this mixed approach just right.

On my first listen I found myself approaching “The Story” as a concept album, likely influenced by the promise of the title. While “concept album” would be a stretch, the album is heavily themed to the ending relationships. “Breakup Album” is probably a better moniker although I have no idea if Carlile was going through one at the time of writing the record. I could have looked into that, but great art should stand on its own merits, not rely on biographical crutches.

“The Story” meets this test and then some and regardless of Carlile’s personal life I expect a lot of people have wallowed away in grief listening to this record on a rainy afternoon and having a cry. I hope it helped process some things for those folks. Great art does that too.

I had no need to wallow, but I was still affected by these songs and their relentless heartbreak. The grief and loss of the subject matter juxtaposed with Carlile’s confident vocal performance is a perfect match. It is like she is pulling herself through by pure strength of will, and taking you along with her.

The lyrics on “The Story” weren’t quite as compelling for me as more recent Carlile albums (“By the Way, I Forgive You”, “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”) but that’s more a signal about how much I love those records than anything missing here. While the title track is solid, my favourite bit of storytelling is found on “Turpentine” which begins:

“I watch you grow away from me in photographs
And memories like spies
And salt betrays my eyes again
I started losing sleep and gaining weight
And wishing I was ten again
So I could be your friend again
These days we go to waste like wine
That’s turned to turpentine
It’s six AM and I’m all messed up
I didn’t mean to waste your time.”

There is a great building of longing here, with the heart pining and the head firmly on the hamster wheel until – inevitably – a drunken phone call gets made. Both the music and Carlile’s delivery climb and fall through the reverie, excess and regret in perfect waves with the words. Drunken phone calls are a mainstay of music, but it is nice to see a sympathetic explanation of how people get there. That said, don’t let this song influence you unduly – don’t make that call until the morning! By then you’ll have sobered up and won’t want to do it anymore, and that’s a good thing. But I digress…

There are many other standouts on the record but space – and the attention span of the modern reader – being limited, I will refrain from waxing poetic over them. Instead, you can read about them below in “Best Tracks”. The internet loves its lists.

There are times when this record strays a bit too far into power pop for my liking, but those times are rare and even then I must yield grudging respect to Carlile’s chops. My only other criticism is Carlile’s decision to put a “hidden” track at the end of the record. This has the effect of making the record’s final song “Again Today” 10:38 long, with over two minutes of infuriating silence before the very lovely “Hiding My Heart” comes on. So lovely, in fact, it deserves its own track.

Apart from this, “The Story” is a must have if you love well-written music, and don’t mind a little pop mixed in your folk. Don’t be afraid; a little sugar helps the grief go down easier.

Best tracks: Late Morning Lullaby, The Story, Turpentine, Wasted, Have You Ever, Josephine, Cannonball

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1184: Bonnie Prince Billy

My last four music reviews have all been from either 2008 or 2018. You may be wondering why that is and the answer is…no reason! This is all random, remember?

Disc 1184 is… Lie Down in the Light
Artist: Bonnie Prince Billy

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? Just another professional wrestler grappling with a butterfly man. You know, basically a scene you’ve seen a thousand times.

How I Came To Know It: A couple years ago I did a deep dive through Bonnie Prince Billy’s discography. “Lie Down in the Light” was one that stood out. I put it on my list and eventually my patience was rewarded when a copy showed up at my local record store. Support your local record store!

How It Stacks Up:  My Bonnie Prince Billy collection consists of one compilation (which doesn’t stack up) and four studio albums (which do). Of the four studio albums, “Lie Down in the Light” comes in at #2. And since this is the last of those reviews, here’s a full recap:

  1. Ease Down the Road: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 927)
  2. Lie Down in the Light: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. I See a Darkness: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1092)
  4. Superwolf: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 903)
Ratings: 4 stars

Bonnie Prince Billy doesn’t always appeal to me - my deep dive through 15 of his albums only yielded 5 keepers – but “Lie Down in the Light” is a reminder of just how much I like it when he lands one.

Billy’s real name is Will Oldham but don’t let the false moniker fool you; there is nothing fake about Will Oldham. “Lie Down in the Light” is another example of what he does best: gentle folksy melodies that are sneaky complicated and lyrics that are so stark in their honesty they are often uncomfortable.

Oldham’s vocals are light and airy, carrying a bit of that ‘from the faerie woods’ quality of sixties folk singers. By sight he looks plain and rough around the edges, but to hear him is to look into his soul, which is a beautiful if slightly twisted flower.

“Lie Down in the Light” is my most recent record by Oldham and comes almost ten years from his debut “I See a Darkness.” During that time Oldham hasn’t always kept my interest, but over the years he has found his voice, and where he might have murmured a song, now he sings it out. He won’t overpower you, but you can feel the confidence and conviction in the delivery.

Thematically this album didn’t seem to be about grief so much as it was about post-grief. Many of the songs are an absorption and acceptance of past darkness, not a rejection of it. Oldham looks into the spaces in our lives and sees not emptiness, but connectivity. On “Missing One” he characterizes a lost lover this way:

“But I wouldn’t trade my life
For someone’s millions
And I know you left
For a reason
And the trees and flowers
And creeks and rocks
Hold your face
With every season.”

And on “What’s Missing Is” he takes the image into musical theory:

“What’s rhythm is
Plenty of things missing
Steps taken, lips kissing
New harmony on an
Awesome scale
Meat against meat
Under sail.”

The ‘meat against meat’ image is vintage Oldham. He is a romantic but there is a part of him that always grounds his romanticism in flesh. When you listen to him sing it you know he isn’t being base; he’s just reveling in the animal condition equally as much as our ability to rise above it. He celebrates the tension between points.

On “You Want That Picture,” ex-lovers argue over how they perceive a break-up. The song is a duet of a man imagining the woman he left behind bereft, and the woman behind imagining the man callous and uncaring. Both are wrong, with each answering the false portrayal with a verse about how they feel balanced and free, both seeing beyond the moment of grief into a greater truth. Even in sadness, Oldham finds balance.

You Want That Picture” is one of the record’s finest songs, with a big assist from guest vocalist Ashley Webber. Webber’s vocals were maddeningly familiar and when I looked her up I was not surprised to find she is the sibling of Black Mountain’s Amber Webber. Both sisters have a slight vibrato and a tone that is tough and tragic.

One quibble I have is with the CD presentation. The Disc case does not list the songs on the back, instead just saying “Twelve Songs.” There are twelve songs, but if you are listening on CD you have no idea what they are without opening up the booklet. The booklet has the songs and lyrics printed, but both are in an annoying “scrawled on a napkin” font. However, these are minor quibbles about presentation, not the music.

This isn’t a record for parties and road trips. The songs are quiet and they whisper their truths to you. The experience requires your attention. If you give it, you’ll be rewarded with some beautiful music and some concepts that have the potential to make even the most wounded spirits feel at peace.

Best tracks: Easy Does It, So Everyone, You Want that Picture, Missing One, What’s Missing Is

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1183: I'm With Her

I had a busy day of work and then a bit of volunteer work after that. I’m feeling a bit knackered but not so knackered to share my love of music.

Disc 1183 is… See You Around
Artist: I’m With Her

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? I’m With Her chill out in someone’s backyard. These ladies are pale so I hope they remembered to wear sunscreen.

How I Came To Know It: In a circuitous route. A couple years ago I was investigating folk artist Aoife O’Donovan. I didn’t buy any of her stuff, but along the way I discovered Sarah Jarosz. I bought three of her albums, all of which I have since reviewed.

I’m With Her is a collaboration of O’Donovan, Jarosz and Sara Watkins, so with two of three artists already familiar to me I took the plunge.

How It Stacks Up:  This is I’m With Her’s first album, so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 3 stars

All hail the next supergroup! No, not Them Crooked Vultures – the other one. No, not Hollywood Vampires – a little less well known than that. Nope, not Run the Jewels – a bit lesser known. The Both? A little lower…

OK, so I’m With Her is not the most commercially successful supergroup, but they are a supergroup to me. Folk musicians Aoife O’Donovan, Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins may not deliver the same legions of Youtube hits of some other bands, but these three women are each amazing musicians in their own right all the same.

I’m With Her brings their collective talents together and for the most part the experiment is a success. Each one of these women is an amazing vocalist, and their voices are complementary, whether they are taking turns on lead vocals or blending together to create sweet bluegrass-inspired harmonies.

It also bears noting what prodigious musical talents they are. Watkins plays fiddle, ukulele and guitar; O’Donovan plays guitar and piano.  As for Sarah Jarosz, she is one of the finest mandolin players you will ever hear, and I mean ever. Jarosz is also brilliant on banjo, guitar and something called the “Mandoguitar”. I don’t know what a Mandoguitar is, but I know I know I want to pronounce it like I am Otto the bus driver from the Simpsons – “Mandooohhguitar!

Jarosz is my favourite of the three artists both vocally and because of her mad mandolin skills, but they are all brilliant. They wisely keep the mix nice and even-tempered, letting your ear slide from one instrument to another with relative ease, as the mood moves you.

In terms of style, this music is all folk all the time. Don’t come to this album looking for pop hooks and production tricks. “See You Around” is an album for people who appreciate simple playing done at a high level, and while the ladies have many clever new takes on old forms and contemporary folk elements, this is very much a record grounded in tradition.

The record opens with “See You Around” which has some subtle organ sounds and some of the pretties guitar picking you’ll ever hear (there is plenty of this). The lyrics on “See You Around” aren’t metaphorically creative – wine stained glasses hold drinks, and hearts are enclosed in skin. It is all very literal, but the song has a lilting melody that draws you in and when the harmonies hit on the chorus it is a slice of layer-cake heaven.

Overland” is my favourite song on the album. Going in, I knew I’m With Her had covered a Gillian Welch song and my ear was on the lookout for it. “Overland” was so good it was my first guess, and when I realized that wasn’t it I assumed it was a traditional tune. It just seemed too good – too perfectly timeless – to have been written a few months ago. Turns out I was wrong – it isn’t an old classic, it is a new one.

The Welch song was “Hundred Miles” also good – and with some fancy fiddle playing – but no “Overland”.

I also love “Close It Down” which is a song about unrequited love, where the unrequited nature of the love is…complicated. The song is filled with harmless flirting which you can tell isn’t harmless and a story that is only partially told. I’m With Her lets you fill in the blanks, and while you can hear the song from many angles every one will be filled with yearning and unfulfilled desire.

Also, a small shout out to “Pangaea” which isn’t one of my favourites, but has a little section which goes “you think that you need me/but you don’t need me” in a melody that makes you immediately think of Leonard Cohen singing “I need you/I don’t need you” on “Chelsea Hotel No. 2”. I could be reading too much into this, but I think it’s deliberate. If I ever meet them I’ll ask but for now it’s a pleasant thought.

The album is far from perfect, and there are some songs that feel a bit all over the place, or where the effort to create new progressions makes the music less catchy than it could be. The lyrics are uneven: sometimes plain and beautiful, sometimes just plain.

My first two listens through I was even seriously planning on parting company with the record, because at times it felt a bit too much like songwriting by committee and overwrought (a common supergroup problem by the way). However, once my ears adjusted to the combination of tradition and experiment I realized what a secret treasure I had on my hands and got to work making space on the shelf.

Best tracks: See You Around, Ain’t That Fine, Wild One, Overland, Close it Down

Monday, September 24, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1182: Jenny Lewis

I’m fresh off a lovely three day weekend where I got all kinds of chances to do fun things, hear great music and generally enjoy the company of wonderful people.

Disc 1182 is… Acid Tongue
Artist: Jenny Lewis

Year of Release: 2008

What’s up with the Cover? A blotter sheet of Jennys. I know what Hunter S. Thompson would have done with this cover, but I need a place to keep the CD.

How I Came To Know It: I loved Jenny Lewis’s 2006 album “Rabbit Fur Coat” so I took a chance on “Acid Tongue” without having heard a single song.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four slight variations on Jenny Lewis’ solo career: two solo records, one with Johnathan Rice and one with the Watson Twins. Taken together (as I choose to do) that’s four ‘solo’ records. Of those four, I put “Acid Tongue”…fourth. Hey, someone has to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars

It is no surprise Jenny Lewis has so many different solo projects; she is constantly experimenting with her sound.

On other albums Lewis explores stripped down folk (“Rabbit Fur Coat”) and highly produced pop (“Voyager”) and masters them both. On “Acid Tongue” there her usual brand of indie pop made (relatively) famous with her old band Rilo Kiley, mixed with a lot of traditional blues riffs. While I admire the ambition of it all, I found the crossover awkward in places. 

First the good stuff, and there is plenty. “Pretty Bird” is a moody atmospheric piece that showcases those pure vocals and with its mix of bluesy bass groove, Latin guitar flourishes, and ambient feedback it takes a lot of risks and manages to make them pay off.

The title track is less musically risky, but one of the finest tracks on the record. here Lewis opts for a stripped down acoustic guitar strum and a narrative style that would have been equally at home on her previous album, the folksy “Rabbit Fur Coat”. The song has Lewis in familiar territory, as she walks the line between hippy wisdom and lovelorn regret:

“By the rolling river is exactly where I was
There was no snake oil cure for unlucky in love
To be lonely is a habit like smoking or taking drugs
And I've quit them both, but, man, was it rough”

Unfortunately, many of the songs explore the blues, and the twee indie pop doesn’t suit the grit of the blues. Lewis’ vocals are so pure and light by nature and while the musicians find the spirit of the blues in their delivery, the combination with the more pop elements is a bit strained.

This is particularly noticeable on the long and bloated “The Next Messiah”; an almost nine minute song where Lewis explores pretty much every classic blues riff, one after the other. Every piece of it is well played, but stitched together it felt a bit too much like an end-of-the-night bar band medley.

Johnathan Rice (from Jenny and Johnny) was on the album, but his presence didn’t excite me. What did excite me was Zooey Deschanel of She and Him singing backing vocals on a number of tracks. Deschanel’s amazing vocals add a nice touch of sugar on the backing vocals wherever she appears.

Carpetbaggers” has a nice rolling melody that reminded me of mid-eighties Tom Petty but the moment was slightly spoiled by the warble of Elvis Costello making an appearance halfway through. More Zooey, less Elvis!

The album ends on a high point with “Sing a Song for Them” an anthem for the down and out. Deadbeat dads, weekend tweakers and “Boulevard freaks” all get a shout out, among many other folks living a life less travelled, and often not escaping unscathed from the experience.

The CD packaging for “Acid Tongue” failed to impress. It is a simple slip of cardboard, making it impossible to put the title on the edge. As a result, I rarely am inspired to put the CD version on as I scan my collection. Most of the time, I don’t even see it.

Instead of liner notes, it comes with four pictures featuring candid shots of the band recording the album. The shots didn’t look artsy so much as they look like pictures not good enough to make it into your photo album (back when photo albums were still a thing).

Overall, “Acid Tongue” has a few flaws, but it also has its fair share of beauty, and Lewis deserves credit for always finding ways to infuse new ideas into her sound. It doesn’t always work, but it works enough on this record to warrant a solid 3 out of 5.

Best tracks: Pretty Bird, Acid Tongue, Godspeed, Sing a Song For Them

Friday, September 21, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1181: Caroline Rose

I had a busy work week and now I have a busy weekend. I like my work, but who are we kidding? A busy weekend is better.

Disc 1181 is… Loner
Artist: Caroline Rose

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Just another fine upstanding citizen out for a jog.

How I Came To Know It: I really liked Caroline Rose’s 2014 album “I Will Not Be Afraid” so when she released a new album earlier this year I took a chance on it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have only the Caroline Rose albums (she has a third record that I also really want – 2012’s “American Religious” but I can’t find it on CD). Anyway I like both of the ones I have but I’m putting “Loner” in at second.

Ratings: 4 stars

Caroline Rose is not afraid to change things up from album to album and on “Loner” she does just that, morphing from an indie country artist into alternative pop with her usual mix of strength, charm and humour.

If you come in with preconceived notions on how Rose “should” sound this will be jarring, but if you keep an open mind you’ll find yourself liking this new stuff just as much as the old; at least I did.

Thematically, Rose is keenly aware that she’s made a shift in her sound, and I expect her decision to lead the album off with a song titled “More of the Same” is no accident. It is also one of the album’s best songs, and a nice introduction to the Rose’s new musical direction. Gone are jangly guitars, and the album opens with ambient synth sound and a pulsating piano riff. On the second verse Rose sings:

“I go to a friend of a friend’s party
Everyone’s well-dressed with a perfect body
And they all have alternative haircuts and straight white teeth
All I see is just more of the same thing.”

Not content with societal notions of perfection, Rose is looking for something different. The notion that we all aspire to the exact same notions of beauty and success is boring and draining, both in terms of its ubiquity and its unattainability. It is a theme that tracks through the whole record.

In this way, Caroline Rose reminds me favourably of Dessa. Both are great talents that would likely be more commercially successful if they didn’t make a habit of making sharp, insightful social commentary in the middle of their catchy pop songs. It is a habit I hope they never break.

Rose’s vocals are sneaky good. She isn’t a powerhouse diva, but doing that to these songs would be to overcook them. Instead she has a natural talent for sitting in the pocket (sometimes on songs that are pretty rapid fire fast, sometimes on slow mournful numbers). There is a pop-star curl to her delivery but there is enough fury and emotion behind it that it doesn’t feel fake or affected.

It helps that some of these songs get into serious topics. “Jeannie Becomes a Mom” is a song about a woman down on her luck, going through pregnancy on her own. Rose’s message here: it might feel like your life is on hold, but the world don’t stop and this is real life, so don’t wait around to start living it.

The playful side of her earlier records remains alive and well despite the shift to a more electronic sound. “Money” and “Soul No. 5” are both catchy, clever half-rap anthems where Rose shows off her talent for phrasing and her brilliance at both lyric writing and song structure (Rose writes and arranges all the songs).

Money” acknowledges that no one ever says they do something for money, but obviously we all do it at some level. That’s OK, but let’s start being honest with each other. “Soul No. 5” is more of a Lilly Allen-style party song, but with all that early heavy messaging, Rose has earned a night out in her kicks, flipping her hair and strutting her stuff. We strut along with her, knowing it is OK as long as we don’t take ourselves too seriously.

Bikini” brings it all together. It features a funky synthesizer riff, catchy drums, and Rose singing about little red bikinis and high fashion. Of course, this being Rose it isn’t a song full of fun and nights drinking Cristal. It is an indictment of the demands for a woman to be sexualized in order to achieve success. (The album’s cover is an early indication of Rose’s response: fuck that).

Synth-laden pop music is not my usual jam, but “Loner” is so good at being equal parts catchy, clever and relevant I didn’t mind. In fact, I enjoyed every minute of it.

Best tracks: More of the Same, Cry!, Jeannie Becomes a Mom, Soul No. 5, Bikini