Wednesday, September 18, 2019

CD Odyssey: The First 1300

As is tradition, I’m taking the arbitrary arrival at a big round number to reflect back on the last 100 reviews.

What stands out this time is that I found a lot more 5-star albums than usual crossing my path. I also became a lot more mercenary about parting company with albums that didn’t inspire me, partly because I overdid my enthusiasm over newly discovered artists, and partly because I’ve only got so much shelf space.

The previous 100 albums yielded only 4 perfect scores, but between Disc 1201 and 1300 this number ballooned to 10. They were:
  • St. Vincent – Masseduction (Disc 1206)
  • St. Vincent – MassEducation (Disc 1207)
  • Nazareth – Loud ‘N’ Proud (Disc 1235)
  • Hurray For the Riff Raff – Small Town Heroes (Disc 1244)
  • Ice-T – O.G. Original Gangster (Disc 1247)
  • Lucius – Nudes (Disc 1252)
  • Gillian Welch – Hell Among the Yearlings (Disc 1283)
  • Better Oblivion Community Center – Self-Titled (Disc 1292)
  • Sleater-Kinney – The Center Won’t Hold (Disc 1294)
  • Mattiel – Satis Factory (Disc 1300)

Six of those albums were released in the last three years, proving there is plenty of great music being made right now. Particularly St. Vincent. I’ve gone back into her back catalogue even further as a result of these two gems, and found even more great music.

The oldest was 1973’s “Loud ‘N’ Proud” which is one of the first albums I ever bought. You could argue it had a sentimental advantage, but I would argue it is just plain great.

No albums fell as low as a single star, but I still parted with 10 that ranked between 2 and 3 stars. They weren’t all bad, but for one reason or another I didn’t feel like I’d put them on enough to justify keeping them. The best thing about letting a good record go is that it will end up in the collection of someone else who’ll appreciate it more than you did.

Here’s the list of records that I parted with over the last 100:
  • Amelia Curran, “Watershed” (3 stars) – This was a solid folk record, but I knew in my heart I wasn’t going to play it enough. I gave it the good home it deserved.
  • Lucy Dacus, “Historian” (3 stars) – A friend bought me this record and I liked it, but despite amazing tracks like “Night Shift” I knew deep down I wasn’t likely to play the whole record often enough.
  • Dar Williams “In the Time of the Gods (2 stars) – I love Dar Williams and this album was the result of me glutting myself on her collection and then paring back when I realized I’d gone too far. Even so, I still have four of her albums.
  • Jethro Tull “Stand Up” (3 stars) – This is a classic album by the standards of most music lovers, but not for me. Weirdly, I prefer Jethro Tull’s synthy eighties phase.
  • Nilufer Yanya “Miss Universe” (3 stars) – This record is the one I came closest to keeping. Yanya is a brilliant new talent in the field of pop music and has a bright future, but this record didn’t call to my heart like I hoped it would when I first heard it.
  • 10cc, “How Dare You?” (2 stars) – I fell hard for 10cc and bought three of their albums, but the first one I reviewed came up short. Hopefully the other two fare better.
  • Capercaillie, “Roses and Tears (2 stars) – One of my all-time favourite folk bands, but another example of where I have too many other albums that I simply like better – in this case, eight of them.
  • Little Feat, “The Last Record Album” (2 stars) – I was temporarily blinded by the brilliant pop song “Long Distance Love” but when I came to my senses I realized I had three other Little Feat albums that were all better overall.
  • B. Dolan, “The Failure” (2 stars) – This album has a killer spoken word track honouring Evel Knievel but otherwise it didn’t grab me.
  • Marissa Nadler, “Little Hells” (2 stars) – Like a lot of albums on this list, “Little Hells” was me falling for a new (to me) discovery and over-indulging on their back catalogue. I still have four other albums by Marissa Nadler and while I admire her songwriting and love her voice, I am nervous that her ambient style will continue to chafe at my bias for crisp, spacious production.

Alice Cooper continues to be my most reviewed artist, at 28 albums. Steve Earle takes over sole possession of second with 20 and Tom Waits comes in third at 19.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1300: Mattiel

I could have written this review last night, but I was enjoying the music so much I decided to prolong the experience for one more day.

Disc 1300 is… Satis Factory
Artist: Mattiel

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? This cover reminds me of a job I had one summer shoveling sawdust onto conveyor belts. Given the album title, I assume this factory processes raw adequacy for its legions of reasonably motivated consumers.

How I Came to Know It: The way I often discover modern music. First I read a review and was sufficiently intrigued to listen to the single. Once I liked the single, I listened to the whole album. Halfway through I knew I was hooked.

How It Stacks Up:  While I’m on the lookout for 2017’s “LP” for now “Satis Factory” is the only Mattiel record I have, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 5 stars

Leave ‘em wanting more. That’s what singer-songwriter Mattiel Brown does on one of the best records of 2019. She gives you 35 minutes of pure and perfect genre-bending rock and roll and then calls it a day, leaving you no choice but to go back to Track 1 and do it all over again. And that’s exactly what I did. Six times so far, and there’ll be more.

Like a lot of the best current crop of musicians, Mattiel is blissfully unaware of any restrictions she is expected to have on her sound. She mixes in soul, funk, eighties pop and hints of a thousand other elements, creating a sound that is unique to her. Imagine the early folksy groove of Michelle Shocked with later-career Clash. Maybe throw in some Blondie or Eurythmics. Basically, if you listen too long, you’ll get confused about just what you’re hearing but let me summarize – it’s Mattiel. And it’s sheer genius.

The experience begins with her vocals, which are deep, brassy with power to spare. This is a voice that fills a room with the triumph of a trumpet and the power of a kettle drum. It isn’t just power, either. Mattiel reminded me of a modern-day Annie Lennox, taking songs that could be overwhelmed with their own anthemic majesty, and then singing them in a way that lets you ride the wave back down the barrel to its vulnerable core.

It is a good thing Mattiel has that kind of power, because the songs she writes are brash and bold anthems that demand a full commitment from the first note. They get to the point in a hurry as well. The album is 12 songs and only 35 minutes long, with over half the songs under three minutes. Mattiel doesn’t go in for a lot of bridges or meandering instrumentals. She hits a riff, develops it, drops a few insightful lyrics and wraps it up. This music reminded me of the food in Italy: only 2 or 3 ingredients, but perfectly portioned and prepared every time.

Unsurprisingly, with so many stylistic elements, “Satis Factory” has incredible range. There is plenty of R&B inspired rock, including “Moment of Death” and “Rescue You,” but there are also elements of spoken word (“Food for Thought”), eighties pop anthems (“Keep the Change”) and even country beats (“Blisters”). “Heck Fire” has a pop-reggae groove that sounds like it could have been lifted from Combat Rock but…nope. It is all original, it just sounds timeless. Even the use of the archaic “heck” comes off sounding more modern than any casual swear you’ll hear in modern music.

I had a hard time picking favourites (one of the reasons the album earned 5 stars), but “Millionaire” was a winner. It holds a mix of wistfulness and uncertain triumph that summed up the emotional core of the album. Mattiel doesn’t sing about perfection, but she is perfectly happy to celebrate a world with plenty of faults. Reflecting her own path to self-fulfillment, she sings:

“Took a hundred years to get this microphone
Now I wanna sell everything I own
Ever since I got myself this easy chair
Might as well be a millionaire.”

The song literally made me appreciate sitting. I know its not about that, but still.

Long Division” ends the album with less certainty, with a riposte of realism to the trite advice that so often falls short in the face of misfortune:

“And we all were taught to plan for the worst
As if we had a chance to rehearse
And we all were taught to give respect
As if we could avoid a disconnect.”

The production on “Satis Factory” is crisp and separated. Drum and bass feature heavily but the album wisely doesn’t have them thump and everything is kept even in the mix, letting the bones of the song – and Mattiel’s voice – work their magic. Italian cooking, with sound.

Best tracks: All tracks. Sadly, there are only 12 but that’s OK, you can replay it any time you like if you buy it. Now go buy it. Seriously. Go give this woman some more money so she can make another record.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1299: Tyr

Given my busy job and other commitments I am often asked where I find the time to write all these reviews. On busy weekends like this one, where I’m juggling multiple deadlines and activities, I’m tempted to ask myself the same thing.

Motivationally it helps that the CD Odyssey also serves as the pilot light for my creative writing when I don’t have time for a longer writing session. But the truth is, I love music and writing about it only deepens my appreciation for each record in my collection. If something is important to you, you make the time.

Disc 1299 is… Ragnarok
Artist: Tyr

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? Will you look at this place? Just look at the blood you've left on your sword and helmet! If this battlefield isn’t tidied up by the time I get back then Ragnarok is cancelled!

What's that? This is after Ragnarok? Well, you still better clean it up before the All-Father gets home!

How I Came to Know It: I had heard about Tyr in passing over the years but never had taken the time to check them out. Then my friend Nick went to the Faroe Islands and came back talking about Tyr, which is that country’s most famous metal band. He played a few tracks for me and I liked what I heard. I dug through their discography, and while not everything made the grade, a couple of albums appealed to me, including “Ragnarok.”

How It Stacks Up:  Tyr has eight studio albums, but I only have two. Of the two, “Ragnarok” comes in at #2.

Ratings: 3 stars

With an album titled “Ragnarok” it should come as no surprise that Tyr loves Norse (Scandinavian) mythology. Fortunately, I’m also a huge fan of Norse mythology, which was likely one of the deciding factors in my purchasing this album.

It also helped that Tyr plays a sub-genre of metal– folk metal – that I’ve only recently discovered, and there is no fervor like the fervor of the recently converted. As the name suggests, this genre combines folk and metal. It has the power chords and soaring melodies first popularized by Iron Maiden, matched with the melodic structures of local folk music. Sometimes bands incorporate traditional folk instruments as well.

Tyr aren’t big on the original instruments side of the equation, but they definitely borrow from old Viking song structures. Half the songs on “Ragnarok” either being traditional songs or containing lyrics or melodies from them. The first music I explored when I began looking outside of metal and hard rock was traditional folk music, so hearing these structures in a metal song is like introducing my two oldest friends to each other and finding out they get along great.

On “Ragnarok” Tyr also throw in some progressive elements, with changes in tempo and some mysterious atmospheric guitar work. There’s also a bit of the double-bass drum which is commonplace to most metal music from the mid-oughts on. I don’t think the progressive flourishes add a lot to the songs, but they aren’t offensive either. As for the double-bass all I ask is that bands not overuse it, and Tyr is appropriately restrained.

A great example of this is “Torsteins Kvaedi” a traditional Faroese song with a rhythmic unison singing. It sounds like something Viking raiders would chant while pulling at the oars of their longships a thousand years ago. Tyr then adds the wail of electric guitar and modern production. I’m not saying this makes it more heroic, but it sure doesn’t hurt.

The songs on the record are principally about ancient myth. Ragnarok is the ancient final battle of the gods in Norse mythology, and features prominently in the lyrics. Other songs cover famous legends such as the forging of Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, and other fun-filled (and sometimes tragic) tales of adventure.

At its best, “Ragnarok” delivers some serious fist-pumping, hair-swinging crunch, such as on “The Hunt” which drops into an early groove and then climbs out one thump at a time, helped along the way by a pretty sweet guitar solo shared between Heri Joensen and Terji Skibenaes.

At its worst, songs like “Lord of Lies” plod a bit, particularly where the folk lyric structures fail to find a good fit with the modern elements. There are also guitar solos that make a common mistake in metal music, which is to focus on being fast over being interesting.

The album also has a host of little instrumentals strewn throughout. There are six of these tracks, ranging in length from 27 seconds to just under two minutes. The intent of these seems to be to glue the record into a cohesive whole, but they didn’t add a lot to my listening experience. Also, they collectively push the album to 16 tracks and 60 minutes long. Not uncommon for a modern metal record, but that extra content has to be uncuttable, and that wasn’t always the case here.

Overall, “Ragnarok” is a mixed bag and on my first couple of listens I was inclined to part company with it. However, it grew on me as I developed a better feel for what the band was trying to accomplish. Also, there are songs on here (“Torsteins Kvaedi” and “The Hunt” in particular) which are just too damned good not to grace my CD collection.

Best tracks: Hammer of Thor, Torsteins Kvaedi, Grimur A Midalnesi, Wings of Time, The Hunt

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1298: Mountain Goats

My apologies for my absence, gentle readers! I have been on holiday with Sheila in Portland, Oregon. We spent our days hunting through cool clothing stores and record stores and our nights taking in music and film. I also got some killer tour shirts.

Let’s stick with music here, since you will be able to read all about the rest of the trip over at Sheila’s excellent (and far more famous) blog here soon enough.

The first show we saw was Iron Maiden, which was one of my favourite bands as a teenager in the eighties. That show didn’t support an album, however, as was the case when I saw the Mountain Goats in Portland on Sept. 9. For a review of the show scroll down, but before you do – here’s a review of their newest studio album.

Disc 1298 is… In League with Dragons
Artist: The Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Artist Elton D’Souza brings us a serious Dungeons and Dragons vibe with this picture. Experienced Dungeon Masters will know from comparing the poor collection of sods walking on this cover against the terrifying presence of that massive blue dragon that this is what is known as a “not level appropriate” encounter. You will also know that blue dragons breathe lightning, not fire.

For all you D&D nerds out there that got those references…you’re welcome. I’m not just in league with music nerds, I’m sometimes also…in league with dragons.

How I Came to Know It: When this record came out I was already a big Mountain Goats fan, so this was just me buying the next album on faith.

How It Stacks Up:  I have nine Mountain Goats albums. “In League With Dragons” comes in at #6.

Ratings: 3 stars

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle loves concept albums, so when I heard he would be doing a concept album around fantasy roleplaying games (RPGs to those of us willing to publicly admit knowledge of such things) I was pretty excited.

The resulting record is uneven, with some truly great stuff and other songs that are just OK. Either way, don’t expect a lot of songs about goblins or wizards. The song titles may suggest they’ll be replete with fantasy imagery (the title track, “Clemency for the Wizard King”) but the connection often ends there.

On his more recent concept albums Darnielle draws a much more direct line. “Beat the Champ” is filled with wrestling imagery, “Goths” captures his disaffected youth in both lyrics and musical style and the songs on “Transcendental Youth” sound like the kind of bitter self-doubt that poverty-stricken youth in Seattle would express. Here the connection is tangential at best, and trying to connect some of the titles to the narrative in the songs made my head hurt.

All is forgiven in the face of good music, however, and once I was over my preconceived notions of how I would do it, and instead allowed the songs to wash over me on their own terms, the experience improved.

Within the broader umbrella of indie pop, the Mountain Goats do a lot of style exploration. On “In League with Dragons” they opt for a mix of jazz-inspired horn and piano, and the insistent country strum of guitar that Darnielle often employs as the backdrop to his storylines.

The jazz portions can overdo it, such as the saxophone on “Younger” but for the most part Darnielle wisely lets a few runs trickle in here and there where the song allows for it, without pushing too much complexity into the melody. When done well, the piano reminded me favourably of the barroom reverie on early Tom Waits records.

Darnielle mixes in these shades of jazz with pedal steel and traditional acoustic guitar, creating something that is halfway between lounge singer and country troubadour. Then he puts his high tenor and poetic half-spoken delivery on top of the amalgam.

The songs here tend toward dark subjects, with drug use and quiet desperation featuring strongly. “Going Invisible 2” is a great example of the latter, a song with a soothing reverie built into is production that belies the anger and hopelessness of the narrator, singing “I’m going to burn it all down today”. Invisibility as a metaphor for being frustrated and forgotten isn’t a new idea, but it is handled well here.

On “Waylon Jennings Live!” Darnielle is a reminder that isolation can exist even when someone is surrounded by events.  The opening line sets the scene:

“Drunk at the Meskwaki casino
Right where God intended me to be
Looking up at the one man in this room
Who's handled more cocaine then me”

Lyrically, “In League with Dragons” is top-notch throughout. Musically it is good as well, although Darnielle sometimes sacrifices melody in favour of establishing mood through a song’s rhythm. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it caused my mind to drift when I wanted to be mindful to what he was saying. Maybe that was the point.

While I see this record as a step down compared against his other recent work, this is still a quality record, laden with raw emotion and honesty. I was hoping for more dragons, but that’s on me.

Best tracks: Passae 1975, Going Invisible 2, Waylon Jennings Live!,

The Concert: Monday, September 9, 2019: McMenamin’s Crystal Ballroom, Portland OR

My second show in four nights in Portland was a major shift in styles. On Friday night I had been part of 15,000 screaming fans at the Moda Center celebrating what was essentially Iron Maiden delivering a “greatest hits” extravaganza with a massive stage show and plenty of pyro.

The Maiden show was full of people my age, all avowed Maiden fans. Like a lot of metal shows, on the surface the crowd looked a bit rough, but there was a great feeling of community. I felt at home and at ease among fellow fans, met many of them and didn’t have a single bad experience in the process.

The Mountain Goats show was a totally different type of show. Around 1,100 dedicated fans, most 20 years younger than Sheila and I. These fans were chill urban hipsters ready for a show full of literary reference and introspective songs. I once again felt at home and at ease among fellow fans. Music is a great unifying experience, regardless of genre.

The Crystal Ballroom is a beautiful old venue, and Sheila and I had dinner at the conveniently attached pub restaurant. This ended up being a happy accident, as event staff come into the restaurant and pre-authorize any patron with a ticket to the show for priority seating.

As a result, we were able to get front row seats in the balcony of the “Over 21 only” section, with a brilliant view.

Lydia Loveless

The opening act was Lydia Loveless, an alt-country singer-songwriter with the rough-edged attitude of Nikki Lane or Lindi Ortega and the brassy heartfelt power of Patty Griffin. I didn’t know her well, but I’d checked her out on Youtube before we left. I liked what I heard enough to buy two of her albums at a Portland record store a couple of days prior.

Live, Loveless was excellent, and her voice filled the Crystal Ballroom, ringing off the walls with songs that featured heavy doses of heartache and hard-living. She also was apparently pretty funny, because the front rows of the audience down on the floor laughed several times. I didn’t, but that was only because of the noise of people talking further back that drowned out portions of her performance.

This was disappointing and frustrating, and a good reminder that if you are going to show up for the opening act you should take the time to listen. You may discover a new artist that you love in the process. If you aren’t inspired to discover new music, then honour the artist’s efforts with your attention and the even simpler goal of “don’t be rude”.

Mountain Goats

Picking up the buzz of the crowd before the show I got the impression there were a lot of serious Mountain Goat fans out there. I like them a lot myself (as noted above, I have nine albums) but I could sense there was some serious devotion here.

My instincts were confirmed when front man John Darnielle and the rest of the Mountain Goats hit the stage and the crowd erupted in a jubilant celebration bordering on the religious. As a Frank Turner fan, I know exactly what it is like to love a band’s live act this much. My reaction was a combination of happiness knowing it was going to be a great crowd and a bit of regret knowing I wasn’t yet at their level.

That quickly washed away, as the Mountain Goats launched into their set. Darnielle may look like an English Literature professor moonlighting at Open Mic night (down to the glasses and brown sport jacket), but he is no amateur. From the opening notes, he had the audience in the palm of his hand with a combination of frenzied energy, and heartfelt emotional delivery.

The show had good balance on all fronts. The talk vs. sing quotient was just right, with Darnielle engaging in a little banter, but not so much as to lessen the energy of the music.

They also balanced old vs. new material. I am a believer in the rule of thirds for any concert: one-third new material, one-third old favourites and one-third deep cuts. The Mountain Goats honoured this well, with well over half of the latest record played, and a number of serious crowd pleasers during which the audience sang back every lyric to Darnielle in perfect time (as a neophyte I only trusted myself to join in for the chorus).

As for the deep cuts, I only knew about 70% of the songs played so I am assuming they nailed that too. The Mountain Goats are known for adjusting their setlist a fair bit from show to show (as does Frank Turner) which is awesome and – like us Frank Turner fans – is one more encouragement to the die-hards that follow the band from show to show.

We’d heard that the sound in this venue could be a bit over-cooked, but I found it was solid. It was slightly bass-heavy for the first song, but the sound guy quickly adjusted on the fly.

I would go see the Mountain Goats again in a heartbeat – at the Crystal Ballroom or elsewhere. They’ve got a great catalogue to work with, the fans (outside of the few talkers at the back) are top-notch and they play both old and new songs alike with an infectious energy.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1297: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

I was off work today, so no commute time for listening to this next album. Fortunately, I had a few errands to run. By walking to all of them I was able to steal just the right amount of time I needed to give this next record its due.

Disc 1297 is… Echo
Artist: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

Year of Release: 1999

What’s up with the Cover? Tom and the boys lurk in the weeds. They look kind of miserable, but it isn’t like weed-lurking is the kind of activity that puts a smile on your face.

How I Came to Know It: I somehow missed this album when it was released. I discovered it years later while fleshing out my Tom Petty collection.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 16 Tom Petty albums. I had reserved a low spot for “Echo” but it fared better than I expected, bumping four other records down a spot. It still only managed 11th best in the strong field of records released by one of rock and roll’s greats.

Ratings: 3 stars

One of the keys to Tom Petty’s brilliance is his exceptional range. He can play folksy strums reminiscent of the Byrds, and then grit it out to with a dirty blues riff. “Echo” has strong examples of both styles, although there may be just a bit too much music for one record. As the saying goes, “great stuff – but save some of it for the sequel!”

The writing on “Echo” is what I’ve come to expect from a Tom Petty album; classic melodic progressions that you didn’t know were classic until Tom Petty wrote them down and played them for you. I’ve never heard an artist consistently do more things with three chords than Petty. He is proof-positive that every pop song has not, in fact, already been written.

The unspoken hero of the record is Rick Rubin, who – working alongside Petty and guitarist Mike Campbell – makes some sublime production decisions. The instruments sit evenly in the mix, but even when things get a bit layered and complex everything continues to sound distinct and separated. I’ve long been a fan of Rubin’s ability to make a band sound better without getting in the way of what makes them great in the first place.

On this record, we’ve got heart-wrenching Rickenbacker strums on some songs, right alongside thick and rich blues riffs on others, but everything feels like it belongs with everything else. It helps that this band has been together so long they’ve become a hive mind – like what a perfect jam session would sound like, only with more polish. Petty’s distinct vocals also work to naturally pull everything together. He knows when to employ a gentle warble and when to screech out grimy rebellion based on the individual needs of each song.

My favourite track is the opening one. “Room at the Top” is a song for standing on the veranda of a penthouse and reveling in the euphoria of it all – or is it? The song is triumphant on the surface (the chorus features the repeated declaration of “I ain’t comin’ down!”) but just underneath all the opulence and excess is a deep loneliness. The real story is who’s not in the room, and the song ends with late calls to a loved one and sad disclaimers of “I ain’t so bad” from someone who has no doubt been behaving badly. Proof that sometimes comin’ down is what’s called for.

It is a theme that features heavily through the record, even as Petty repeatedly explores the notion through the lens of defiance. Whether that defiance is healthy is up for debate, but it does generate some of the record’s better music including “This One’s For Me”, “No More” and “Rhino Skin – the latter being a moody atmospheric number that would be equally at home on a Dire Straits album.

Petty’s always been an artist who unapologetically followed his own vision, and on “Echo” he begins to confront some of the repercussions of that character trait. He was going through a lot back in 1999 (recent divorce and battles with heroin addiction) and the songs on “Echo” show him wrestling those demons in real time. While he doesn’t get a clear pin, he manages to fight them off sufficiently to turn them into great songs. “Echo” is an incomplete exploration of regret – one that would be fully realized on the masterful “Highway Companion” seven years later – but it is a good start.

As I alluded earlier, the record is a bit too long at 15 songs and 61 minutes. At the risk of second-guessing the great Rick Rubin, I think I could find three songs to remove that would raise the overall level of the record. Despite that, this record surprised me with how good it was. Over the years I have generally advised casual fans to steer clear of it in favour of other Tom Petty albums. While I still like plenty of his other records more, for anyone I’ve told to skip this one entirely, I apologize. Don’t do that.

Best tracks: Room at the Top, Free Girl Now, Accused of Love, Billy the Kid, This One’s For Me, Rhino Skin

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1296: J.S. Ondara

I’ve been randomly rolling a lot of records from 2019 lately, and they’ve been treating me well. This is my 8th album from 2019, and the 5th with a rating of four stars or higher. It’ll be a hard battle to make the top ten list this year, but this next artist is an early favourite to do so.

Disc 1296 is… Tales of America
Artist: J.S. Ondara

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Young Mr. Ondara himself, sporting a funky suit as he plays a little street corner guitar.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review of this album on Paste magazine and was intrigued enough to give a few tracks a listen. I was quickly hooked.

How It Stacks Up:  This is Ondara’s only album so far, so there are no other albums to stack it up against.

Ratings: 4 stars but almost 5

Nairobi is a long way from Minneapolis, and you get the impression listening to “Tales of America” that all that distance helped provide the inspiration for J.S. Ondara’s unique sound. The more I listen to this album the more I’m thankful he made the trip.

Like a lot of great art, Ondara’s music is hard to categorize. It is a mix of folk and soul, sung with a rich, evocative tone that reminded me favorably of Tracy Chapman. While the record has a touch of strings here and there, and a few background vocalists, for the most part it is just Ondara strumming an acoustic guitar and singing.

The guitar is honest and raw but the star of this record is Ondara’s voice. He pulls every shred of emotion out of each word, and yet somehow manages to never sound overwrought. His range is fantastic, with a bluesy bawling tone in the low register, and a falsetto that sounds like an angel has descended when he goes up high. I actually thought a couple of the songs were a duet until I saw a video and realized it was all Ondara. Listening to these songs on my headphones was a bit of a letdown at times, because I missed the experience of having him fill my living room.

Ondara writes all the songs, which are thoughtful tales of heartache and spiritual exploration. He also is the master of the pop hook, which he nestles right in the pocket between his folk and blues sensibilities. The hooks are so catchy that they sometimes overshadow the rest of the song, but that’s OK because their repetition is so sublime it is all you need. On “Saying Goodbye” Ondara repeatedly sings “I’m just getting good at saying goodbye” but it isn’t true – he makes you feel those goodbyes from the first utterance of the phrase. Hearing it more often just helps it sink into your bones.

On “Torch Song” Ondara sings:

“My heart is never on time
Always a little behind”

I kind of wanted this song to be a little behind the beat, but it was hard to argue with the perfect phrasing Ondara finds in every rhythm. It is like he’s hearing it in smaller pieces than you can, finding micro-touches that create variability without ever leaving the pocket.

The record is filled with restlessness and yearning. The relationships are uncertain but full and deep, and Ondara’s angelic warble makes you feel like you’re walking lost down a crowded street, or maybe boarding a bus without looking to see what town it’s heading to. All that wandering in his real life translates honestly and organically into his music.

And while there is a current of uncertainty, you also get the impression that Ondaras’ center travels with him through every song. His music is raw to the world, but at ease with the experience. “Lebanon” in particular, exemplifies the experience. The narrator of the song opines:

“Hey love, I’m ready now
Can’t you see the riot
Inside my veins?”

But combined with a slow Johnny Cash-like guitar mosey and Ondara swinging his way through a chorus of:

“In the water, the fire
I’ll go wherever you go
In the valley, the canyon
I’ll go wherever you go.”

You don’t feel lost or frustrated – you just put a bit more spring in your step and stop worrying about where you’re heading. It reminded me of that old Buckaroo Bonzai quote, “Wherever you go…there you are.”

J.S. Ondara has the relaxed worldly wisdom of an old soul.  Listening to him sing lets you feel raw and vulnerable, but safe and calm in the same moment. I look forward to what he does next.

Best tracks: Torch Song, Saying Goodbye, Television Girl, Lebanon, Good Question

Monday, August 26, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1295: The Cowboy Junkies

I’ve been pretty good restricting my music purchases lately, but over the weekend I once again succumbed to the urge. New to the collection are:
  • Johnny Cash, “Blood, Sweat and Tears” – a 1963 tribute album to the blue-collar worker. This album has lots of references to hammers.
  • The Creepshow, “Run For Your Life” – the fourth album to join my collection by the psychobilly band from Burlington, Ontario and one of their best.
  • Alela Diane and Wild Divine – an eponymous release, and the only one not on my list (if you don’t want to spend too much on impulse music purchases shop for it like you shop for groceries – bring a list). I took a chance because I love Alela Diane’s work. I was not disappointed.

All great new albums, but today let’s go back in time to one that has been in the collection since my university days.

Disc 1295 is… The Trinity Session
Artist: Cowboy Junkies

Year of Release: 1988

What’s up with the Cover? The band is hanging out. Based on the stark lighting and lack of colour they appear to have travelled back in time to the 1940s.  

How I Came to Know It: I don’t fully remember, but I know it happened when I was in university. I think I saw someone perform the Junkies’ version of “Sweet Jane” at a poetry reading. When I asked how she had come up with that arrangement, she told me about the “The Trinity Sessions”. A couple of friends were discovering the band at around the same time and whole thing started to snowball. I went to the record store to buy it, but it wasn’t in (I got “The Caution Horses” instead). I kept checking back though, and it was eventually restocked.

How It Stacks Up:  I have five Cowboy Junkies albums. I put “The Trinity Session” in at #5 but coming in last out of these five albums is no slight. Because this is the last Cowboy Junkies album in my collection, here’s a recap:

  1. The Caution Horses: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 155)
  2. Black Eyed Man: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 589)
  3. Lay it Down: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 800)
  4. Pale Sun, Crescent Moon: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 267)
  5. The Trinity Session:  3 stars (reviewed right here)
Ratings: 3 stars

“The Trinity Session” is an album that is like an evening walk in the woods. It is a haunting, emotionally evocative and beautiful even when it loses its way.

The record was the band’s big breakthrough, and features a mix of covers and original material, all delivered in what would become the Junkies’ signature sound; a subdued echoing combination of country mosey, blues and just a hint of jazz.

When the Junkies play a note they like to let it linger, and the songs on “The Trinity Session” take their sweet time getting from A to B. Everything is languorous and laid back, from the breathy whisper of Margo Timmins’ vocals to the gentle strum of brother Michael’s guitar. Even the drum is quiet, often consisting of little more than a brush played lightly on the snare. This is subtle music that requires you to lean in and listen with intent.

The record begins with Margo singing the traditional work song “Mining for Gold” acapella. It is stark and beautiful and sets the perfect tone for the record. For a year after this record was released it was hard to go to anyone’s house and not have them shush you and urge you sit in the dark and listen to this little gem. I never once regretted those 90 seconds of Margo’s voice filling the room. I’m sure I’ve done it to someone myself.

The next song, “Misguided Angel” is an original and for my money the best song on the record. The sound they would perfect two years later on “The Caution Horses” is on full display here, adding just the right amount of jump and sway to the band’s ghostly charm. The song is the heartbreaking tale of a tragic romance, filled with equal parts love and darkness. The chorus paints a complicated picture in four simple lines:

“Misguided angel hangin' over me
Heart like a Gabriel, pure and white as ivory
Soul like a Lucifer, black and cold like a piece of lead
Misguided angel, love you 'til I'm dead”

Other standouts include a re-imagined version of “Blue Moon” called “Blue Moon Revisited” mixing the original song with the Junkies’ own notions on where to take the melody. Also brilliant is the aforementioned “Sweet Jane” a slow and quiet introspective treatment of the song which I heard long before I ever heard the Lou Reed original, and which I continue to love equally after all these years.

There are moments where the record loses me. I found the cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” took a few too many liberties with the melody. “Walkin’ After Midnight” meandered a little too far in the woods. However, for a band filled with this much natural reverie getting a bit lost in the journey is an expected hazard. While I sometimes found myself wanting just a little less noodle, there is no denying they do a fine one, and this album represents the shape of even greater things to come.

Best tracks: Mining for Gold, Misguided Angel, Blue Moon Revisited (Song for Elvis), Sweet Jane

Friday, August 23, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1294: Sleater-Kinney

I’ve spent the week juggling social engagements (also working). I never get frustrated with the pressure of seeing all the people I care about, because it is a wonderful reminder that I am rich with friends. That’s the best kind of rich.

Anyway, on to the review which is my second perfect score in three albums. Don’t worry, I’m not getting soft, I’m just getting exposed to some seriously great music.

Disc 1294 is… The Center Won’t Hold
Artist: Sleater-Kinney

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? A creative twist on the very traditional (and oft-referenced) Giant Head cover. Here Sleater-Kinney has blended their heads together into a single Giant Head. Other notable albums with blended/distorted heads include Queen’s “The Miracle” (reviewed way back at Disc 52) and Sarah Jarosz’s “Follow Me Down” (reviewed at Disc 996).

How I Came to Know It: I was already a fan of Sleater-Kinney through their earlier work and so gave this record a try.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Sleater-Kinney albums that span across their career. This record is their best yet, and I’m putting in #1. It is also one of the best records of 2019 so far.

Ratings: 5 stars

“The Center Won’t Hold” is a great example of how it is never too late in a band’s career to deliver a classic record. Twenty-five years after their first album took Seattle's alternative rock scene by storm, Sleater-Kinney has once again delivered something fresh and furious, with a new sound that demonstrates the bravery to explore new approaches to their work.

A big part of this new approach is courtesy of the musical genius that is St. Vincent (who actually is the producer this time, unlike my gaffe earlier this month). St. Vincent is doing things like no one else in music right now, finding novel ways to blend techno, pop and hard rock into a sound that is crisp and crunchy at the same time. On “The Center Won’t Hold” she brings her inspired alchemy to Sleater-Kinney.

The result is a the riot grrrl snarl that Sleater-Kinney helped create in the early nineties, blended with St. Vincent’s mastery of soundscapes and sharp yet visceral production. This will not suit all Sleater-Kinney devotees, who may miss the organic garage rock sound of their earlier records, but I love it. The original bite is still there, but now with some creative studio decisions that helps the songs stand out both individually and one to the other.

Sleater-Kinney have long been known as great songwriters, matching catchy riffs with rebellious anger. Their lyrics explore universal truths about the human condition through a personal introspection that is sometimes harrowing in its honesty. “The Center Won’t Hold” has this talent on full display.

The album also shows remarkable musical range. The title track is a cross between industrial nineties percussion and punk snarl and the album branches from there into virtually every nook and cranny that rock and roll has to offer.

Hurry on Home” is a song full of urgency and sexual energy with a driving guitar that – like the desires of its narrator – cannot be denied. “Can I Go On” takes that energy and examines it in the third person – exploring the relationship between an artist’s personal desires, and the marketing of those desires for money, best exemplified in this line:

“Everyone I know is funny
But jokes don’t make us money
Sell our rage, buy and trade
But we still cry for free every day.”

There are also songs with laid back surfer guitar (“Restless”), songs with apocalyptic feedback (“RUINS”) and songs filled with pop hooks and handclaps (“LOVE”). Despite all this variety, the album’s centre does hold, with all these sounds coming together in a cohesive whole. The vocals are the best of any album to date, which is saying something, and St. Vincent’s steady hand on the tiller just takes everything great about Sleater-Kinney and somehow makes it better.

It is hard to pick favourites on a record like this, but “The Dog/The Body” is a perfect mix of thoughtful lyrics, production brilliance, and a song structure that sways back and forth between raw and emotional verses like:

“I’m just the dog
I’m just the body tonight
I’m just the fist without
The will to fight.”

that are filled with doubt, and a triumphant chorus of

“Baby, baby, baby, I don’t mind
Can’t keep singing the same old lines”

featuring a devil-may-care melodic soar that internalizes all that doubt and draws strength from it. The song has a slow, perfectly timed build and ends with some inspired guitar and a slow fade out. It leaves you feeling a bit unresolved, but at ease with the lack of closure all the same.

Old-school Sleater-Kinney fans might not like the shift in their sound, but that would be their loss. I love listening to an artist evolve over time, and with results this amazing, Sleater-Kinney can keep shifting their centre all they want.

Best tracks: all tracks

Monday, August 19, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1293: Jennifer Warnes

Walking home today I felt an easy contentment come over me. People I knew recognized me from their cars, waving and honking enthusiastically. Random, not entirely sober dudes mistook the honking for them and took it all well when they realized their mistake. The world just seemed at peace with itself. And the whole journey home I was in the company of a very old friend – this next album.

Disc 1293 is… Famous Blue Raincoat
Artist: Jennifer Warnes

Year of Release: 1986

What’s up with the Cover? The titular blue raincoat. This one is pretty wrinkled, like it’s just come out of summer storage. Below the raincoat it looks like someone has emptied out an ashtray on the bedspread, which is rather rude.

How I Came to Know It: I was a fan of Leonard Cohen and this record was a pretty popular collection of his songs back when I was attending university. It ended up being one of my first CDs and I still own it today.

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

Ratings: 4 stars

I’ve always been one of those people who likes the sound of Leonard Cohen’s voice. I like the voices of Bob Dylan and Kris Kristofferson as well. I have no issue with gravelly old guys singing as long as the songs are good. So when I heard about “Famous Blue Raincoat” back in 1988 my first thought was, “why would anyone do an album full of Leonard Cohen covers? Aren’t his original versions awesome enough?” They are, but Jennifer Warnes’ extended love letter to his work won me over with its grace and beauty.

At the time I was decidedly anti-cover, and only wanted to hear the original artist singing their songs. This all seems a bit silly now, the more so considering how much I was into Celtic folk music at the time. Almost every album in that genre has at least one traditional tune on it that’s been sung by dozens of people over the years. Somehow the incongruity of my position on covering a ten year old song and covering a 300 year old song never occurred to me.

Jennifer Warnes helped disavow me of such folly. As a song on the record notes, their ain’t no cure for love. There is, however, a cure for narrow-mindedness, and hearing her sing Cohen’s songs on “Famous Blue Raincoat” was a big part of that journey for me. Warnes’ voice is rich and pure and she belts it out with a simple confidence, devoid of a bunch of runs and vocal gymnastics that a lesser performer might resort to.

She doesn’t need this sort of cheap trick, because she gets these songs, understanding their bones like she wrote them herself. This depth of understanding helps her honour the brilliance of Cohen’s poetic soul, while still infusing them with her own unique artistry.

There are even songs where – to my shock – I found myself preferring her cover to the original. On “First We Take Manhattan” smooth jazz elements actually help create the feeling of a dystopian future the lyrics intend.  Joan of Arc” benefits immeasurably by being a duet between Joan and the fire that consumes her (Cohen provides guest vocals to sing the part of Fire, in what is one of his better vocal performances).

While I didn’t prefer “Ain’t No Cure for Love” and “Coming Back to You” over Cohen’s versions, I did like the way Warnes infused a thread of optimism and playfulness into songs that have a more somber approach coming off Cohen’s tongue.

My one gripe with the record is that its production and arrangements are so typical of their time. 1986 was not a kind year, and the excess use of saxophone solos was rampant. It works on “First We Take Manhattan” but in other places it sometimes had me feeling like I was in the middle of an episode of Moonlighting. One of those moments where Maddie and David have had a fight and are now rolling around in their beds in the moonlight, pining for one another.

This sax assault is particularly egregious on “Bird on a Wire.” This song works best as a song of quiet regret and doesn’t deserve some bizarre noodle-fest evoking a “life in the city is tough” vibe.

Fortunately, those moments are generally eclipsed by Warnes’ brilliant vocal performance and her clear connection to the songs. Her versions don’t outshine Cohen’s, and she doesn’t get lost in their shadow either. She comfortably and confidently stands alongside them; different but equal. In the process she helps show young idiots like me that great art has many facets, and there are benefits from seeing those facets from a fresh angle.

Best tracks: Famous Blue Raincoat, Joan of Arc, Ain’t No Cure for Love

Saturday, August 17, 2019

CD Odyssey Disc 1292: Better Oblivion Community Center

Welcome back to the CD Odyssey! This next album is one of 2019’s best. I made a mistake in my initial posting and suggested it was produced by St. Vincent but that was just me getting it confused with another record I was reading up on yesterday (Sleater Kinney's "The Center Won't Hold"). I apologize for any confusion and the review below now gives the record's actual producers the love they deserve.

Disc 1292 is… Self-Titled
Artist: Better Oblivion Community Center

Year of Release: 2019

What’s up with the Cover? Chandeliers are like the distant solar systems of the ballroom.

How I Came to Know It: I read a review and was excited that two artists I already liked (Phoebe Bridgers and Conor Oberst) had done an album together.

How It Stacks Up:  this is the first album by the Better Oblivion Community Center, but I hope it isn’t the last. For now, it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 5 stars

The last few Conor Oberst albums have been pretty much perfect. His last record was 2017’s “Salutations” which I gave 4 stars when I reviewed it back at Disc 1170. It is hard to imagine changing anything that would make his brilliance even better.

The same can be said for fellow singer-songwriter phenomenon Phoebe Bridgers. Her last solo record was also from 2017, “Stranger in the Alps” and while I haven’t reviewed it here’s a spoiler alert: it is also amazing. A bit more pop, a bit less folk, but every bit as brilliant.

Two years later the two of them together have created the Better Oblivion Community Center. The combination is exactly as awesome as you could hope for; they make each other better at every level.

Bridgers and Oberst are cowriters on all but one of the songs. I heard elements of their solo work throughout, but there was also this fantastic middle ground that borrowed from both. It served both their own signature songwriting styles, but also shifted it through collaboration into something beautiful, distinct and altogether new.

Stylistically, I noted how Bridgers helps get Oberst’s rock on. It isn’t like Oberst’s brand of introspective indie folk needed that – it is brilliant all on its own – but it gives the record incredible stylistic range. Oberst’s influence on Bridgers pulls her slightly out of the rock drone of “Stranger…” and helps give punctuation to her style without losing the ambient power that helps make it great.

The two of them sing on most tracks, sometimes one or the other taking the lead, but often blending their voices. Oberst’s high and hurt-filled quaver and Bridgers sweet but sorrowful alt-pop tone blend well. Sometimes they are in tight harmony, and sometimes they’re loose so your ear can go back and forth between the two very different styles, but they are always complementary to one another.

If there is any tension, it is only the tension of songs. Both musicians are adept at venturing out into the land of emotional oblivion, and neither shy away from another journey together. The result are powerfully self-examined songs that put you in the mood for some heavy thinking and dig deep into your soul. Sometimes the songs have narrative structure, but often they are just moments in time that speak to a broader existential or emotional exploration. Sometimes I was drawn into these characters immersing me as I got lost in their journey. Sometimes the songs became the perfect soundtrack to ruminate over Big Questions of my own.

There are too many great lines and moments to quote a single one. Besides, it is better that you experience them as they were meant to be heard, reaching into you with exactly the right musical accompaniment to punctuate each image and thought.

Oberst and Bridgers play the majority of the guitar parts on the record, and they are equally gifted here, switching styles effortlessly as the songs demand. “Dylan Thomas” and “Chesapeake” employ a jangling strum, “My City” features a sublime rolling picking section and “Big Black Heart” has the big emotional echo you might expect on a Cure album. The constantly changing production decisions give the album a constant newness, while always maintaining a cohesive structure.

Which brings us to the production, which is not St. Vincent, but is brilliant all the same. As it happens the best match for these two brilliant artists are...themselves! Bridgers and Oberst produce the record (along with Andy Lemaster, who has previously worked as an engineer and instrumentalist on Oberst's solo albums). Together, they infuse the record with just the right amount of light electronica where the song calls for it, and matched with all that variance in the guitar treatments, your ear is constantly engaged.

Every song on Better Oblivion Community Center is a precious and unique gem, but all form part of a larger piece of jewelry that is greater than the sum of its parts. This is not just a collection of great singles; this is a classic record.

Better Oblivion Community Center already has me wishing fervently for a follow up record where these brilliant musical minds can once again build something beautiful together. Whether that happens again or not, there is no question that Better Oblivion Community Center is one of the best records of 2019.

Best tracks: all tracks – unfortunately there are only 10