Sunday, July 22, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1160: Dessa

I picked this next album out of the new (to me) section of my CD collection in anticipation of seeing Dessa in concert at the Philips Backyard Weekender. A review of that show follows the album review below.

Disc 1160 is… Chime
Artist: Dessa

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Dessa’s giant head, casting out-of-phase reflections of some kind. Like Dessa, this cover is imbued with a lot of energy.

How I Came To Know It: The boring way – I read a review of this record and decided to check it out. I really liked a couple of the singles and before long, I was hooked.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three albums by Minneapolis rapper Dessa. Of those three, “Chime” comes in at #1.

Ratings: 4 stars

Modern music is infused with way too much pop-crossed hip hop, but listening to “Chime” reminds me that even an over-mined art form will still yield a gem every now and then. Every Dessa album is such a gem, but “Chime” is her shiniest yet.

When she feels like it, Dessa can write some pretty glossy pop songs; the kind of music that should be making her millions if only she wouldn’t insist on being so thoughtful and provocative. Radio pop cannot currently abide this, but at least Dessa shows that there is hope for the future.

On “Chime” pop rears its surprisingly non-ugly head on most of the songs, with catchy hooks in the chorus that are original compositions rather than wholesale samples from the ghosts of hits past. With the exception of the saccharine “Boy Crazy” I liked them all and most have something important to say as well. Sometimes they are intensely personal as with “Good Grief” and sometimes they are intensely political as with “Fire Drills” but they always have something to say.

Fire Drills” is the star of the album; a pointed song that explores unfair standards we apply to women’s sexuality. Dessa’s B.A. in Philosophy is put to good use as she builds the argument that women are taught to be careful, but only because society is set up to present them with threats. I could say more, but she says it better:

“We don’t say, ‘Go out and be brave’
Nah, we say ‘Be careful, stay safe’
In any given instance that don’t hurt
But it sinks in like stilettos in soft earth,
Like the big win is a day
Without an incident
I beg to differ with it
I think a woman’s worth
I think that she deserves
A better line of work
Than motherfucking vigilance.”

For Dessa, walking home late is like running a fire drill, sticking to safe plan and hoping nothing bad is going to happen and she refused to accept that safe is good enough.

“Chime” is multifaceted, and in addition to pop hooks too good for radio, and unapologetic social commentary she incorporates classical piano, strings and hints of electronica. All of this is fused with a smooth modern production that suggests attention to detail in the studio. In their pure form many of the influences tend to put me off, but Dessa does such a good job of blending them into something new and compelling.

Dessa’s rap has a smooth lyrical flow that slips in and out of the beat without ever losing it. “5 out of 6” and “Fire Drills” are songs with messages; challenges to her detractors and to society at large that are the highlights of the record, but I also have a soft spot for a little 45 second number near the end called “Shrimp.” “Shrimp” is Dessa showing off her mad skills, but it is also self-deprecating and fun, with lines like:

“Dolled up I’m the baddest person
Still like backpacks over purses
Hate that Qs are 2s in cursive
Talk real fast when I get nervous
Rap real fast, but that’s on purpose.”

It makes me wish I could pal around with her for an afternoon. The thought also makes me a little nervous knowing that she’d be quick and very capable at calling me on my bullshit.

There is a bit of “not famous yet” through the album but it doesn’t feel resentful. Dessa wears her indie-rap status as a badge of honour, or as she wryly puts it “I’m tryna get rich slow.” For all that, to assume Dessa is happy to settle, you’d be wrong. This cocktail of humour, activism and ambition is best summed up with the final lines of “Shrimp”:

“Always a bridesmaid
Never an ASTRONAUT!”

If Dessa is a bridesmaid, she’s one that comes to the wedding wearing whatever the hell she wants and who delivers the speech at the reception that no one wants to follow.

Best tracks: Ride, 5 out of 6, Fire Drills, Velodrome, Good Grief, Shrimp

The Concert: July 22, 2018 at the Phillips Brewery Backyard Weekender – Victoria
I am not a festival person. I don’t like the outdoor venues, I’m nervous about the sound quality and I always imagine unpleasant encounters with drunken rubes. However, I also knew that this was easily the best chance I was going to have to see Dessa live, and so I bit the bullet and went.

All of my festival fears were unfounded. The venue was clean and welcoming, the people were friendly (there was a random dude spritzing water on people in the beer lineup but I think given the heat he saw this as a public service). Even the sound quality was top shelf.

I went to the show with my friend Amanda, and we arrived to find it fairly quiet. I suspect the combination of last weekend’s “Rock the Shores” event and it being a Sunday night combined to make the event a little less populated than it otherwise might have been. I had been dreading being pressed in with the sweaty masses, so the smaller audience suited me well.

There were seven different bands playing the Backyarder on Sunday, but I only wanted to see Dessa and so we arrived about 30 minutes before she started. We did catch the end of a hip hop band called “The Sorority” which made me wish I had come earlier. These three gals had a cool flow and a fun, party-time energy. We enjoyed the last couple songs of their set and then grabbed a couple of beers and prepared for Dessa.

We were not disappointed. Dessa commanded the stage with a powerful presence that immediately drew the crowd in. When she started, there might have been thirty people in the audience, and by the time she was done an hour later a few hundred had gathered.

Dessa had a good mix of banter and music. Even when she was just talking, her natural talent made it feel like a spoken word performance all its own. The songs were a strong mix of about 2/3 her new album and 1/3 earlier material, all of it well chosen to showcase both her pop and rap sides equally well.

Dessa’s fantastic skills on the mic were on full display, as she shifted from hard core rapper to pop crooner and back again with an easy grace. I suspect these are complicated songs to perform live but she made it seem not only easy, but a whole lot of fun.

While she is clearly the star of the show, Dessa deftly brings her backing band into the spotlight at every opportunity. In particular the drummer is amazing, and to my shame I can neither remember his name nor find it on the interwebs. Her playful exchanges with him are filled with mock competitiveness but what really comes across is that there is a lot of love there.

For her final two tracks she climbed down off the stage and into the audience to sing “in the round”. On stage she was maybe 20 feet from me, and once she came down to ground level she was even closer. It was pretty awesome.

After the show, Dessa mingled with the crown and I was able to meet her. In the past I have been totally flustered meeting some of my musical idols (see: Lindi Ortega, Lera Lynn) but Dessa seemed easygoing and approachable and I think I was able to communicate my love for her music in a reasonably intelligible way for a change. She even gave me a fist bump and then graciously posed for a picture!
All photos by Amanda who not only kept me company but ensured I would not be “lonely old guy sipping his beer alone”. Thanks, Amanda! After the show we got an extra pint at the Churchill where we were served by a Dessa lookalike named Reed Steele, who I am pretty sure is a superhero who just tends bar to hide her secret identity. All in all, a pretty fine summer Sunday afternoon.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1159: Blue Oyster Cult

I’m back a bit late from a delightful night playing board games, but determined to get in another music review before I hit the hay. Here it is!

Disc 1159 is… The Revolution by Night
Artist: Blue Oyster Cult

Year of Release: 1983

What’s up with the Cover? A lonely stretch of highway is lit by futuristic lampposts…and by frickin’ lightning bolts! As ever the game with a Blue Oyster Cult album cover is to find their symbol hidden somewhere in the art.

How I Came To Know It: I knew this album since my brother bought it back in 1983.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 11 of Blue Oyster Cult’s studio albums. In a very strong field, “The Revolution by Night” comes in at #10.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

The year before “The Revolution by Night” came out Blue Oyster Cult’s lead guitarist Buck Dharma had taken a short hiatus and recorded a solo project. That record (reviewed back at Disc 1123) had a lot of eighties influences and Buck took those back to the band upon his return.

While “The Revolution by Night” still showcases some solid songwriting, this eighties production takes some of the punch out of the songs. Heavy synth sound and fuzz drown down Dharma’s guitar solos and everything feels a little distant. Distant is not what you want in progressive hard rock but even turning the volume up 20% higher I still found  it hard to draw much thump out of these songs.

Fortunately, there are songs so glorious that no amount of fuzz can hold them back, including the opening track. “Take Me Away” features a killer guitar riff, and a chugging powerful rhythm. Also, it features a plea to be abducted by aliens so, you know, standard Blue Oyster Cult fare.

Shadow of California” has a majestic dread, including some solid drumming from newcomer Rick Downey (the song was co-written by ex-Alice Cooper drummer Neal Smith so drumming is it is no surprise drumming is a big part of the song). Downey plays well but the record is definitely missing a bit of magic without Albert Bouchard on the kit. BOC’s original lineup had a special alchemy, and any missing member affects the whole.

Still, with its hell-choir backing vocals and haunted-abbey organ playing, “Shadow of California” is the personification of foreboding.  You just know something frightening is coming. It isn’t clear what – just some buried evil at the cloverleaf junction. I suspect vampires. With a BOC song, vampires are always a good bet. But I digress…

Feel the Thunder” is another haunted motorcycle song akin to “Golden Age of Leather” (off 1977’s “Spectres”) but it isn’t as good and again, the production cuts into the heaviness of the song.

Every now and then the eighties production is put to good use. “Shooting Shark” has an eighties drum sound, mixed well with organ and Buck Dharma’s high and airy vocals. It is all a bit light, but it works up there in the wispy cirrus. This song is co-written by Dharma and Patti Smith, and their talents mesh well. Dharma is the hopeless romantic, and Smith lends an element of carnival excess, but both believe in magic and it shows. Amid its seven-plus minutes of excess and atmosphere even the saxophone solo is passable, although I think I would have preferred Dharma’s guitar at that moment.

This record also sees BOC following on their (relative) commercial success of “Fire of Unknown Origin.” All that stadium rock may have gone a little to their heads on “Let Go”. As a kid, I thought “Let Go” was the most awesome anthem ever, as I pumped my fist to:

You can be whatever you wanna be
You got the power, we got the key
Yeah, B…O…C”

OK, it’s silly but back in the day those lyrics seemed infused with sorcerous power, like I could summon the band into the living room just by singing along. Now the whole thing seems rather silly. I won’t say it is a good song, but it is a good memory and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that under all that silliness a kernel of that old magic remains every time I hear it. For 3:25 I felt like I was part of the band.

The album ends with a Joe Bouchard vocal on “Light Years of Love.” Bouchard is the weakest singer, but he does a good job here. In fact, until I looked it up I just assumed it was Buck Dharma. The song has some crazy flamenco guitar playing inexplicably mixed in with Bowie-like space opera effects and lyrics full of astronomical imagery. It is wild and wacky and more than a little cheesy, but it’s done well if you give it a chance.

Even though “The Revolution By Night” is the beginning of BOC’s fracturing as a band, it is fascinating to hear their sound still evolving. The production notes are mostly off, but the songs are still vibrant and ambitious. There were plenty of ghosts, vampires and space aliens to keep the 13-year old me happy when I first heard it, and years later I still find magic in this record.

Best tracks: Take Me Away, Shooting Shark, Shadow of California, Light Years of Love

Monday, July 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1158: Neil Young

Hello, gentle readers! My apologies for my extended absence – I have been out of town on a mini-holiday. I took a road trip and caught up with old friends, visited with family and even found time (via two ferry rides) to read and listen to music. Along the way I found the time to appreciate this next album as well.

Disc 1158 is… Hitchhiker
Artist: Neil Young

Year of Release: 2017 but with music originally recorded in 1976

What’s up with the Cover? Sunset and evening star and one clear call for Neil – keep sharing his talent with the world.

How I Came To Know It: I’ve known Neil Young for years and while I don’t buy everything he does I always keep an ear to the ground for new releases. This one garnered a lot of favourable reviews and so I checked it out on Youtube and liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  This is one of 19 Neil Young albums I own (I have parted company with two others as well). It creates a quandary. On the one hand, most of these songs appear on other albums, so it has a “Greatest Hits” feel to it. On the other hand, it was supposed to be released in 1976 in this format, so it is kind of a true record on its own merits as well. It was the Soulless Record Execs that decided it shouldn’t be released in 1976 so let’s retroactively side with Neil and rank it as if they had. I rank it …eighth.

Ratings: 4 stars

Neil Young has been through many phases in his long career. He’s been in a folk band, a solo folk artist, a rocker, a rockabilly, and done more than a little experimentation in soundscapes and feedback. “Hitchhiker” shows that if you strip it all down to just Neil on a single acoustic guitar you might hear something a little quieter, but it will be no less compelling. If anything, it adds intimacy to some of his finest work.

When “Hitchhiker” was rejected in 1976, it didn’t stop Young. Instead from 1977-1980 he released seven of the ten songs on this collection on other records, albeit with a bit more production. Most of those records are some of Neil Young’s best, and the tracks seeded on them from his 1976 rejection are often core to their success.

Hearing them stripped down to just Neil warbling away into a single microphone and strumming his old guitar feels like a backstage pass to the mid-seventies. Neil’s playing is as great as ever. He has a natural feel for when to gently brush a chord and when to hit it hard. The effect creates a lot of layers out of a single instrument, and is raw without ever feeling sloppy.

Do these songs sound better in this ‘demo’ style? No, but they don’t sound worse either. The lack of any additional instruments and minimal production really lets you appreciate the bones of the songs. This is Neil Young at a late night fire pit – just him, his guitar and whatever collection of folks is lucky enough to still be up to hear him play.

The most striking difference is on the title track “Hitchiker.” That song was not released until 2010 on Young’s electric and reverb-heavy “Le Noise” (reviewed back at Disc 403). In both cases the song has a drugged-out quality as Neil explores his journey through both life and various drug interests. Context is everything, and the juxtaposition of the older man recollecting his wild youth with electric power and the intimate acoustic delivery of the young man still immersed in it is fun to wrap your head around.

The record has two previously unreleased tracks, “Hawaii” and “Give Me Strength” and both hold up well. “Hawaii” has a dreamy drugged-out quality and “Give Me Strength” is a wistful tune about lost love. They are very different from each other but both fit well into Neil’s sound in the mid-seventies. Even better, they sound fresh and compelling even though they were first released 40 years after they were recorded.

 It would be a mistake to see the track list for “Hitchhiker” and think it is simply a rehash of a bunch of old songs. This is a cohesive album in its own right, and hearing these songs in their original stripped-down format only adds to your appreciation of them.

Best tracks: Pocahontas, Powderfinger, Hitchhiker, Human Highway

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1157: Birds of Chicago

I worked late then raced home only to watch my beloved Rodger Federer lose a five-setter in the quarter finals at Wimbledon. So yeah, not the greatest day.

Disc 1157 is… Real Midnight
Artist: Birds of Chicago

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? Allison Russell looking very artsy – like she’s posing for a painting or maybe on the verge of breaking into a contemporary dance routine. Actually, she’ll probably sing. That’s totally her thing.

How I Came To Know It: I read an article about them in a music magazine and decided to check them out. I liked what I heard, obviously.

How It Stacks Up:  Apparently they have a new record out this year so I’m looking forward to checking that out, but for now I have just two Birds of Chicago albums. I like them both, but I’m going to give “Real Midnight” the edge.

Ratings: 4 stars

Sometimes a great voice just will not be denied, and that’s the case with Allison Russell of Birds of Chicago. It helps to have a great supporting cast, and on “Real Midnight” she has some of the best. The record has all the talent of a collection of top flight session musicians, but the cohesiveness and ease of a bunch of friends.

Fellow vocalist and guitar player JT Nero writes all the songs on the album and his many influences are on full display. The record is at its core folk music in its arrangements, but it is so infused with southern soul and gospel that the lines blur away to nothing. This is basically a bunch of musicians who love music in all its forms, and can play it any way you want it.

JT Nero also has a solid singing voice, and on “Wild Horses” and “Time and Times” he puts his high rasp on display. He won’t blow you away, but he’s got a pretty tone and on both those tracks (and more besides) and he knows the real secret is tucking in behind the power that is Allison Russell.

Russell is a revelation. I’ve heard the title track a ton of times (there is a live clip of it on Youtube  that is a go-to for me when I need an emotional lift). Every time I hear it, it suffuses my soul with joy. Lyrically these aren’t terribly rich songs (for that, read my previous review of Anna Tivel) but the melodies are pretty and serve as a showcase for Russell’s talent.

Real Midnight” (the song) has a slow build, climbing in and out of harmony loose harmonies but when Russell takes the wheel solo and sings:

“Kiss my shoulders, kiss my eyes
Don’t make me feel bad
Why would you do that – why….”

You think your heart is going to break. But then, just as she’s leaving you hanging with that desperate “why…” the chorus leaps in for the rescue with an inspirational “lift me up! Lift me up!” that makes you think you’re going to soar right off your seat.

Estrella Goodbye” has a celebratory country pop filled with gospel soul. It felt like the spirit of Rhiannon Giddens was infusing it with extra power – no wait! That is Rhiannon Giddens. As if this record didn’t already have a surfeit of talent – getting Rhiannon to pitch in as a guest vocalist just feels like cheating. (Giddens also drops some dope fiddle licks on “Time and Times”).

The songs put emotion first, but despite lyrics that are generally fairly obvious in places the delivery is so perfect, and the playing so divine you don’t mind that you’ve heard it before.

Like their previous record, Birds of Chicago partially funded “Real Midnight” through Kickstarter, and key donors are thanked prominently in the CD case. That was a nice touch. It just feels right that a bunch of talented people coming together to make great music should be backed by a bunch of people who like hearing it. I encourage you to do your part and go buy a copy.

Best tracks: Dim Star of the Pillisades, Remember Wild Horses, Estrella Goodbye, Real Midnight, Time and Times, Pelicans

Monday, July 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1156: Anna Tivel

I got home today a bit worn out from it all, but that happens sometimes. I’m resilient, though, and I had a lovely record to recharge my batteries on my long walk home. Let’s talk about that, shall we?

Disc 1156 is… Small Believer
Artist: Anna Tivel

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? This could have been a Giant Head cover, but it is so dark you can only see a portion of Anna Tivel’s head. Instead, let’s call it a Caput Ingens Obscura cover, because Latin makes everything sound more fancy.

How I Came To Know It: This album was reviewed favourably in a recent copy of Penguin Eggs magazine, so I checked Tivel out on her Bandcamp site. Bandcamp is a great way to see if you like a relatively obscure artist – just remember to give them some money if you like what you hear.

How It Stacks Up:  I only have this one album, so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

I had an opportunity on Sunday to just wander around town, and not have to be anywhere in particular. I’m an extrovert and I usually get my energy in the company of others, but I found the experience refreshing and thought-provoking. A big part of why was having the elfin lilt of Anna Tivel’s voice in my ear through it all.

Tivel is a singer-songwriter from Portland who composes intimate songs about ordinary people and their extraordinary hearts. Like every great folk singer she understands that when those small tales are told with honesty and care they become universal expressions of the human condition.

The record sounds sparse and it echoes in places. It makes you feel like you are walking down dark streets in the early morning hours with nothing but your thoughts to keep you company - or to be more precise, the thoughts of Tivel’s exquisitely drawn characters.

Tivel’s hard-scrabble characters don’t cut through the night so much as they are absorbed by it. Women flee broken relationships, sometimes looking back through tears, sometimes finding an inner peace in reconciling the good memories with the bad. Life is complicated after all, and surviving a rough patch can be celebration enough. These are stories that end unresolved. They land on the four and stick there, reminding you that long after arbitrary storybook endings, people have to pick themselves up and keep living their lives.

Saturday Night” has a crooner quality that would be at home on some slow-moving Sinatra from the fifties, as Tivel paints the picture of that time of night when most decent folks have gone to bed, and the ones who are still awake are wrapped in thought:

“A raven’s asleep in the rafters, a stray cat circles a kill
From the basement, the tin-can laughter of a late night thrill
Tomorrow’s asleep on the front step, and yesterday dreams in the street
But in the basement apartment, a shadowy man, he just stares at the wall
He can’t sleep
And me I’m just part of the darkness, just trying to get something right
On a Saturday night”

Tivel doesn’t just sing the stories of people alone in their thoughts, she whispers to you a soft confession; she is one of them. Are you?

Tivel has a knack for capturing the fragility of otherwise hard characters. On “Riverside Hotel” a Vietnam vet sits and drinks out of a brown bag and takes what solace he can from the clang and crash of workers erecting a building across the street. On “Dark Chandelier” Tommy is a 31-year factory veteran, wandering town drunk after losing his job. “The rain coming down like a dark chandelier” as he confronts his rage:

“The heat and the rise of a burning shame
The pride in the work and the years that he gave
Just a flick of a pen, just a cold handshake
What’s a man really worth at the end of the day?”

Yet like the Riverside Hotel veteran, Tommy finds an inner strength. It may come as he lies bleeding on his lawn with sirens wailing in the distance, but it is there. Like many of her songs, Tivel ends “Dark Chandelier” with the melody unresolved, and while it creates sadness it also creates hope for what might come next. Or as Tommy quietly prays, “Don’t take me tonight, I got work to do yet.

Tivel’s biggest challenge is that her voice is such a soft whisper. It perfectly suits the album, and makes the intimate moments even more vulnerable, but it isn’t hit-making material. This is music and poetry that requires a set of headphones and your full attention. The songs have a quietness about them that makes you fearful they’ll somehow blow away in a strong wind, if it weren’t for the conviction of Tivel’s delivery holding them in place.

When I left the house on Sunday, I’d already heard this album twice and I was prepared to listen to something else if I got tired of it. That just never happened. I listened to this quiet and dark-toned album amid the hustle and bustle of daytime city life for four days and all it ever did was enhance my calm. Because of the subtle way it steals into your heart, “Small Believer” may never be a commercial hit, but subtle beauty is no less wondrous when you take the time to appreciate it. I encourage you to do so.

Best tracks: Illinois, Saturday Night, Alleyway, Dark Chandelier, Riverside Hotel, Small Believer

Thursday, July 5, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1155: Gang Starr

I got home very tired last night and didn’t have it in me to review my album. That’s OK because the extra day I spent listening to it made me appreciate it more.

Disc 1155 is… No More Mr. Nice Guy
Artist: Gang Starr

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? Two super cool dudes wearing clothes that are no longer super cool. The “white out” background is similarly of its time.

How I Came To Know It: I was just digging through Gang Starr’s discography and found this early gem. Like most other Gang Starr I’ve heard, I liked it.

How It Stacks Up:  I have six Gang Starr albums, which is all of them. Of the six, “No More Mr. Nice Guy” comes in 4th.

Ratings: 3 stars

Gang Starr’s first album is raw and uneven, but laced with plenty of tracks that hint at greatness to come. This album is just a cool beat, a couple of well-placed samples and Guru droppin’ rhymes. It isn’t the sheer brilliance of 1991’s “Step in the Arena” but it has plenty to recommend it.

Best of these is “Manifest,” a classic rap song from the golden age of rap - a time when rappers rapped about rappin’. Guru’s flow is back on the beat but still maintain a groovy energy, combining rapid-fire MF Doom style rhyme density with basic couplets that gives the song structure. The groove has a heavy jazz feel, which is an influence felt throughout the record.

If anything there is too much jazz, particularly “Jazz Music” which is an homage to the history of the style. Despite many attempted visits to the altar of jazz, I can never bring myself to worship there, so while I like the isolated samples on the record, I can’t pick up what they’re putting down on “Jazz Music.”

When they’re not rappin’ about rappin’, Gang Starr spends their time providing positive messages like staying positive (“Positivity”) and how your actions impact others (“Cause and Effect”). It is a minor miracle that it doesn’t come off as an after-school special, or public service announcement. Instead, these positive songs inspire some of the better rhymes on the record.

This call to live a mindful life is the progenitor of a lot of today’s socially conscious rap and despite the sometimes obvious messages, it remains heartfelt and real. More impressive is that Gang Starr can deliver the message without ever resorting to politics. These are universal messages about how to treat your fellow man, not surface-level complaints about politics of the day. As a result, thirty years later the songs are still fresh.

The beats are fresh as well, with some solid scratching from DJ Premier. On “DJ Premier in Deep Concentration” it feels like he’s just showing off, but you are too busy appreciating the skill to mind.

Rap was so pure in the day, and the samples employed were always repurposed in a way that made it into new art. The sample laws of the early nineties did a big disservice to rap, but in 1989 early adopters like Gang Starr were free to try whatever would work. They respected the privilege and the result is some very cool sample layers mixing funk and jazz into something new. On top of it all, Guru drops his rhymes, unhurried and confident flow. That flow has more than a few imperfect rhymes and there were times it made me cringe, but for the most part Guru’s skillful delivery makes it work.

My biggest complaint with this record is it is too long. It features 14 songs, but two are remixes (“Positivity” and “Manifest”) and neither is necessary. The remix of “Manifest” is particularly disappointing, because it pushes the vocals to the back of the mix, making your ear strain to hear it. These early beats can’t carry all that extra load, and it just felt like Guru was rapping through a tin can attached to a string.

There are a few other songs I could live without as well, but overall “No More Mr. Nice Guy” is a classic of early rap music. It isn’t the best record of its time, but it is worth your time if you like this era of the art form.

Best tracks: Manifest (original mix), Gusto, Cause and Effect, 2 Steps Ahead, Knowledge, Positivity (original mix)

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1154: Torres

On with the Odyssey!

Disc 1154 is… Three Futures
Artist: Torres

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Torres sits splay-legged on a couch in some house the 1950s forgot. In the mirror you can see what has so thoroughly caught her attention, as a sexy woman stretches, wearing nothing but pantyhose.

I expect that last sentence will earn me some random Google searches.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Torres through her 2015 album “Sprinter”. An early sampling of “Three Futures” went well so I took the plunge.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Torres albums and they are both great, but only one can be #1. With this harsh reality, I must place “Three Futures” in first place, but it is a photo finish. Both albums are equally great.

Ratings:  4 stars

When I first heard Mackenzie Scott (aka Torres) I thought she was pretty out there; a bit on the experimental pop side and not at all my usual stuff. However, “Sprinter” was so brilliant that as long as she didn’t go any farther “out there” I would be OK. Then she released “Three Futures” which takes three giant strides further out there but is so evocative and brilliant you can’t deny its greatness.

“Three Futures” takes the experimental approach to “Sprinter” and infuses it with dark matter and electrical current. Torres embraces a heavy electronica sound, fusing it seamlessly with lyrics that express stark truths about sexuality, power and frailty. Drum machines, synthesizers and the drone of feedback set a soundscape that is immersive and yet incredibly stark. I shouldn’t like this stuff, but I couldn’t help myself.

Over this undulating ocean of sound, Torres’ voice casts a spell of seductive truth. Her vocals are powerful throughout her range, and she enunciates her words with the care of one who knows that good music is like poetry – every word matters. I was pleased to read Torres has a minor in English Literature – it gives hope for the rest of us.

Torres has many influences and I could hear the aggressive poetry of Patti Smith and the rich nineties dreamy ambience of Sarah McLachlan. There’s even a little early Enya, and the way that synth riff dances around on “Greener Stretch” sounds like some digital Celt marching to the sea.

“Three Futures” is laden with characters coming to terms with themselves and how people are drawn to one another. The whole of it drips with desire. On “Skim” she sings “There’s no unlit corner of the room I’m in” reminding you that nothing will be too personal to shine a light on. She invites you to take a dive with her into the deep end. No stone will be left unturned and no topic will be too uncomfortable or taboo.

On “Righteous Woman” she sings:

“I am not a righteous woman
I’m more of an ass man
And when I go to spread, I’m only
Squinting out a strip of land
From my panopticon.”

Lascivious twists on gender imagery strip away arbitrary boundaries, as Torres sings these lines like honey is dripping from her tongue. On top of all that, she taught me a new word: panopticon. It is a prison where a single guard can look in on any inmate at any time, but the inmates are never aware if they are under surveillance at any given moment. The voyeuristic element adds another layer to the grand seduction. We can only assume that like Torres artistic talent and fearless approach to her art, the individual rooms of her panopticon have no unlit corners.

For an album that is so laden with naked truths, there is a depth to the delivery that makes you realize that Torres didn’t come to these topics from some prurient crowd-pleasing place, but through a deep exploration of the nature of desire.

My only disappointment is the final track “To Be Given a Body”. The song has wonderful moments but at eight minutes is a bit too long, and features a lot of percussion that sounded like the speakers were turned on too loud.

It is a minor quibble on a record that otherwise thoroughly ensorcelled me. “Three Futures” was invigorating, sensual and provocative and makes me excited to see where Torres will go next with her prodigious talent.

Best tracks: Tongue Slap Your Brains Out, Skim, Three Futures, Righteous Woman, Bad Baby Pie

Friday, June 29, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1153: Steve Earle

Greetings, gentle readers! I was away briefly while dealing with a musical crisis. I lost my Sony Walkman Tuesday night and had no portable music for a day. Not having headphones and looking…er…slightly different (as I do) can make you a magnet for fellow weirdos when you are out and about in the world. While some of those encounters were strangely pleasant, it still drove me to search for my Walkman with renewed enthusiasm. I it lying between my bed and nightstand. Crisis averted!

Disc 1153 is… Jerusalem
Artist: Steve Earle

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? More annoying art from perennial Earle cover artist Tony Fitzpatrick. I like this one more than most of his stuff, and the whole snake without a head design is a pretty cool idea, but I still wouldn’t decorate my house with it.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me buying the next Steve Earle album when it came out. I’m a fan.

How It Stacks Up:  I didn’t buy Steve Earle’s latest album “So You Wanna Be An Outlaw” (at least not yet) and I parted ways with “Terraplane” so I now have 15 Steve Earle albums. I put “Jerusalem” fifth, although really it is tied with “El Corazon” for fourth. It is one of Steve Earle’s greatest records. Since this is the final Earle review, here’s the full recap:

  1. I Feel Alright: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 14)
  2. Exit 0: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 423)
  3. Guitar Town: 5 stars (reviewed at Disc 616)
  4. El Corazon:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 395)
  5. Jerusalem: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  6. Copperhead Road: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 398)
  7. Train A Comin’:  4 stars (reviewed at Disc 127)
  8. The Revolution Starts Now: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 359)
  9. Sidetracks: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 851)
  10. I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 718)
  11. The Low Highway: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 633)
  12. The Hard Way: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 179)
  13. Washington Square Serenade: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 226)
  14. The Mountain: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 332)
  15. Transcendental Blues: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 438)
  16. Terraplane: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 980)
I also have Townes, which is an album full of Townes Van Zandt covers. I love this record and gave it 4 stars, but it seemed weird to stack up against his original material. If I did, I’d probably put it at around #6 and bump everything else down one.

Ratings:  4 stars but close to 5

Throughout Steve Earle’s career he has sung about whatever the hell he pleases, in whatever style appeals to him. He’d already been at it for years when in 2002 he released “Jerusalem” and decided to go ahead and add a whole other level of pointy to his message, and to hell with how Middle America felt about it.

“Jerusalem” came out the year after a bunch of criminals crashed aircraft into the World Trade Centre, leaving America reeling. Musicians – American and otherwise – turned their talents to the tragedy in a lot of different ways. Sarah McLachlan expressed her anguish on “World on Fire,” (on “Afterglow” reviewed at Disc 857) and Bruce Springsteen released an entire album dedicated to the lives of the people affected when the towers fell on “The Rising” (reviewed back at Disc 751). Toby Keith imagined a Statue of Liberty that shakes her fist and plants her boot in the ass of America’s enemies. Toby Keith is such a moron.

Back to Steve Earle, who decided to take the opportunity to use the first half of “Jerusalem” to deliver a pointed and unapologetic critique of American society. With a nation still grieving it was an aggressive move that offended a lot of people, but it also inspired some of the best music in Earle’s long career.

The record starts with “Ashes to Ashes” a song about how every empire crumbles, including lines like “every tower ever built tumbles” just in case you weren’t clear on what empire he is referencing. “Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do)” points the finger at anyone who shrugs and decides to settle, or as Earle puts it:

“I remember when we was both out on the boulevard
Talkin’ revolution and singin’ the blues
Nowadays letters to the editor and cheatin’ on our taxes
Is the best we can do.”

These songs feature an aggressive style that matches the aggressive lyrics. The electric guitars fuzz out and at times Earle’s voice is distorted like you are hearing it through a megaphone, which makes sense given the protest feel of the tracks. When it isn’t fuzzed out, he slurs or shouts his lines with visceral anger and frustration. All this distortion creates a sense of unease which is exactly the intent.

The final song in this four song mini-set, “John Walker’s Blues” is from the perspective of American teen-turned Taliban terrorist John Walker Lindh, exploring with heartfelt sincerity how a good Catholic boy from California turns into a terrorist.

Following this final salvo Earle turns his mind to his more traditional topics for the rest of the record. “The Kind” is a pretty little tale filled with cowboys with achin’ hearts and pictures of girls with secret smiles. After all the doom and gloom and anger, “The Kind” is a palate cleanser. It is like Earle is reminding you, “Hey, I still see beauty. I’m not permanently broken, just angry.”

The rest of the record is Earle doing this more traditional fare – tales of low level drug dealers in over their heads (“What’s a Simple Man To Do?”), the prison system (“The Truth”), and hopeless romantic notions (“I Remember You”). The latter is a duet with Emmylou Harris and one of the great songs about ended relationships you will ever hear. Emmylou sounds as good here as she ever has. It was this song that drove me down the rabbit hole of her music collection and for that alone I owe “Jerusalem” a lot.

The record ends with the title track, and sees Earle reconciling on a number of levels. The style of “Jerusalem” matches the quiet and subtle style on the record’s second half, but returns to the themes of war and violence and doubt from the first.

This time Earle is conciliatory and filled with optimism. The distorted production is gone and as Earle’s harmonica announces the arrival of the melody you get the feeling that you’ve come through a storm to a clear day. In the song Earle wakes to the sound of the TV announcing war in the Middle East, and feels an initial hopelessness but then he recovers. The song ends with these hopeful lines:

“And there’ll be no barricades then
There’ll be no wires or walls
And we can wash all the blood from our hands
And all this hatred from our souls.

“And I believe that on that day all the children of Abraham
Will lay down their swords forever in Jerusalem.”

Sadly, many people by this time would have tuned Earle out, no doubt preferring the visceral idiocy of Toby Keith or (hopefully) the gentler touch of McLachlan or Springsteen. The album “Jerusalem” resulted in Steve Earle being banned from most of mainstream country radio, which is a pretty sad indictment of free speech.

Not me. I’ve never agreed with everything Steve Earle says, but that should never be a prerequisite for great art. On “Jerusalem” Earle speaks from the depths a great and wounded heart, but it is also a heart with an amazing capacity for seeing the beauty in the world, and a willingness to forgive. It may at times be a journey through grief but it is a journey worth taking.

Best tracks: Amerika v.6.0 (The Best We Can Do), Conspiracy Theory, John Walker Lindh’s Blues, The Kind, I Remember You, Shadowland, Jerusalem

Monday, June 25, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1152: King Diamond

When I review a new (to me) record, I tend to give it at least three full listens before I start talking about it (once when I first buy it and at least two in a row before I wrote the review). It isn’t a rule, but almost any record deserves this common courtesy.

I started writing this one after only two and a half listens because the thought of having to listen to it for another day was too painful to contemplate.

Disc 1152 is… Conspiracy
Artist: King Diamond

Year of Release: 1989

What’s up with the Cover? King Diamond consistently has awesome album covers, but there is always the exception that proves the rule, and this is it. The saddest thing about this cover is you can tell that King Diamond thinks he looks super scary and intense. Instead he looks like a guy about to fail a job interview to be a clown.

“No, Mr. Diamond – we’re looking for someone to do children’s birthday parties. This is highly inappropriate.”

“No, Mr. Diamond this isn’t suitable for “rock star” either.”

How I Came To Know It: I bought a 5 CD set of King Diamond’s first 5 albums. It was a good deal. I got three albums I really wanted, one I could live with and…this one.

How It Stacks Up:  I used to have eight King Diamond albums, but I gave away “Abigail II” so now I have seven. Of the remaining seven albums, I rank this one eighth, slipping it behind the now departed “Abigail II”. It will remain in my collection because breaking up the 5 CD set would just wreck the boxed set, but it is going to sit in there and rot.

Ratings:  1 star

“Conspiracy” is what would happen if someone wanted to cross a creepy Alice Cooper concept album with the driving power of an Iron Maiden album – only crappy. I can see what King Diamond is going for here, and I usually like his mix of camp and power, but this record was just…not good.

As ever, King Diamond has a weird story to tell. Like “Abigail II,” “Conspiracy” is a sequel to a previous album (in this case 1988’s “Them”). The original story revolves around a house haunted with spirits, and “Conspiracy” sees the protagonist from the original return to the house in order to – o, who gives a crap. There is a plot here, but in order for me to be engaged in it I’d have to be enjoying the music, and I didn’t.

That isn’t to say it isn’t played with skill, because it is and guitarist Andy Larocque once again shows his virtuosity. Unfortunately, his prowess is wasted on songs that are bloated and unfocused.

King Diamond’s vocals are his usual weird mix of shrill and power, but with this being my fourth King Diamond review in my last 60 albums I was tired of hearing it. If you like an artist, you should revel in exploring their back catalogue, but instead King Diamond has just worn me out. It doesn’t help that this is the worst of what he has to offer.

There are weird waltzes, Phantom of the Opera organs, and an homage to the wedding march, There are also various characters voiced by Diamond – as he is wont to do – talking about stuff I either couldn’t make out or didn’t find interesting. The music is proggy without being interesting, and laden with power chords but lacking power. Songs shift around from one concept to another, all loosely stitched together and overlong.

Even the best song on the record, “A Visit From the Dead” is only half good. It spends the first two minutes with Larocque plunking away on what sounds like a very bad folk song and then turns into something that sounds like it was made for a bad horror movie for another minute. Finally at the three minute mark the song rocks out with a pretty killer riff. I liked that riff a lot and the guitar solo that follows is pretty solid also, but it was not worth the wait.

The most annoying thing about “Conspiracy” is I can’t even get rid of it easily, because it comes in a box set and tossing it would essentially make selling the box set later (which I am considering) almost impossible. This just made me crankier, and probably helped drop it down to its one lowly star.

I’ve got two albums left in that boxed set to review, and they are on notice. Do better!

Best tracks: ½ of “A Visit From the Dead”

Sunday, June 24, 2018

CD Odyssey Discs 1150 and 1151

As you can see from the title, this post is two reviews in one. That’s because these two albums were re-released in a single CD case. This artist does this a lot, and I don’t mind one bit, because it takes up less space on the CD shelves.

Disc 1150 and 1151 are… Repossessed and Third World Warrior
Artist: Kris Kristofferson

Year of Release: 1986 (Repossessed) and 1990 (Third World Warrior)

What’s up with the Cover? This is some special re-release cover featuring the eyes of Kristofferson from “Third World Warrior” and some random shot of him rocking out on a guitar. The actual covers are:

How I Came To Know It: I first bought “Repossessed” on cassette at A&B sound in the late eighties. It was in a bargain bin at some ridiculously low price like $3.95. At the time I mistakenly thought that the song “What About Me?” was one I remembered hearing on the AM radio when I was a kid. Turns out that version of “What About Me?” is by Moving Pictures and as you can see very much NOT Kris Kristofferson. Epic music fail.

Fortunately, I liked Kris Kristofferson anyway, so I was happy with what I ended up with, albeit by accident.

As for “Third World Warrior” I didn’t know that album until this “Special Re-Release” double CD was released. I was keen to finally have “Repossessed” on CD and and getting “Third World Warrior” as well was a bonus.

How They Stack Up:  I have eight Kris Kristofferson albums I’ll put “Repossessed” in at #4 and “Third World Warrior” right behind it at #5.


What’s up with the Cover?: Kristofferson rocks out, showing off his middle-aged man muscles in a tight black t-shirt. I rock a similar look from time to time, minus the muscles.
Ratings:  3 stars

There is something to be said for obscurity. It allows you the freedom to make whatever kind of music you want.

Kristofferson’s music through the late seventies and early eighties was a mix of outlaw country and sexy grooves for men who take their shirts off a lot in mixed company and the women who don’t mind.

“Repossessed” changes gears, keeping the mix of country and contemporary rock but with a stronger focus on the slow wear of years on the human heart. These are songs for the weary and the worn out, laced with a thread of social activism and stoic resistance that has always been a key part of Kristofferson’s sound.

The most heartbroken of all is “Shipwrecked in the Eighties” a song about one of Kristofferson’s long-standing causes; the fate of Vietnam veterans. In 1986, it had only been ten years since the end of that war and the horrors were still fresh in the minds of those unfortunate to have fought in it. Through it all, Kristofferson’s vocals meander with their gravelly truth:

“Well you fight like the devil to just keep your head above water
Chained to whatever you got that you can’t throw away
And you’re shooting through space on this river of life that you’re riding
And it’s whirling and sucking you deeper on down every day.”

The song is a mix of a guitar strum on the high strings, with an organ providing the bass notes. The beat drags with a weary doom, punctuated by a mournful harmonica that keeps the wound fresh. Kristofferson likens post-traumatic stress with death by drowning, and it is not a quick death.

On “Anthem ‘84” Kristofferson sings from the perspective of a soldier who has kept himself together, only to find his partner is losing herself. The soldier brings a foxhole mentality to the situation, and maybe the kind of toughness and inner strength needed to withstand it:

“If you’re looking for a fighter who’ll defend you
And love you for your freedom, I’m your man
I ain’t gonna leave you for the crazy things you’re doin’
Don’t ask me to lend a helping hand.”

Like “Shipwrecked in the Eighties,” “Anthem ‘84’” is buoyed by long lines of sprung rhythm that lilt along to Kristofferson’s rough vocals. He sings like he’s just taken a shot of whiskey, with a homespun truth that comes from having done it all, and lived to see the other side.

“Repossessed” has a lot of tough love about it, but it is still very much about love. When on “The Heart” Kristofferson sings “If they deal you down and dirty in a way you don’t deserve/You’ll feel better if you take it like a man” it may seem callous, but this brand of stoicism has gotten me through more than a few bad patches. He’s like that rough and kindly uncle that catches you crying out back but pretends he didn’t, and invites you to come out back and shoot some cans. Feels good to shoot some cans, and if you don’t want to talk about it, that’s OK. He’s just gonna be there in case you do.

I suspect for a lot of people this record comes off as a bit schmaltzy and there are places where Kristofferson probably crosses that line, but overall his honesty wins through. If it sounds schmaltzy it’s just because when manly vampire-killin’ real men like Kris Kristofferson show their feels it can be a bit awkward. But it is all the more real for that awkwardness. Because of this I forgive this record its excesses when they happen.

For an album made in 1986, “Repossessed” is surprisingly free of drum machine and synth fuzz and I was happy for their absence. It is still a bit tinny in places, but overall this album has a grounded feel that was missing from a lot of other artists of similar vintage at the time.

Most of all, it is a reminder that being tough and sensitive may seem like opposites, but really they’re yin and yang and you’ll need both of them to stay upright on life’s long road. There are records that do it better, but “Repossessed” a gruff charm to its delivery that is warm and real.

Best tracks - Repossessed: Shipwrecked in the Eighties, They Killed Him, What About Me, Anthem ’84, The Heart

Third World Warrior

What’s up with the Cover?:  Kristofferson is a master of the Giant Head cover, and this could be his crowning achievement. This head is real big, and real haggard.

Ratings:  3 stars

The other great thing about obscurity is you can say whatever you like, and on “Third World Warrior” Kris Kristofferson does just that, launching into a politically charged album without hesitation or apology.

The album opens with “The Eagle and the Bear” where Kristofferson makes it clear that he doesn’t care about either major superpower – his interest is in the regular folks who suffer whenever nations clash:

“I will fight and I will die for freedom
Up against an eagle or a bear
I will help my brother and we’ll sink or swim together
If you don’t like it mister, I don’t care.”

The song is grounded in a solemn piano piece, but in the background the snap of the snare is Kristofferson’s call to action.

Central America (particularly El Salvador and Nicaragua) feature prominently throughout the record as does the apartheid regime in South Africa and many of the songs have a protest sing-a-long quality that calls to mind rallies and placards.

In many places on the album Kristofferson just talks over the music, naming a wide mix of heroes (among them Gary Cooper, John Kennedy, Martin Luther, Malcolm X and Jesus) or calling out various things he wants fixed in the world. This was a bit jarring, because the songs are strong enough on their own in making their point, and the spoken word sections feel more like rhetoric than poetry.

Kristofferson dedicates an entire song to then-prominent politician Jesse Jackson, who was fresh from pursuing a run for president back in 1988. It is an upbeat celebration even though lines like “They ain’t ready for you yet, but it’s a start” showcase Kristofferson’s disappointment that Jackson wasn’t chosen to represent the Democrats (that was Michael Dukakis). It’s too bad Willie Nelson gets a guest verse. Willie seems like a nice guy and all, but as I just noted on my Rhiannon Giddens review, I’m not a fan of his voice.

The album has some beautiful background vocal work in places and I regret that the combined efforts of the liner notes and internet did not reveal specifically who it was. Whoever does those soulful shouts deep in the mix – thank you!

As you might expect from an album with a lot of songs about Central America, there are plenty of Spanish and Caribbean rhythms and you can smell the beach and the blue seas of lands that have always been luckier in their climate than their political stability. Sometimes these rhythms worked, and other times they were too processed and artificial as eighties production finally caught up with Kristofferson.

Whatever you think about any of the issues Kristofferson raises, you have to admire him for his fearlessness. This album covers a lot of uncomfortable topics back in 1990 and much of his traditional fan-base would have preferred he stuck to shaking ribbons from pretty ladies hair and singing about hangovers. He doesn’t care. Kristofferson pokes the bear, scoffs at the eagle and makes his points forcefully and without apology.

Best tracks – Third World Warrior: The Eagle and the Bear, Don’t let the Bastards (Get You Down), Jesse Jackson (Sung with Willie Nelson)