Friday, April 20, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1129: L7

I usually sleep in a bit when I have a Friday off, but I got up early today because I have a busy day of chores and wanderin’. Instead of getting that early start I fell into the Internet looking up football schedules, hockey news and whether a Muncie 4-speed is a good match for a 383 Stroker. Answer: it depends on what you’re using your car for.

Anyway, let’s get to the crunch and growl of a different kind.

Disc 1129 is… Smell the Magic
Artist: L7

Year of Release: 1991

What’s up with the Cover? Some badass rock n’ rollers that I wouldn’t want to meet in a back alley. Or would I? It’s complicated.

How I Came To Know It: This is from the grunge/folk wars of the early nineties with my friend and roommate Greg. This was one of several great albums he introduced me to.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four L7 albums and I like them all. “Smell the Magic” is tied with “Bricks are Heavy” for #1 – it is a tossup between  the crisp brilliance of “Bricks are Heavy” and the muddy power of “Smell the Magic”. However, I’m not here to equivocate so I’ll put “Smell the Magic” in at #2 in a photo finish. This isn’t because “Brick are Heavy” is better, it only because I loved it first.

  1. Bricks are Heavy: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 133)
  2. Smell the Magic: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Hungry for Stink: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 344)
  4. Self-Titled:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 744)
Ratings: 4 stars

Sometimes the world can be an angry and dangerous place and in those moments it needs angry and dangerous music to match: enter L7’s “Smell the Magic”. There are no apologies here and no relief from the onslaught of furious guitar riffs and grimy power. L7 are here to do it to you in your ear-holes.

This album isn’t here to teach you anything, but it is here to give voice and power to anyone who needs to shout a little. The songs are simple but well-constructed, with the snarl of punk but the precision of metal. On top of it all rides Donita Sparks’ growl, spitting into the microphone with the fury of both.

The album begins with one of my all-time favourite L7 songs, “Shove” a song about frustration on many fronts including paying the bills, and dealing with landlords, parents and sexist assholes. L7’s response to the myriad annoyances and frustrations of daily life? “Step out of my way/or I’m gonna shove” sung with a ferocity that puts some weight behind that shove. The guitar riff climbs around in this song with a restless energy that makes it clear that the shove could come at any minute from any direction, so keep your distance. Only you don’t. Instead you feel empowered to shove your own problems out of the way. L7 isn’t mad at you, they’re mad for you.

The next song, “Fast and Frightening” is a character study of the baddest girl in school. There are so many shocking descriptors of her character, including:

“Her glance hits me like lightning
I heard that girl is fast and frightening
Dirty hair and a laugh that's mean
Her neighbors call her an evil machine”

Note that after some internal debate I’ve quoted the least offensive verse of this song by far. If you have the intestinal fortitude for it, feel free to look up or listen to the rest.

Musically, “Fast and Frightening” mixes Motorhead style punk/metal with handclaps right out of a sixties pop song. This adds a clever undercurrent of musical history into a modern song of rebellion. This is a classic biker movie brought to a modern audience through music.

“Smell the Magic” is full of these damaged characters. On “Deathwish” women party ‘til they puke and hitchhike home and on “’Till the Wheels Fall Off” people who are bad for each other vow to stick together and ride their lives into the ground. L7 doesn’t extoll these choices, and they don’t damn them. They present the lives of the angry and the broken without a filter, and let you decide how you feel about that.

The final song on the album is a bit more melodic than what comes before. “American Society” has the crispness that is more at home on “Bricks are Heavy” along with more political message, albeit delivered from a personal perspective. Everything on “Smell the Magic” feels personal and immanent, which is how rock and roll should feel. The chunky groove on the song is so powerful when I played it I played it twice – once as I walked in the door after work and the next morning at the bus stop. I felt like quite the rebel, even though I was standing there in a suit preparing to go sit at a desk all day.

As I noted earlier, the production on “Smell the Magic” bugs me a little. It is muddy and the mix is very low – a common malaise for CDs released around this time. On the other hand that mud gives the album a bit more grit that it might otherwise lose with too much sharpness. As for the volume, I just turned it up - and so should you.

Best tracks: Shove, Fast and Frightening, Deathwish, ‘Til the Wheels Fall Off, American Society

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1128: The Civil Wars

I’ve been re-reading old fantasy novels I’ve owned since I was a kid. Many are terrible, and that’s partly the idea; demystify them makes it easier to get rid of them. Some are surprisingly good, though. I’m on Volume Two of the six-volume Red Sonja series and it is pretty great stuff. Those will be keepers. I apologize to my overloaded library.

Disc 1128 is… The Civil Wars (Self-Titled)
Artist: The Civil Wars

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? Some kind of atmospheric civil war. I’m not sure if this is a cloud of ash from a fire or just one mean storm system, but it looks all kinds of awesome.

How I Came To Know It: I had first discovered their 2011 album “Barton Hollow” and was digging through their discography. Turns out it was just two albums, but I liked them both.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Civil Wars albums, which is all there are ever going to be. Of those two I rank their self-titled effort #1. 2011’s “Barton Hollow” gets more street cred, but I think their self-titled follow up is consistently stronger.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

The Civil Wars eponymous second album is bitter sweet: sweet because of the magic between Joy Williams and John Paul White, bitter because their second record would also prove to be their last. Tragic, but at least no one died – they just went their separate ways.

While they were together they created some solid indie folk music with a distinctive country flavour. Listening to this record you get the impression these guys would’ve been embraced by Nashville if they’d just been willing to stoop to a more saccharine pop sound. Thankfully, they demurred.

Williams’ vocals have a bit more sweetness in her tone (and when she calls on it, surprising power) and White provides a nice grounding, with a natural gift for an emotionally honest delivery. Most of the songs are either duets, harmonies or some combination of the two. Their harmonies are often loose, letting their two voices play off one another, with enough space in between that your ear can enjoy the differences.

There are a couple of occasions when they get caught up in experimenting in how many different ways they can stretch this tension and sacrifice the song’s melody in the process, but this is pretty rare and for the most part I either forgave it, or at least appreciated the effort.

White also contributes on guitar. He isn’t a master, but he is a versatile player who has a raw energy and a mellow strum. It feels like a sotto voce whisper; deliberately soft around the edges but insistent on being heard.

These songs are intimate explorations of the human condition which manage to remain optimistic at their core, even though they are often filled with heartache and doubt. “The One that Got Away” and “Same Old Same Old” are both songs about relationships in inexorable decay; collapsing even as former lovers bemoan their loss.

The album’s best song is “Dust to Dust” a song with rounded production and a pop-infused folk beat that reminded me of mid-eighties Bruce Springsteen, right before he went too far into the Land of the Drum Machine. Amid a lot of songs about heartache and poor choices, “Dust to Dust” is a plea to the broken to let love in and see what happens:

“All your actin'
Your thin disguise
All your perfectly delivered lies
They don't fool me
You've been lonely, too long”

The vocals lightly rush the beat, capturing the desperate insistence of those who want to let their walls down but have forgotten how.

The album features a couple of covers. Etta James’ “Tell Mama” is OK, but I don’t know the original so it is hard to compare. The band goes to great lengths to change the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” into a folk song and it works, but I still found myself preferring the original.

Overall, “The Civil Wars” is a solid record, not afraid to cross genres and bare its soul while doing so. It takes a lot of turns and it loses me at a few of them, but it is never boring and has some songs that will seriously pull on your heartstrings.

Best tracks: The One That Got Away, Same Old Same Old, Dust to Dust, Devil’s Backbone, From this Valley

Monday, April 16, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1127: Patsy Cline

I’m feeling a little tired today. Could be the weather, or maybe it was watching my beloved Bruins lose a hockey game. Whatever it is, it’ll pass.

Disc 1127 is… Gold
Artist: Patsy Cline

Year of Release: 2000, but featuring music from 1956-1963

What’s up with the Cover? The lady of the hour posing for some glamour shots.

How I Came To Know It: My mom loved Patsy Cline and I heard this music as a young boy. In more recent years my buddy Casey brought some over one night and it reminded me how great she was. Shortly thereafter I went out and found this compilation.

How It Stacks Up:  Anthologies like this one don’t stack up.

Ratings: Compilations don’t get rated because they aren’t true albums – maybe one day I’ll rank all my compilation records, but not today.

I’m going to put my musical cred on trial and admit that I watch American Idol. What can I say, it’s a guilty pleasure. You’ll hear a lot of talk about a singer’s tone on that show, and if you’re in my house when you’re watching you’ll hear me weigh in on the same subject. It’s because it’s one thing to be in tune, and it’s one thing to be in time, but that’s just the start of a great vocal performance. A rich and unique tone is that rare treasure that every A&R man is looking for.

Patsy Cline has it all. She walks effortlessly around the pocket like Frank Sinatra and can hit a note like Billie Holliday. As for tone – hers has a quality that approaches the mythical. When she opens her mouth clouds part, rivers run and sailors dash themselves on the rock, overcome by the beauty of it all. Hyperbole? Perhaps, but listen to her belt out “Sweet Dreams (Of You)” and tell me I’m wrong. Just remember to wipe away those tears before you do though; they’ll betray the lie.

Back in the fifties and sixties you didn’t have to have great dance moves to be a singer, and you didn’t have to be a songwriter either. You just stood in front of one of those big silver microphones and let those aforementioned A&R men scour the land to find beautiful words for you to sing into it.

You could say Cline benefited from these industrious labours; I prefer to think she inspired them, but that’s probably the romantic in me. In any event, this collection showcases some great songs that take full advantage of her instrument.

This collection starts appropriately enough with “Walkin’ After Midnight,” which was her first hit back in 1957. It is very traditional country in structure, with Cline swaying her way through it with effortless grace and some glorious steel guitar. However, Cline has a style that crossed easily between the worlds of country and pop.

There’s so many great songs in this collection, but my favourite is “She’s Got You.” I love the way this song’s melody climbs up triumphantly as Cline sings about all the memorabilia from a failed relationship, just to let it collapse back down as she laments “she’s got you…” Great stuff.

This is also a good time to give a shout out to the great musicians on these tracks (thanks again, A&R man). In particular I noticed the backup singers crooning away in the background. It’s always more fun to imagine yourself in the lead, but these guys made me think I could be happy just oohing and aahing behind the great Patsy Cline.

That isn’t to say it is all good. 33 songs is a lot of songs to wade through in one sitting, even if they are sung by Patsy Cline. Some of these songs are over 60 years old and haven’t aged well. “Bill Bailey, Won’t You Please Come Home” felt like a USO show and “South of the Border” didn’t get sufficiently “south of the border, down Mexico way” for it to feel authentic.

Fortunately, those are the outliers. More often than not Cline’s songs of love and heartache are so powerful they cut clear across the decades and into your soul.

In addition to being an inspiring listen on merit alone, Cline is integral to the growth of modern music. The musical structures employed here have been borrowed and built on to create pop, easy listening and country music alike for more than three generations, and they continue to inspire. While Cline didn’t write these songs, she gave them life and her vocal style remains a mountain modern singers attempt scale at their peril. I revel in watching them try it ever year on American Idol – please don’t tell anyone, though. I’ve got a reputation to think about.

Best tracks: Walkin’ After Midnight, A Poor Man’s Roses (Or a Rich Man’s Gold), Lovesick Blues, I Fall to Pieces, Crazy, Foolin’ Around, She’s Got You, Your Cheatin’ Heart, Why Can’t He Be You, Sweet Dreams (Of You)

Saturday, April 14, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1126: Rollins Band

On the way home last night I started out with a bad bus experience (as in, the first bus wasn’t going where I wanted to go, and the second one didn’t stop). When I finally did get on board my foul mood was almost immediately cured by an older lady who decided to engage me in conversation (even though my headphones make it very clear I don’t want to engage in conversation).

She told me with great delight how she was busing downtown to get sweet and sour dipping sauce at McDonald’s, then off to Burger King to get chicken nuggets and finally to 7-11 for a “drink” (she was less specific on the drink, but I’m certain she had something in mind).

She looked like someone with very little money who had lived a hard life but her eyes sparkled with joy over her dinner plans. It reminded me to appreciate the little things and not get too wrapped up in minor inconveniences. So thanks Random Bus Lady, for getting me back on the path.

Disc 1126 is… Weight
Artist: Rollins Band

Year of Release: 1994

What’s up with the Cover? Feathers fall. Given the album’s title, maybe the idea here I that even a feather has weight.

How I Came To Know It: I knew the single “Liar” from when it came out, but it was my friend Andrew who recently suggested I start my Rollins Band journey here. Well done, Andrew!

How It Stacks Up:  I have a Black Flag album featuring Henry Rollins, but this is my only Rollins Band album…so far. I feel like that is going to change.

Ratings: 5 stars

This album was a revelation, a mix of insight, groove and directed fury. When Rollins shocks you (and he does) he shocks you with purpose, a musical assault designed to shake you by the shoulders and wake you up.

“Weight” walks a line between punk, hard core and groove metal with an easy grace that showcases Henry Rollins at his most fearless and creative. Like all great records, “Weight” knows exactly what it wants to be and the confidence in that vision gives the record momentum that sweeps in and takes you for a ride.

Rollins alternates between a spoken word style (he is also a spoken word performer) and a raspy punk-metal delivery that reminded me a little of Pantera’s Phil Anselmo. The music follows suit, occasionally low and atmospheric, but more often crunching out metal riffs that are sharp and clear and hit you right in the spine. A lot of bands in 1994 were trying to fuzz up their sound, and I appreciate that the Rollins Band keeps things crisp without sacrificing one iota of heavy.

However, “Weight” is more than just guitar riffs and power (and the occasional tasteful bass solo). This is a record with something to say – hardly surprising when Henry Rollins is on the microphone.

So many angry albums are accusatory, but “Weight” is equally reflective, with Rollins openly sharing his anxieties and fears.  Disconnect” is all about the crushing mental paralysis that comes from thinking too much. Most smart people have some version of the hamster wheel in their head, and Rollins is open about his struggles in keeping it under control. On the surface the song is an appeal to disconnect, but it is more accurately about finding balance when your mind is racing.

The album doesn’t shy away from social issues, but Rollins approaches his topics as an individual, eschewing campaign slogans and stereotypes and greeting the listener person to person. Does he take sides? You bet he does, but he won’t put himself into a mold. On “Civilized” he delivers a rage-laden anti-gun message where he calls out criminals and police with equal vitriol. Don’t like that comparison? Rollins didn’t want you to. He isn’t demanding that his listeners agree, but he is pushing you to see things from a new angle.

Wrong Man” is a direct appeal to treat each person you meet on their own merits – it seems obvious but we all need to guard against past experiences clouding our judgment about new people. It’s also a reminder that like that lady on the bus, most people are pretty decent if you give them a chance.

By taking the role of the villain in “Liar”, Rollins is able explore just how manipulators manipulate and how to stop them. Rollins himself is quite a fast-talker but he never uses his powers for evil. On “Liar” he shows how ugly the people who do are inside.

The album ends with “Shine” a groovy and inspiring anthem about self-empowerment. But make no mistake, this isn’t Disney-style empowerment, nor is it some kind of New Age “everyone is special/no one is special” logic loop. This is a kick-in-the-pants call to action because life is short, and if you want to make a difference you better get at it right now. As Rollins puts it:

“I’m talking to you. Hero time starts right now
If you think you’ve got 100 extra years to mess around, you’re wrong.
This time, it’s real. Your time is now. It’s hero time.”

Rollins is empowering you but he is also calling you out. You wanna be a liar or you wanna be a hero? It’s time to pick a side. This song fills me with an unnatural vigor every time I hear it.

In fact, this whole album filled with positive energy and a feeling like every moment counts. “Weight” can be angry, and it can be accusatory in places, but it is an album that at its core is about making the world a better place, one person at a time. That’s five stars of kick-ass in my books.

Best tracks: all tracks, but I particularly love Disconnect, Civilized, Liar, Step Back, Wrong Man and Shine. Oh whatever – just listen to the whole thing.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1125: Prism

I have a 45 minute walk home and today as I left the office, the bus pulled up at the perfect time. I resisted however, and got a little exercise in. I also got an extra listen to this next album!

Disc 1125 is… Prism (Self-Titled)
Artist: Prism

Year of Release: 1977

What’s up with the Cover? It’s a prismatic spray coming out of a diamond held by a hand in the sky, depicted within a mirror also being held by a hand in the sky! The mind is overwhelmed with the awesomeness of it all.

How I Came To Know It: I grew up with Prism, so all this stuff is pretty familiar. Half these songs were on a greatest hits package I owned until I realized I might as well just own the studio album.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Prism albums, which isn’t nearly all of them, but I think is plenty. Of those three, I put their self-titled debut right in the middle at number two. Since this is the last of their albums for me to review, here’s a recap:

  1. Armageddon: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 269)
  2. Prism: 3 stars (reviewed right here)
  3. Young & Restless: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 817)
Ratings: 3 stars

Revel in the first moments in the career of Prism, the band that never met a synthesizer hook they didn’t love. Or have a bit of a laugh if you want, but at least admit these guys wrote some good songs.

Prism may sound a little dated today, but they were Canadian icons in the day. From the very beginning they weren’t afraid to mess with the tired old rock arrangements of vocal, bass, guitar and drum. The first five songs feature: 1) synthesizer and cowbell; 2) guitar and cowbell; 3) organ and synthesizer (double organ…?); 4) handclaps and a horn section and then 5) back to guitar and…more cowbell. Glorious.

With three of the first five songs featuring cowbell, Prism demonstrates a true understanding that the only thing better than cowbell, is more cowbell. These guys had a fever for cowbell that Blue Oyster Cult could only dream of.

As for the synthesizer, it is a dangerous instrument in the wrong hands and can make a perfectly ordinary song cheesy and fake. However, Prism show how to do it right, making everything feel futuristic and anthemic. Some of it now feels like the past imagining the future, but has still somehow aged well.

The opening track is “Spaceship Superstar” which was a minor hit in Canada (a bit bigger here in my home province of British Columbia). This song was my earliest introduction to the mysteries of stereo sound. It opens with some bells twinkling like stars, first in your right ear, then your left, then back again, followed by a low synth hum and rumble that feels like Darth Vader’s star destroyer is flying through your skull. I remember the moment my brother put the headphones on me, and watched my face light up with the glory of it all.

As for the song, it is a catchy tune about a band touring the solar system. Ron Tabak’s vocals are high and airy (as was the style at the time) and he knows how to make camp sound convincing. When he sings “the fans swarm like meteorites/to our concerts on the moon” he says “meteorites” with such manic excitement that you can’t help but have a good time. Also, did I mention the cowbell?

The next song “Open Soul Surgery” is merely OK, but it is buoyed by more cowbell, and a passable bit of guitar from lead guitarist Lindsay Mitchell. As individuals I didn’t find Prism the best rock musicians ever, but they play well as a group and know how to stay restrained and serve the song.

My favourite song on the record is the break-up ballad “It’s Over”. This song starts with some genuinely soulful work on the piano, and when (this being Prism) it morphs into the techno-haunted tones of synthesizer it still works. Tabak’s vocals are pure and real and when I was a kid I was sure I understood heartache just hearing this guy sing it. Nowadays I probably find myself singing “we shouldn’t be surprised to know…it’s over, it’s over, it’s o..ver!” at least once a month at the end of a hard work week. I probably love this song more than it deserves but I can’t help myself; it’s in my DNA at this point.

Take Me to the Kaptin” is another minor hit and once again sings about space flight. It is fun to sing along with, featuring both handclaps and…cowbell. The guitar work is good on this track as well, and it has a solo that actually serves the melody – something that should be obvious but is often overlooked in rock and metal.

It isn’t all great, but even the weaker tracks have their moments. The notable exception is “Vladivostok” which has the band trying to get their prog but it doesn’t suit their vibe. It also features a Frampton-like talk box guitar solo that is…unfortunate.

The album then cuts to two songs about women; “Amelia” and then “Julie.” The latter of these feels heavily inspired by late sixties Beach Boys. These are OK, but could have used more synthesizer…or cowbell. Just do what you do, Prism.

Prism gets a lot of laughs these days, but this is a solid rock album from a band not afraid to do their own thing, and who know how to write a melody. I’m not only going to continue to enjoy this album, I’m going to keep sneaking my favourites onto party mixes.

Best tracks: Spaceship Superstar, It’s Over, Take Me to the Kaptin

Monday, April 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1124: King Diamond

It’s appropriate this next album is about restless spirits because it feels like it is haunting me. I rolled it back in January, but decided starting my King Diamond journey with the sequel to an earlier album didn’t make much sense. Instead, I invoked Rule #5 and chose the first “Abigail” album, since it was also in the “new to me” section of the collection.

But like the ghost of Abigail herself, this album stalked me down to be reborn, more terrible than before.

Disc 1124 is… Abigail II: The Revenge
Artist: King Diamond

Year of Release: 2002

What’s up with the Cover? In days of yore, before the time of hair product, a creepy woman accepts a lantern from an even creepier toddler. I’m not one for creepy baby lantern-bearers, and with all that dry grass around their feet it looks like an accident waiting to happen. If I were this woman I’d take a pass on the lantern and just find my way by the glowing ghost light emanating from the mansion. Yes, that would be better.

How I Came To Know It: As part of my recent return to heavy metal I discovered a lot of King Diamond. I liked the original “Abigail” (reviewed back at Disc 1093) so getting the sequel just made sense. Well, it did at the time.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight King Diamond albums. I now realize that this is too many King Diamond albums. “Abigail II: The Revenge” is in last place, and will soon be departing the hallowed stacks of my CD library.

Ratings: 2 stars

What is there to say about King Diamond that I haven’t said already – and recently. He’s a crazy face-painting Danish metal star who sings in a high falsetto and writes concept albums that would make great plots for cheesy seventies horror movies.

I love cheesy seventies horror movies, but having listened to so much King Diamond lately, I think I’ve worn myself out. It felt like I was on the final flick of a Hallowe’en marathon at three in the morning when everyone else had already gone to bed. All those crunchy rock riffs were still there, and King Diamond was still going all in to inspire me with his grotesqueries, but I just felt dehydrated and a little tired.

It wasn’t terrible - I was just kind of bored. It was the musical equivalent of falling asleep for twenty minutes of the movie but when you wake up you managing to piece together enough of what is happening that you don’t bother backing it up to see what you missed.

The tale this time revolves around the character of Abigail, who we last saw as a possessed baby eating a corpse before being nailed into some enchanted coffin. Like any bad sequel, “Abigail II” takes all kinds of liberties with the first story to allow all your favourite (?) characters to return. Abigail instead grows up, and the guy who supposedly dies falling down the stairs in the first album is now alive as a creepy middle-aged invalid. Rape and murder ensue, including a guy getting his throat slit by the necklace featured on the 1990 album “The Eye” because - why not? “Abigail II” has more implausible plot twists than Jaws IV.

For all this bat-shittery, there was a fair bit to like about “Abigail II” - mostly the music. Andy LaRocque lays down some badass guitar riffs and wails on some of the better solos. He is the Randy Rhodes to King Diamond’s Ozzy and his skillful playing provides the album the grounding it desperately needs. While a lot of the songs blend into one long conceptual metal soup (which I think is intentional) there are moments where LaRocque will not be denied, crunching along as his lead vocalist gleefully belts out his tale of mayhem and terror.

Unfortunately, the lyrics are hackneyed and obvious and very hard to overlook, with a lot of awkward phrasing and forced rhyme. King Diamond albums always teeter on the edge of overdoing it as they take you on their bizarre carnival experience. Maybe it was playing with fire once too often, or maybe I just got my fill of King Diamond on earlier, better records, but this time I had a harder time enjoying the ride.

Best tracks: Miriam

Friday, April 6, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1123: Buck Dharma

After a couple of sleepless nights and a lot of fretting I decided to not buy the car I test drove. It was a beautiful piece of European engineering and style, but my heart still lies with American muscle. In the end Rock and Roll Logan won out over Businessman Logan.

And so the search continues, as does the CD Odyssey.

Disc 1123 is… Flat Out
Artist: Buck Dharma

Year of Release: 1982

What’s up with the Cover? Buck leans back majestically on a 1955 or ’56 Oldsmobile Starfire. Too bad Buck’s car has a flat because when the Starfire is up and running it’s the standout car on every highway, with the smoothest get-up-and-go you’ve ever known! Don’t believe me? – see for yourself.

How I Came To Know It: Buck Dharma is the lead guitar for Blue Oyster Cult. I learned this record existed years ago but it was impossible to find. Finally in 2003 they re-released it on CD. I’m still searching for it on vinyl. I don’t buy a lot of vinyl but for Buck Dharma I would make an exception.

How It Stacks Up:  Buck only did one solo album so it can’t really stack up.

Ratings: 4 stars

Blue Oyster Cult is a band where every member contributes to their sound. Because of this any one of them having solo success is a tough proposition. “Flat Out” makes a few missteps, but overall Buck Dharma proves that he has the songwriting and guitar playing talent to pull it off.

“Flat Out” was released in between two solid and successful Blue Oyster Cult records, “Fire of Unknown Origin” (1981) and “The Revolution by Night” (1983). In style, it resembles the latter more, with a much more pronounced early eighties fuzz in the production. I don’t love this sound, but Buck’s solo style and his high crooner vocal style matches it well.

The album begins with “Born to Rock” a blues-rock number and Buck’s tip of the hat to BOC fans expecting some hard rock. It is an energetic launch to the record and features some of Buck’s signature work on the guitar, but the bridge has some oooh-la-la-la” action that warns fans this will not just be another BOC record.

Buck then spreads his musical wings, experimenting with pop, doo-wop and prog-rock storytelling that is more in line with Pink Floyd than Blue Oyster Cult. If you just wanted another BOC album this might annoy you, but I loved it. Buck Dharma compositions are consistently some of my favourite BOC songs, and it is fun to hear let him untethered to any of his band mate’s influences.

Like with a BOC album, the guitar work is incredible, but in the back of the mix. Even solo, Buck knows well enough to let his guitar serve the song and not the other way around. As a result the record never descends into the noodle-fest it could, and the songs remain compact and thoughtfully structured.

The one exception to this is “Anwar’s Theme” an instrumental dedicated to recently assassinated Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. It is cool that Dharma wrote Sadat a song, but is a bit too heavy handed, a bit too jazzy and a has whole lot of noodling. I believe at a couple points it features a synthesized jazz flute. For instrumentals, I prefer the much earlier BOC number “Buck’s Boogie.”

Also heavy handed is “Your Loving Heart” which tells the tragic tale of a man dying of heart failure, saved by a transplant that only becomes available (spoiler alert) when his true love dies in a car crash and is revealed as a matching donor. The song starts out romantic and beautiful, but the middle section has just a whole lot going on – including a heart machine, a ringing phone, a ticking clock and hackneyed lyrics like:

“We have a donor! We have a donor!
Car accident – accident victim
Head injury! A good tissue match!”

I’m not sure if all those exclamation points are in the liner notes, but Buck sure sings it with a lot of positive yeehaw. This song reminded me of solo Roger Watters – still brilliant but now lacking someone to tell him less is more.

My favourite track is “Cold Wind” a song about a married man considering infidelity. Even though the worst crimes in the song are some romantic thoughts in a dream, Buck’s soaring vocals make it feel like the height of passion and angst. Also, there is some kick-ass guitar work (again).

On “Wind Weather Storm” the main instruments are a single drum sounding like a handclap, a stand up jazz base and (near the end) flourishes of saxophone. This should not work, but it builds so easily and the song is so damned catchy it all comes together.

The record ends with a cover of the Fleetwood’s “Come Softly to Me.” The song starts with some strange backward-playing tape but once Buck launches into the song he really shows his vocal chops. He doesn’t have a powerhouse voice, but it is sweet and he sings it like he means it.

My appreciation of “Flat Out” was helped a lot by the fact that Buck Dharma is the favourite member of my favourite band, so this record won’t be for everyone. It mixes up a lot of styles and not all of those experiments work. If you’re open to many musical styles and you like Blue Oyster Cult, give “Flat Out” a try. If you’re neither or only one of these things then approach with caution.

Best tracks: Born to Rock, That Summer Night, Cold Wind, Wind Weather and Storm, Come Softly to Me

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1122: Dessa

I test drove a car yesterday and was mistaken for a musician. I won’t deny it felt good. Now I just have to decide if I want to buy the car…

Disc 1122 is… Parts of Speech
Artist: Dessa

Year of Release: 2013

What’s up with the Cover? A storm of hair. This looks great in a photo, but if you’re trying to cross the street with your hands full it is all kinds of annoying.

How I Came To Know It: I discovered Dessa through her 2018 album, “Chime” and dug backwards through her collection from there.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three Dessa records (I’m on the lookout for a fourth). Of those three, I put “Parts of Speech” in third. Hey – someone has to be last.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

Look through my music collection and you want find very much pop-flavoured hip hop, but sometimes an artist is so good you forget your musical predilections. So it is with Minneapolis based pop/hip hop/spoken word artist Margret Wander, aka Dessa.

As noted above, “Parts of Speech” is not my favourite Dessa album but it is far better than most of vacuous hip hip suffusing every award show I mistakenly tune in hoping for better (are the I Heart Radio awards even a real thing?). Whether she is singing, speaking or rapping Dessa is not content to go on about status, possessions and empty anthems. Instead, she infuses her songs with courageous explorations of grief, mental illness, and very real expressions of power, grounded in experience and resilience.

The songs that are the most radio friendly on the album aren’t my favourites, but it is something of a crime that Dessa didn’t hit big with “Parts of Speech”. “Skeleton Key” is a pop anthem if ever there was one, with a catchy hook and a danceable back beat. Somewhere out there are some twenty something playfully bumping rumps, fist pumping and singing along to “Skeleton Key.” The thought gives me hope for the leaders of tomorrow.

Dessa is part of the music collective Doomtree (along with fellow Odyssey dweller P.O.S.). The Doomtree Collective prides itself on thought-provoking rap and innovative beats. Dessa does both and keeps it easy on the ears while doing it. “Warsaw” has some pseudo-African beats married to eighties inspired synth and a little jazz piano in the background.

The combination shouldn’t work but it does, partly because while she adds a lot of elements, Dessa keeps the arrangement sparse and gives it room to breathe and accommodate her raps. Those raps have an easy constant flow that makes you almost forget how furious and in your face they are. On “Warsaw” Dessa chimes in with:

“And I’ve done some living in a glass house
High note blew the motherfucking walls off
And I sleep
With both eyes open
Standing up
Alone and holding
Off the rust
And I’m still living by my maiden name
The name I came with
The name I made
And I’m bare-faced at your masquerade
Filled a flask up before I came.”

It is a message of unapologetic honesty and furious inner rhyme. If you don’t want to hear what Dessa wants to tell you, by all means shut the record off. You’ll only be hurting yourself though.

Annanabelle” shows Dessa’s softer side, delivering a lyrical poem over a classical arrangement she channels some kind of Gothic poet on the verses and then sings the chorus with the gentle lilt of an angel at sea. The song is about mental illness, so it is an angel lost at sea, but an angel nonetheless. Best line:

“You’re in the bathroom with a flashlight
You’re trying to weigh your shadow
Yeah, you say it’s gotten heavy, hard to drag across the floor.”

Halfway through the album, Dessa does a cover of Springsteen’s “I’m Going Down” and nails it. Her soft vocals bring a new vulnerability and uncertainty to a song that is already about the unsteady ground of a failing relationship.

Dessa isn’t afraid to push metaphor, working in songs like “Fighting Fish” and “Beekeeper,” the latter comparing the smoke used to keep bees docile with the dangers of being sleepy in the face of inequity. Heady stuff.

And for old-schoolers like me, “Parts of Speech” even has a nifty CD case, featuring a pull-tab system for checking out each the lyrics to each song. In 2013 this kind of printed extravagance was almost unheard of.

The only thing that holds this album back a little are the moments that feel a bit too soaked in pop production, and I would’ve preferred a starker approach. For stuff this thought-provoking it tends to let your ear gloss over the message in places where it is worth paying attention.

For this reason it comes in last in my collection, but still almost pulls out four stars.

Best tracks: Warsaw, I’m Going Down, Annabelle, It’s Only Me

Friday, March 30, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1121: M. Ward

I’m at the front end of a long weekend and looking forward to it unfurling.

Disc 1121 is… Post-War
Artist: M. Ward

Year of Release: 2006

What’s up with the Cover? A bunch of banners hang against a washed out background. There are also a couple of random scenes – one with a building and one with a matador and a bull. The whole thing makes me want to put my hands on my hips and admonish M. Ward in my most matronly voice, “It looks like a warzone in here, Michael!” and demand he get his album cover in order before company arrives.

How I Came To Know It: This is yet another album from Paste Magazine’s “100 Top indie folk albums of all time” (this one came in at #28). I got a lot of music from that list.

How It Stacks Up:  M. Ward has nine solo albums, but this is the only one I have so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 2 stars

I woke up early this morning hungry and hungover and took a walk. “Post-War” is soft indie folk and inoffensive background music for a hangover, but that’s about it. It definitely doesn’t deserve the lofty heights of #28 on Paste Magazine’s list.

So why did I buy it in the first place? Put simply, I fell for a kitschy little song called “Chinese Translation.” “Chinese Translation” is a sing-songy affair with a catchy melody and a sentimental story that reminds you that wisdom is mostly realizing that there aren’t easy answers. He says it better, but that’s the idea. While I still like the song, I liked it less after multiple listens and I’m starting to suspect it is a bit gimmicky.

I also liked “Requiem” which benefits from a cool guitar strum and a nice even emotional build, but outside of these songs I found “Post-War” largely forgettable. These are twee little songs that are fine at low volumes, but I expect more out of my music than that.

I could get into specifics, like the annoying decision to tack on about a minute of buzzing and old-timey radio onto the back end of “Right in the Head” but I’m not sure I would even remember that happening unless I was casting around for what was noteworthy enough for a music review. It was just hard to stay focused.

Part of the problem is M. Ward’s voice. It is light and airy and not bad, but it lacks the power and emotional gravitas to pull the songs up. The album suffers from the worst fault in indie music – it feels emotionally detached. It’s too bad, because M. Ward is a talented songwriter.

Ward is one half of the band She & Him, alongside Zooey Deschanel. I love “She & Him” and when I did tune back in from time to time it made wish Deschanel was singing. Her vocals are just what this stuff needs, but without it they don’t have enough juice to hold my interest. This morning before I wrote this I lay on the couch watching reruns of “New Girl” for a while. I think it was just me getting my fix of Zooey’s magic before I had to come back here and write about a record without her.

M. Ward has nine albums and after I discovered “Post-War” I delved into the collection to see if I liked anything else. I came up empty, which I should’ve taken a sign that I wasn’t picking up what he was putting down. Ah well, live and learn and appreciate him for his great work on “She & Him”. Then pass “Post-War” along to someone who will yawn less when listening to it.

Best tracks: Requiem, Chinese Translation

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1120: Middle Brother

Ever have a week with too much to do and not enough time to do it? Of course you have. Well I’m having one right now.

Disc 1120 is… Middle Brother (Self-Titled)
Artist: Middle Brother

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Three hip cats just hanging out. John McCauley is wearing a Black Flag shirt which probably means he’s a fan, but there’s a chance he’s being ironic. There’s no way to know with these hipsters without asking, and I don’t have his number.

How I Came To Know It: Middle Brother was ranked #93 on Paste Magazine’s “100 Top indie folk albums of all time”. I’m not sure I would rank them #93, but I know a lot of folk albums and it is a seriously good one. I would have had it sooner but it was filed under “Deer Tick” at my local record store. More on why in a minute.

How It Stacks Up:  This is the only Middle Brother album so it can’t stack up.

Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4

When it comes to super groups there are plenty genres other than rock and roll where big names come together to do something new. “Middle Brother” is indie folk-rock’s answer to the super group.

But how super are they? The incorporate the core songwriting talents from the bands Deer Tick (John McCauley), Dawes (Taylor Goldsmith) and Delta Spirit (Matt Vasquez). I have two Dawes albums, had vaguely heard of Deer Tick and didn’t know who Delta Spirit was, so I wasn’t terribly impressed at the outset. However, Youtube puts these bands at a few hundred thousand hits up to two million, which for an indie band is pretty damned super. Jason Isbell even guests on guitar.

OK, so there are some big (for the genre) names here but is the music any good? Yes, it is. Middle Brother’s three principle songwriters all know their craft well and while they wear their influences on their sleeves, they wear them well. I’m not sure what tracks Isbell are on, but the guitar work throughout is excellent.

The album hearkens back to the early crossover days of folk, country and rock and both the songs and their delivery had me thinking of the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers. This is partly the nasal delivery of at least two of the “brothers” reminding me of Roger McGuinn but it goes deeper than that, and is found in the celebratory jangle present in even the sadder songs.

I also felt the influence of early rock and roll, and on “Me Me Me” I felt like half the A section was from Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel.” At any moment I was expecting at least one ‘brother’ to walk down to a preacher and say “I do”.

As you would expect from three accomplished songwriters there are some beautiful turns of phrase. The album begins with “Daydreaming” a sublimely plucked guitar and the lines:

Early in the morning too hung over to go back to sleep
Every sound is amplified, every light so dizzying.
Listen for a while to the neighbours having sex
Wishing I could lay my aching head upon your breast.”

Great stuff from John McCauley, but every one of the trio has equally great stuff on the record. Unfortunately, it feels like they cram all their best material onto the front half of the record, and my favourite songs are the first six.

The last of those is “Portland,” the album’s only cover, features a jaunty high-voiced guitar that provides the perfect juxtaposition to the song’s themes of collapse and decadence. When I went to Youtube to hear the Replacements original I found myself disappointed. With its rounded tones and eighties production it just lacked the poignancy that Middle Brother manages to generate with their stark and honest delivery.

After “Portland” the album took a slightly downward turn. “Wilderness” is solid, with some great turns of phrase (my favourite: “I plan to be the kind of person that when he drinks, he disappoints”) but kind of lost me at the refrain, which isn’t a good place for a song to lose you.

After this there are a series of songs that reminded me of early Beatles, which would be great if you like early Beatles, but it isn’t my thing.  Million Dollar Bill” is a pretty ending to the record, and I liked it, but as songs of lost love and regret go, I preferred the earlier track “Thanks for Nothing.

These are minor quibbles, though, and the only real issue I had with Side Two was that it couldn’t match the sheer brilliance of Side One. Most records wish they could have that problem.

This is a record worth owning, and I left it with a strong sense that it will grow on me more and more with repeat listens.

Best tracks: Daydreaming, Blue Eyes, Thanks for Nothing, Middle Brother, Theatre, Portland