Saturday, December 8, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1207: St. Vincent

As hinted at in my last review, this album was actually randomly rolled for my last review, but I replaced it with “Masseduction” since that was the original release of the same songs, one year earlier, and it just made sense to grok that first. Now we return to regularly scheduled programming, and that record’s reinterpretation.

Disc 1207 is… Masseducation
Artist: St. Vincent

Year of Release: 2018

What’s up with the Cover? Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent), stripped down, just like this album’s production. Lest you think this means you can presume to know her better, she presents the photo out of focus as a reminder that like any artist she shows exactly what she means to show, and nothing more.

How I Came To Know It: If you’ve read my previous review you will know how much I loved “Masseduction” so when I found out St. Vincent had done an acoustic version I snapped it up as soon as it hit the shelves.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three St. Vincent albums. It is hard to rate an album that is essentially the same songs as the last one, but since that’s the task at hand, I’ll put “Masseducation” in second place out of those three records.

Ratings:  5 stars

Just like the single ‘a’ added to this album’s title, one small change in the approach to a record can result in a whole new way of seeing it. On “Masseducation” the change is the switch from electric to acoustic, and the arrangement from multiple instruments down to a single piano.

That pianist is Thomas Bartlett, aka “Doveman” (because apparently everyone has to have a stage name these days). Over two days he and Clark sat in a studio apartment and recorded the songs from her 2017 album “Masseduction.” His task: take that album’s brilliant mix of techno, rock and pop and boil it down into arrangements for a single piano. Lots of songs are originally written just sitting at the piano anyway, so the task isn’t all that complicated, but making the result sound like something more than a muted demo is where things get tricky.

Fortunately, Bartlett is more than up to the task. There are times where he plays the tune straight - no chaser, times when he adds in flourishes that create additional emotional depth and times where he just takes his hands off the keys and lets St. Vincent’s vocals stand alone. Most importantly, he has a good understanding of where each approach fits best.

The task is also daunting for St. Vincent. “Masseducation” leaves no room for subterfuge and no production to hide any shortcomings behind. In response, she delivers a powerful and fearless vocal performance. Her rich tone fills in all the space left between the piano notes, and often carries the song on their own. I was reminded favourably of great pop vocalists like Lady Gaga or Sheryl Crow who undertook similarly brave vocal performances. I’ve always been impressed by St. Vincent’s talents as a guitar player and as a songwriter but “Masseducation” gave me a whole new appreciation for her talents as a singer.

Along the way, she also shows the beautiful bones of these songs. Even a song like “Pills” which has a heavily produced approach on its original presentation still works with just a piano and voice. A good song can be played in any style, and these are some of the best songs you will find, pop or otherwise.

All of the themes I explored on my review of “Masseduction” are present here as well, with the same thoughtful exploration of sex, desire and vulnerability. However, the stories feel more raw without the sugarcoating of a pop backbeat or guitar treatment. “Savior” is even more intensely sexual and “Hang On Me” is even more wan and heart-worn than ever.

My only minor quibble is on “New York” where St. Vincent shifts a part of the melody to make it drop down where the original version soars. That said, the change also made me see the song in a new light. The theme of apology and regret is consistent, but in the original there is a manic quality to the experience. Here, it leaves you feeling empty and unsatisfied. It is a reminder that the same source of grief can manifest itself in a lot of different, but related emotions.

The album also rearranges the song order. The songs that launch “Masseduction” (“Hang on Me” and “Pills”) are flipped to the end of “Masseducation”. The introspective and comparatively quiet “Slow Disco” is moved from the end to the first track. This reminds the listener that this will be a more intimate journey. It also has the effect of changing the overall emotional journey from manic doubt through to quiet uncertainty into the reverse.

On my first listen I thought the record would end up just shy of 5 stars; I didn’t love some of the jazzy elements in Bartlett’s piano playing. However, as I let the record sink in I realized it was having just as much impact on me as “Masseduction” did, but in a subtly different way. I was even finding different favourites as a result (“Young Lover” in particular benefits from the new treatment). Songs this good, and performances this powerful can’t be denied.

And so we sit with the same record getting 5 stars all over again, only this time it is completely different. Thanks for the education, Ms. Clark.

Best tracks: All tracks, but in particular Slow Disco, Savior, Masseduction, Smoking Section, Young Lover, Happy Birthday Johnny, Pills, Hang on Me. Yes, the other 4 are great too.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1206: St. Vincent

As readers of this blog’s fine print will know, while I roll what I’m going to review randomly, Rule #5 allows me to insert a new (to me) album into the process if I choose to do so. Over the past few years I have taken to rolling out of this new (to me) backlog, which usually sits at around 100 albums or so.

On my last foray into the new section I rolled “Masseducation”, which is St. Vincent’s acoustic reimagining of her previous album “Masseduction.” It seemed wrong to review the reinterpretation before I ever gave the original a full listen and since both were in the new music section…here we are.

I bet you can guess what album Disc 1207’s going to be, after which I promise to return the Odyssey to regular lack-of-scheduled programming.

Disc 1206 is… Masseduction
Artist: St. Vincent

Year of Release: 2017

What’s up with the Cover? Warning: album cover may contain suggestive scenes. The music has a few as well.

How I Came To Know It: I really liked St. Vincent’s previous album (reviewed back at Disc 858) released a few years earlier, and the first few singles off of “Masseduction” were great, so I took a chance on the rest.

How It Stacks Up:  I have three St. Vincent albums. Of the three, “Masseduction” is my favourite, so #1.

Ratings:  5 stars

Like the album cover, “Masseduction” is provocative, and sexy, presented on the surface as awkward and artificial, but with a deeper truth and integrity underneath. This is a complicated, thoughtful record that gets better and better on every listen.

Stylistically, St. Vincent (real name Annie Clark) once again displays her fearless willingness to borrow multiple musical styles and bend them to her unflinching artistic vision. Techno, rock and pop elements all blend and twist around one another, like three sets of legs under a set of satin sheets.

If that image sounds a bit racy, well so does this record. On “Masseduction” St. Vincent gives us thrills both above and below the waistline, and then confronts us with our own voyeurism. “Pills” and “Los Ageless” are anthems about the artificiality of modern existence, but to see them as just this would be a mistake. They are equally about how we willingly embrace artificiality as armour. Clark seems to be saying that we constructed our society this way and that when we’ve peeled the onion down to the core, we will only find our own desires fueling all the structures above. Consider the opening lines of “Los Ageless”:

“In Los Ageless, the winter never comes
In Los Ageless, the mothers milk their young
But I can keep running
No, I can keep running
The Los Ageless hang out by the bar
Burn the pages of unwritten memoirs
But I can keep running
No, I can keep running

“How can anybody have you?
How can anybody have you and lose you?
How can anybody have you and lose you
And not lose their minds, too?”

In the end, behind a series of killer back beats and innovative guitar riffs we find our narrator exploring her own loss, real and visceral despite all the artificiality wrapped around it.

On “Savior” and the title track, St. Vincent explores our complex relationship with desire, sexuality and objectification. “Savior” is a song about a woman whose partner likes her to dress up in costumes. There is some awkwardness in these roleplaying sequences, and even a little frustrated boredom with a nurse outfit that “rides and sticks to my thighs and my hips.Savior” is the sex that goes with the drugs in “Pills” and the rock and roll lifestyle of “Los Ageless,” but the themes are similar: people put on masks to give themselves a little space from the real, but the complexity of the human condition won’t be denied.

Many of these songs have the instruments artificially dressed up as well – wearing layers of reverb and accessorized with machine-generated back beats. They are the perfect mix of the organic, wrapping itself in the artificial. It is subtle and clever, and – also important – catchy as hell. You can just sit and groove along, or you can listen a little closer and let it up into your head. It works equally well either way.

This alone would make “Masseduction” a brilliant record, but St. Vincent adds songs that are deeply moving and intensely personal. “New York” is a stripped down song about regret and lost love, and “Happy Birthday, Johnny” is about watching a loved one lose themselves in poor life choices, and know there is nothing you can do to stop it.

Or it could be that these intensely personal songs are just St. Vincent exploring the internal angst of those same characters out there popping pills and donning sexy nurse outfits. It doesn’t really matter in the end, because great art is great art, and “Masseduction” is great art. It is musically profound, brave and powerful. You can let it wash over you like an emotional tide or you can immerse yourself in its complex explorations of sex, identity and society. Either way you won’t be disappointed.

Best tracks: All tracks, but in particular Hang On Me, Pills, Masseduction, Los Ageless, Happy Birthday Johnny, Savior, New York, Slow Disco and Smoking Section. Yes, the other 4 are good too.

Saturday, December 1, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1205: Jim Cuddy

I apologize for my lack of output over this past week, Gentle Reader. I’ve had a crazy schedule at work and I’ve been getting home with a tired brain. Usually writing a music review revitalizes me, but this week I defaulted to laying on the couch doing little more than what Leonard Cohen once referred to as “getting lost in that hopeless little screen”.

Disc 1205 is… All In Time
Artist: Jim Cuddy

Year of Release: 1998

What’s up with the Cover? According to the liner notes…

“The symbol in the cover – a cross within a circle – is from the Kongo Altar. It is called Dikenda. It stands at the crossroads and marks the onset of a journey. It is a shining circle representing the sun, and it marks the sun’s four moments – dawn, noon, sunset and midnight.”

So…there you go. No word on all the other stuff, like the bones arranged in the Roman numerals for “32” or the vines, or the roses or the five cups of blood or whatever they are across the top. I was tempted to cut all that stuff out and invent some game where they are all playing pieces but I didn’t want to wreck the CD.

How I Came To Know It: We were already Blue Rodeo fans, and had heard and liked the song “Too Many Hands” and so we took a chance. That’s what you did before Youtube and music streaming existed.

How It Stacks Up:  We have two Jim Cuddy solo albums: this one and “The Light that Guides You Home” (reviewed back at Disc 504). They are pretty equal but I’m going to give the edge to “The Light That Guides You Home”.

Ratings:  3 stars but almost 4

“All In Time” has a subtle beauty to it that I confess to having a hard time accessing while navigating a hard week. That said, the airy beauty of Cuddy’s voice and the gentle melodies of the record still reached me through the gloom, even if the words weren’t sinking in as much as I would have liked.

It is impossible to discuss a Jim Cuddy solo record without mentioning his usual gig as a principle singer and songwriter for Canadian alt-country icons Blue Rodeo. That band is a joyful call-and-answer of songs by Cuddy and fellow singer-songwriter Greg Keelor. You get half a record of Keelor’s psychedelic blues-infused country to balance the more straightforward country crooning of Cuddy. I like them both, so did I miss the variety?

No, and that speaks highly of the collection of songs Cuddy has pulled together for “All In Time.” He has pulled together some gorgeous melodies that showcase both his talents as a writer but also the exceptional range in his vocals. I have written before about the angelic power of Cuddy’s voice, but it bears some repeating. He has an ability to climb in and out of falsetto that raises the hair on the back of your neck. On “Too Many Hands” he does this repeatedly and I never got tired of it.

Cuddy was right to release “Too Many Hands” as the single – it is the album’s standout track – but there is plenty to like about the record. Mostly, I was drawn to Cuddy’s more thoughtful and melancholy songs. I think these tracks showcase his voice better, and while he can rock out well, it is that side of the ledger where I do pine a little for his Blue Rodeo bandmates.

Fortunately, I like alt-country and folk music just as much as rock and roll, so I don’t need to hear someone bang out power chords to have a good time. “Second Son” is a reflective song about friendship, and “Slide Through Your Hands” is about collapsing love; this latter theme being one that Cuddy has excelled at his entire career. You’d think he’d exhausted it by now, but “Slide Through Your Hands” shows he’s still got plenty of heartache to offer if you need to get your wallow on.

“All in Time” has slightly less noodling than your average Blue Rodeo album, but there were still a couple of moments that irked me. “New Year’s Eve” has over two minutes of atmospheric intro that sounds like a movie score more than a song, and serves no purpose that I could discern. Once the song starts it is pretty solid, but I was too irked by then to enjoy it.

Everybody Cries” is a beautiful song that wraps its arms around your shoulders on a cold day and tells you everything is going to be OK. It then breaks this promise with a clangorous rockabilly guitar/bass riff for a full minute after the song should have just faded away or quietly resolved. It was like having someone sing you a lullaby and just as you were fading off to sleep, violently shake you awake again.

“All In Time” is twenty years old this year, and I’ve heard it a lot over those years. For this reason, the songs are so familiar they sometimes fade into the background, particularly when my head is full of other worries. However, I’m glad I took a little extra time to let it seep back in over the last few days. Annoying noodles aside, it felt like a happy homecoming to see an old friend.

Best tracks: Second Son, Disappointment, Too Many Hands, Slide Through Your Hands, Making My Way To You

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1204: Girlschool

Welcome back to the Odyssey! For the second month in a row we get to delve into some Girlschool. Yeah!

Disc 1204 is… Hit and Run
Artist: Girlschool

Year of Release: 1981

What’s up with the Cover? Our four leather-clad heroines survey the damage to a brick wall after they ran their rather large sedan into it. Think they’ll be reporting it? The album title suggests…not.

How I Came To Know It: I just (Disc 1191) told the story of how the 4 CD set of Girlschool albums came to be in my collection so I won’t recount that again.  I will note that I originally came to know Girlschool through their guest appearances on a Motorhead compilation.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Girlschool albums, and I am putting “Hit and Run” in at number one, baby!

Ratings:  4 stars

“Hit and Run” is fast, furious and full of rebellious life; the musical equivalent of being punched in the teeth and yet somehow enjoying the experience.

This is Girlschool’s second album and their most commercially successful. In this regard a bit of context is important; it achieved #5 in the UK but only #50 in Canada (although it did go gold, so we loved them in our way). It had no real big hits, which is perhaps fitting for a record that doesn’t have a single so much as a solid mass of standout songs that deliver a consistent energy throughout.

Girlschool were Motorhead protégés and the influence is strong. Like Motorhead they straddle the line between punk and metal. Here you will get a lot of basic songs without a lot of chords played in the frenetic style of punk music. Like a motorcycle that has a front wheel vibrating ominously through a fast turn, Girlschool sounds like they are on the edge of losing control but never do.

Helping centrifugally balance the turn are churning metal riffs that would be at home on many an eighties metal album in the decade to come. The title track has a killer groove that sits down somewhere between the pomposity of KISS and the driving groove of Judas Priest. This time the song isn’t about bragging about lovin’ and leavin’, but the hurt feelings of the left behind. Girlschool doesn’t wallow, though, “Hit and Run” is a rallying cry to reject self-pity that raises a middle finger to fate and circumstance alike.

My early music experience is more metal than punk and the more crunchy riffs of songs like “Future Flash” appealed to me more than the punk flavours, but all of it is good. In both its incarnations, this is simple rock and roll, played with spit and spite. While I would tune in from time to time to the lyrics, it would be a mistake to look for a lot of complicated messages. Just let the visceral experience wash over you.

The band does a great cover of ZZ Top’s “Tush” filled with Motorhead-esque industrial crunch. It is great, but the fact that it isn’t even one of my favourite tracks is even more telling about the album’s quality. I’d rather here Girlschool blast their own stuff. When you can stand like that side by side with a hard rock classic you’ve got a classic or two of your own, chart topping be damned.

Listening to “Hit and Run” I could also hear the echoes of history, as the record feels like the natural ancestor to many all-girl bands that followed. L7 comes to mind, and – more recently – Bad Cop Bad Cop.

This particular edition of the record has a bunch of “bonus tracks.” While I liked the covers of Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ “Please Don’t Touch” and Motorhead’s “Bomber” there were three more tracks that made the experience a bit bloated, and didn’t sufficiently add to the record. If you are going to put bonus tracks at the end of a CD (and I generally wish you wouldn’t) then limit yourself to two.

That’s a minor quibble though on one of the truly great metal albums of the early eighties, and one I expect to be in regular rotation for years to come.

Best tracks: C’mon Let’s Go, Kick It Down, Following the Crowd, Hit and Run, Watch Your Step, Back to Start, Future Flash

Saturday, November 24, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1203: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

I’m in the middle of a nice long weekend of my own making. Yesterday I had no plans and was able to just chill out and listen to music outside of the Odyssey’s rules. I gave a listen to a couple of modern folk albums, one of which I liked and one of which I didn’t, and then I changed things up with some Warren Zevon (1989’s “Transverse City”).

But now we must return to our official journey…and Ms. Sharon Jones.

Disc 1203 is… Naturally
Artist: Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings

Year of Release: 2005

What’s up with the Cover? Ms. Sharon Jones, chillin’ in an easy chair. That lamp looks nice, but if I were her I’d get out of that room before the whole thing gets overtaken by line animation. Turning a woman with the bigger-than-life personality of Sharon Jones into a line drawing would be a crime.

How I Came To Know It: Originally through my buddy Nick buying a different album (“I Learned The Hard Way”) that I loved. “Naturally” was me, now hooked thanks to Nick, digging through her discography.

How It Stacks Up:  I have four Sharon Jones albums and they are all awesome. However, this is the part where we rank that awesomeness and “Naturally” can only manage the bronze – third, if you’re numerically inclined. As this is the last Sharon Jones album in my collection, here’s a full recap:

  1. I Learned the Hard Way: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 629)
  2. 100 Days, 100 Nights: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 803)
  3. Naturally: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  4. Give the People What They Want: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 608)
Ratings:  4 stars

“Naturally” is a throwback to the heyday of soul in the late sixties and early seventies, but like all other Dap-King albums, it never feels derivative. Much like Sharon in that old chair on cover, the music settles itself down beside its early inspirations so comfortably if you were to come into the room and see them all lined up on a couch you wouldn’t know who was modern and who was historical.

So why listen to Sharon Jones when you could just go to the original source material? A couple of songs into “Naturally” you’ll realize the foolishness of the question. You listen to Sharon Jones because she is every bit as good as the source material. There’s no reason to choose.

When you have a big soul band (the Dap-Kings have eight members in addition to Jones) you have to be tight. If someone comes in early or late, you’re going to notice. Fortunately, the Dap-Kings never let you down. I have a lot of music in a lot of styles and I can’t think of a band that plays more seamlessly together than these guys.

But in soul music, being tight doesn’t mean a thing if you can’t work the magic of the pocket. Again, the Dap-Kings do not disappoint. “Natural Born Lover” starts with just Jones and drummer Homer Steinweiss dropping the perfect rhythm for a couple of bars and then the whole band arrives en masse. Guitarist Binky Griptite drops a funky rhythm on guitar, Bosco Mann kills it on the bass and the horn section adds flourishes everywhere they belong and nowhere they don’t. The whole thing has that satisfying feel of a gymnast sticking a landing or an NFL wideout tapping his toes in on a sideline; it just feels right

Natural Born Lover” is fun lyrically as well, as Jones extolls the virtues of her man in the sack. We learn he is an ‘NBL’ (natural born lover) who ‘TCB’s (takes care of business). It is impossible to sit still with this song playing. You gotta let your backbone slide and your head bob, even on a bus full of strangers (I regret nothing!). The song is sneaky-complex as well. On the surface, it is just a killer groove, while underneath a lot of clever flourishes of horn, drum and guitar added in artful splashes that never distract from the core of the song.

Against this backdrop of excellence Jones is free to belt it out, flowing around the pocket to give the songs that extra swing without wrecking the groove. It is a rare skill. It isn’t something you can teach, it’s something you either have or you don’t. Frank Sinatra has it. Dean Martin has it. Ozzy Osbourne has it. And Sharon Jones has it as well.

The record has a nice mix of slow romantic crooners like “You’re Gonna Get It” and up-tempo booty shakers like “Your Thing Is a Drag” giving the record as a whole a nice ebb and flow as well.

Fun feature that downloaders don't get to enjoy: the liner notes include the astrological sign for all the band members. I was not surprised to read that band leader and bassist Bosco Mann is a Leo.

The songs are all written by Mann with the exception of a rendition of the Woody Guthrie song “This Land Is Your Land” that is the best version I have ever heard. Chances are you have heard this song already – it is played over the opening credits of the George Clooney/Anna Kendrick movie “Up In the Air”. If you liked it do yourself a favour and get the rest of the album.

Best tracks: How Do I Let A Good Man Down?, Natural Born Lover, You’re Gonna Get It, How Long Do I Have To Wait For You?, This Land Is Your Land, Your Thing Is a Drag

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1202: Trapper Schoepp

I’m feeling pretty tired this evening, but I am also ready to move on to my next album. Since that doesn’t happen until I talk about the one I’m on, here we go...

Disc 1202 is… Run, Engine, Run
Artist: Trapper Schoepp and the Shades

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? Trapper Schoepp does his best Han Solo. The vest is a bit too big, and he’s too short to pretend to be a Stormtrooper, but otherwise he’s a handsome kid who looks like he can shoot from the hip – and do it first. I don’t know those other guys, but they look like rebels. They’re all a bit…shady.

How I Came To Know It: I bought this from Trapper Schoepp himself at the Commodore Ballroom a couple of years ago where he was manning his merch table. I also had a nice conversation with Schoepp who is a personable young fellow with a twinkle in his eye.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Trapper Schoepp albums. I like them both, but “Run, Engine, Run” is going in at #2 behind 2016’s “Rangers & Valentines”

Ratings:  3 stars but almost 4

“Run, Engine, Run” has some pretty melodies and some solid playing and while it may not invite you into life’s deeper mysteries or re-invent the folk-rock genre where it abides, sometimes a pretty melody is enough.

Schoepp has a knack for a catchy hook, and “Run, Engine, Run” has plenty to offer. These are songs that sometimes sway and sometimes kick, but they always do it in a way that makes you want to join in. Schoepp writes short songs (most are under four minutes) that develop quickly. Sometimes it happens a bit too quickly, giving the experience an ‘empty calories’ feeling, but for the most part Schoepp has a natural talent for storytelling. It is hard to blame his efficiency or economy of purpose when the destination is so enjoyable. In short, he gets to the point, and a lot of moany, meandering folk singers could learn from his straightforward style.

Schoepp has a solid voice that sounds youthful (which he is) and exuberant (which he also is). The Shades are a solid backing band, and there were some guitar licks that had a rich tone to them. I don’t know who they belong to though; there are three band members credited with “guitar” and the only time I’ve seen Schoepp in concert he was a one-man act, so the arrangements were all stripped down to just vocals and one guitar (his).

Many of the songs have heavy themes of travel and show that Schoepp is well acquainted with the road. The best of these is the title track, which is about Schoepp’s memory as a 16 year old riding with his grandfather in a red Mercedes. If I remember from his concert, grandpa eventually gave the car to Schoepp, which is pretty cool. The song has a galloping guitar that makes it fittingly perfect driving music and Trapper sings the song with a veritas that speaks to how significant the moment was for him.

I also liked the touches of fiddle on “Run, Engine, Run” which also make an appearance on the opening track “So Long.” I liked the fiddle so much I wanted to hear more of it than the album offered so I looked the player up. Turns out it is Gina Romantini. I look forward to hearing more of her work…er…down the road?

When the album is folksy, it tells small stories that are unpretentious and sincere. When it rocks out, it makes you want to drive fast and go looking for adventure down some Midwestern backroad. I’m currently between cars, and “Run, Engine, Run” made me wish I had a fast one. Who am I kidding, though? Everything makes me wish I had a fast car. Damned midlife crisis.

The songs on this record didn’t stand out quite as strongly as Schoepp’s more recent “Rangers & Valentines” but that is a tough comparison. Regardless, “Run, Engine, Run” is consistently good and for a debut record it shows Schoepp’s ear for good production and his talent for songwriting. While the songs don’t always develop in creative new ways they do have that timeless quality which belies good bones. Timeless is hard to achieve, but Schoepp has done it here, and I think this record will age very well over the years.

Best tracks: So Long, Wishing Well, Tracks, Run Engine Run

Saturday, November 17, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1201: Corb Lund

I’m mid-way through a lovely long weekend. I’ve had a couple of evenings out with friends, and tonight I’m looking forward to a quiet night at home with Sheila and a chance to listen to some albums I bought last weekend that I haven’t got to yet (one each of Rodney Crowell, the Bottle Rockets and the Scorpions).

On one of my outings I was asked if I was a completionist when it comes to collecting music. The answer is that I used to be, but not anymore. Partly, this is me trying to get real on the space demands created by my habit. Part of it is just letting go of the obsessive need to own every album by an artist I like.

That said, I need very little encouragement to drill deep into an artist’s back catalogue. Depending on the artist I might find one or two more albums that I like, five or six or…all of them. The last time “all of them” happened was with the incomparable David Francey, but that is now more the exception than the rule.

Disc 1201 is… Losin’ Lately Gambler
Artist: Corb Lund

Year of Release: 2009

What’s up with the Cover? You’d expect an album with the title “Losin’ Lately Gambler” to feature someone gambling, but instead we see the inveterate gambler in his other natural habitat, the dive bar. He’s looking back a bit fearfully here, making me wonder if he’s just seen his bookie in the doorway.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me drilling through Corb Lund’s music after I realized how much I liked him (see intro above). Yes, just like David Francey, I liked everything.

How It Stacks Up:  I have 8 Corb Lund albums and “Losin’ Lately Gambler” is in a tie for the best one, but since I’m not big on ties I’ll put it at #1, bumping “Cabin Fever” down by one in the process.

Ratings:  4 stars

“Losin’ Lately Gambler” is like an old rancher home up against the road; unassuming and simple at a glance, but once you go inside there is a big back porch that opens onto some spectacular vistas. Lund’s voice, smooth and strong, is like the old farmer who lives there, holding a cup of joe in a tin cup as he points to landmarks in the distance, each one with a story to tell.

Corb Lund has made no secret of his love for his native Alberta, but on “Losin’ Lately Gambler” he is even more effusive than usual. Even the songs that aren’t directly referencing the Province have themes (farm veterinarians, plains riding outlaws) that feel most at home there.

Corb has always been a master of making new songs sound like old-time trail songs. It doesn’t feel derivative, but rather like you are living in an earlier simpler time. Once he sets that tone, however, Lund cleverly introduces modern concepts as well such as prescription drug addiction (“Horse Doctor, Come Quick”) and oil development (“This is My Prairie”).

Sometimes old and new themes cross over, such as on “A Game in Town Like This” which could be in the old west if it weren’t for references to early morning traffic. Like many of the songs on “Losin’ Lately Gambler” Lund has a sharp talent for voicing different characters. Here, the narrator employs a time-honoured gambling fallacy, figuring that if he’s losing a little bit less then in a way, he’s winning. On “Horse Doctor, Come Quick” the singer insists it’s his horse that’s sick, but you quickly divine he’s after the resulting prescription for himself.

Lund can’t resist a novelty song, and “Losin’ Lately Gambler” has a couple. “Long Gone to Saskatchewan” gives playful props to Alberta’s neighbor, and “Talkin’ Veterinarian Blues” is a Dylanesque rapid fire rhyme about raising livestock. “It’s Hard to Keep a White Shirt Clean” is…exactly what it sounds like. On some records, these songs start to annoy me on repeat listens, but the ones here are both musically sound and humorous enough to stay fresh over time.

The best song on the album is “This Is My Prairie” where Lund plays the part of a rancher seeing his lands poisoned by development and determined to take a stand. It is heartfelt and well-rounded, with the rancher recognizing those workers are trying to make a living as well. It is also dark, ending with grim suggestion that the rancher is about to take the law into his own hands.

The record has great guitar work throughout, but with three guitarists credited in the liner notes I can’t say for certain who the maestro is on the strings; maybe it’s all of them. I particularly liked the Mexican-flavoured trill on “Devil’s Best Dress” but there is plenty of great musicianship throughout.

“Losin’ Lately Gambler” is a delightful mix of honky-tonked blues and down home country and western storytelling. On it, Corb Lund wears his heart on his sleeve throughout, inviting you into his homeland with heartfelt honesty and more than a little humour.

Best tracks: A Game In Town Like This, Alberta Says Hello, Devil’s Best Dress, Chinook Wind, This Is My Prairie

Friday, November 16, 2018

CD Odyssey: The Road to 1,200

If you’ve been reading long enough, you’ll know I enjoy taking a moment to pause every 100 albums and look back. For the actual 1,200th review, scroll down (it is a good record) but for now, let’s take a look back at how we got here.

The number of 5-star albums really took a nose dive over the last 100 reviews. About 1 in 11 usually makes the cut, but from album 1101 to 1200 there were only four. They were:

·         Tom Petty – Damn the Torpedoes (Disc 1101)
·         Rollins Band – Weight (Disc 1126)
·         Daniel Romano – Sleep Beneath the Willow (Disc 1132)
·         Heather Maloney – Making Me Break (Disc 1200)

The first of those albums I’ve known all my life and the last I found in a music review, but the other two were recommendations. It is a good reminder that if you want to bring great music into your life, then be open-minded to suggestions

Fun fact: I previously parted company with a Daniel Romano album (“Modern Pressure”) showing another side of musical discovery: just because you like one record by a band, doesn’t mean you have to like them all.

Three was only a single 1-star review in the last 100, and that was King Diamond’s “Conspiracy”. In fact, I got so sick of hearing King Diamond that I decided to part with his entire discography. Goodbye and good riddance, King. In addition to the King Diamond purge (8 records total, 4 of which I reviewed in the past100), 7 more albums were also sent packing, mostly with a mix of regret and affection. These aren’t bad albums, they just didn’t quite make it to – or back to – the shelf:
  • Whitehorse, “The Road to Massey Hall” (2 stars) – I love Whitehorse, but this album just didn’t click with me.
  • New Pornographers, “Whiteout Conditions” (3 stars) – I like about half of what the New Pornographers do and since I was going to see them live I took a chance that “Whiteout Conditions” would be one of them. It came pretty close, but in the end didn’t make the cut.
  • M. Ward “Post-War” (2 stars) – I love M. Ward as part of She & Him with Zooey Deschanel. His solo work? Less so.
  • The Mastersons “Transient Lullaby” (2 stars) – I’ll often buy a band’s new album unheard if I liked their previous work. That’s what happened with this record, which turned out to be OK, but not shelf-worthy.
  • Timbuk 3 “Greetings from Timbuk 3” (2 stars) – I bought this for the hit single “The Future’s So Bright, I Gotta Wear Shades” many many years ago. I liked a couple of other tracks as well, but not enough to keep it. Don’t feel bad, Timbuk 3 – I’ll always cherish your other album, “Eden Alley” (reviewed back at Disc 814).
  • Guns ‘n’ Roses, “Use Your Illusion II” (2 stars) – One day I’m going to learn that albums I was willing to part with for beer money in the nineties are not going to win me over twenty-five years later. Case in point – this one.
  • La Sera, “Music for Listening to Music To” (3 stars) – Almost kept it, but it just didn’t speak to me. I’ve got high hopes for my other La Sera album, though.
Alice Cooper continues to be my most reviewed artist, holding steady at 28 albums (where he will remain until he releases something new).

In terms of most reviewed artists, little changed other than Alice Cooper increasing his overall lead. I’ve now reviewed 28 albums by him, which is all of them at this point. Tom Waits and Steve Earle are tied for second place with 19 and Bob Dylan comes in right behind them at 18.

Thanks for reading!

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1200: Heather Maloney

I just got through a rather long and arduous day at the office. At the end of it I couldn’t bring myself to walk home or even catch the bus so I called a cab…which didn’t show up. When I called back I discovered he was parked outside the pub next door, no doubt picking up where I secretly wanted to be rather than where I actually was.

For all that he was a good fellow with a tough job and despite the late hour, his day was just beginning. I gave him a big tip for his trouble; perspective is important in life.

Disc 1200 is… Making Me Break
Artist: Heather Maloney

Year of Release: 2015

What’s up with the Cover? Maloney as mythical bird woman. I guess when you sing this well, people just assume you’ve got some bird in you. This amalgam of photography and art is by Kevin Hill, and the liner notes are festooned with his re-imaginings of birds, flowers and pictures of Maloney, all of them beautiful.

How I Came To Know It: I read about Maloney in a music magazine and decided to check her out. I liked what I heard.

How It Stacks Up:  I have two Heather Maloney albums and “Making My Break” is number one. In preparing to write this review I see she has released a new album in 2018 and I’m excited to find it as well.

Ratings:  5 stars

It doesn’t matter how long the day is, or how cold the night; some records make your spirit soar. “Making Me Break” is one of those records. Its opening song is “Linger Longer” and from the very first notes it makes you want to do exactly that. Which is what I did, eschewing music review writing (my apologies, dear reader) so I could spend another day with the lovely and talented Heather Maloney.

It all begins with Maloney’s voice, which is a mix of power, sweetness and a home-spun quality that reminds you that while “Making Me Break” has pop song structures, it has a heart that is 100% folk.

Linger Longer” doesn’t say a lot – it is a simple song of love and redemption – but Maloney throws herself into it with such joyful abandon you are instantly swept up into her world. From here, she reveals an album filled with beautifully structured little songs that seem a bit twee if you don’t pay attention, and filled with thoughtful majesty when you do.

Maloney brings a thoughtful hippy vibe to her singer-songwriter routine and she sees magic all around her. On “Otherwise” she looks around an urban setting and sees nature blossoming out of every crack:

“Deer on the highway
Seedling in concrete
Spiders weaving webs on the lamps of the streets
You are free.”

When she sings “Don’t let them tell you otherwise” she could be encouraging her listeners to see the same beauty, or maybe they’re just words of encouragement to all those deer and plants and spiders. Either way, it is an uplifting sentiment.

This open-hearted innocence shines brightest on the masterpiece, “Hey, Serena” a song about Maloney learning that a friend from her childhood has become a stripper. Maloney starts with a genuine concern that Serena is OK with her choices, not because she is judging, but because she wants to better understand the context of the journey.

Backed by a sparse production and lightly plucked guitar, she explores how the girl she knew became the woman she is now, she calls out a plea of “someone deliver me from my confusion”. Ultimately it is Maloney’s own insightful mind and self-examined soul that guides her unerringly to all the answer she needs as she resolves with:

“Hey, Serena, tell me are you well? I can’t tell from here.
I know it must be true that I’m projecting onto you my fear
Cuz I know how it feels to count on sex-appeal to meet my needs.
Be it the rent to pay, be it a power-play or love…or security.”

There’s two very tasteful but sexy photo/art pieces of Maloney in the liner notes and they fit there as naturally as the pictures of origami, dandelions and family portraits they line up beside. Looking at them all, I was again struck by how well rounded and considered an artist Maloney is. She was never judging. Instead she’s making sure her old friend is happy…and joining her in solidarity at how Goddamned complicated it can be for a woman to express her sexuality on her own terms.

On “Eighteen Fifty-Five” Maloney points out that an old photo isn’t a whole life – it is just a single moment in a lifetime of moments. Like the friend on “Hey, Serena” and the urban survivors on “Otherwise” her music insists you see a full picture of her subject matter. because the more facets you can see something from, the more bright and beautiful it becomes.

The combination of her sweet and easy vocal power matched with a thoughtful and optimistic examination of the world around her creates a record that fills you with a breathless wonder. On “Dandelion” Maloney sings “I will crown you with whatever grows prettiest.” And this sums up how her record approaches life in general. Some people have so much pretty inside it rubs off on everything they touch. Or in Maloney’s case – whatever is lucky enough to catch her attention long enough to inspire a song.

Best tracks: all tracks

Friday, November 9, 2018

CD Odyssey Discs 1198 and 1199: Kris Kristofferson

My brain is a little worn out from work, so I took a day off today with Sheila to recharge. I’m looking forward to the resulting four day weekend.

Today you get two reviews, because these two albums were re-released on a single disc. You also get a negative review and a positive review about the same artist.

Disc 1198 and 1199 are… Surreal Thing and Easter Island
Artist: Kris Kristofferson

Year of Release: 1976 (Surreal Thing) and 1978 (Easter Island)

What’s up with the Cover? Two LPs on 1 CD! This was a big deal when CDs came out. Convenient as it is for space-saving, I prefer to talk about the actual covers:
Surreal Thing: Kristofferson is back lit in some concert event, getting his “seventies Elvis” act on, country style. Like the record itself, this cover says “Vegas, Baby!” but not in a good way.
Easter Island: Kristofferson doing the classic “head and shoulders” shot, right down to the cheesy studio backdrop of clouds. Speaking of original LPs, my mom owned this on vinyl and I used to stare at the cover and marvel at just how incredibly blue his eyes were. The small blurry version here doesn’t do it justice, but take my word for it.

How I Came To Know It: As I noted above, I grew up with “Easter Island” and was on the lookout to get it on CD for a while. Finding it attached to “Surreal Thing” just ended up being an unhappy accident. That’s called foreshadowing.

How It Stacks Up:  I have eight Kris Kristofferson albums I’ll put “Easter Island” in at #3 (bumping a bunch of other albums down in the process) and “Surreal Thing” in last at #8 (bumping…nothing). Here’s a recap:

  1. The Silver Tongued Devil and I: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 1066)
  2. Kristofferson: 4 stars (reviewed at Disc 39)
  3. Easter Island: 4 stars (reviewed right here)
  4. Who’s To Bless and Who’s To Blame: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 54)
  5. Repossessed:  3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1150)
  6. Third World Warrior: 3 stars (reviewed at Disc 1151)
  7. To The Bone: 2 stars (reviewed at Disc 54)
  8. Surreal Thing: 2 stars (reviewed right here)

Clever readers will note that #4 and 7 are both reviewed at Disc 54. That’s because they were also a “2 LPs on 1 CD” package, and back then I didn’t have the foresight to assign them their own number.

Ratings:  2 stars for “Surreal Thing” and 4 stars for “Easter Island”

Surreal Thing:

“Surreal Thing” came out right before Kristofferson role as an aging and cynical rock star in the original “A Star Is Born” and the influences show. This record has its moments, but large parts of it are a bloated mess of excess production and sprawling rock-country anthems.

I put a lot of stock in Kristofferson as a man of integrity and a talented singer-songwriter, so cognitive dissonance makes me wonder if this was the Soulless Record Execs getting the better of him. Whatever happened, it wasn’t good.

The songs on “Surreal Thing” are weak compared to Kristofferson’s other work, but they’re made worse with a lot of overly lush production and Broadway show style backing vocals. Fellow gravel-voiced vocalist Leonard Cohen has always been a master of adding beautiful female background singers to augment his limited vocal range. It feels like Kristofferson is trying to do the same thing on “Surreal Thing” but it just made the songs too busy.

Throughout the seventies most Kristofferson records include some form of “let’s get it on” song, and he is the master of the art form. The most famous of these is “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” Kristofferson even turned the notion on its head with “The Silver Tongued Devil and I” where he warns the woman off even as he tries to convince her otherwise.

“Surreal Thing”’s entry is the most ribald of them all, with “You Show Me Yours (and I’ll Show You Mine)” which gets right to business from the opening stanza:

“If you're feeling salty, then I'm your tequila
If you've got the freedom I've got the time
There ain't nothing sweeter than naked emotions
So you show me yours, hon, and I'll show you mine”

This song is so sexy it is a bit ridiculous, but it is ridiculous in a good way. Or maybe it is just that I’ve been hearing it since before I knew that it was about more than a drink-making competition.

My favourite song on the album, “I Got A Life of My Own” has most of these overblown elements but it is so good I forgive it. I’m a sucker for a freedom anthem song (another common theme for Kristofferson), and I suspect Kristofferson shares my dislike at being told what to do. At the same time, “I Got A Life of My Own” subtly slips in the knife that sometimes you really ought to take good advice. Bonus points for making the knife both metaphor and reality in the lyrics.

For the most part the album isn’t this clever again, with strained metaphors in “The Prisoner” and a vitriolic attack on a critic in “Eddie the Eunuch.” I usually love a good attack on a critic (Public Enemy’s “Caught (Can I Get a Witness)” and Guns ‘n’ Roses “Get in the Ring” come to mind) but this one fell flat for me. Although bonus points for using the song’s title to allude to the song’s target having no balls.

Longtime readers will know I am a stalwart defender of Kris Kristofferson. I think he is one of the great country songwriters of his generation. I even like the way he sings. I prefer his version of “Me and Bobby McGee” to Janis Joplin’s, and I’d rather hear him sing “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down” than Johnny Cash.

That said, “Surreal Thing” is a weak record overall, despite a few gems along the way.

Best tracks – Surreal Thing: You Show Me Yours (And I’ll Show You Mine), I Got a Life of My Own, If You Don’t Like Hank Williams

Easter Island

Two years after “Surreal Thing” (and one “Star is Love” appearance with Barbara Streisand) Kristofferson finally gets the whole overblown star thing out of his system. The result is the far superior “Easter Island.”

“Easter Island” incorporates a lot of the excess production begun on “Surreal Thing” but harnesses its powers for good, rather than evil. The arrangements are lush in places, and there is plenty of backup singers but everything is working together to give the songs momentum and purpose.

Kristofferson has not one but two ‘let’s get it on’ songs, “How Do You Feel (About Foolin’ Around)” and “Lay Me Down (And Love the World Away)”. Kris loved songs with long parentheses-infested titles. I cannot explain this. “How Do You Feel…” happens early on the record and has an early seventies feel, with some guitar picking and an idle grass-in-the-side-of your-mouth mosey to it before…gets down to business.

Kristofferson acknowledges his Silver Tongued Devil in this song as well, but it is clear from the beginning that this time they’ve joined forces:

So many people got so many lines
They've all been tried and it's true
They've all got so many reasons for changin' your mind
And there ain't none of 'em new
But there's just so little distance between me and you
I think we're two of a kind
We won't do nothing you don't want to do
And I won't tell you no lies
So tell me how do you feel about foolin' around
Down from your head to your toes?
Ain't nothin' realer than right here and now
If that's as far as it goes”

As for “Lay Me Down…” has a slightly disco feel to it that shouldn’t work, but kind of does. It is no “How Do You Feel…” but it still manages to be a toe-tapper.

Kristofferson isn’t always thinking about sexual conquest, and “Easter Island” has a good range of both style and subject matter. Some of the songs are very traditional country crooners (“Forever in Your Love”) others seventies rock anthems celebrating powerful and beautiful women (“Spooky Lady’s Revenge”). I love the slow build of “Spooky Lady’s Revenge,” which rises in intensity until by the end you feel like Kristofferson is standing on the edge of some mountain top arm raised to the sky in rock triumph. Or you might think it is just overblown late-seventies schmaltz. If you think the latter, then I feel sorry for you. Let a little joy and celebration into your life!

The Sabre and the Rose” is a five minute song packed with action and intrigue fit for a two hour film. Outlaws flee to an isolated whorehouse in the backcountry, but one of them falls in love, and he and his newfound love flee naked to the river, leaving the Sabre and the Rose burning in the distance. Kristofferson drenches his story in great imagery – here the outlaws set out on their quest for the legendary house of ill repute:

We swang into the saddle sick as breathing
And slapped 'em once for pleasure with the reins
The horses snorted frosty in the moonlight
Somethin' dark was singing in my veins
Older than the voices in my brain”

 This song is as exhilarating as a wild west gun fight, exhilarating as a romantic encounter and spooky as a ghost story, all rolled into one.

The title track is an interesting bit of subterfuge from Kristofferson. As a kid, I just assumed Kristofferson was singing about the mysterious carvings on Easter Island. When you listen carefully, he’s comparing that dead civilization to America, citing it as a warning against the hubris of empire.

My CD (which I got used) has a bit of skip in the final track, which is disappointing, but otherwise “Easter Island” was a pleasant surprise. I reserved sixth spot for this record early on, but at every turn it surprised and delighted me to the point that it moved up the #3.

Best tracks – Easter Island: How Do You Feel (About Foolin’ Around), The Sabre and the Rose, Spooky Lady’s Revenge, Easter Island, The Fighter