Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #10
Pure and Simple
White is a singer who dares to give the classics her own interpretation, and she does it with class. Her "God Bless the Child" is slow and soulful, an interpretation that emphasizes the story with a true blues feeling. The feeling is contemporary yet somehow carries with it all the tradition that lies behind this song.
Steve Allen's "Gravy Waltz" is a slow, bright, celebration of home and kitchen with a cool, danceable groove underlying it all. White's interpretation is a real pleasure to hear. Even on several listens, it never gets tired or boring. In fact, this is true of all the songs on this release. Every listen reveals something new and interesting in the musical arrangement or in her particular interpretation of the lyric. This is performance with some depth.
White brings to "Smooth Operator" a lively yet soulful feel that rolls over the listener like cool ocean spray on a hot sunny day. This is a cool, comfortable sound that, while performed as jazz, would fit comfortably into a variety of radio formats.
The final track on Pure and Simple, "Ugly Beauty" comes as a surprise. A slow, quiet piano number played by White, "Ugly Beauty" has no vocal at all. It's an interesting departure for a singer's release.
The quality of this performance is high and consistent. If she can maintain her performance at this level, Diane White is a singer we should be hearing lot of. In the meantime, Pure and Simple will make a tasteful addition to anyone's jazz library.
in the heart of this town
Green's particular approach to folk music comes to her naturally and organically. Her father is folk legend Bob Gibson, best known for his song "Abilene," which became a hit on the country charts in the Sixties. Her longtime musical partner is one-time Byrd Gene Parsons, who brings a similar sensibility to the music.
What appeals instantly is Green's sweet voice. It's a very American voice, like Emmy-Lou without the twang, and it's ideally suited to the music she sings. That lovely voice opens the door and one is drawn into the music itself, not so much folk as a refined blend of country, pop, and jazz with a solid folk centre. The music shows restraint, never covering the voice but allowing it to sail across the top so that the listener hears the words and realizes that Green is also a fine lyricist."Abilene" is a classic folk-country song about the longing of a homesick heart for home. Green's interpretation brings to "Abilene" a pathos that brings it about as close to country blues as a song can get before slipping over that line. [Have I ever mentioned how silly I think narrow genre definitions are?] This is about as beautiful as a song can get.
"The Lorax (in Laytonville)" is a fun song based on a true story of a timber baron who tried to ban the Dr. Seuss book from local schools because of its ecological message. It's always a special treat to find a song with a message that is also fun to hear.
"Just Away" has a definite "Leaving on a Jet Plane" feel to it. The story line is very similar, and the last line of the chorus is melodically similar enough to bring the other song to mind. This is not a complaint. What Green has achieved is a rather lovely allusion to another song which only serves to enhance and deepen her own. The result is beautiful and effective.
On his own, Ken Whiteley is a fine musician and vocalist. On Listening he's joined by fifteen artists whose respective contributions bring a fullness and body to the songs. Yet this is not a big-band folk sort of sound. The instrumentals and backup vocals are restrained, enhancing and supporting Whiteley without going for bigness for its own sake. The end result is delightful.
I'm especially drawn to the antique sounding final track. "Candlelight" is a sort of "Dream a Little Dream of Me" love song, romantic and evocative of a bygone age. The instrumentation is sweet and rich in a laid back way. The lyric is simple, yet metaphorical and open to interpretation.
In contrast, "Woke Up This Morning" is a big gospel shout with lots of backup vocals and hand-clapping. As the first song in this set, "Woke Up This Morning" is a rousing introduction to what is to follow. This song also sets up some of the central themes on this release: faith and praise, human compassion and dignity, and in general a positive view of life.
"Bird, Mole, Flower" brings to the selection a very Middle-Eastern sound, with swirling rhythms that bring to mind belly dancers and the bazaar. The lyric is very Whitmanesque expressing a relationship between nature and mankind, between the individual and the natural world in which he or she lives. This is perhaps the quirkiest song on Listening, but it has a certain appealing charm.
The music on this release ranges from folk to gospel to blues and jazz to world music. Even those categories don't adequately describe the eclectic feel Whiteley has brought to Listening. This is a release to delight all who enjoy music well written and performed and who enjoy variety and range in their music.
For me, probably the most engaging track on Topless isn't even listed. "Too Many Drivers at the Wheel" is a hidden track that fades in following the last official track. The arrangement is pared back. The feeling is 2 a.m. laid back and oh so smokey. The vocal is soulful and whiskey raw and the harp wails over cool keys and guitar. Behind it all, the bass pounds out like music heard from outside the dive down the street on a Saturday night. No digital clean here, this track sounds like it was recorded at a rehearsal or at the end of a very late bar gig and then transferred from tape to mp3.
Eight of the songs on Topless feature lyrics by Dave Glover aka Big Daddy G. These are in my opinion the weakest link on this release. The verses are technically well written, with all the right rhythms and rhymes. But they read like they were written over a capuccino in some chi chi T.O. cafe with the ghost of G's high school English teacher watching over his shoulder. No real life upside yo' head, boom boom out go the lights, my baby done left me street grit here. These are safe lyrics guaranteed not to offend white collar Toronto sensibilities. Glover is a good writer. I'd love to see what he could do sans the self-censorship.
Some of the most interesting pieces on this release are instrumentals. "Stringbean 'N Tater" starts off with a drum solo that could be a sample lifted from the Chris Montez classic rocker "Let's Dance" from 1962. This is followed by five minutes of solid guitar blues Glover says is influenced by Freddy King. The song is just one glorious groove.
Glover continues his theme of Sixties intros with an old Beach Boys schtick, starting the title tune off with the sound of a car peeling out. The song itself retains the feel of mid-Sixties blues influenced rock and roll. Except that G's song doesn't have the same energy, "Topless" brings to mind songs like Sam the Sham's "Every Woman I Know (Crazy 'bout an Auto)" from 1965.
"Say, Reg!" is a nice little jump tune guaranteed to set toes to tapping. Shut your eyes and you can almost see the zoot suiters jiving and sliding across the floor. Harp fans will enjoy Tortoise Blue's solo jam on this one. This track also features a couple of jammin' solos by G on the guitar.
All things considered, this is probably one of the best blues bands in Canada. However, for best results drive to the parklands of Alberta after midnight and listen to Topless on the car radio broadcast from a 50,000 watt AM station in Fort Wayne, Indiana, complete with the noise, grit, and static of the blue night sky overhead.
It's gratifying to hear a folk artist who has retained his activist edge. In one way or the other, each song on [Endangered Species] deals with an issue that can touch any one of us in this real world. At times, these issues are approached with a sense of humour, but more often Bogle's approach is serious and emotional.
Especially moving is "Jimmy Dancer" [Australian colloquial rhyming slang for Cancer]. Opening with the patient's son learning from a nurse that his mother is dying of cancer, this eight minute song chronicles the son's grief and anger at the horror that is cancer. This is a tale to touch any listener's heart.
The title song is both true [in my not always humble opinion] and very funny [as I'm sure any listener will agree]. Here is a different take on what may be the most endangered species. Because it may spoil the fun of first hearing this song, I'm not going to tell you what Bogle suggests is the most endangered species on the planet. That would be like telling you the ending of a mystery movie. It may be of interest to know, though, that in the liner notes Bogle announces that he has written to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) requesting protection for this species but has not yet heard back from them.
"Our National Pride" is a scathing indictment of our tendency to call people heroes for participating in relatively safe events (The Olympics) while often forgetting those who are hurt or killed saving people's lives. While the song uses Australia-specific examples, what Bogle says applies in Canada, the United States, or anywhere in the world. It's a good point very well made.
If all the serious songs on this release get you a bit teary, head for "Beam Me Up Scotty [subtitled "A flight of fantasy"]. It may not have you rolling on the floor, but it may come close. In this song, most listeners will recognize a bit of their own lives.
For anyone who enjoys great folk music, real world political activism, some of the best written lyrics today, and just a smattering of fall-down funny, I highly recommend Eric Bogle's [Endangered Species].
Agnes on the Cowcatcher
One pleasure of listening to Tanglefoot over the years is that each year the words and the music get better. This year's Agnes on the Cowcatcher is no exception, bringing the listener more of the same, but with greater polish and with the occasional surprise thrown in.
While most lyrics on this release are penned by Joe Grant, some are written or co-written by the other members of Tanglefoot. "Our Field This Side of Heaven" is a beautiful piece written by Rob Ritchie, originally for his then soon to be wife but now for us all to hear. Not so rooted in the rocks, lakes, and history of Canada as other Tanglefoot songs, the lyrics have a very traditional and universal feel to them. The words are poetry and the music a perfect complement to carry them forward into the listener's heart.
"Summer Ghosts" is ghostly in more than one sense. With words and music both written by Joe Grant, this song conjures the late Stan Rogers so strongly that, hearing it without knowing better a listener might conclude that it's a Rogers composition. That it's performed a capella only intensifies the effect.
Another Rogers also enters the mix. "Radioman" tells the humourous, although political in a very Canadian way, tale of a farmer's purchase of a brand new Rogers Majestic radio (made by Ted Rogers dad) to play music for his milk cows, and of what happens when the tuner breaks down and can only receive American stations. This is a very funny song that declares that the cows have to "learn that American is foreign."
The stories in this release range across Canada, from Frank, Alberta, to Eastern Ontario, to the Maritimes, and points between. The stories cross time from the War of 1812 through the early Twentieth Century to the here and now. These are mostly true stories and they are truly Canadian stories
Full Throated Abandon
As I listened to this recording, I had a niggling feeling that there was something missing but I couldn't quite put my finger on what. Over all, this is a well-written, well-performed, well-produced collection of songs. It will fit quite comfortably in any collection of Canadian folk music. That level of comfort is, I think, what makes me uncomfortable with this release. Full Throated Abandon is just oh so conservative and safe.
There are in Canada a number of all male groups who write and record their own songs based on usually true Canadian stories. Their vocal styles tend to hark back more to Burl Ives or Oscar Brand than more contemporary influences. They often will claim Stan Rogers as an influence and their stories, like his, tend to be based on safe, long ago events. Unlike many folk musicians of the past, these are not so much activists as white collar artists. Among these acts, Tanglefoot has become one of the most popular.
I like Tanglefoot and, beyond a few quibbles, I enjoy listening to this release. Here are some interesting stories told in a bright, rollicking style. While I think "abandon" may be a bit of a misnomer here (on record this group is far too tight and controlled to achieve full abandon), Full Throated Abandon is worth having more than one listen.
The stories are interesting. The music is bright and lively, well performed and over all well produced. Notwithstanding any comments above, I would give Full Throated Abandon high marks. Those interested in adding some contemporary Canadian folk music to their collection may find this release just the thing.
The music is a relic of the Seventies, echoing the lush sound of big theme album rock from that era (The Who, Jethro Tull, Procol Harum, etc.), but lacking the energy that drove that music. These tracks have a superficial feel, an emptiness. This may be a result of one artist recording all tracks in a studio where, being also the producer, there is no objective person present to assess the result. Had Blue gathered a group of musicians to play with him, the synergy of the players might have driven this music to greater heights.
Blue's lyrics also suffer from self-editing. While there is some potentially powerful material here, the lyrics are ridden with cliche and the commonplace. These lyrics do not rise to dramatic heights of the subject matter. Here again, Blue could have used an editor, or at least someone to act as a sounding-board as he polished his words.
There's nothing really wrong with this release. From top to bottom, it's a polished professional piece of work clearly not hastily conceived. Yet, throughout there's a sense that with just a little more attention it could be a whole lot better.
Blue is an interesting and prolific artist whose work deserves to be watched. While it is in some ways flawed, Holly's Song is a valiant and ambitious attempt at a very difficult concept.
Bird has some very talented friends, musicians known for their exceptional abilities. She managed to get the use of a variety of superb microphones to enhance the sound and clarity of these recordings. Her songs are well written and the ones she has borrowed from others are, in some cases, even better. Dreamwalker has all the elements essential to make a successful recording both technically and artistically. The combination of Bird's strong voice and skilled musicians in recordings produced by Karen Kane should and probably will please listeners.
There's a feeling of "if you've got it you've got to use it" in this release. Bird has invited a baker's dozen friends to participate, and she appears to have felt the compulsion to use all of them in every track. If this were visual art, one might say the work is too busy. There's just too much going on. A delicate perfume can be a joy, but who hasn't stood next to a woman with too much perfume or a man who drenches himself in cologne?
Bird's vocals deserve to be given centre stage. Here is a singer with a powerful voice and a distinctive style. About the only singer I know of with a similar voice and style is Tracie Morgan, who Bird sounds very much like. Such a voice can be enhanced by instrumentation but should not be drowned in it.
"Bewildered" is arguably the best song on this release. It's a simple, comfortable pop-jazz number featuring Bird's voice supported by just guitar and bass. The song sounds familiar, but I don't really remember it from the past, so it may be a Bird composition. It may just feel familiar because it's so similar in theme and style to hits like Alan Freed's great "Sincerely" from the 'Fifties. Yet "Bewildered" isn't listed on the cover and slips in several seconds after the last song like some secret sister. A shame. I'd love to see Bird do a whole album of material in this style. It suits her well.
"Dreamwalker" is an excellent beginning. If Bird and her producers practice restraint and don't use everything they've got just because they've got it, her next release should be something really special. This one comes very close.
Angel On the Roof
I've always been a fan of the "build" in musical arrangement, of songs that start small but include increasingly more elements for power and impact. This is a technique that Tysseland uses extremely well. The first track, "O Holy Night" drew me into the album with its excellent build of sound and emotion. Beginning with a lone piano with a decidely 'Fifties rock feel to it, then the beautiful voice of Terry Long, "O Holy Night" builds to include full instrumentation and a full and dramatic choral backup. The effect is, to say the least, powerful and moving.
The title song, and the only one written by Tysseland, "Angel On the Roof" is a simple and timeless pop song which seamlessly incorporates its Christian values. Once again, Terry Long's vocal presentation is flawless and lovely. The arrangement here is restrained, using the band and the choir only where they will most happily serve the song but allowing Long, accompanied by Tysseland's piano, to carry the song along.
"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" is, on the other hand, reminiscent of the big jazz-blues numbers of the mid-'Sixties. Latin rhythms carry richly choreographed vocals that fill this song with soul. A surprise is the 'Seventies rock guitar that slips into the mix fom time to time, adding another element to the character of this recording. "Rise Up Shepherd and Follow" also uses this big jazz feel to great effect.
"Please Come Home for Christmas" takes the listener even further up the blues road and features powerful vocals by Lorraine Hamilton. In a slow and driving way, this song really rocks.
Tysseland has a knack for choosing soloists well-suited to the songs they will sing. I was especially surprised by her choice of male vocalists. Over the years, I've become used to hearing harder voiced rock or gospel singers do songs like "The Christmas Song" and "Amen!" For all her male soloists, Tysseland has opted instead for softer voices that hark back to the era of Mel Torme and Eddie Fischer. What can I say? It works. For female singers, Tysseland has chosen a broader range of types, each ideally suited to the songs she sings.
Search for A Passage
Search for A Passage is a wonderful collaboration of traditional folk stylings, male a capella harmonies, and spoken word, with -- at the centre of it all -- story. These songs celebrate the unique nature of our great Dominion by telling her stories in a simple, down to earth manner. Here is a feeling of pride that goes beyond the stories themselves and expresses the spirit of a people drawn from the four corners of the world and become one in a sometimes dangerous and uncompromising land.
Taken together or separately, these stories would make an interesting jumping off point for a broader study of Canadian history. Included are stories of Henry Hudson, John Hornby, Samuel Hearne, Crowfoot, Salomon Andree, the Hay River flood, among others. Inclusion of Salomon Andree is a bit of a surprise. Andree was a Swede who in 1897 attempted to fly his gas-filled balloon, Ornen (Eagle), from Denmark across Canada's north but died in the attempt. The fate of Andree and his two companions was not known until the wreckage of Ornen was found more than thirty years later. It's a very Canadian story after all.
The makers of this release state that they worked under two philosophies: "less is more" and "it will be done when it's done." They have succeeded on both counts. The simple but not simplistic approach taken in making this recording has produced something very special. This is a finished, polished suite of Canadian story and song. I highly recommend it not just for every Canadian family but for every Canadian school library.
Scatter Some Stones
There's something introspective and quiet in Andrew Rathbun's jazz. This is intellectual music, but Rathbun manages to hold it just this side of deadly academics, infusing it with subtle emotion. Inside what at first sounds like a fairly conventional jazz presentation, there lives something vital and original straining to break free. This is the tension that inhabits Rathbun's compositions and makes them more than just interesting.
This music has evolved beyond the point where the listener can clearly discern the artist's influences. Still, there is an abundance of hints and illusions that bring to mind such jazz innovators as Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Don Ellis, fellow Canadian Maynard Ferguson, Charlie Parker, and even Antonio Carlos Jobim. Throughout, there can also be heard a pop influence reminiscent of the work of Gerry Rafferty, Paul McCartney and others of that era. It's a full-bodied, exhilarating melding of the past and future of jazz.
Anyone interested in the future of jazz should keep an eye on Andrew Rathbun and the musicians he has assembled around him. If "Scatter Some Stones" is any indication, Rathbun will be a strong influence on that future.
Of the two Andrew Rathbun recordings I've received, Jade is the most recent, released one year after his debut recording. It is also the earliest, having been recorded one year before the release of his debut recording. In some ways, Jade is a throwback, one of those art pieces we heard so often in the mid-sixties, patterned perhaps on Ellington or Monk with a dash of Coltrane. It's built around a poem by the fittingly named Cathy Song with the music tailored to the specific talents of the recording's performers.
Here is the potential for some pretty derivative, even cliché jazz. With Rathbun's deft touch, it becomes instead something sheer, flowing in the gentle breeze, the sun filtering softly through it. Like Song's poem, this music feels Oriental and gentle, a soft-brush painting not on bamboo mat but the sturdy canvas of American jazz. Rathbun has created an interesting and evocative work of art that stands up well today and will certainly have staying power.