Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #17
JoyRide is Terry Quiett's fourth album release yet it incorporates problems I would usually hear only in the work of less experienced writers and performers. There is clearly talent here, but it still needs growth and development. Throughout this release, it feels as though Quiett has not yet decided who or what he wants to be as an artist and may be making some poor choices as a result.
None of these weaknesses is a big problem on its own, and each of them has a fairly easy fix. However, in combination, they tend to obscure what seems to be real talent attempting to shine through the clutter of pretentious writing and over-production. I'd like to see what this artist could do if he took more time to polish his workmanlike but so far unexceptional lyrics then recorded his songs with less instrumentation and fewer production gimmicks. The result might be quite impressive indeed.
Irene Jackson writes songs that are at once familiar and unexpected, at times even startling. Jackson's lyrics are tightly written tales of everyday life told simply and sympathetically yet often incorporating deeper philosophical insights. Her music seems pretty simple over all then, just when you've settled in and got comfortable, it changes, sometimes rearing up to confront you, sometimes slinking off to some dark corner and waiting for you to follow. Jackson is one of Canada's more interesting little-known songwriters.
While Jackson's greatest talent is certainly as a writer of lyrics, her skills as an arranger and performer are the perfect complement to her words. Jackson's melodies are pretty straightforward and are, in general, unremarkable on their own. Jackson's arrangements, with their jumpy rhythms and often unannounced shifts in tempo, mood, and style bring her songs into a higher realm. Add to this her abilities as a singer, and the songs of Irene Jackson become something very special indeed.
Irene Jackson is definitely worth more than one listen, and Catnip is the ideal place to start. Once you've heard it, you may conclude that Jackson's music is the cat's meow.
World Keeps Turning
Brian Bonhomme tends to make retro-music based on trends of two decades previous. Bonhomme's popular Eighties band "Roman Holliday" was a throwback to the rockabilly/swing-pop based rock and roll that was made popular by a number of British bands in the early Sixties, most notably Cliff Richard and the Shadows. In fact, Bonhomme's band often sounds like an updated version of Cliff Richard's hits. In the new century, the sound of Bonhomme's solo recordings again harks back twenty years to early Elvis Costello.
With a bit of thought, one might notice a few similarities between the voices of Bonhomme and Costello. However, the main similarity in their singing is that Bonhomme seems to be copying much of Costello's phrasing, inflection, and pacing. Bonhomme's voice is more nasal than Costellos, but the similarity in style is unmistakeable.
Bonhomme's lyrics are workmanlike and well-constructed. While the lyrics also have an Elvis Costello feel to them, it seems even more as though Bonhomme is striving toward the sort of romantic ballads written by songwriters like Canada's Dan Hill. Even when they do touch on social issues, Bonhomme's songs are at root sweet pop confections.
Those who enjoy hearing a contemporary artist who can put a new face on a classic sound and can do it well will enjoy the solo work of Brian Bonhomme. Whether echoing the musical era of Cliff Richard or of Elvis Costello, Bonhomme does it with class, adding his own more contemporary elements while maintaining his own distinctive voice.
Breakfast at Midnight
A couple of things hit you right off. This is rock and roll the way it was meant to be, hard-edged and aggressive with a driving blues rhythm under an inspired mix of gritty country and soulful R & B sounds. This music is made for dancing, for grooving, for escaping the humdrum of the everyday world. And this woman has a voice that would blow most other singers off the stage. Chiarelli's voice is big and powerful and she has it under perfect control. A phrase from Chiarelli could reach out and grab a listener across the room by the throat.
The songs on this release range from hard-edged electric blues to rock and roll that recalls the hardest driving rockabilly of five decades ago, to country and Tex-Mex sounds, to jazz-tinged pop, to sweet ballads, and even to poetic Cohenesque pieces. The range is impressive and wonderful to hear.
Every song on this release is worth comment, and every one is definitely worth a good listen. As a songwriter and as a performer, Rita Chiarelli is the cream that cannot help but rise to the top. Now that I've heard her work and had the chance to read her lyrics, I can understand why not just the public but her fellow musicians can only praise what she does. Rita Chiarelli is a true Canadian talent.
Jeff Talmadge is, first and foremost, a poet with an excellent sense of story and a sensitive feel for which words will tell his tale most effectively. His lyrics are tight, evocative, and to the point. That there are no waste words says a lot for the craft and attention to detail that this writer must apply to every lyric he writes.
Talmadge plays guitar with an efficient elegance that brings a certain quality to his sound and raises it above the run of the mill. Even with just Talmadge and his guitar, these songs would hold up very well. With the support of other players in his sensitive arrangements, they become finely tuned art.
As a singer, Talmadge is also a cut above most singer-songwriters. He has a pleasant voice and he knows how to use it to best advantage. What makes his vocals truly stand out is that he is not only a singer of words but an interpreter of the story behind the words. Talmadge comes to these songs with an excellent sense of theatre yet he shows restraint, bringing to each song only the degree of emotion that is required by the story being told.
Many artists will bring one or more of these talents to the stage. Few bring all three. To see such an artist is an experience not to be missed. Jeff Talmadge is one of those rare artists.
Paradox of Grace
Conoscenti's vocals and his writing remind me of a wide range of niche and popular artists including Peter Sarstedt, Bryan Adams, the early Rod Stewart, the countrified side of The Eagles, Don McLean and others. At times, his vocal style is reminiscent of each of these, yet each performance belongs distinctly and memorably to Don Conoscenti.
Beyond his obvious talent in all aspects of his work, the key to Conoscenti's sound may be his impeccable attention to detail. His songs are like finely polished gems, with every facet gone over until it has the perfect shine. The words, the music, the playing, the singing -- each is honed until it is sharp and bright, and each complements the other.
Part of this attention to detail is Conoscenti's selection of musicians to support him in his performances. He manages to find some of the best musicians available and, more important, musicians who seem to understand just what his work is about and to be able to meld perfectly with his sound. The result is tight, seamless musical performances that, while quiet and even restrained, express a power from within.
Don Conoscenti is one of those artists who falls through the cracks of mainstream music because he doesn't just colour outside the line but sometimes steps across it to another, very different place. That's a real shame, because the mainstream could use an infusion of just such a difference.
All the world's America
Much of the influence for this music appears to come from the late-Seventies. Especially in the vocal style of lead singer Tim MacNeill, several songs appear to be strongly influenced by the early work of Elvis Costello. While harder edged, the reggae style that pervades this release harks back to Seventies groups like Blondie and The Police. Even the harder rock riffs have the sound of classic rock from the Seventies. It's the particular mix of these elements plus some disparate hiphop bits that bring this music into the 21st Century.
All the world's America is a showcase for a creative Canadian rock trio. While this release illustrates how far this band has come, Alibido also has a way to grow. The lyrics could use more control and more depth. The arrangements, while clever, at times seem to be more accidental than controlled. By the same token, while there are allusions to a variety of previous artists and their songs, this feels more accidental that purposeful. Even so, there's enough here to make this a band to watch.
At the time that All the world's America was released, Arlibido was nominated for Alternative artist of the year at the East Coast Music Awards, no small honour and one that clearly indicates the potential of these young musicians.. Unfortunately, like Lost Action Heroes and other bands in this sub-genre, Arlibido was short-lived and broke up after only a few years together. Too bad. I, for one, enjoy the creativity inherent to this diverse rock sound.
Mortal Daze is a party on a disc. Here's mostly traditional, mostly Irish Celtic music coloured by flashes of jazz, tango, polka, and bits and pieces of other musical styles including some of that good old hoedown music I remember from the barn dances of my childhood. This is a rollicking album from a big band that seems never to take itself too seriously.
With six full-time members and two guest artists, Shenanigan is a band that would pack any stage and their music reach into the furthest corners of any room. This is bright music that would be at home in the local Irish pub, on the concert stage, at a big barn dance, or in the jam at a backyard party.
There's good programming here too, with a nicely balanced selection of fast numbers and slow, cheerful and more sombre. There's a flow that pulls the listener through an emotional gamut that proves the power of music to move the human heart. It's clear that a great deal of thought went into the selection and sequence of songs on this release.
Mortal Daze offers an hour and a quarter of traditional and not so traditional music with interesting arrangements performed by musicians who have both talent and an understanding of the music they're performing. This is excellent entertainment value from the British Columbia band Shenanigan.
O'Leary & Lalli
These are clean songs with uncluttered sound where every note comes through clearly and with clean uncluttered lyrics that complement the simple arrangements of the melodies. This sound can only come from a studio, yet it somehow evokes some of the better live recordings made a half-century ago of urban folk musicians performing in clubs and coffee houses.
The well-wrought harmonies in these songs take one back to the days of the Limeliters, The Brothers Four, and even the less rock and roll side of The Beach Boys. As much as story and melody, these songs are about vocal craftsmanship with fine harmonies not just by lead singer O'Leary and primary back-up singer Lalli but also by Anna Huckabee Tull and Meryl Press who lend a touch of class to the songs on which they appear.
The one disappointment in this release is that the set ends so quickly. Just as you settle into the easy chair with a fresh glass of wine, the last of the six songs comes softly to an end and you're left longing for just a little bit more. Perhaps the next O'Leary and Lalli release will have a greater selection of songs to carry the listener forward..
No Money, No Makeup
Based on liner notes and publicity materials, Lorraine McDonald clearly considers herself a folk singer and writer of contemporary folks songs. In some ways, she is correct. When I listen to the songs on this release, I hear something quite different. Here is an interesting selection of country music in styles ranging across America from the eastern mountains through the south and southeast to California western music. When I hear Lorraine McDonald, I hear an interesting and entertaining country singer.
McDonald has an intriguing voice, hard to describe. Think of Dolly Parton some forty years ago, when her voice sounded like a small girl, or at least a very young woman. Now, forget what Parton's voice has become and imagine that young woman of long ago. Imagine her voice aged and matured, fifty-plus but still soft and somehow young. This is the voice of Lorraine McDonald, a voice perfectly suited to the songs she sings.
Nine of the songs on this release were written by McDonald. Set against the five songs she has included from some of the finest songwriters of the past fifty years, her songs stand up very well. She writes simple country melodies and straightforward lyrics that tell stories with a universal appeal. Producer Paul Mills has shown the good sense to keep the arrangements simple and allow the music and words to hold their own. The result is a comfortable set of uncluttered songs that feel somehow familiar.
Lorraine McDonald may quite correctly perceive herself as a folk musician but, within that category, her writing and her performance is pure country. I can hear her voice on country songs ranging from "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart" though "I'm Not Lisa" and Parton's "I Will Always Love You." This is music made for radio. It should be getting a lot of play in the morning and evening drive times. Those who enjoy well-written folk or country music performed well, will enjoy hearing this set.
Diving for Pearls
There's talent here, but it's like a gemstone cut but not yet polished. While the light does mostly shine through brightly, there are rough spots that flaw the overall effect. In general, Diving for Pearls is an interesting and entertaining presentation of the work of Allie Fox as a composer, lyricist, and performer. It's a mostly honest presentation that exposes not just her talent, which is considerable, but also her weaknesses.
As a composer, Fox is not memorable. Even with fancy arrangements, her music is pretty standard stuff among singer-songwriter types. This is the sort of music a lyricist with passable skills on guitar or piano will write simply as a vehicle to carry the words. Most of the time, it is Fox's words and performance that save these songs from being only commonplace.
"Joe Louis Blues" best exemplifies the powerful writing of which Fox is capable. This is a tightly written story that seems to reach deep into the heart and soul of the great American heavyweight boxing champion. At the same time, this lyric is a powerful metaphor about racism and oppression, not just in America but universally. This is not simply a lyric, but a well-written work of poetry. You can read the lyric here.
The talent of Allie Fox is not yet fully developed, but already she is definitely a writer and performer to watch. It will be interesting to see who she becomes as her talent develops and grows.
Tempting the Storm
The music of Winnipeg's Cara Luft invites comparison. Luft's sound is very Canadian. I tend to think of it as the Sarah McLachlan school of performance. Since McLachlan's 1988 debut, and especially since the success of the Lilith Fairs, increasing numbers of new and even established artists, mostly Canadian have been drawn toward her style. That sound can heard often in the recordings of Sarah Harmer, frequently in the songs of Ani Difranco and Sheryl Crow, sometimes in more recent songs by K. D. Lang... and in most of the songs on Cara Luft's Tempting the Storm.
Of course, there are other influences present and they invigorate Luft's music with their diversity. Born to professional folk singer parents (probably Calgary's Barry and Lyn Luft, but the publicity materials do not specify), Cara Luft was exposed to folk music early on and began playing and singing as a young girl. Folk elements play a primary role in several of her songs and show up in even the most McLachlanesque pieces.
Cara Luft has a full, strong voice capable not just of a powerful musical range but of a full range of emotions. Without being over-theatrical, every song is imbued with deep feeling that helps to bring to life the story within. I can only imagine the power that such performances must bring to the stage.
I was not surprised to learn that Jack Kid had spent a dozen years as a public school teacher. Although his songs touch on a number of serious adult subjects, his performance brings to mind nothing so much as the work of children's artists like Fred Penner and Sharon Lois & Bram. Most songs here feel like they might be directed at a classroom of five to eight year olds, complete with actions and sing-along lines. This is not a bad thing. Even adults sometimes need an approach that's a bit lighter.
Jack Kid seems to want to reach an adult audience with his thoughtful and sometimes dark themes, but his performance has not escaped his years teaching children. This can actually be a good thing. There's that concept of sugar helping the medicine go down. Balancing a bit of fun and playfulness with more serious themes can help to keep the audience listening. Espresso Ecstasy presents an eclectic mix of the silly and the sublime, the hard realities of our world and the bright cheer that keeps us all going. It's a good balance.