Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #19
Big Slow Mover
I had a hard time with this release. There's a lot of talent here. As a writer of words and music, Phil Cody has the sort of talent that can persuade artists like Emmylou Harris to come on board. (Harris joins Cody as one of five backup singers on this release.) As a singer, he's a bit better than most. This is big-band singer-songwriter stuff, with thirteen other players and five other singers besides Cody, and not a mediocre performer in the bunch. The writing, performance, and production of this release is necessarily of the highest calibre. In spite of all that, with the exception of one or two performances, there's nothing here that raises Big Slow Mover above the commonplace of mainstream pop music.
As singer-songwriter releases go, Big Slow Mover is different in several ways. The most noticeable is that Cody is the Neil Diamond of folk music, setting every lyric against the lush backdrop of an orchestration almost huge enough to overwhelm it. Unlike many singer-songwriters, Cody has not just featured his own writing. Four of the thirteen tracks here were written by others. So called "bonus tracks" usually show up as a surprise, not listed on the packaging. Cody's release includes three listed "bonus" tracks in addition to the ten numbered tracks. It's unclear what makes these tracks a "bonus" of any sort.
Phil Cody is clearly a talented songwriter and performer. My sense from this release is that he may not yet have found a way to focus his talent or to distinguish what is truly remarkable from what is only glib. Given his tendency to overwhelm his preformance with large arrangements and other voices, I suspect that he also may not yet be as confident in his own work, his own vision, as he must one day become. Phil Cody is definitely an artist to watch.
The performances on Rattlebag bring the listener a distinctive sort of blended-blues that, while honouring its American roots, has a purely Canadian sensibility. Not lock-stepped into a narrow genre, this music is countrified, rocking, moody, swampy, grooving, poetic, and emotional. It's music with universal appeal made possible in part by bringing together old time sounds with something more contemporary. While it reaches deep into blues history, this music opens a door to the future of the blues.
In the notes, Paul Reddick writes about being greatly influenced by the early field recordings of old time blues artists, often amateur musicians away from the evolving mainstream of citified blues. This influence shows through in these performances. Somewhere in there, I hear sounds that suggest this artist had also been influenced by the folk and country music of his native Canada. The sounds are there, and you don't have to listen hard to hear them. While it remains blues music, this music is rich with a heritage that includes far more than the blues, and it benefits greatly from that infusion.
I find the performances on this release to be original and interesting and more than a cut above much of the Canadian blues I hear. This blend of electric rockers with countrified sounds that are less American country-blues than just plain Canadian country music is refreshing in a world where it seems every new blues band just wants to play electrified rock and roll. This release well deserves all the acclaim it has received and more.
The Blues Foundation
The Blues Foundation of Memphis, Tennessee, which also maintains the Blues Hall of Fame, presents the annual W. C. Handy Blues Awards. With over 20,000 ballots distributed to blues fans around the world, there are truly the "people's choice" awards for excellence in the blues selected in twenty-four different categories. This release presents nominees for the 22nd annual W. C. Handy Blues Award categories of Blues Album of the Year, Blues Song of the Year, Blues Entertainer of the Year, Blues Band of the Year, and Best New Artist Debut. It's an all-star lineup.
As a sampler of contemporary blues artists, this release presents the best of the best in one excellent blues performance after another. The performers may be contemporary, but, throughout the performances this set, there's a strong sense of tradition. This is powerful music with a long tradition, and the respect the musicians have for that tradition is apparent in every note they play and every word they sing.
This sampler from The Blues Foundation's W. C. Handy Blues Awards should be a welcome addition to the music library of anyone with an interest in hearing the blues performed well. The breadth and depth and quality of the performances on this release is breathtaking. Very simply, this is great blues.
Going to Water
A closer look at the lyrics of Eddy Lawrence reveal a philosopher's mind at work. Here's an educated man taking a wry look at the world around him. While most of the songs work well on a pop music level, to unravel some of the references in the songs may require at least a Bachelor's degree. Lawrence's lyrics are rich with the history of America from the perspective of the First Nations and the love/hate relationship between them and the Europeans who had overflowed their shores.
Lawrence's songs fall somewhere into that genre of countrified rock and roll inhabited by artists like Tom Petty and Bruce Hornsby. It's hardcore rock and roll music overlaid with thoughtful lyrics and melodies that have a large country element. Ignoring for a moment the political and social activism that infuses most of these lyrics, this hard-driving music should be popular both on the reservation and off, both in the country and in the city. Beneath the words, this is just plain good rock and roll.
The lyrics are dense and rich with imagery and history. These well-written lyrics bear a closer listen or a very close read. The music, ranging from pop country to hard rock and roll is extremely listenable. It should get play not just on niche stations at colleges and on the reservation, but on radio stations everywhere that play the best music. Every song is as good as the next.
Back to the Dirt
The songs of Brian Gladstone are quiet and unassuming. They're comfortable songs that feel like they've been around a long time, like an old easy chair or your favourite slippers. This is music that brings fond remembrance of the Sixties yet often seems to reach back as far as the Twenties. This is old-time music but it's not old-timey, drawing as it does from the mainstream of 20th Century American popular music. The words, on the other hand, come from the realities of 21st Century life and tend to speak largely to a hometown Toronto audience. The overall effect is warm and cozy, the songs bringing a homey and somehow timeless sense of comfort to the listener.
Gladstone has a sweet, soft voice reminiscent of a Will Millar, Harry Nilsson, Keith Carradine, Gerry Marsden, or any number of pop and folk singers of the mid-century. This is the music not of a bar but of a coffee house or a folk club attended by aging hippies. Whatever rage had ever been in this voice has mellowed with age but may sit just below the surface, waiting to catch the listener by surprise. Even at his quietest, Gladstone hints at the protest singer still alive within him.
While the music of Brian Gladstone may make comfortable listening, many of the songs carry a seditious undertone that wants not to prick the listener's conscience but to seduce it. Behind the sweet songwriter is an activist with something to say about the social issues of the day. For both its old fashioned, slightly countrified sound and the words, which bear a listen or even a read, Back to the Dirt would make an interesting addition to any collection of contemporary Canadian music.
13 Drinking Songs
In the promotional materials, Naked & Shameless are described as "the undisputed punk kings of kitsch rock." The content of 13 Drinking Songs is not so easily described. The set starts off with spoken word, sounding Beatnick like Ginsberg but without the layers of allusion to give it depth. This is followed by an acoustic blues number with vocals that slide between John Fogarty and Burton Cummings, songs with hard-driving guitars and plaintive voices performed in a faux-Irish pub style, Monkees style guitar under a song that starts out sounding like Peter and Gordon but soon shifts to a harder Tommy Boyce and Bobby Hart style, a tale reminiscent of Coleridge or Jimmy Dean, a song with a one-word lyric, some hard rock, another song that sounds like it was ripped out of the Afroman songbook, and more, including a very weird final track.
This is pub music, clearly directed at drunks and college students. The lyrics are simple, often silly, and look for laughs with base humour and language. Yet there is a sense that Naked & Shameless, intentionally or not, are communicating on more than one level. It could be that these artists are dumbing down their words and music for a target drunken pub audience. There are certainly indications that they have a far broader understanding of literature, religion (yes, religion), and popular music than they let on.
Perverse, offensive, or just plain weird though they may be, Naked & Shameless are also very funny, with compoetent writing and interesting music. As parodists, they may be not just off the wall but a bit beyond it but their material works on a number of levels that may appeal not just to the drunken crowd at the pub but to the more thoughtful among us as well. Of course, I didn't try taking this recording with alcohol as suggested on the package. Doing that might have skewed my perspective a bit.
My Great Escape
Mark Elliott is clearly a journeyman songwriter. He writes his stories in tight, expressive lyrics that touch on themes that are both personal and universal. His simple pop-country melodies are made to carry a good story forward. For this release, Elliott has put together a band of musicians at the top of their profession who perform with the tight sound of a band that's been together for years. Everything on My Great Escape has been done with confident, competent professionalism.
As a lyricist, Elliott has an excellent sense of poetic structure and how that adapts to make a song lyric. His lyrics are tightly structured with few, if any, wasted words. This compactness allows him to tell short stories in the length of a popular song, to paint pictures of American life in a span less than five minutes long. Some of his stories are prose-like narratives that might be told as conversation in some bus stop cafe or the corner bar. Others are more poetic, building on brief images that evoke the bigger picture like the flicker of a television screen. His craftsmanship is unmistakable throughout his lyrics
My Great Escape will make excellent listening for those who enjoy pop-oriented middle of the road music, will provide the perfect touch for that afternoon drivetime radio show, and will be a great resource for performers looking for well-written songs to add to their own sets. And there's nothing wrong with that.
Dog My Cat
In this electrified world, it's comforting to hear some traditional acoustic music played and sung well. Among this decade's surfeit of electric blues and rock and roll that thinks it's the blues, the quieter sounds of a Harry Manx provides a welcome respite. Harry Manx invites his listener into that quiet room away from the party where people go to talk or maybe just sit awhile. The party will always be there, just outside the door, but it can wait a while.
Performing this traditional music, Manx introduces a more contemporary element, a musical instrument invented only a few decades ago: the mohan veena. A cross between the Indian sitar and the slide guitar, the mohan veena has a range of rich sounds that can vary from a classical harp to traditional sitar to Hawaiian guitar reminiscent of Roy Smeck. The sound is at once exotic, mysterious, and intriguing. In the hands of Harry Manx,the mohan veena seems always to have been a blues instrument.
Harry Manx is a Canadian original, a journeyman bluesman who has taken his music to the world, living and performing for years in France, Japan, and India before returning home, and now brings the music of the world back to the blues in Canada. While seeming at surface to be a straightforward acoustic blues release, Dog My Cat has a depth that reflects the richness of this musician's experience and talent.
Bird of Paradise
Subtitled World Jazz Interpretations of Bob Marley's Music, this release transports the songs of this reggae into the world of big band jazz and explores them from a substantially new perspective. While elements of the reggae sound are occasionally evident in these performances, especially in the horns and drums, the music here is one hundred percent jazz.
It's in the words that Bob Marley comes through this music and holds his own. Rising out of music that sounds strictly commercial, the politics of his lyrics take the listener by surprise. Wilkins' accomplished interpretations underline the words and bring them to the forefront, meanings intact and powerful as when they had first appeared on the world stage. Her interpretations are respectful of Marley's legacy, yet they also give his songs a distinctive sound that may bring them to a new audience.
Bringing songs from one very distinctive genre into another equally distinctive but substantially different genre, Bird of Paradise is an interesting experiment. Tracey Wilkins and the musicians who work with her have carried this off with panache, creating a world-class album of big band jazz built around the words and music of Bob Marley. This set is a fitting tribute to Marley and a shining extension to his musical legacy.
The Secret of You
Sometimes you just have to give someone the credit for trying. While this artist doesn't sound like an absolute beginner, his work has all the earmarks of a musician with little or no practical experience. This music sounds like the work of one of those music geeks who do all their creation and performance at home without benefit of playing out or even jamming with friends. While it sounds as though John Tafaro may have some talent, or at least some training, the production on these tracks undercuts whatever positive elements they may contain.
It may be a bad idea to hide your light under a bushel, but it's just as bad an idea to release your work prematurely, before it's ready for the light of day. Somewhere in these tracks lies a hint that John Tofaro may have some talent as a composer and musician. Unfortunately, the unresolved flaws in his work tend to obscure whatever good work may be hidden inside. These are not unpolished gems but only stones inside which there may or may not be gems at all. Tafaro needs to take his work back to the studio and do some serious cutting and polishing.
Wyckham Porteous is a true Canadian original, yet his work invites comparison at several levels. At surface, the performances on this release are hard-hitting roots-rock built on a bedrock of literate poetry. This is the music of Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, John Mellenkamp, Bruce Hornsby, and The Tragically Hip, yet it drifts effortlessly into a world all its own. This is the poetry of Black Mountain, of Sixties Montreal, of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti, of the ever-shifting literary conventions of the last half-century all set inconguously yet seamlessly in song. Wyckham Porteous is not simply an artistic chameleon but a skilled shape-shifter moving through a marvelous world of his own making.
The lyrics are deceptive. Performed, the words flow like song lyrics, pumped up with energy, expressing more than telling their story. The effect is powerful and driving, on a par with the best of popular song lyrics. On paper, the words read like poetry, structured for flow and meaning and organized to read well out loud in a way that is often quite unlike Porteous' musical presentation. Here is depth of meaning and imagery painted across the page by a literate writer who appears to understand the principles of literary poetry at least as well as he understands popular music.
Then there's the music, broad and sweeping as the words it carries, transcending genre yet familiar and consistent as though creating a genre of its own. This music doesn't so much cross genres as nestle between them with all the comfort of a cat settled on the cushions of a soft couch. Porteous' performance is the embodiment of confidence and independence.
Wickham Porteous" sexanddrinking has so many fascinating facets that I've only scratched the surface. Each time through, this set reveals more of the depth and artistry layered into these songs. This is music to be listened to over and over again. There is power here, and class. It's rare to find an artist of this calibre in any genre, let alone one who, like Porteous, manages to transcend genre altogether and work not outside the box but in a box of his own creation.
I Love the Rain
Manitoba native Len Osland has been writing and performing his songs for close to three decades. In Osland's writing and in his performance, that experience is apparent. Osland writes clean, straightforward music and simple, tightly scripted lyrics that reveal chapters of his characters' lives. The songs on I Love the Rain are country-influenced, folk-flavoured gems that show the polish only a journeyman can give. Still, I'm left wondering if that is enough.
This is safe music that doesn't take a whole lot of risks. Like a comfy old couch, it's music the listener can just settle back into and relax. The stories are like that too. These are simple tales of everyday people that seem more reminiscences than history. They have enough detail to draw the listener comfortably in but not enough to give them any real depth or feeling. These lyrics are not the poetry of literature but rather concisely written tales for a quiet sunset jam on the front verandah.
The high quality of the writing, musicianship, and production on I Love the Rain is undeniable. The songs on this release make pleasant listening, but I find nothing in them that makes them particularly memorable. What's missing is that indefinable spark that makes a song more than just words and music, that reaches out and grabs the listener and says "remember me." If Len Osland can discover that spark and inject its fire into his songs, he will really have something.
Petit Fou includes a total of twenty-one songs, some instrumental and some featuring spirited vocals, some standing on their own and some seguéd smoothly together as medley. There is a consistency throughout that at first listen might obscure the wonderful variety of songs and the cultural diversity of the performance. On each listen more is revealed and the music gains in depth and beauty as each layer comes forward. There is a richness here as deep as the wonderfully blended French culture of the province from which this music is primarily drawn.
For the most part, this is the music of the barn dance and the hoedown, country music that expresses the joy of just being alive. This is the music of my childhood growing up in rural Alberta. This is the music of Canada's Maritimes, of the prairies of Saskatchewan, of the mountain ranches of British Columbia. While rooted in Quebec, the music of Matapan will resonate with listeners across Canada who have grown up with the old time music. This is an exciting new interpretation of Canadian folk music that will be appreciated by the old folks but as well should have a broad appeal for young Canadians.
While it is certainly rooted in the musical culture of Québec and can be classified as Québec folk music, the music of Matapat is much more than that. This is, in the purest sense, "world" music that incorporates elements and influences from many cultures, seamlessly incorporating them into the Québecois sound that is its heart. This is truly Canadian music that reaches out from the centre of our nation and welcomes in the rest, from old families to new immigrants, celebrating the unity and the diversity of our nation. Besides that, it's just really good old-timey music with a modern feel.