Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #2
This is Rock and Roll, pure and simple. Those who enjoy Rock and Roll that reaches back to its roots won't be able to sit still when Lenore's new release is in the player and cranked up loud. This music is not bogged down with the lush ornamentation that has encumbered much of so-called "rock" music since the Seventies. Rather, it enjoys the simplicity that was the hallmark of Rock and Roll in the Fifties and early Sixties.
This is not to say there is not variety in this release. There is. Lenore's music does not stick to a particular Rock and Roll genre [say Rockabilly or Doo-Wop] but rather offers a potpourri of styles and tempos. What links these songs most is the simplicity of their presentation combined with the fact that all are eminently danceable.
While Lenore keeps her lyrics simple, appropriate to her music, these lyrics are tight and well written. In some songs, they rise to the level of poetry and in some they rise toward the level of a Michael Stipe or Leonard Cohen. In fact, for the person who listens to lyrics, Lenore's skill at telling her stories can only enhance the experience of hearing these songs.
It's also a treat to hear a Canadian singer/songwriter who is not lock-stepped into a 1963 folk music mode. This bright, danceable Rock and Roll is like a breath of fresh air in a crowded room.
festival to go
I offer this column, not as a review, but because I think the folks at Festival Distribution deserve commendation for their support of Canadian artists.
It should be made clear here that Festival Distribution did not ask me to review this CD, which is not available for commercial distribution. I had requested it because it had been offered as a sampler of their artists and I wanted to hear what they have to offer.
The package I received included an 80 page catalogue which is interesting enough to be read as a magazine plus the professionally packaged festival to go CD. While it is certainly in the interest of Festival Distribution to promote sales of their artists' products, few disributors would go to the expense to offer a package such as this to potential record buyers.
The sampler CD offers a wonderful cross-section of the new Canadian music that has developed over the past decade or so. The liner notes say festival to go includes "some of the diverse sounds of this country, from St. John's to the Yukon, from Brazil to China, from ancient to contemporary. With stops in between for jazz, folk, Celtic, blues, comedy, and myriad fusions that bridge time and traditions." This may sound like an exaggerated claim, but after listening to the CD, I can assure you it is true.
The liner notes also give summary information about each of the performers included on the CD. Reading these brief bios and listening to the music, one can only commend the editor who filtered these nineteen examples out of the entire Festival Distribution catalogue. This is surely some of the best music being released in Canada today.
Call Down the Thunder
A person listening to these songs might believe they had been recorded forty or fifty years ago, yet ten of the thirteen cuts on this CD were written by Guy Davis. The music ranges from the more traditional blues styles of Leadbelly, Big Bill Broonzy, Josh White, and Mississippi John Hurt to the slow-rocking sounds of Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters and other electric blues innovators.
This is not to say that Davis simply apes the sounds of the blues greats. Davis really seems to understand the emotion and the history behind the blues. He writes, plays, and sings from the heart and the power of all that comes out in his music. About the only way to pick a favourite song from this release is to shut your eyes and pick whichever cut your finger happens to fall upon.
Here is a blues musician who understands his antecedents and understands why and how these blues still hold their place near the turn of the millenium. This is definitely an artist to watch.
Take my highest recommendation to purchase a recording by any artist I have reviewed to date. Multiply it by ten. This is my recommendation for Call Down the Thunder by Guy Davis. Ask for it. If your record store does not have it, make them get it. Once you hear it, you too will say, Wow!
Irene Jackson has a sweet voice and she writes interesting, well-crafted songs which are a pleasure to hear. She should be better known to listeners in Canada and abroad. The reason she is not is, I think, a reflection of what has been happening in the Canadian music (especially folk music) scene over the last decade or so. Irene Jackson very simply does not stand out from the crowd.
As it has become more difficult to get recording contracts and as affordable recording equipment has increased in quality, songwriters have been drawn to record their own material. Canadian folk music is so good at the end of the millenium that the challenge is not to write excellent songs and release a recording but rather to differentiate oneself from the rest.
Taken by itself, Jackson's is a strong release, an excellent showcase for both her songwriting and her performance. Jackson's lyrics tell their stories well, her melodies carry the words well, and her voice is at times sweet, lyrical, powerful, and sensual.
The focal point of Jackson's talent is as a lyricist. Jackson's lyrics are tight and often quite visual, carrying her stories forward with a certain grace. It was a pleasure to read her included lyrics, most of which stand well on their own as poems.
Based on Another Morning, I quite like the work of J. P. Cormier. Here is a competent musician performing comfortable folk/country songs that can serve as background but also bear a closer listen. If asked, I would recommend this recording to anyone. However, Cormier still has a way to go in developing his sound.
Certainly Cormier has the credentials. He has played with the likes of Travis Tritt, Hal Ketchum, Pam Tillis, and Mark O’Connor and has, according to Borealis, "won the respect of singers and musicians wherever he plays, as well as winning dozens of guitar, fiddle, and banjo competitions." Along the way, he was nominated "Instrumental Artist of the Year" at the 1997 East Coast Music Awards.The talent and the experience are clearly present. What is needed now is for Cormier to discover his own voice, that unique sound which is J. P. Cormier. Another Morning is a collection of echoes or other artists and music. It is this hint of deja vu which both makes the music feel so comfortable yet denies it its own voice.
While I would certainly recommend giving J. P. Cormier a listen, I would not place him at the top of a list of CD's to buy. Rather, he is an artist to watch, not as a songwriter but as a performer. Once he finds his own voice he will surely rise to the top of Canadian talent.
Dead at Recess
At first listen, or if one does not listen too closely, the Ottawa band Boywonder does not sound much different than a dozen other rock bands the past few years have spawned. The sound is big but mellow, geared toward the filmic rhythms of rock video, and probably not terribly scary to anyone's parents. Behind this seductive facade is something more subtle and perhaps even subversive.
This CD is also a CD-ROM on which the band introduces itself at a number of levels. At surface there is a homespun video which starts out looking like Four on the Floor (you know, the comedy troupe with the old car) but ends up with each band member in turn introducing himself, as though they were some teen rock band. The saving grace is the "your name here" bit, which you'll have to see to understand. There is also what amounts to an onboard web site, featuring everything you'd want to know about Boywonder.
In some songs, the music has that chunga chunga sound (for example, give a listen to "Bright Idea") which seems to have become de rigeur for top 40 bands in the nineties. At other times, as in "Pilgrim," the band reverts to a harder, heavier sound more reminiscent of groups like Mountain or Deep Purple.
The homespun lyrics are often complemented by a folk - or at least folk-rock - sound, not just in the melodies but in the instrumentation. This is especially evident in "Ice Age," which tends to sound a lot like the earlier, folkier Led Zeppelin, and in "Sharbot Lake," which features the same jingle jangle folk-rock background rhythms first heard behind Sonny and Cher and the Byrds so many years ago.Even if the music were less than first-rate, this would be an intriguing CD to own. The fact is that the music is first-rate and very listenable.
Chris Chown is a seventeen year old white kid from London, Ontario, who recorded this, his first CD, when he was sixteen. Many who have seen and heard him consider him some kind of a blues prodigy. Certainly the music of Chown's trio suggests an artist of some greater years and experience.
Besides the requisite classics, this CD includes three songs written by Chown and one he co-wrote with his bassist, Ryan Spong. How good are they? Without looking up the credits, it's impossible to distinguish them from the classic blues in this recording.
"Blues from the Other Side" is a classy six minute slow rocker that allows Chown to show off his considerable guitar skills. Spong's bass and the drums of Frank Stracuzzi drive "You Can Love Me" with a force reminiscent of Frank Marino's Mahogany Rush or John Kay's Steppenwolf, and there is some nice guitar work by Chown, especially in the extended instrumental ending. "Baby's Got the Blues" is well chosen as the first cut on this release. A rocking Fabulous Thunderbirds style piece, it quickly carries the listener away from the kid on the cover and into the blues ahead. Again, much of the power of this song derives from the pumping bass of Spong, who also co-wrote it.
Of the four originals, though, "What's What" is arguably the strongest. The driving beat of Stracuzzi's drums, the pumping rhythm of Spong's bass, and Chown's rocking guitar riffs come together perfectly to underscore the authentic sounding lyrics. In fact, original or classic, this is the song most likely to stand out from the others on this release.
When he sings, Chown achieves the vocal mannerisms and quirks, if not the subleties, of the old bluesmen. This lends a lot to the authenticity of his sound. The question arises of whether, at seventeen years old, Chown is just a very good mimic or he actually has a precocious grasp of the blues. In the end though, the answer really does not matter. What this kid does, he does very well.
There is a distinct character to the original music that comes out of Canada's north. In the music of Len Osland, raised in northern Manitoba and now resident in the Yukon, can be heard sounds similar to those of Kashtin, Night Sun, and other northern artists. This is a music that seems to incorporate the folk sounds of northern Europe with the rhythms of Canada's native peoples.
What stands out about Len Osland, though, is the sense that as much as a singer/composer he is a storyteller and that the songs are just one medium through which he speaks. Osland's tunes, while not recognizable as specific old favourites, have a distinctly traditional feel and simplicity to them. While some of the arrangements are interesting, where the music is most powerful is where it serves to underscore the story being told.
Put together by Osland and a group of his friends calling themselves The Lapstrakes, the variety of arrangements in this recording is eclectic and intriguing. Spoken word and sung lyrics over minimal instrumentation shine as facets of Osland's presentation. Fuller arrangements include such elements as a Hammond B-3 organ (favourite of rockers everywhere!), bazouki, mandolin, fiddle, accordion, and a wide variety of drums and percussion.
This release is quirky enough that it may not get a lot of airplay and most likely will not become a top-forty hit. On the other hand, Osland's music should be right at home on the specialty programs of the CBC and college stations across the country. It is an interesting and quietly enjoyable example of the music coming out of Canada's north at the end of the millennium.
Like the group, this recording is aptly named. Here is an eclectic selection of musical genres and styles, with vocals by three singers each with a distinctive approach to the vocals. Backed up by a dozen session players in various combinations, Eclectricity moves easily from blues to country to pop to a sort of klesmer/zydeco sound. What seems to work best for this trio is when they move into a country mode with a slight blues edge (or vice versa). Leonard Cohen's "Ballad of the Runaway Horse," Bob Robertson's "Down to the Line," and Tom Waits' "Blind Love" are three of the best songs presented in this style.
As is the nature of such a personal product, some parts are less strong than others. Two songs, "I am a Patriot" sung by Robertson and "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" sung by Fry, seem to be unsuited to the voices and styles of the singers, at least as arranged for this performance.
The CD ends on a high note with the spiritual "Two Wings," nominally sung by Heckman but with strong vocal harmonies in a true gospel style by Robertson and Fry.
Over all, Eclectricity is an uneven production but would make an interesting and evocative addition to anybody's CD rack.
waiting for the cage
This is hard music, working class and political. In the best tradition of Woody Guthrie, Ed McCurdy, and others who were protest writers before that mode became de rigeur in the sixties, this is folk music for and about the workers. In this case the workers in question are the miners of northern Ontario, engaged in what the liner notes refer to as "the war underground."
As folk music goes, however, this music has a very industrial sound to it. The traditional sounding folk melodies and lyrics are underscored with driving electric guitar, keyboard, drums.
Adding to the country edge is the fine fiddle playing of Peter Jellard, often providing an effective and even powerful counterpoint to the driving guitar riffs.
The lyrics of Chuck Angus are hard edged and compelling. His writing has the colloquial social consciousness of a John Prine or Tom Waits. It is well worth getting past the music for long enough to listen to these words. Angus is one of Canada's new generation of excellent lyricists.
This is, however, a quirky recording which may turn away as many listeners as it attracts. Certainly the folk purists will not appreciate the rock elements and the hard rockers may find the folk elements disconcerting. But those who enjoy music and lyrics well written and well performed will revel in this eclectic yet unified sound.
When the wagon was new
In their latest release, When the wagon was new, Tom Wilson and Border Bluegrass take us back to an earlier time. Although the performance on this recording is somewhat laid-back, the music has a comfortable feel to it. While it is interesting to turn the sound up and give it a good listen, this music also serves as a comfortable background for any activity. It blends well with a good meal, a good book, or a good conversation.
A real plus on this CD is the banjo of Lloyd Grant. The brightness of the well-played banjo brings up the tone of every arrangement in which it is heard. If anything in this release can be said to stand out, it is the ever present sound of Grant's banjo.
What works especially well on this CD is the traditional and near-traditional music. "I'll be Satisfied" and "Golden River" are especially good examples of traditional country music played well. One of the better "traditional" tunes is worth noting in that it is not traditional at all but was written by Tom Wilson. "Gather at the Manger" is a fine piece of hillbilly gospel harking back to an earlier, more innocent time.
Those wishing a break from modern country music,will find When the wagon was new a welcome addition to their CD rack.
Quite correctly, leader Garry Segal refers to the music of Garry & the moodswingers as Rhythm and Blues. This is top of the heap rockin' R&B that rolls the listener over into simpler times. For me, while the two forms are related, blues is one thing and R&B another. Where I live, there are a lot of bands claiming to play "the blues" when in fact they are grooving on "electric" blues, Rhythm and Blues. It is a welcome change to come across an R&B band that knows what it is -- especially when it is as solid as Garry & the Moodswingers.
The title Go Fever may derive from a modern source -- a quote from astronaut Wally Shiarra -- but the music lives in the fifties when bands played, in its original and correct sense, Rock and Roll: Rhythm and Blues. This album rocks! Period.
What is surprising is that six of the ten cuts on this CD are originals, songs written by Garry Segal on his own or with others. For a man who was most likely born after the heyday of the great R&B artists, Garry Segal has a real feel for the form. He has clearly taken this genre and made it his own.
Although it was sent to me recently, this is a relatively old release. Let's hope there's a new one on the way, filled with even more of this high quality Rhythm and Blues. This one is a definite add-to for the library of any jazz, blues, or R&B fan.
Evocative is the one word which comes to mind to describe the words and music of Brent Mason. Listening to Stony Plain, Mason's third CD, is an intriguing experience, evoking a world which only grows more real and complete each time the songs are played. Visual, sensual, and more often than not political, Mason's music is not easy to categorize.
Mason fits quite nicely into the pantheon of modern Canadian folk music. At different times his style evokes Bruce Cockburn, Leonard Cohen, Robbie Robertson, Stan Rogers, and others. Less often, the references seem more international, bringing to mind Bruce Hornsby, Bob Seger, Donovan Leitch, Michael Martin Murphy, and even Phil Ochs. To listen is almost psychedelic in the music's lyical and melodic flashbacks to other artists and other times.
Brent Mason's problem -- if it is a problem at all -- is that, while an excellent lyricist and songwriter, he is highly eclectic both in his writing and his performance. Pigeonholers at radio stations and record stores may have a serious problem slotting Mason until he finds his own unique voice. When he does, my suspicion is that it will be among the Cohens and Cockburns of this world.
Stony Plain is a CD worth owning if you want to listen to an artist who may be up and coming on the Canadian scene, or if you just enjoy hearing a new and unique Canadian voice coming into its own. Mason also has two previous CD releases: Head for the High Ground and Down to Heaven.
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