Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #3
If this release had been intended as only a demo... but it hasn't. As a commercial release, it has a few problems.
The first is that it is overproduced. The sound is thick and muggy, blurring the instrumental lines and making the lyrics hard to make out. Besides overproduction, part of this problem seems to be the result of over-use of compression technology, dumbing down any sense of sharpness the music may once have had. What is wanted here is the objective ear and firm control of a producer who is not the artist.
While McClure appears to have above average talent as a lyricist, another weakness of this release is that the quality of writing is uneven, ranging from mediocre to quite good. An objective editor might have chosen to leave out at least one of these songs and possibly send McClure back for rewrites on some of the others. McClure shows the potential to shine, but does not yet show the necessary polish as a writer.
McLure has a sweet, soulful voice, sounding very much like Dickie Lee at his best. This similarity is especially evident in "My Personality," in which McClure's voice echoes Lee's in his hit, "Patches."
Even given the deficiencies in this release, thanks to the multi-talented artist who shines through, Charles McClures music grows on the listener. Given a good editor, an experienced producer, a real band, and a proper recording studio, McClure's music could take off.
Writer, arranger, producer, singer, multi-instrumentalist, promoter: Charles McClure may be able to fill any of these roles with style and accomplishment. To attempt to do all at once is at best risky and at worst an invitation to disaster. That McClure has attempted this is commendable but has, in my opinion, seriously degraded the quality of his product.
When I Say I Do
To narrowly define MacPhee's sound as folk, in the contemporary sense, would do it an injustice. While maintaining a certain unity, the music here moves beyond simply folk, slipping beyond that line to embrace any of several genres, depending on the needs of each particular song. The effect is an interesting blend of homogeneity and sometimes surprising variety.
Much of the music here brings memories of the sort of country-folk epitomized by such artists as Gordon Lightfoot, George Hamilton IV, and John Hartford some three decades ago. Other songs, while retaining a folk sound, lean toward pop in the same way as did many of the ballads sung by Roger Whittaker and Harry Belafonte. At times, MacPhee's voice takes on the gentleness of a Peter Yarrow or the near-rock of Bob Lind. Hearing such variety on one CD is a welcome change from singer/songwriter albums where all the songs sound about the same.
Those interested in hearing a solid interpreter of contemporary Canadian folk music will find When I Say I Do an edifying and entertaining listen. It's well worth adding to any home CD collection.
Dancing on a String
The music on this new release by Guelph fingerstyle guitarist Bob MacLean is deceptive in both its effects and its variety. Fingerstyle guitar [which essentially means almost any guitar work the old-fashioned way, without a pick] tends by and large to be relegated to the realm of background music. Indeed, guitar music makes relaxing fill in the noisy hubbub of a restaurant or wedding reception or the hum of a rising elevator. Recently, however, a number of Canadian pickers have come out of the elevator and are breaking into the foreground. One of these is Bob MacLean.
Played softly, MacLean's music does, in fact, work well as background or fill, bringing a certain harmony to the ambience of a room. Played a bit louder, it may serve entirely different purposes, infusing the room with a type of energy. Playing Dancing On A String at a comfortable volume as I worked, I found it had about the same effect as good rock and roll or lively classics, enabling me to accomplish more over a shorter period of time, and to enjoy doing it. Played full volume... well, who wants to hear acoustic guitar played that loud anyway?
Over all, this release is a good effort, presenting an interesting mix of music that is useful both for filling empty spaces and for provoking thought and action. On the other hand, there are problems with programming. Given the content, it seems misleading to call this a Celtic or even "Celtic-inspired" album. While a case may be made for the existence of Celts in Spain, the Spanish music included is most likely not Celtic. By the same token, if English music is to be included under the banner "British" then this should be called an album of British music. Otherwise, as the CD is currently described, the Sassenach content should have been left off.
Politics and programming notwithstanding, Dancing On A String is certainly worth adding to the fingerstyle guitar section of your CD rack.
Penny Lang & Friends LIVE
While I am sure many would disagree with me, if I had to classify this very diverse release, I would call it good rock and roll. There are a number of factors that lead me to this conclusion. The first is that there is no other genre which accurately describes the music in this concert. Penny Lang blends elements of old folk and country music, traditional gospel, dixieland, rhythm and blues, and novelty tunes into a lively music all her own. This is the state of rock and roll in the few years after Alan Freed appropriated the phrase to describe an uneven blend of musical genres.
Penny Lang rocks as did converted country singers Bill Haley ("The Saints") and Johnny Cash ("Frankie's Man Johnny"), rocker Freddie Cannon ("Way Down Yonder in New Orleans") and many more of that era who sang the standards with renewed energy. Lang's voice has behind it that indefinable energy once identified with singers as diverse as Wanda Jackson, Etta James, Ruth Brown, and early Brenda Lee. Regardless of the genre or tempo of the song Lang is singing, that energy is always there.
There's another element that makes this release sound like rock and roll. Played at low to medium volume, the music sounds pretty good. It would probably work well as background in any situation. Turned up loud, however, is where this music really rocks. Lang recorded with a number of talented musicians, and unless the music is turned up, many of the subtleties of this intrumentation very simply will not be heard. This music is meant to be played loud.
Penny Lang & Friends LIVE is, over all, perhaps the most enjoyable concert recording I have heard in a very long time. This is a lively, fun recording well worth adding to anyone's CD rack.
One Way Down
Jory Nash is an eminently listenable singer. This is the source of much of what is attractive in his CD One Way Down. Nash has a sweet voice reminiscent of some of the more popular folkish singers of the Sixties and Seventies. His voice is complemented by arrangements that, while always simple, are often simply elegant in their conception. It should surprise nobody if this release receives substantial airplay, especially on stations programming what used to be called middle-of-the-road or easy-listening.
Nash stands out as one of the better performers among the independent singer-songwriters flooding the Canadian music market the past few years. His presentation is polished and professional and his arrangements bright and interesting. One nice touch is "Intro to the Flyer," a spoken word piece which, while serving as an introduction to the song which follows, as well stands on its own and is listed as such in the liner notes.
Over all, One Way Down is good value for those seeking well-crafted quiet music to read by. For the consumer looking for more tunes to the toonie, this release is a bargain. Nash has packed in sixteen songs listed on the label plus one more which is not listed.
Song About a Train
Unlike traditional folk or country artists, Tom Flannery brings to his songs a very modern sensibility. While his songs contain elements of folk, country, and even blues, this is clearly crossover material Songs from this release could be played within most contemporary radio formats except perhaps hard rock.
Flannery's guitar sound is filled out admirably by a skilful blend of organ [I'm not sure, but it may be a classic B3], violin [as opposed to fiddle and apparently from the keyboard, since no violin/fiddle credit is given], harmonica, steel guitar, and an assortment of other instruments. The result is an interesting and pleasing sound well suited to Flannery's gentle lyrics.It doesn't hurt at all that Flannery has a sweet singing voice, sometimes tinged with older folk or country styles, often with just a dash of Dylan. Even were the music not so well performed or the lyrical stories so well told, this voice would be a pleasure to hear.
Song About a Train will make an excellent addition to anyone's collection of contemporary singer/songwriters. This is music that deserves to find an audience.
Bullet from a Gun
Bullet from a Gun, while clearly a blues-based release, features a fusion of sounds that echo Motown (By the Book, People Hold On, Eyes on the Prize), pre-Motown Detroit rock (By the Book), rhythm and blues (Wild Man Out of Me, Complication), funk (Bullet from a Gun, What's the Measure of a Man), the R&B style that Alan Freed took to calling rock and roll in the early Fifties (Wild Man Out of Me), Sixties hippy-pop (What Remains is a Whisper), and pop (What's the Measure of a Man, Complication).
While the songs can be categorized as each reflecting a certain genre, each song also borrows a bit from other genres. Looking for some pure blues? "Jump Up Mary" is an up-tempo rocker that starts this session off just right.
Over all, this is clearly a blues-based release, but the sum of the cuts gives it more of a rhythm and blues sensibility. Because this impression is created, a number of the cuts tend to sound as though something is missing. It would be interesting to hear what would happen if The Nightshift Blues Band added a piano and a horn section to some of these cuts. Having more members in the band may make it harder to get local gigs (club owners being so frugal these days), but also may make for a stronger, fuller sound.
What makes this release unique and interesting is the songs themselves. Unlike most blues releases, Bullet from a Gun is not filled with covers of old favourites. Every song was written by the group's guitarist, George K. Tirpko. The lyrics are included in the liner, always a good idea with new original songs.For the listener, Bullet from a Gun is an interesting release worth the price of admission. For The Nightshift Blues Band, it could serve well as a demo toward picking up a record deal that allows them a broader range of instrumentation. For George K Tirpko, it can certainly serve as a demo toward selling songs to other artists.
Musical Mystery Machines
I don't know how well the songs on Ken Whiteley's CD would go over with the intellectuals at the local folk club, but an audience at the neighbourhood day-care or kindergarten is sure to give rave reviews to Musical Mystery Machines. This is a clever Bill Nye (the science guy) meets Eric Nagler (of Sharon, Lois and Bram fame) concoction of solid early learning and just plain fun.
While featuring a lot of the Caribbean and folk sounds preferred by many Canadian children's artists, this release has a smattering of klesmer, country, fifty's rock, so-called classic rock, blues, Sesame Street style pop, and Chuck Berry. This broad base of musical styles, while no more than a teaser, can certainly serve to enhance the learning experience provided by the interesting approach to science presented here.
Even better for those parents with children at home, there is much more than music on this CD. Musical Mystery Machines includes a very clever interactive CD-ROM section chock full with scientific knowledge presented in the form of games and fun exercises. The CD-ROM is included in versions for Macintosh, Windows 3.1, and Windows 95, so it should work for all but those with the oldest computers.
Monster In My Heart
Since her first, self-titled, release, Erin Benjamin has grown, both as a writer and as a performer. The songs on Monster In My Heart no longer have the self-conscious folkiness evident in many of the songs on her first CD. This is music which, while still clearly falling somewhere on the folk continuum, could easily make the crossover to a number of other contemporary genres.
Where Benjamin had once seemed to wear her songwriting influences like her heart on her sleeve, now the sound is uniquely hers. Certainly Benjamin has extracted and kept the best of what her idols could teach her, and there is still a lot of Joni Mitchell in her style, but the soup of her beginnings has evolved into something new and wonderful and alive in its own right.
Choosing a favourite, or even defining a best song for qualitative or other reasons, could be a difficult task. The songs on this CD are relatively uniform and balanced in quality, and that quality is high. Erin Benjamin is definitely an artist to watch. It will be most interesting to see where she goes from here.
Stories Without Words
Stories Without Words has a much less new-age feel to it than did Jim Graham's first release, Mezcolanza. This is music that can suit many occasions and moods. Played quietly, it is ideal background for that private candle-lit dinner or for romance. Played softer still, it works well as a relaxant, as a catalyst for meditation. Yet, played with the volume turned up, it is vital and invigorating, music to enjoy while working or playing.
Barraged as we are at the turn of the century by big bands and the big sounds of small bands, it is easy to forget the pleasure to be derived from the subtleties of a single acoustic instrument playing lightly upon our ears. Jim Graham is here to remind us. This is music of the centuries, as contemporary as anything we may hear today yet reaching back in time as far as the world of Shakespeare.
Especially worth note here are the haunting Graham composition "An Gorta Mor," written in commemoration of the Irish Famine; "Bonnie Dundee," a lively rendition of the old Scottish bagpipe tune; "Romance," a delightful arrangement of a traditional melody; "Modinha," a Brazilian folk song which sounds almost Greek in Graham's translation; and the spritely "Silver Sand Rag."
This is a thoughtful, reflective writer and performer whose songs manage to be bright and interesting while still reflecting contemporary concerns for ecology and the state of the world in general. In this he falls somewhere along a continuum between John Denver and Bruce Cockburn, tending toward the Denver end with songs that make his point through finely painted images rather than direct political statements.
Musically, Williams is sometimes closer to an early Gordon Lightfoot, an effect which may have as much to do with his decision to record in Canada with Bob Doidge, Lightfoot's former producer, as with his natural style. From song to song, however, the style of this release features a refreshing variety of style while still maintaining a certain unity. Musicians speak of an instrument being in tune with itself. If such an analogy may be made, Brooks Willams is indeed in tune with himself.
Most interesting of the songs on 7 Sisters is "Some Fine Day." In its richly metaphorical lyrics, its melody, and the arrangement for this recording, "Some Fine Day" is highly reminiscent of the best Leonard Cohen recordings. On a CD filled with folk-country sounds, the arrangement for this song has the same quirky feel one notices in many Cohen songs. Where backup singers fill out and add richness to the Cohen songs, here Hugh Marsh's electric violin plays the same role, giving the song an edge that draws the listener into the melody. 7 Sisters is worth buying just for this song.
In towns across Canada, there are musical local heroes beloved of and praised by their folky peers. After singing and playing a set at their local folk music club, they are told that once again they were wonderful, told again that they should make a recording. Christina Smith and Jean Hewson sound like a couple of these folks. Like Ducks! is a competent performance. That's all. There is little, if anything, to set this recording apart from the plethora of second level neo-Celtic releases to which we have been subjected over the past decade or so.
Smith and Hewson seem to be trying too hard. This is folk music, back porch music, music for family gatherings and the local dance. The performance here lacks sponaneity and its affect is often strained. Reading the promotional materials, one notices that the fiddler, Smith, is a classically trained cellist. The question arises whether she is too used to reading notes from paper and has trouble playing freely and spontaneously. Too often her playing is stiff and formal, sounding more like a violinist than a fiddler.
In a club atmosphere with the undercurrent of conversation blunting its sharper edges, Jean Hewson's voice must surely be very beautiful. Recorded, her voice cuts like a dull knife, its edges just sharp enough to become disconcerting. This effect is only exascerbated by Hewson's quirky, often jerky and uneven singing style. The most enjoyable sung parts in this release are the ones where Smith and Hewson sing together and manage some quite lovely harmonies.
Matapat, Music Traditionnelle du Québec
While it may have its roots in Québec, the music of Benoit Bourque, Gaston Bernard, and Simon Lepage takes the listener back to simpler times across the nation and around the world. Here are echoes of a prairie barn dance, a maritime ceilidh, the French folk music of Acadia and Louisiana, the traditional music of Ireland, Scotland, France, Greece, and the Mediterranean.
Those who are perhaps not enamoured with folk music should not be put off by the subtitle of this release, Music Traditionnelle du Québec, which may tend to be misleading. This music may draw upon tradition and may echo times past, but its spirit is lively and contemporary. An artful blend of traditional Québec folk music with Celtic, Jazz, and other influences from around the world, this music is alternately relaxing and toes-tapping bright.
Those who enjoy their folk music with a contemporary flavour will surely enjoy the variety of diversity of these twelve songs. Perhaps because of the diverse musical influences which these three musicians bring to their work, every song brings with it fresh surprises for the listener.
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