Short Cuts: Summary Reviews #4
We've enjoyed a decade of very talented new Canadian singer-songwriters. Most, perhaps all, tend to draw their influences from American singers and songwriters of the past forty years. Beyond that, their influences appear to draw from each other and more often from something internal. There seems to be little rootedness in Canada and little knowledge of or interest in our musical or literary history. Not so Brent Mason.
It's refreshing to hear a Canadian songwriter who is literate and informed about his Canadian roots. What other songwriter pays tribute to Canadian poets Bliss Carman and Alden Knowlan or mentions Canadian legend Grey Owl in a song written (I think) before the recent movie was made. In the performance too, there are echoes of Leonard Cohen, Bruce Cockburn, and Gordon Lightfoot.
The music? It's definitely worth adding to your collection, especially if you're looking for some of the best new Canadian writing. Not all contemporary Canadian poets are publishing chapbooks. Some are making music across this land. Brent Mason is one of these.
Kids are Jumpin'
Some of the best bands in Canada are local phenomena, bar bands who enjoy a local or regional popular fan base but are mostly unknown beyond that. There are many factors which may keep a group of talented musicians at that level, but every once in a while a band breaks out to find a broader audience. The Nightshift Blues Band has that potential, but the boys have some work to do yet.
Musically Kids are Jumpin' is an uneven release. Few of the songs stand out as exceptional (although a few do), and at least one might better have been left out of the mix until it could be polished further. As with this group's first (1997) release Bullet from a Gun, a saving grace is the excellent blues-writing skills of George K. Tirpko and Jerry Salfi. Tirpko and Salfi manage to write original blues which, when played and sung have the sound and feel of the classics. The respect these men have for their antecedents, the blues greats of the past, is very clear in their work.
Taken as a whole, Kids are Jumpin' is a solid, listenable collection of blues. A few songs rise above the norm, with excellent writing and performance to match. These are the songs that may eventually raise The Nightshift Blues Band out of that bar band groove to where they can reach a broader audience. While, in some ways, this release is not quite up the standard of the band's first, it again shows the potential for growth. If Tirpko and Salfi, can show the restraint to include only their best writing and performance, their next release should be gangbusters. I can't wait to hear it.
While we're waiting, Kids are Jumpin', with its solid blues sound, is worth buying. Think of it as an appetizer, the tease before the main course arrives.
Graffiti Love Song
This release is an interesting mix of latin influenced and traditional folk music. A circle is set up by a brief prelude pointing to the final song. In between, the music is consistent and, when in latin mode, made for dancing.
Listening to the more traditional folk songs, I wonder if this may be the most productive area for McLeod to invest her future efforts. She has a sweet, pleasing voice when she sings to tell a story and doesn't try (as in some of the latin songs) to overreach her vocal range.
"Lullaby" is just such a well written and sung song, with very traditional lyrics laid over an equally traditional sounding melody (although credited as composed and arranged by McLeod). Given its traditional nature, I found the droning accordion and later intrusive hand-drums distracting at best. This song would probably work better with a more (pardon the use of the word again) traditional, perhaps Appalachian, instrumentation.
"As Land Holds Water" is a lovely song sung sweetly by Mcleod. It's an excellent treatment of themes (and some exact words) first expressed by Elizabeth Barrett Browning a century and a half ago. The musical treatment places it among the traditional English folk songs we all enjoy so much.
"Raven" also bears mention. In words and in melody, this song could easily pass for a traditional English or pre-revolutionary American song. It's a gentle, yet powerful song with an eerie edge to it. Once again, though, the accordion seems out of place in this song. The horns, on the other hand, while not strictly folk instrumentation, enhance the distant, mystical effect of the music.
"Raven" and "As Land Holds Water" are by far the best songs on this release. These two songs make it worth buying. Think of the rest of the songs, all of which are at least competent, as a bonus.
Blowin' The Horn
On Blowin' The Horn, Murphy's blues has a decidedly big-band sound. The sound rambles through a range of styles, from true electric blues to the solid R & B sound that Alan Freed dubbed Rock and Roll to sixties rock and even something approaching forty's swing. What holds it all together is a driving energy. If it is nothing else, this is music that makes one want to dance.
When he's not wailing on the sax, Murphy sings. In this, as in the music backing him, Murphy demonstrates a versatility that is refreshing. Sometimes, as in "Let's Straighten It Out," Murphy's voice and style is reminiscent of Robert Cray, bringing an authentic blues sound to the music. At other times, he evokes the sound of a variety of blues styles. Other songs, like "Last Call for Alcohol" are hard-driving Rock and Roll. In fact, the title song sounds more like the kind of Rock and Roll made famous by Bill Haley and his Comets in the early fifties.
This release, however, is not about singing and not about lyrics. It's all about the groove. A rarity among contemporary releases, Blowin' the Horn is built around the instrumental talents of the players. Five of the songs have no singing at all. The rest feature long instrumental sections that allow the musicians to jam.
The dozen songs on this release, many of them quite long, provide excellent value for the money. But it gets better. This is a baker's dozen, with a great thirteenth cut, a lively rendering of "I Ain't Drunk," tucked in at the end of the set.
Joy's Disorder begins with the radio programmer's anathema: dead air. Then, in succession: three words, silence, four words, silence, three words, silence. The song continues like this, the voice building volume, building intensity, building emotion, moving from almost spoken word to melody, from one voice only to voice with backup singer, to barely perceptible, almost subliminal music in the background. Then the first song, "Blade of Light," ends, seeming never quite to have begun.
It's hard to tell whether or not what comes next is part of the second song. It's just noise, more than anything else the musical equivalent of a huge belch. "Ma's Rose" itself is a pretty straightforward jazz piece made artsy by the inclusion of vocals by "backup poet" Patrick Friesen. Notwithstanding the inclusion of the poet's voice in the recording, the song reflects less Leonard Cohen than the artsy end of the jazz spectrum.
For five of the songs on this release Cate Friesen set music to the words of Canadian poet Patrick Friesen. Friesen herself is a fine poet and lyricist so, while including another's words is an interesting exercise, it isn't necessary and could be seen as detrimental to the work over all. The problem isn't with Patrick Friesen's poetry. Friesen's poems create concise images that evoke vivid images of moments in time. His words set to her music seem to work too. However, there is an edge to Cate Freisen's singing of these collaborations which is not there when she sings songs wholly written by her. The sense is almost as though she were uncomfortable singing the words of another. Perhaps as she lives with these songs, she will become more at ease with them.
Worth special note is "Late in the Evening," a quiet, beautiful ballad Freisen sings with Ron Sexsmith. In both lyrics and melody, this is an exceptional song. Of all the songs on this release, "Late in the Evening" is the one that most deserves to be categorized as folk music. It has the sound of those lovely popular folk ballads we heard so often thirty or forty years ago. This song can be called sweet without the word being a cliche.
Joy's Disorder may not be everyone's cup of tea, but it should interest those who enjoy music that's a bit experimental, a bit artsy, with a smattering of poetry thrown in for good measure. I know I'm one of those people. This release is a welcome relief from the usual run of singer/songwriter albums.
While she presents an interesting and in some ways eclectic mix of songs on Gypsy Hill, Susan Cogans music carries with it an overall feel of hippie music. Even the songs that don't quite have that hippie-folk feel show the influence of that long-ago era. This is not bad. Fortunately, Cogan has retained the elements of this music which tend to stand up over time and has left the rest behind. Perhaps the only drawback is that there is a certain sameness to the songs on this release which may make any given song seem less interesting than it would in a more varied mix.
Cogan's lyrics are particularly strong and, for the most part, deserve a close listen. Set against sometimes uninspired musical arrangements, the lyrics are powerful statements of principle. Using very little imagery, Cogan is less a poet than a storyteller, more a Cockburn than a Cohen. Her lyrics are almost prose, yet concise and expressive, making a point without preaching or getting boring. Lyrics she has not written but has chosen from the writing of others bear the same hallmark. Here are the anti-war and pro-ecology themes of times past raised to the position of importance they once held. The lyrics are arguably the most interesting facet of Susan Cogan's Gipsy Hill.
Taken as a whole, Gypsy Hill is a sweet, listenable recording with some interesting musical treatments and lyrics that mostly have something important to say.
in the greenwood
I must admit that I had not heard of Paddy Tutty before. It seems I should have. A highly respected Canadian folk artist, she has been performing since the Sixties, has a strong academic knowledge of the music she performs, and has released three CD's before this one. She has the sort of reputation that attracts talented producers such as Ian Tamblyn and David Essig and some of Canada's finest folk musicians to work with her. Based on this release, she deserves the reputation.
These are songs that tell stories and Tutty keeps that element alive, not relegating her voice to the role of just another instrument but telling the story clearly and with feeling. Four of the songs are contemporary (penned by Laurie Lewis, Matthew Manera, Brian Pearson, and Tutty herself), but the words and music are entirely consistent with the traditional feel of this release.
The overall quality of the performances on this release is such that it would be difficult to single out one or more songs as being especially good. Each in its own way stands out from the others, yet rather with a quiet elegance than a boorish shoving into the limelight. The beauty of this release is not in any one song but in the cumulative effect of the craftsmanship involved throughout.
The River Grand
If there's anything that holds this release together and gives it some unity, it's that Nonie Crete is a consummate storyteller. Her lyrics are tightly written gems of the storyteller's art, carrying the listener in and out of a range of personal worlds and emotions. It may be only my imagination, but I hear a certain Leonard Cohen influence in several of the songs, in both the lyrics and the musical structures underlying them.
In many of the songs, Crete's voice and singing style remind me very much of Nana Mouskouri. This impression is certainly reinforced by her use of arrangements and instrumentation that echo the European and Mediterranean pop music of thirty or forty years ago. "Love Gone Wrong" is an excellent example of Crete in this Mouskouri mode.
While she appears to be presenting herself as a folk singer, Crete is at her best when she sings the blues. "The Hardest Time" is a classic country blues in the tradition of "The Night Time is the Right Time" or "Night Life." This is a song of loss and loneliness, sung with feeling one might expect of a Laverne Baker or Ruth Brown.
Another song with a bluesy feel to it, without actually being a blues, is "The Trouble." This is also the song which best epitomizes Crete's Leonard Cohen mode. Here her lyrics are tight and evocative, with not quite the power -- the edge -- of a Cohen lyric, but coming very close. The arrangement, including background vocals, has very much the sound of some of the earlier Cohen recordings. This is one of the best songs on this release.
While clearly fitting somewhere in the rock genre, television is diverse and quirky enough to defy classification. My personal preference is when the group keeps it simple and just rocks out with straightforward lyrics and simple, driving instrumentation. The absolute best example is "chinese star" a pumping Elvis Costello sounding number enhanced by some exciting lead guitar plus the spoken bits a la Eric Burden that seem to be the group's trademark.
On the other hand, secretsunday can affect very sweet, soft rock sound. The songs "foster child" and "transmission" exhibit this quiet quality, yet the intensity and darkness of their lyrics plus the punched-up drum tracks give them an edge that catches the listener's attention. This is not background music.
Yet it is, in a way, background music. It's the sort of music that works very well cranked up to its fullest at a party, filling the room with energy and emotion but without anyone having to really listen while it's at that level. Indeed, many of the cuts on this release work better as the volume moves higher and more parts are heard.
Uneven and quirky as it is, secretsunday's television is an interesting musical experiment worth giving a listen. On the other hand, it will not probably be to many people's taste.
The Andy Robinson Band
These days, Andy Robinson is a rare individual: a singer/songwriter who has gotten past the idea that he must sing and play every part of every song himself. Rather than just a guy and a guitar, the music on this release is a pleasing mix of instruments and voices evoking a quiet world the listener can sink comfortably into.
The contrast between the voices and vocal styles of Robinson and Babs Parent brings a welcome variety to the music. Parent's voice is soft and melodic but with a gritty blues quality. It is this latter quality that maintains the connection with Robinson's sound, which has a folk-rock edginess approaching that of the best roots rockers.
Musically and lyrically, many of these songs have a quirkiness reminiscent of Michael Nesmith's songs. While tightly written, they carry with them a sense of carefree fun often lacking in contemporary folk music.
For those wanting a break from all those one voice, one instrument releases by singer/songwriters, this quirky, eclectic mix of folk, pop, blues and rock should be the ideal tonic. Whether performed by his own band or by others, expect to hear a lot more Andy Robinson songs in the future.
Living for the Stars
Living for the Stars is a strange, eclectic mix of musical genres and styles that somehow works in spite of itself. What is most compelling about this release is not the interesting and well executed musical arrangements or Cathy Miller's singing, but the pervasive sense of humour and compassion.
Gravediggers everywhere are sure to applaud the sentiments of "God Bless The Backhoe" - that is, after they get up from rolling on the floor laughing. Those interested in Canadian history, or in piquing the collective Canadian conscience, will find food for thought in "Cumberland". Miller's sweet, sensitive interpretation of the old hit "My Funny Valentine" will touch that romantic nerve in each one of us. "Take Break from Love" takes a different view and is quite funny at times. Miller's "Now There is No Rain" is an especially beautiful love song.
Cathy Miller's "Living for the Stars" is a party in itself, and it's the sort of party we all hope to attend. All in all, it is quite a delightful melange of music and well worth owning.
Moon Over 97th Street
If comparisons were possible, I would compare this release to French popular music of the Forties and Fifties, especially the songs of Edith Piaf, or to Jim Steinman's songs as expressed by Meatloaf. These songs are theatre, stories told to music, closer to show music than to American pop. Yet this is clearly American music. While the reference may be made to Piaf, Wool's voice tends more toward Emmy Lou Harris or Rita Coolidge.
Wool's husband and producer is Daniel A. Weiss, associate conductor of the Broadway musical Rent, which may help explain the show music sound of this release, but it is Wool's lyrics and the emotion evident in her vocal expression which bring these songs to life. Wool not only sings but feels her lyrics. As much as singing, this is powerful acting, story telling at its best.
Wool's lyrics are tightly written and poetic, yet mostly they manage to maintain a colloquial, conversational feel that, even with the very formal arrangements on this release, gives the sense of a story being told casually. These are lyrics that can easily stand on their own as poems.
Anyone who enjoys owning the recordings a star made before becoming a star will not be disappointed by owning this very classy release.
Dog Tooth Violet
Dog Tooth Violet's self titled release is not commercial material, and in all likelihood was never intended to be. Running less than twenty minutes, the five songs here are an eccentric blend of musical genres eclectic enough even in any given song to keep them off the airwaves. Over all, the performance is competent, but there is nothing which really stands out as special and there is a sense that the release is unfinished.
Because these songs are clearly well-written and the music played equally well, it is hard to define what it is that seems to be missing. There is an energy, a spark, that is simply not there. It is as though each performer is doing his or her part just right, but there is lacking the synergy which would bring the parts together seamlessly.
While this recording is not perhaps as exciting as one might expect from the musicians involved, their collective talent creates an interesting and unique result lesser artists might not have achieved. Dog Tooth Violet is still, all things considered, worth purchasing for the eclectic section of one's home music shelf.
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