Memories both old & new or The B-52’s – Live! 8.24.1979

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It seems to me that the B-52’s have never really gotten the respect that they are entitled. More than just a kitsch band of singles, they were, and remain a beacon in a fog of mediocrity. This world where tired old themes are constantly rehashed for rock ‘n’ roll consumption; the B-52’s could tell insane stories while making even the most ‘two left feet’ amongst us dance and have a great time. There music was simultaneously accessible and other-worldly, mixing a 60’s surf vibe with what would later be called new wave. It was the perfect soundtrack for not only dancing, but strapping on some roller skates and praying the next wipe-out wouldn’t be slowed by your face being dragged along the cement.

So imagine my surprise to see a perfect little live document arrive in my hands this Black Friday / Record Store Day… a way over due example of the band in their prime. It’s a small piece of gold coloured vinyl now spinning on my turntable of an era that is timeless, and so very long ago. Before the flash and colour of “Love Shack” this is the B-52’s out supporting their debut album with the incredible Ricky Wilson still rocking the guitar in a frenetic fashion as Fred Schneider, Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson pull off their insane version of the call and answer.

Listening to it I find myself wondering why this record is only seeing the light of day in 2015. Full of energy, Live! 8.24.1979 literally had my seven year old dancing and rolling on the floor trying to sing all the vocal parts at once. It’s an impossibility, but he sure tried. What you have is great songs followed by hilarious, if not awkward introductions. Fred Schneider deadpans: “this next song is a dance tune” as if this is a revelation.

Between my sons twirling and my memories of roller rinks, Live! 8.24.1979 is the kind of blast from the past that puts a giant smile on your face that lingers long after the needle turns away from the wax.

It Is What It Is! or Silversun Pickups – Better Nature

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For better or worse, every band / artist and their music is a giant work in progress (except maybe AC DC – but that’s another story altogether). With age and aspiration they evolve and some fans grow with a band and some go in other directions. Better Nature is not its predecessors. Gone is “early 90’s alternative” atmosphere that fans loved on earlier releases Carnavas and Swoon and in its place is the synth/guitar mix being used by many of today’s popular ‘indie-rock’ artists. The result is something more slick and expansive, ‘shoegaze with synth support’ if you will, rather than the passion driven two minute wonders found in their mid 2000’s releases (ie. Carnavas’ “Lazy Eye”).

That isn’t to say Better Nature isn’t a really good record – because, well, it is… but…

Silversun Pickups are at their best when the pedal is down and caution is thrown to the wind, and Better Nature is all about structure… which leads us into a little bit of a contradiction.  It seems producer Jacknife Lee is trying to turn Silversun Pickups into Adore era Smashing Pumpkins, and believe me, that isn’t a compliment. It’s great for artists to experiment with sounds, but only when the songs really call for it. In this case, production and layering has taken the place of rocking out.

Lead single “Nightlights” is a good case in point. It starts with a great riff as a song that one can blast loud, but then, it changes course and does all these slow down and layered guitar things that bog down the last minute. Rather than keeping urgency with the heavy guitar, it becomes an act of ‘listen to these cool sounds over here!’ In other words, it becomes a little too indulgent to carry the momentum of song through to its conclusion.

There is a lot to like here as the songs on Better Nature all have pretty cool grooves at their core; however they tend to get lost underneath their own sonic waves. Perhaps their evolution is still in between two places, or maybe, as a fan, they’ve just gone in a direction where I can’t follow, but Silversun Pickups have created a good record that might have been great.

Ezra Furman – Perpetual Motion People or The Ballad Of The Distracted Squirrel

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The wheels roll on as I jerk my car to my left to avoid a squirrel bouncing across the road without it giving a thought to its near death experience. I’m not sure if it was too busy to notice me or it simply didn’t give a shit, but it just kept hopping along without so much as a casual look in my direction.

Ezra Furman reminds me of that damned squirrel, and I’m happy about it. Shock, surprise, and from out of seemingly nowhere (ok, it’s his third record… so nowhere is somewhere) he arrives with a record that is cohesive and yet genre hops. The influences are recognizable but like smoke you can see them but never hold it.

His vocal phrasing is like a cross between Gordon Gano (Violent Femmes) and David Bowie while musically there is a whimsical quality that seems to cross early rock ‘n’ roll with the soundtrack for The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Add to this the kind of playful lyrics that would make Jonathon Richman, David Lowery (Cracker & Camper Van Beethoven) or Paul Westerberg swoon, and you get an idea of how difficult it is to place Furman within a defining genre box.

He has a maddening ability to be so direct you don’t know whether to laugh, cry or throw your arms up in rage as his observational storytelling is seemingly both turned inward towards his anger/humour, and outward at people who can’t seem to mind their own frickin’ business.

Take “Body Was Made”, it is both empowering for those who can grasp his refrain and angry at people who judge based on body image. It begins with an understated Modern Lovers vibe and then rips into a solo sax reminiscent of the Spiders From Mars as Furman sings “My body was made this particular way / There’s really nothing any old patrician can say / You social police can just get out of my face / My body was made.”

Like early Bowie, Furman seems to relish changes in identity, except rather than do it from album to album Perpetual Motion People is a record that does it from song to song, and sometimes, within a single song. “Haunted Head” deals with one’s own self inflicted torment. “Can I Sleep In Your Brain” seeks respite from torment with a wish to become co-dependent. In turn, “Lousy Connection” hides themes of emotional distance behind old sounds of Doo-Wop and killer saxophone leads. To a certain extent, Furman makes being screwed up sound fun in his unique version of a poetic stream of consciousness.

What you have here, is an artist who is so into his music that you’re not sure if there is any attention being placed in the here and now. And really… who cares? If he keeps putting out music as fulfilling as Perpetual Motion People, you’ll prefer geek dancing over analysis of muse.

The Sheepdogs – Future Nostalgia or Everything Old Is New Again…

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As the album title suggests, The Sheepdogs are a band lost in time. With absolutely no pretense to suggest anything else, they are what they are, and you can accept it or move along. The choice is yours.

So here is Future Nostalgia, an album that sounds like it was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the studios glory days. Opening track “I’m Gonna Be Myself” is instant proof as you get the Skynyrd riffs and Boz Scaggs vocal styles that were so recognized from the legendary southern studio.

Of course, if you are going to play with the sounds of the classic rock era, you might as well be as expansive as possible. “Downtown” throws in some Eagles harmonies and references them again on “Bad Lieutenant.” The swampy Bernie Leadon like guitar lead is reminiscent of the 1972 classic “Witchy Woman.” From there you get another Eagles guitarist, Joe Walsh, being reflected in The Sheepdogs “Take A Trip.” If you add the easy listening, Michael McDonald era Doobie Brothers sound, coming off “Jim Gordon”, and add in riffs that could come from rock stalwarts like Spirit, Free, Rick Derringer, James Gang and even Canada’s own Lighthouse, you have a pretty insane package.

The thing about the Sheepdogs is they’re not so much influenced by “classic rock” as actually sounding as if they stepped off a time machine from the era direct. If most any other band on the planet tried this, I’d be tossing out tired accusations of being poseurs. However, the songs are just too damn catchy for me to get a hate on for them. Yes you could slip them into a 70’s rock mix and someone could confuse it as a deep cut from an unknown, yet awesome, band from back in the day; but rock ‘n’ roll is nothing if not one giant recycling project.

So, how does that saying go? “Everything old is new again!” It’s kinda hard to argue with that when Future Nostalgia is spinning.

City & Colour – If I Should Go Before You: A Transformative Work

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Dallas Green may have started City and Colour as a means to introduce his ‘rootsy’ brand of song craft, but those days are now more of an ‘origin story’ than the reality of where he is. Much like Wilco, who turned from alt-country to sonic experimenters, Green took his acoustic-based leanings and is now creating expansive tunes that, at times, owe more to blues, soul and even psychedelia than the modern ‘folk rock’ he was labeled with on earlier City and Colour records.

Signs of this transformation began on the last album The Hurry And The Harm, with a more conventional, harder edge brought in with the addition of electric guitars and organs. If I Should Go Before You not only expands on this addition, but takes on some new influences.

Opening the record is a nine minute blues epic “Woman” which mixes Muddy Waters with Pink Floyd and throws in a 60’s San Francisco twist. The result is a ‘listen with headphones’ dreamscape that shows his bands’ ability to improvise around their material. “Northern Blues” has subtle R&B underpinnings keeping a sonic improvisation steady as Green’s falsetto soars above.

Musically, this ‘Memphis soul base’ is played out on what would seem to be perfect for the two sides of a vinyl record. “If I Should Go Before You”, “Killing Time”, and the frickin’ amazing single “Wasted Love” finish off the R&B influenced ‘Side A.’ Even the sudden stop of “Wasted Love” on the songs’ conclusion gives definition to a change in direction. In a manner of speaking, it is the point when you flip the record.

‘Side B’ takes on tones that have their foundation in roots-rock, starting with “Runaway”, a song that recalls Blue Rodeo’s “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet” with its majestic pedal steel guitar. From there, you move onto “Lover Come Back” with its blend of piano and organ which creates an atmosphere reminiscent of The Band.

The most appealing thing about If I Should Go Before You is that all the influences are merely reference points. Like most great, or even classic records, the listener finds a connection that resonates with a familiar sound, and then the music branches off into new and exciting places.

If I Should Go Before You isn’t just another City and Colour record… it’s a transformative work; the album when all potential and expectations are realized and then exceeded.

 

If I Should Go Before You hits stores on Oct 9.

He Said, She Said or Ryan Adams – 1989

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Please forgive and indulge me for just a second as I have an admission to make – I find most “pop” music to be little more than musical masturbation. There, I said it. It feels good to get that off my chest.

Unfortunately, I just find that over produced songs made in committee lack depth and have no resonance with me. I can appreciate the amount of work that goes into creating a song that is meant to appeal to the masses, but I’m always left with the feeling of being sold product over art. In other words, I’ve never been a Taylor Swift fan.

So, it comes as a bit of a surprise to find myself enjoying Adams reinterpretation of Swift’s work to the point of having to revaluate my perception of the original. Adams, whose personal life was in tatters during the recording of 1989, has chosen to take all his pain and place it within this album. The results are sparse, and leave little room between Adams heartbreak and the listener’s emotional core. As uncomfortable as it might seem, he may as well be in the room with you having a good cry and you along with him.

“How You Get The Girl” is a good case in point. The Swift arrangement turns a story of heartache into a post break dance party. Adams, at his sorrowful best, changes pronouns and alters the storyline from manipulated woman to confused man full of regrets. Playing them beside each other is a bit like being an understanding friend caught in the middle of divorcing couples.

In the end, you shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that Adams 1989 is a record of fun cover songs: it just isn’t. Instead you are witness to a person in search of hope at a relationships end. The complimenting versions of the record are merely proof that we all go about it in different ways.

Terra Lightfoot – Every Time My Mind Runs Wild

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Every so often something comes along that just smacks you in the head with something so freaking unexpected you look for a house number on the cave you’ve been sleeping in. Perhaps it’s a debut album, an opening act you had never heard of before, or, as is the case for me, you just quite plainly arrived late to the party. Whatever the case, Terra Lightfoot has just lit the light bulb above my cranium and I’m hitting my forehead with that big “a-ha” moment.

What seems most remarkable is just how many influences pop out all at once. A foot in the Chicago blues, another in Memphis soul, and then she puts a third one in Nashville. The result is a combustible and full out gritty rock ‘n’ roll album. You can accuse me of being over the top here, but Every Time My Mind Runs Wild could give the Alabama Shakes – Sound & Color a run for my favourite record of the year.

Opening with a bluesy number in “All Alone” she quickly shifts gears blasting into a couple all out rockers with “No Hurry” and “Never Will;” which is just the opening salvo in the record that continues to toss song after song of great roots rock. Then, just as you think you’ve figured her out, she slows down again to take on countrified ballads that sound like they were recorded in Big Pink.

Ultimately, I’m just hoping that her music gets heard beyond the southern Ontario base she calls home. Every Time My Mind Runs Wild is the kind of album that reminds me of what drove me towards being a music geek in the first place; a connection to music that demands me to play it over and over until I wear both the vinyl and needle out.

Nathaniel Rateliff & the Nightsweats – Eponymous

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Listening to Nathaniel Rateliff and the Nightsweats record, I’m carried back in time. Not quite as far as the music that is reflected in their sound, but soon after, in the age of banana-seat bikes strewn across the front lawns of suburban neighborhoods.

When I was about nine, my mom gave me a few Elvis Presley cassettes and one of those rectangular tape recorders with a single speaker and buttons bigger than my damn fingers. Even in the late 70’s, this thing was an antique. For several months, I immersed myself in the 1969 version of Presley, who was reaching for songs that filled his desire to take on a more soulful persona. The end result was an output that included the spectacular “In The Ghetto” and “Suspicious Minds.” The latter single being Presley’s last number 1 before his death in 1977.

Now while Rateliff’s label is the legendary STAX, and he certainly has steeped himself in their historical sound, he is more than a little reminiscent of the blue-eyed soul that became popular in the late 60’s. Van Morrison clearly comes to mind on “Wasting Time” and Rod Stewart’s output with the Jeff Beck Group is evident on “Trying So Hard Not To Know.” However, Rateliff is far grittier and less ethereal than that. His themes are far more relatable than Morrison’s “Into The Mystic” and hold a more universal appeal to fans of Memphis soul. That said, it would be hard to picture Stewart or Morrison dropping a line like “this shit don’t run well / it’s burned out as hell / and it’s trying so hard not know.”

To a certain degree this record is a bit of a time capsule. You wouldn’t be wrong if you suggested that the ghost of Sam Cooke was whispering into Rateliff’s ear during the recording of “Howling at Nothing” as Rateliff’s vocal phrasing is similar to the classic “You Send Me.” Then  you have his band that often come out with songs sounding as if they studied with Booker T & the MG’s.

Which brings me back to Presley…

It takes a special kind of musician to evoke a slew of soul greats and retain an energy and sound that is still their own. Springsteen did this by mixing Dylan, a preacher style intensity towards rock ‘n’ roll, a few classic soul influences, and concocted a sound all his own. Nathaniel Rateliff has taken the ’69 comeback version of Elvis, added southern rock themes and walked into a STAX studio to create a record that is instantly relatable. Of course, you would never have caught “the King” singing “son of a bitch / give me a drink” as Rateliff does on “S.O.B”. It just wouldn’t have been very, um… regal.

You may have heard the kind of sound this album produces earlier in your life, but I’ll be damned if it doesn’t sound anything less than awesome in the present. Hell, I bet this record would even sound good off of a crappy one speaker cassette recorder… not that I have one handy…

 

Stadium Dreams Turn To Stadium Sound: Metric – Pagans In Vegas

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Metric has never hidden their overwhelming desire to headline a fan-filled stadium show, and Pagans In Vegas may just be the vehicle that drives them there. More than mere hyperbole, they seem to have found the perfect mix of Cure-like synth, 90’s indie guitar, and electro/dance rhythm. The tunes are catchy enough to get the casual fan singing along and the loyal fan seeking deeper meaning from the lyrics and, dare I say, inspiration.

Opening track “Lie Lie Lie” is a perfect example. My kids are singing along in the back seats of the minivan, unaware of the song’s underlying theme of media’s dehumanization of women. From that point on, Haines sticks mostly to the themes of broken relationships and rising back up after a fall. While this album might seem like a bit of rock ‘n’ roll cliché at times, Metric pulls off the desired impact of connecting us to the music. So when Haines’ vocals demand “the stars above” on early single “The Shade (I Want It All)”, the listener feels entitled to it as well.

Like any great album, this record can boast a number of songs that would be deemed radio-friendly and single-worthy. In addition to the two above-mentioned songs, “The Governess” and “Too Bad, So Sad” also seemed primed for significant airplay.

Pagans in Vegas is packed with all of the right ingredients to get a stadium full of people moshing in the pit and ‘pogo’ing in their seats. Only time will tell if it happens this time round.

Going Through The Motions? or The Arcs – Yours, Dreamily

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It’s interesting that two guys who appear to hate each other as much as Jack White and Dan Auerbach should have careers that seem to parallel each other so closely. For whatever reason, they both have tried stepping outside the bands they are known for to create something new and different. However, White wisely chose to bring in other vocalists and songwriters (Brendan Benson with the Raconteurs and Allison Mosshart with Dead Weather) to help change the direction of his sound. The result is a distinct difference between each band.

Auebach hasn’t chosen this route. While the writing credits have been distributed throughout the band, The Arcs debut Yours, Dreamily may as well be a new Black Keys record. His guitar – vocal combo doesn’t explore any new territory that differentiates one band from another.

Of course, that doesn’t mean this is a bad record, on the contrary, it does exactly what you might expect from Auerbach by giving you a collection of songs that work his strengths. You have that blues/soul influence played with his vintage Supro and a couple songs that work as ‘rockin’ singles.’ “Outta My Mind” is a familiar anchor song that serves as a statement of arrival, a wave if you wish, that pushes the album towards the deeper cuts. Auerbach laments “working just to beat the clock / all I need is one more shot” on “The Arc” and while his voice seems rather sleepy in the sentiment, the guitar work is ferocious giving the song an image of someone rising up after a beating down.

The problem with Yours, Dreamily is that familiarity with the Black Keys library has begun to breed the perception of complacency with new band the Arcs. There isn’t anything new to offer, but still, if Auerbach is only going through the motions, he does it far better than most.