Saturday, March 29, 2014

New Music: Royal Wood - The Burning Bright

“Give me your hands remember that enemies were once friends
You can find me right here
Raising up the white flag waiting for the war to end”

Now I’m no expert on deciphering lyrics and understanding what artists are trying to portray in their music, but in my opinion these lyrics from seem to sum up this record nicely. Twelve songs filled with heartbreak, loss, love, and the end of a relationship, but trying to accept that things didn't work out and move on with no hard feelings. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong.

The Burning Bright was written mostly in Ireland (but recorded between Toronto and Los Angeles) where Royal spent five weeks upon the end of his marriage. You would think these songs would all be downers about heart break right? Well, yes and no. While he sure doesn't beat around the bush in regards to his breakup, he keeps the vibe positive with some songs more aimed at reflection rather than regret.  Now, the heartache is still evident, but not overwhelming and it is by no means a depressing album.

Even when reading the lyrics alone in songs like The Light of Dawn with lines like: “with endless words and reasons why, the love between us was a lie”, the catchy rhythm of bongos and hand clapping backing the fast strumming acoustic guitar and catchy melody keep it from being a downer.

The first single Forever and Ever was co-written with singer-songwriter Simon Wilcox, it has a more upbeat tempo with hand clapping added to the rhythm in the chorus. It is sure to have you tapping your foot keeping the beat. Some may say this is a bit misleading as a lead out single as it’s not consistent with the sound of the remainder of the album, but I still find it fits in nicely. Besides, who set out these rules that all songs need to blend perfectly? It seems to work well in the mix, particularly having it later in the album as the ninth track, after a bunch of deep meaningful slower songs; it’s nice to raise the tempo before the final stretch to the finish line.

Royal has received a great deal of praise and accomplished a lot in the past decade, (including a handful of Juno nominations) The Burning Bright seems destined to add to these accomplishments. While it has plenty of horns, banjos, bongos, etc., none of it is too overpowering leaving Royal’s strong voice, acoustic guitar and deep meaningful lyrics up front and center.  

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Classic Music: Ramatam!

Ramatam had the potential to be something huge. It was a mini super group created by Atlantic Records that hoped to sell records based on the members’ past successes.

First off, we have Mike Pinera on lead vocals and guitar. Mike was formerly a member of The Blues Image and Iron Butterfly (and would go on to be Alice Cooper’s guitarist from 1980 to 1983).

The Jimi Hendrix Experience was one of the greatest rock ‘n’roll bands in the world, especially up to this point in the early 70’s. Ramatam had Experience drummer Mitch Mitchell on the skins, which (as in every band he has performed with) forms the glue that held everything together. He is one of my all-time favorite drummers.

While lead guitarist April Lawton didn't have as an impressive of a resume like the former, Atlantic was hoping having the rarity of a female guitarist could also help sell some records. She was awesome, pulling off riffs that would make Hendrix himself proud. While she plays a bit conservatively at times, it seems to be a conscious choice. She will fade away in the background leaving way for the horns to do their thing, but when it’s time for her to solo, watch out, all eyes are on her.  

Finishing up the group was Russ Smith on bass and Tommy Sullivan on keyboards, reeds and vocal.

Reading past reviews, people were initially disappointed with this album, complaining that the horns were muddy in the mix and the song writing was only mediocre. While the production has room to be improved, it’s not an overly bad sounding LP. Once you learn that the producer was Tom Dowd, whom at this point was responsible for production and/or engineering of some of the greatest sounding albums including: Derek and the Dominos’ Layla, John Coltrane’s Giant Steps, Allman Brothers’ At Fillmore East, as well as albums by Ray Charles, Charles Mingus, The Drifters, etc..., you realize why people had high expectations and he didn't quite meet them. It’s a good sounding album, just not Tom Dowd good.

It may have been slammed a bit upon initial release, but this album sure has aged well. It’s an enjoyable listen through; I prefer side B a bit more with the slower song Changing Days leading it off. While Changing Days lacks Mitch Mitchell on the drums, he comes back full tilt on the second progressive mid tempo song Strange Place (my favorite song from the album). This album is definitely worth picking up. They got me curious of the sound of their second and last LP, In April Came the Dawning of the Red Suns, but at this point Mitch and Mike had left so I’m sure it’s a complete different sound. But still, April’s guitar playing alone is enough for me to give it a shot.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

New Music - Alysha Brilla - In My Head

Ontario’s Alysha Brilla has had many achievements in these past ten years. She was busy touring around North America, was signed to Lava Records/Universal Republic (but left the label just as quickly), and started her own label called Sunny Jam. Now with this new independence giving her full control, she’s released her first full length album called In My Head.

I initially threw this album on during my usual morning routine, when my wife entered the room asking me if it was Amy Winehouse or Colbie Caillat. They were good comparisons, but I’d add some Bonnie Raitt, Etta James, and Joni Mitchell to that mix, creating the foundation for Alysha’s sound. She is definitely not riding any coattails here; she has enough originality and talent for her own musical identity.

This album is filled with eleven strong tracks. They all have a folky-soul vibe backed with some awesome horns and strong rhythm including conga and djembe drums. It’s hard to pick a favorite track, but the third number Sailor's Wife is as good as any. Check it out:

Alysha is a talented singer/songwriter, she handled all of the song writing, produced the album, and also actually played her own instruments rather than taking the easy route of hiring studio musicians which seems to be a growing trend (she handles all of the guitar and piano, and extremely well). In the liner notes, Alysha states that this collection of songs is based on the past five years of her life: “Through falling in love, having my heart broken, being existentially conflicted and all along maintaining this inner light which I spend many hours fanning to keep alive”. While the heartache is never fun, she sure turned her troubles into something positive.

This album was a real breath of fresh air and hopefully just the beginning of what we can expect from Alysha and Sunny Jam. In My Head is a very impressive collection of beautiful songs and an incredible first effort of self-producing and releasing an album. I highly recommend it.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

New Music: Jimmy Rankin - Back Road Paradise

Growing up in a family who frequently listened to country music, it formed a part of the soundtrack of my adolescence.  While mainstream country definitely seems to have gone to shit this past decade, if you dig hard enough you can still find something good (check out Rosanne Cash’s recent album for more proof). I still remember the first time I saw the Movin’ On video by The Rankins. Initially it appeared to be a catchy tune with some girls with obvious talent singing, but then came Jimmy Rankin, wearing his leather jacket, singing “cigarettes and coffee, won’t keep a man alive…” with nasty snarl on his face and an aroma of total confidence. It was the first time I realized you could be rocker and still appreciate other genres of music.

April 1st sees the release of Jimmy Rankin’s sixth studio album titled Back Road Paradise. A noticeable difference to prior releases, Jimmy left most of his folk sound behind and hit this one in full out country. The opening track, Cool Car, showcases this with plenty of pedal steel guitar, twangy rhythm, and a very polished sound. Songs: Paris or Rome and Shades continue with this ‘new country Jimmy sound’. Is it a bad new sound? Not at all, it’s just different. Songs: Falling So Hard, Back Road Paradise and Whiskey When the Sun Goes Down had a bit more familiar sound, still very country, but it had more of the ‘Jimmy’ voice that we all know and love. There are also a few guest appearances on this album including a great fast duet with Jim Cuddy on Never Gonna Leave and a beautiful ballad with Allison Krauss on Flames.

This album grew on me more with every listen (played it five times this weekend already!). While at first it blends in with modern country music, Jimmy’s great song writing and Maritime style give it an edge that makes it stand out. The big difference is… well… it’s actually good country. It’s sure to hit the best of both worlds with lots of happy, feel-good party songs for the back road country fans, and plenty of great lyrics and catchy tunes for the more folky listeners. Not a weak song on this album.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Zon - Astral Projector!

Toronto’s Zon has had their share of bad luck over the years. These misfortunes were just plain shit luck that was absolutely no fault of their own.

First off, after headlining Maple Leaf Gardens in front of 18,000 people, they received a horrible review in the Globe and Mail… by accident… See the critic only saw the opening band mistaking them for Zon, but mistake or not, the damage was done.

Next, at another hometown gig at the CNE Stadium, Zon had the horrible task of telling a full stadium that concert headliner Alice Cooper was unable to play due to sickness. Of course, everybody used Zon as a scape goat in this incident and long story short, Zon again gets the worst of it and the angry crowd rioted.

It’s a shame that these errors seemed to play a part in their demise, but their albums speak for themselves. They were a hell of a Canadian progressive rock band that sure made an impact in the late 70’s. Comprised of Denton Young on lead vocals, Kim Hunt on drums, Jim Samson on bass, Howard Helm on keyboards and Brian Miller on guitar, Zon were well known for their live performances throughout North America.

The first of three albums, Astral Projector was released in 1978. This initial album was pressed on some slick blue transparent vinyl. The band quickly made an impact, receiving heavy airplay on FM radio. The album also landed them a Juno nomination for Best New Act and rightfully so, there’s not a weak song on this LP.

While Zon had a three album deal with their label CBS, they were dropped after their second LP due to some overhauling in their Artists & Repertoire department. This followed with a legal battle which sucked much energy out of the band. While they did get one last album released under the record label Falcon Records, they broke up soon after.

While the band had the songwriting, talent, and showmanship to become a huge band, fate seemed to have other ideas for Zon. At least they had their 15 minutes of fame in the late 70’s and a few solid albums proving that their initial success was no mistake, but rather well earned.  

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Jethro Tull - Too Old To Rock 'N' Roll: Too Young To Die!

This one is for all of you concept album fans. You need a good 45 minutes to take in this album in its entirety. I always find headphones help with these concept albums as well (I blame it on my short attention span). While some concept albums tend to get a bit confusing, Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young to Die keeps the listener right on track. You see, when you open the gatefold cover it reveals a two page comic script literally drawing out the entire album. What’s also cool is that they even highlight the song titles in the text so you can really follow the script along with the songs. I love it when people dumb stuff down for me.

The Story:

It is about an aging rocker named Ray Lomas who no longer fits in with current trends, as mainstream style went to platform shoes and big collars entering the disco era. On a whim, Ray writes in to be on a TV game show, gets the spot and wins (Quizz Kid). While he is waiting to be the returning contestant on the show, he is given full paid accommodations in Kensington where it is filmed. He quickly realizes that the trends left him behind in Kensington as well, again not fitting in.

While Ray is out for a walk, he meets a girl named Salamander who recognizes him from the game show. She invites him over for a party at her place, so Ray steals an empty cab and drives her to her neighbourhood. On the drive over Salamander realizes that Ray is too old school and decides to ditch him. She asks him to wait at a local pub while she gets ready, but instead leaves him. He stays at the pub drinking with an older man who too is a washed up rocker like Ray.

When he makes it back, he continues to keep feeling down on himself, thinking about how great it was in the old days when he was still in style and everybody liked him. Frustrated, he goes for a ride on his motorcycle to cool off. While out for a ride, he crashes his bike and ends up in a hospital.

While in the hospital, a new band hits the mainstream called Spoke Norton and the Wheelies. This band is a super group composed of past musicians from the rock era, and they quickly gain popularity bringing rock and roll back into popularity.

When Ray is released from the hospital, everybody is once again dressed like him as it returned to style. Ray becomes a “Pied Piper” of fashion, with everybody asking where he got all of his cool rock and roll clothes. Now once again popular, all the girls are again attracted to Ray. The comic script ends with Ray lying in bed with a girl realizing that life once again is great.

This album was released in 1976, and while it never gained much popularity, it still holds its own in their back catalogue. Some complain that the songs drift away from the story line, not technically making it a concept album, but it’s close enough for me. My two favorite tracks are the opening the number, Quizz Kid, and the title track, Too Old To Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young To Die. These two tracks would be a great introduction to see if you will like the album. They are great examples of the folky rock sound they achieve. Plus, they each break out into some great flute solos that Jethro Tull is so well known for.

Personally, it’s one of my favorites by Jethro Tull. It was reissued in 2002 with a few bonus tracks which I’m anxious to hear. It’s a great concept album with an entertaining short story. Jethro Tull always reminded me of “wizardly” kind of music when I was a kid, so telling a rock and roll fairy tale like this fits them perfectly.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Foot In Cold Water - All Around Us

Toronto, ON - 1970: Keyboardist Bob Horne, guitarist Paul Naumann, and drummer Danny Taylor of the struggling progressive rock band Nucleus find themselves down two members. The remainder of the band had bolted to California for a new beginning. They merged with singer Alex Machin and bassist/vocalist Hughie Leggat of another struggling band, Island, to form a fresh new five piece band. They quickly landed a record deal with Daffodil Records where owner Frank Davies gave them the name A Foot in Cold Water

Their 1972 debut self-titled album landed on the Canadian top 25 charts in the same year with their single (Make Me Do) Anything You Want (also later covered by Canadian metal band Helix).Trying to keep the momentum going, a few more singles followed and then they released their second LP The Second Foot in Coldwater in 1973. This album never went too far for them, but they did continue to release singles, trying to relive the success of (Make me Do) Anything You Want. This third album, All Around Us, did relive this success….. through the exact same song. They rerecorded a shorter version and released it as a single. Actually, this album contains five new versions of songs that appeared on their prior two albums. It almost seems like a cheap approach, but it worked with, (Make Me Do) Anything You Want charting even higher for the second time.

In my opinion, that single is actually the weakest song on this album, which goes to show that the rest of it is great. All Around Us is filled with ten hard hitting progressive songs loaded with powerful vocals, precision guitar solos, and killer keyboards. Regardless if these songs are making their second appearance, they work on this album.

While All Around Us did help keep them in the spotlight, Daffodil Records ran into financial trouble and went bankrupt in 1974 leaving A Foot In Cold Water with no label. It took them a year to find a new home with Anthem Records. While searching, they lost Bob Horne from their lineup. As a four piece they released their fourth album Breaking Through on Anthem Records in 1977. The album failed to do much for them, probably because Anthem’s focus was elsewhere, concentrating on their big money makers Rush. This lack of success, along with internal conflicts resulted in them breaking up later that year.

I’m very happy to add this LP to my collection. It’s a great, strong early 70’s progressive rock album. A Foot in Cold Water really were ahead of their time and left their small footprint in the music industry. While mainstream success was short-lived, their influence sure is long lasting.