acoustic music

REVIEW: Paul MacLeod – Gauge (2011)

The fifth and latest review from Mike and Aaron Go to Toronto…Again!  Aaron gave me this CD…thank you dude!

This is also a SIMULTANEOUS REVIEW!  Aaron has reviewed the same album today: take a look!

GAUGE_0002PAUL MacLEOD – Gauge (2011 Busted Flat Records)

I’ve wanted to check out some solo Paul MacLeod for a while now.  I’m a huge fan of the one and only album he released with Hibakusha, the best album Rush never made.  Gauge is not like Hibakusha.  Gauge is an acoustic record, a format that does not always appeal to me.  In this case, the attraction was immediate.  These songs are incredible.

The proceedings commence with the old-tymey fun of “Be My Girl”.  Even though it’s a MacLeod original, it sounds like it could have been written in the 1930’s.  I love that about it.  If you put scratchy record sounds over it, you might not be able to tell it’s actually from 2011. “Change Your Life” on the other hand sounds more contemporary.   It has a hymn-like quality to it.  It’s very serene.

GAUGE_0003“December” sounds almost as if it was recorded live.  I’ll point out MacLeod’s excellent picking skills here.  He lets his fingers speak.  Then, the song “Hero” sounds like something that would be excellent in an electric band format.  It boasts big verses and a catchy acoustic riff.  “The Trickster” is whimsical and lullaby-like.  MacLeod lends it a theatrical flair with his expressive voice, which seems to change from song to song.  The funny thing about that is, just as I’m really getting into all the different voices he can use, the very next track is called “Instrumental”, and that’s exactly what it is.  It’s also just lovely.  “Stop” is delicate, much like the preceding instrumental.

“Another White Band” is different yet again, upbeat this time, with an incredible chorus.  Again, I can’t help but think the song would benefit from an electric version.  Then, the final track is “It Belongs to You”, a sad sounding ballad.  But check out that guitar melody and chords.  They are transcendent, to me.  There’s something pure and classic about them.

Boy, am I glad Aaron gave me this CD.  Thanks buddy.  This is one that, I suspect, is going to grow near and dear to my heart.

4.5/5 stars

GAUGE_0001

Advertisements

REVIEW: Marillion – Less Is More (2009)

MARILLION – Less Is More (2009 Intact)

I’ll be honest here: I haven’t been into Marillion much, post-Marbles. 2004’s Marbles is my favourite H-Marillion album, and I wasn’t into the two studio followups. I found Somewhere Else to be a rushed and somewhat uninspired, and the sprawling Happiness Is The Road all but impenetrable. Therefore I’m not as familiar with Marillion’s recent more live output as I am with the pre-Marbles stuff, so that’s my problem reviewing Less Is More.  The song “Wrapped Up In Time”, I couldn’t tell you how the song goes until I hear it again.

I am, however, extremely enamored with Marillion’s previous acoustic CDs, the double Live At The Walls, and the fanclub exclusive A Piss-up In A Brewery. Marillion are a band that truly shine in an acoustic setting, but I wasn’t all that excited about another one.  How badly do we need more acoustic Marillion?  I didn’t think I needed another one, but I bought it anyway, because…the collection you know?

MARILLION LESS IS MORE_0002I was wrong. Less Is More (a studio acoustic recording instead of a live one) is just as great as Live At The Walls, with many songs given a fresh arrangement. Some, such as “The Space…”, are the same acoustic versions that the band has been playing for a long time, but others are fresh and inspired. Truly, this album sounds like a labour of love to me. The band’s lust for experimentation has come out beautifully in an acoustic setting, with a song like “Interior Lulu” actually quite a bit better than its original 1999 (marillion.com) counterpart. The songs are subtle, with slight percussion additions, but not a lot of bells & whistles. One of the best songs is the one new one, “It’s Not Your Fault”, which outshines some of the classics. I found the acoustic version of “Hard As Love” to be even more enjoyable than the original rocking version, and quite a surprise too, because I didn’t think it would lend itself well to an acoustic arrangement. Other highlights for me included “Memory Of Water” and “This Is The 21st Century”.

The two bonus tracks on this CD, “Runaway” and a cover of “Fake Plastic Trees”, have been released before on Live At The Walls. (“Fake Plastic Trees” was also a bonus track on the CD single for 1998’s “These Chains”.) I have always been fond of “Fake Plastic Trees” and I prefer Marillion’s version to Radiohead’s. (I’m not a big Thom Yorke fan, but Hogarth really sings his heart out on this one.)

This album is so good, it really revamped by interest in Marillion. I’m glad I bought it! For non-fans, this is a great accessible introduction to a band that by all rights should have been huge. The quality of their songs, as displayed on Less Is More, is simply world-class.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Zakk Wylde – Book of Shadows (reissue)

ZAKK_0001

ZAKK WYLDE – Book of Shadows (1996, 1999 Spitfire reissue with bonus tracks)

There are many albums in my collection that I have bought more than once, just because I love them so much. Kiss Alive for example I’ve owned on LP and CD every time its been reissued. Likewise, Book of Shadows. When this album was issued with the 3 bonus tracks on an extra CD, I made sure I added it to my collection, because this is such an amazing collection of songs and I needed more.

Book of Shadows, Zakk’s second album outside Ozzy (Pride And Glory being the first) was a departure. Every song is largely acoustic, and electric guitar is usually only heard distantly in the mix, or in some of the solos. Instead of shredding, this album is driven by Zakk’s soulful voice, electrifying lyrics (very underrated!) and songwriting excellence.

I recall playing this for Tom and T-Rev when I first picked it up.  Tom’s immediate first reaction was, “This sounds like Hootie and the Blowfish.” The reason for that is Zakk’s deep voice, and the fact that these are mostly mellow acoustic songs. However a few more minutes in, and it was clear that this was a Zakk album. Especially when that first electric guitar solo kicked in. By the time the albums ends on the electric, grinding, Sabbathy-outro to “I Thank You Child”, we had been thoroughly blown away.

Zakk’s lyrics run the gamut from philosophical to funny. “The Things You Do”, for example, seems to be about an ex-girlfriend and contains the lyric, “How do you do the things you do? You make Satan look like Christ, you know it’s true.” Elsewhere, “Way Beyond Empty” is a powerful, mournful song with a chorus so good that it will not let you go. I also enjoyed “Throwin’ It All Away” for its drama and orchestration.  The three bonus tracks are just as good as anything else on the album, particularly “The Color Green”, an indictment of modern greed.  Lyrically the bonus tracks are more topical than the album in general.  They are “Evil Ways”, “The Color Green”, and “Peddlers of Death”.  A vastly different re-recorded version of “Peddlers of Death” later appeared on Black Label Society’s debut album Sonic Brew.

If you are a Zakk fan, obviously this purchase is a must. If you’re not a Zakk fan but you happen to stumble upon this review, do what you can to hear it.  I’m firmly convinced that if Book of Shadows had a larger overall awareness, it could have been a hit album with multiple successful singles.

Band lineup:
Zakk Wylde – lead vocals, guitars, piano
Joe Vitale – drums, keyboards
James Lomenzo – bass

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Helix – Smash Hits…Unplugged! (2010)

HELIX – Smash Hits…Unplugged! (2010 Helix Records)

Smash Hits…Unplugged!, the first ever acoustic release by Helix, was certainly a release that deserved more attention.  While Helix have continued to make albums (and good ones, too), many of them have been ignored by the media in general.  While an album such as The Power of Rock and Roll kicked as much ass as Walkin’ the Razor’s Edge, it went largely unheard.  Smash Hits…Uplugged! was a more accessible version of Helix, but it still failed to garner the attention it deserved.  I do hear “That Day Is Gonna Come” from this album on the radio from time to time, but this album is too good not to be heard by masses.

This, to me, was the real “classic Helix lineup” reunion album. Unlike Vagabond Bones, you can actually hear Brent and Daryl singing. Daryl Gray in particular contributes a lot to this album, including singing, bass, guitars, and more exotic instruments such as bodhran. All five Helix members participated, including Kaleb Duck with his first Helix album. Old friends such as Sean Kelly and Cheryl Lescom also dropped in.

Every song on this album was a hit somewhere or another, and every song on this album had the potential to be a hit once again. Vollmer sang his butt off as always.  Some of these arrangements are startlingly original. Particularly “Gimme Gimme Good Lovin”, which shines with great harmony vocals and mandolin courtesy of former guitar slinger Brent Doerner. This excellent, energetic version is followed by a great single-worthy take of “The Kids Are All Shakin”. The ballads are also well done, in particular the shoulda-woulda-coulda-been hit “That Day Is Gonna Come” and their cover of “Dream On”.

It is a new cover version that really blew me away. Vollmer sings his very best on “Touch of Magic” originally by the late great James Leroy. This long forgotten song is a wonderful tribute to Leroy, an under-appreciated Canadian singer and songwriter from the 1970’s.  His original version of “Touch of Magic” was a #6 charting single.  While I can’t say that Helix have topped or equaled him, it is a nice tribute and let’s leave it at that.

Really in total honesty, every version here is great — I can’t say much more than that. I found some arrangements, such as “Rock You”, to be pretty standard, while others to be more adventurous especially in instrumentation. A sprinkle of fiddle here, some 12-string there, and you get a rich unplugged album much more interesting than most major bands’.

Pick up Smash Hits…Unplugged! by Helix. Not only do you know all these songs already, but you’re supporting a band that really deserves it.

5/5 stars

More HELIX at mikeladano.com:

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEWS:  Brian Vollmer (2012) + Brent Doerner (2007)

CONCERTS:  The Power of Rock and Roll CD release party 08/18/2007, London Ontario

REVIEWS: Best Of 1983-2012 + “All I Want For Christmas is the Leafs to Win the Cup” single
+ 30th Anniversary Concert DVD + “Good To The Last Drop”/”S.E.X. Rated” cassette single
+ Live! In Buffalo + No Rest for the Wicked

RECORD STORE TALES: Part 2: Gimme an R! + Part 234: Wild in the Streets

REVIEW: Ani DiFranco – Little Plastic Castle (1998)

Part 3 of the Aaron Challenge:  He has challenged me to get out of my comfort zone.  Together, we will be reviewing some of the albums he bought in Toronto during Record Store Excursion 2012.  I’ve never heard any of these albums before, in fact I know almost nothing about most of these bands.  But I do know I sold a lot (a lot!) of Ani DiFranco during my time at the record store.

Aaron paid $2.99 for this, at Sonic Boom Music.

Check out his review here!

Ani_DiFranco_-_Little_Plastic_Castle

ANI DIFRANCO – Little Plastic Castle (1998 Righteous Babe)

I remember working at the store back in ’98, and the general reception from Ani DiFranco fans to this album was positive, but mildly critical.  There was a vibe that she had sold out for bigger success.  That was just what I was hearing.

Having not heard the previous albums, all I can say is good music is good music.  Yes, the production is lush and not what you’d think of “indy”.  Listen to those mariachi horns on the title track.  Not exactly low-fi.  But it sounds great!  What an upbeat, entertaining track.  Awesome.  Not to mention her guitar work is excellent.  The lyrics seem to be about public perception of what she should and should not be.

“Fuel” is one I’d heard before from Aaron.  I liked that one too.  I like when she’s goofy. This is beat poetry with a backing band.  Normally I go for a lead vocal with melody, but this works due to Ani’s well-composed expression.  From there it’s on to “Gravel”, a fast melodic one with more dexterous picking from Ani.  Another great tune, with melody to spare.    It’s a sparse arrangement, just guitar and voice with some percussion, and that’s it.

Drums introduce “As Is”, a soft pleasant song with barely audible keyboards in the background.  It’s laid back and slightly mournful but also playful, and pretty much perfect as is (pun intended).  “Two Little Girls” is dark, a tale of a difficult childhood.  Ani’s excellent picking, and a bouncy backing bassline, makes it entertaining, but lyrically it seems loaded with pain.

“Deep Dish” is the first song I didn’t enjoy.  It features samples and long spoken word bit, and is very rhythmic.  It did nothing for me, though.  Sorry Ani.  Nothing personal!  “Loom” however is a brief (under 3 minutes) explosion of drums and acoustic picking, more along the lines of what I like.  “Pixie” follows, one I didn’t click with.  Ani sings in a soft whisper, expressive as ever, I just didn’t like the song.  It didn’t have enough melody or punch for me.

A long song, “Swandive”, is a bit of a change of pace since most of the previous tunes were in the 4 minute range.  This one builds slowly.  “I’m gonna do my best swan dive, into shark infested waters,” sings Ani, while picking more of those great guitar parts.  “Glass House” totally changes the pace, with a bouncy wah-wah infested bass melody intro.  This is great.  I didn’t see that coming, nor the weird caterwauling trumpet that followed it!  Ani then whispers the lyrics, underlined by a pulsing bass, with the odd electronic effect.  Then just as you’re getting used to it, the drums kick in, accelerating the tune forward, and the vocals get angry.  Ani is nothing if not diverse, I’m learning, even within one song.

“Independence Day” is a beautiful song, melodic and passionate, slow and pretty.  A hit song in any just world.  The final song, “Pulse”, is another slow builder, with a beat poetry vibe to the verses.  It’s not brief either!  14 minutes!  It sounds a bit like a jam, but I wonder, since the whole album has more of a vibe of being carefully assembled rather than jammed out.

Little Plastic Castle is an excellent sounding album.  The guitars are lush, full and clear.  The snare drum sound is perfect. Production-wise, it’s a total triumph (and self-produced by Ani).  I think the album tends to sag a bit in the middle, after such a fine start, but it’s still a great album.

4/5 stars

MIKE AND AARON GO TO TORONTO