Canadian

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Palace of Gold (17 track Rounder version)

BLUE RODEO – Palace of Gold (2002 Rounder version with 3 bonus tracks)

After the disappointing (to me) The Days In Between, Blue Rodeo did the long-awaited Greatest Hits dealio.  Then they did something unexpected, and added horns to the mix on a couple new tracks. That carried over to the Greatest Hits tour, where they added that same horn section to old classics like “Diamond Mine”. I remember the trumpet player executed a killer solo during that song when I saw them live in Stratford Ontario.  They do an annual winter show there, in the round, at the Festival.

Palace of Gold is the album that followed this experimentation.  Horns and strings are added to a good number of songs. The end result was a rejuvenated Blue Rodeo, more happy-go-lucky in general this time out, sounding excited to be playing again.

The opening track “Palace of Gold” is a Greg rocker with some floaty catchy keys from James Gray. Glenn Milchem’s drums propel the song forward excitedly. This is followed by a cool mid-tempo song called “Holding On” that reminds me of the flavour Jim’s first solo album. “Holding On” is not only catchy, traditional Blue Rodeo, but also contains some of Jim’s trademark heartfelt lyrics.

Some tasty mandolin work introduces Greg’s “Homeward Bound Angel”, another uptempo track. Horns are introduced here for the first time on Palace of Gold.  By my reckoning, this is now three oustanding songs in a row.  This is just a preface to “Bulletproof”, aka “the album’s big hit”.  It’s a torchy ballad as Jim is loved for. It’s not as immediate as  previous ballads like “Try” or “After the Rain”, but after a few listens, it’s sunk in.  The arrangement is backed by lush strings.

A taste of reverb intruduces “Comet”, the first song that I find below the high standard already set. It is a trippy psychedelic Greg tune, with what sounds like therimin and strings. I’m just not keen on this one.  I find it less exciting than other similar concepts from Greg, such as “Girl In Green”.

Swift punky chords are soon followed by deep fat horns.  This is Jim’s “Walk Like You Don’t Mind”, another highlight, only bettered by Bazil Donovan’s bouncy basslines.  It’s a Blue Rodeo rave-up.  This is the kind of sound I love from them, especially live.

“Love Never Lies” is highlighted more strings, but this Jim ballad sounds melodically similar to the previous”New Year’s Day” from his solo album. One of my favourite songs is track 8, “Stage Door”. Greg’s lyric always inspires hoots and hollars from the crowd:

Ain’t no mystery, what I need,
is understanding and your sweet sympathy,
A steel string guitar and a little weed,
N’ someone to keep me company.

The arrangement contains both strings and horns, and of all the songs on this album, “Stage Door” amalgamates these instruments most successfully.  (Live, I’ve heard Bazil Donovan take the lead vocal on this song — he was once arrested for possession.  The charges were dropped.)

PALACE OF GOLD_0002It’s hard to follow a song like that. I’m not in love with the next song, Jim’s “Cause for Sympathy”. The verses are dull to me, although it does boast a very nice chorus where both Jim and Greg sing together. Likewise, I usually snooze through the following track, the 60’s-sounding “What A Surprise”, sung by Greg.

“Clearer View”, a Jim Cuddy contribution, returns the album to high standards of outstanding songcraft.  It’s a much needed shot in the arm, a driving song with the perfect horn section. Glenn Milchem’s drumming is rock solid but also propels the song forward like rocket fuel, especially during the chorus

The album slides back again into sleepy-land on Greg’s “Glad to be Alive”. This dreamy song ise a slide guitar-laden lullaby. Jim’s “Find a Way to Say Goodbye” is a ballad but has some punchy horns during the chorus, that are quite tasty. The final song is yet another snoozer from Greg Keelor called “Tell Me Baby”. I think unfortunately that Palace of Gold slides a bit at the end, and contains so many slow songs right at the finish line.

Fortunately there is a US edition of this album on Rounder Records that contains an additional three songs. These kick the album back up a notch at the end. They are are live tunes, and only one is a ballad! “The Railroad”, a Lee Hazelwood cover, is a blast. “Bad Timing” is of course one of Jim’s most classic ballads of all time, so we’ll let that one slide. The final track is another rock n’ roller, “You’re Everywhere” (from the Casino album).  They close the album in style.

If you can get the 17 track version as opposed to the 14 track, I think you are in for a much better listening experience.

4/5 stars

PALACE OF GOLD_0004

Advertisements

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Tremolo (1997)

TREMOLO_0001

BLUE RODEO – Tremolo (1997 Warner)

I first saw Blue Rodeo live in July 1991, just after highschool graduation.  Instant fan!  I saw them again in 1996 and 1998, supporting Nowhere To Here and Tremolo, respectively.  Both albums grew on me tremendously after I saw the show.  Before that, I struggled with them a bit, not quite liking them, not quite disliking them, and not wanting to give up on them.  Funny how that goes.  I rate them today in my top 3 Blue Rodeo albums, along with Five Days in July.

Tremolo requires your complete attention, this is not background music, although it will still sound great in the background. This is one of those deeper albums, one that needs multiple listens.  I find it reveals different faces when I listen to it in different settings as well.  The cottage is better than the car, for example.  For me.

Nowhere To Here and Tremelo, albums #6 and #7, both originated at the same time as Five Days.  The recent Blue Rodeo box set, 1984-1993 contains early different versions of “Moon & Tree” and “No Miracle No Dazzle”.  Tremolo is much like a brother record to Nowhere To Here, an acoustic brother record. They both share the same laid back origins, the same jammy style and meandering arrangements. They also share the same lineup which was my favourite: Jim Cuddy, Greg Keelor, Bazil Donovan, Glenn Milchem, keyboardist James Gray and pedal steel player Kim Dechampes.

Most songs are mellow, laid back, spare in arrangement and very acoustic. At times, this is also the most “country” sounding of Blue Rodeo records. Witness Jim’s “Shed My Skin”, which is beautiful. “No Miracle No Dazzle” is an upbeat one from Greg, another awesome tune, while “Falling Down Blue” is for slow dancing.  All of these are loaded with spirit, be it Jim’s melancholy wordplay or Greg’s gleeful guitar playing.  All the players shine on this album, not necessarily as solosists (although that is often the case), but how they all mesh together.  The blend of instruments is flawless.

TREMOLO_0003I still think of albums as having a side one and a side two.  I had to tape Tremolo on a cassette so I could play it in the car back in ’97.  It’s “side two” of Tremolo that I really like.   “It Could Happen To You” was a popular upbeat Jim single that received a lot of airplay. “Dragging On” is an atmospheric Jim tune, with some beautiful watery keyboards backing it, with fantastic lyrics of heartbreak that only Jim can sing.  You left a hole in me, and the rain comes pouring in, sometimes I’m swept away…”

“Brother Andre’s Heart” and “Frogs’ Lullaby” work together as one Greg tune, quite extended and jammy, 12 minutes in total.  After a tune like that, they had to end it with a corker!  It’s the best song on the album as far as I’m concerned, and conspicuous by being so different:  “Graveyard”.

Well I love these nervous breakdowns,
And I love these new skins,
And I love that you were brave enough,
To sleep with all my friends.

Greg was pissed off at someone, lemme tell you, and this sounds like some kind of punk-a-billy song.

This album has 14 songs on it, and I’ve only talked about around half of them.  The rest of them are also great, but different songs will appeal to different people.  I wanted to talk about the ones that get me almost every time.  You might find that you really like a song like “Fallen From Grace” because it reminds you of the early Blue Rodeo country-blues vibe.

If you love Blue Rodeo, I consider this album a must. It’s not an instant pleasure, but it is a very rewarding listen.  It continues to reveal new layers of music and lyrical poetry to me today.  In my humble personal opinion, I don’t think Blue Rodeo ever attained this lofty standards again.

5/5 stars

Part 177 / REVIEW: Helix – Live! In Buffalo

Another double feature for y’all boys and girls.  First the Record Store Tale, then the review…

Brent live October 3 2007

RECORD STORE TALES Part 177:  Hot On the Heels of Love

The record store had begun selling Brent Doerner’s Decibel, the first solo album by the ex-Helix guitarist on consignment.  My buddy Chuck hooked me up with a copy.  I opened it up, and lo and behold — another buddy of mine, and one of my best customers, was playing guitar in Brent’s band!  I have talked about Shane Schedler in the past, he was a great guy and I was glad he had hooked up with Brent.

I met Brent at a Helix gig at Molly Bloom’s, told him about how I knew Shane from my store, and this led to our first interview, which I published a while ago on this site.  I did numerous other writing jobs for Brent over the years as well.

Anyway, we shot the shit for a couple hours, just talking about music.  He was very passionate about songwriting, particularly lyrics.  Sometimes he would come up with a catchy song title or interesting phrase, and try to write lyrics around it.  He was heavily influenced by the lyrics of Burton Cummings, from The Guess Who.

“I like the fact that Burton Cummings kind of sang in riddles,” said Brent.  “You could listen to the song 100 times and try to pick the meaning out of the sentences.  And therefore, it doesn’t have a high burnout factor.  When I’m writing, that’s the big challenge.  I don’t want it to have a burnout factor.”

“I worked really hard at getting unique titles…I want unique titles so I can have unique songs,” he told me.

Chatting away, Brent told me of some future song ideas.  “I really want to write a song called ‘Hot on the Heels of Love’,” he said.  At first, I was quiet, and kind of confused.  Brent seemed to be waiting for my reaction.

“Brent,” I said, “You already have a song called that.”

“No I don’t,” he answered, and then paused.  “Really?”

“Yeah you do.  It’s on one of the Helix live albums,” I told him, trying to not embarrass him!

“Really?  Which one?” he asked me.

We were in his basement, sitting at this beautiful bar.  He had a small CD tower down there in the basement, with a complete selection of every Helix album he’d ever appeared on.  I studied the tower and spotted the album I was looking for:  Live! In Buffalo, which was recorded in 1983 but not released until 2001.

“Right there…Live! In Buffalo,” I said, “you have a song on there called ‘Hot On the Heels of Love’, that you sang, but as far as I know Helix never recorded a studio version of it.”

Brent grabbed the CD and looked it over.  Sure enough, there it was.  “Hot On the Heels of Love” is track #9.

I guess this shows that a good song title is a good song title no matter what.  But it was also the first time that LeBrain schooled a member of Helix!  (It was not the last time!)

Onto the review!

HELIX LIVE FRONT

HELIX – Live! In Buffalo (2001 Dirty Dog Records, recorded September 29, 1983)

Right from Vollmer’s first “Let’s rock!” at the beginning of this CD, Live! In Buffalo kicks you in the face and doesn’t stop until the end. Only one ballad (and barely a ballad at that, when performed at this volume), this concert sounds like it was a real sweaty affair. Helix were at the top of their game in ’83, hot on the heels of No Rest For The Wicked and “Heavy Metal Love”. This album is loud, there are no overdubs, this is a pure rock concert with no frills. The music is broken up with the occasional (breathless) intros by Vollmer, but then it’s right back into the high-octane rock.  Incredible to think this album was recorded in the middle of the day!

Sometimes I’ve felt that a good bootleg is much better than a well-recorded live album. There’s no fakery on a bootleg, and there is no fakery here. This was recorded for a radio broadcast, and miraculously the tapes were in good enough shape to release as a CD.

Helix opened with the title track from their current album.  “No Rest For the Wicked” is pounding, Fritz Hinz on the skins, pummeling them into submission, Brent on backing vocals while Vollmer seemingly shreds his own vocal cords.  This version is faster and heavier than the album version, as is every song on Live! In Buffalo.  Even a melodic rocker like “Let’s All Do It Tonite” has more bite.

Brian’s on stage raps are from the Paul Stanley school of thought.  For example, “White Lace & Black Leather”.

“This next song is about those ladies that you meet that got lots of class.  Lots of class…elegance.  When it comes to etiquette they’re at the top of their class…you’ll never find them with the fork on the wrong side of their plate.    You dare never tell a dirty joke to this lady because she’ll get up and leave the table.  But you get that same lady home, that very same night, get her back to your place, get her behind closed doors…she’ll turn out to be a moaner every time!  This is called ‘White Lace & Black Leather’!”

Elsewhere, a grizzled “Ain’t No High Like Rock and Roll” combines catchy licks with a driving melody.  A lot of these early Helix songs are among the best tunes they ever wrote.  Yet unfortunately, they are seldom if ever played anymore.  Thankfully, this album exists to remind us how great Helix can be.

Historically, this is also cool for a couple reasons. One, some of these songs had yet to be recorded on a studio album, such as “6 Strings 9 Lives” and “You Keep Me Rockin'”, which would turn up on the next album.  As mentioned in the above Record Store Tale Part 177, one tune was never released on a studio album at all. That is Brent Doerner’s “Hot On The Heels Of Love”, sung by Brent (don’t forget he also sang “Billy Oxygen”, one of Helix’ first hits from the debut album). It is a gritty fast rocker, with a memorably galvanic riff.

There are some other live offerings out there by Helix, such as Half-Alive and the promo-only Live At The Marquee, but this one blows them all away even though it was just for a radio broadcast. One of my favourite live albums, and one of my favourite Helix CDs.

5/5 R’s!

NEXT TIME ON RECORD STORE TALES:

Part 178:  Some really kooky movie makers…