country rock

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – 1000 Arms (2016)

BLUE RODEO – 1000 Arms (2016 Warner)

It’s hard keeping up with Blue Rodeo! They’re always working, either as a band or on their own projects. They’ve released new albums consistently without gaps. That’s 15 studio albums (one of them a double) spanning 30 years. Countless amazing songs…but mathematically their growth have kept me from growing with their new music as much as the old. There are only so many hours in a day, and days in a week, and it’s hard to imagine the day that 1000 Arms will surpass Five Days in July for number of spins.  It’s inevitable that when listening to newer Blue Rodeo music, it doesn’t feel as close to you as the early stuff.

Blue Rodeo maintain their knack for incredible songs and playing on 1000 Arms.  Greg Keelor conjures up the same old, not-quite-broken spirits as before.  “Nothing I ever do is good for you, will I ever realize?  You’re never satisfied.”  Biting lyrics, chiming mandolin and perfect Cuddy/Keelor harmonies combine to make the opener “Hard to Remember” a future classic.  Jim Cuddy takes the wheel next on an upbeat number called “I Can’t Hide My Feelings Anymore”.  When has Jim ever hid his feelings?  Not the point — another great tune.

The disc is loaded with great tunes.  “Jimmy Fall Down” (vocals: Keelor) maintains the bright, upbeat direction.  Things don’t slow down until track 4, “Long Hard Life”.  It’s quieter but no less enjoyable.  It’s only a temporary reprieve, as “Rabbit’s Foot” brings a classic guitar vibe.  The title track is old style Cuddy storytelling.  Greg’s penchant for slow and dramatic music is carried on by “Dust to Gold”.  There is even sly humour on “Superstar”, something you don’t always get with a Blue Rodeo album.  “Start a business, organics door to door, ’cause nobody buys records here anymore.”

We could go on and continue to describe this batch of new tunes, but rest assured there are no duds.  (Do stay tuned for a heavy exotic turn on closing track “The Flame”.)  I hope that, over time, these songs become as much a part of me as the old tunes.  There’s little difference in terms of quality, and the musicianship is always tops.  Colin Cripps would be responsible for many of the tasteful guitar solos, but 1000 Arms is the last Blue Rodeo album to feature mandolin player (and Kitchener, Ontario resident) Bob Egan.  (That’s why he’s front and center of the band photo.)  Bob departed after making this one, and he went out in great style.

4/5 stars

REVIEW: Brian Byrne – Tuesdays, Thursdays, and if it Rains… (2006)

Scan_20160505 (2)BRIAN BYRNE – Tuesdays, Thursdays, and if it Rains… (2006 Kindling Music)

Strangely, I first heard Brian Byrne’s solo single debut, “Far From Good”, on a local lite-rock radio station that I usually try to avoid.  The song caught my ear for its upbeat, country-rock sound, with bouncy violin and piano on top.  A neat mix.  When they said it was by Brian Byrne, I stopped myself.  Couldn’t be the I Mother Earth singer getting played on a lite-rock station, could it?  But it was.  I promptly ordered the CD from the Record Store at which I formerly worked.  The disc arrived in a few days, great condition, except for the promo-cut jewel case.  They normally should have replaced the case before the CD shipped, but somebody missed it.  I didn’t want to ask for a new case, because I just left the place six months before and I didn’t want to become “that” customer!

But enough about me, what about Byrne?  Here he worked with near-legendary Canadian producer Tim Thorney, as well as former Killer Dwarfs guitarist Gerry Finn.  (Byrne and Finn both hail from Newfoundland.)  I Mother Earth were deactivated, and Byrne honed Tuesdays, Thursdays and if it Rains… into a pleasing acoustic rock album, very “singer-songwriter” in sound.

“Far From Good” is the highlight, being the most immediate and lively.  The album is diverse.  The opening track “Days Go On” has elements of country, funk, classic rock and soul.  The juicy organ parts really suck you in.  “Jen’s Song” is one of many ballads, this one reminding me of 80’s Phil Collins for some reason.  Byrne gets to let his voice speak more than he does in the louder I Mother Earth.  Then there’s a big chorus on “Sweet Love”, a better light country rock tune than Bon Jovi’s ever written.  This is like country-Jovi, but with integrity and feelings, and not a lot of flash.  “Nova Dashboard” is a lovely, bluesy country ballad along the lines of Blue Rodeo’s dusky favourites.  The guitars (by Thorney) get right under your skin.

I could go on and on, but all the songs have a quiet, smouldering power to them.  The light and shade of the album sounds quintessentially Canadian to me, and the calibre of the musicianship is above reproach.  Expect an album of diverse music crossing several genres, but do not expect I Mother Earth.  Byrne almost went as far in another direction as you could imagine.  And that is really cool, because he does it so well.

3.5/5 stars

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REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Live at Massey Hall (2015)

Scan_20160426BLUE RODEO – Live at Massey Hall (2015 Warner)

Things have changed a lot since the last time I saw Blue Rodeo in the mid-2000’s. They have added a few more albums to the oeuvre, and a few more members to the band. The expansion of Blue Rodeo to a seven-piece band has made their live sound smoother, the rough edges sanded off. Due to Greg Keelor’s hearing loss, the singer and author of some of the most gonzo country-rock guitar solos north of the 47th was forced to unplug, and focus on the acoustic guitar instead. Colin Cripps (Crash Vegas), who had filled in before, was drafted full time to fill the guitar sound. With Kitchener resident Bob Egan on slide and various other stringed instruments, there are now four guitar players in Blue Rodeo. The newest member is Michael Boguski on various keyed instruments.

According to the band, one of the solutions to Greg’s hearing issues was changing over to in-ear monitors. There was a rough shake down period to get used to this setup, timid performances during which the band says they failed to take chances live. For Blue Rodeo to issue a new live album, one must assume these issues have been ironed out. Live at Massey Hall is the band’s first live album since 2008’s Blue Road.  It is also their shortest live album with only one disc inside (Blue Road was more of a video album, with unique CD and DVD content).

Supporting the studio album In Our Nature, the Massey Hall album has a little bit of newer material, but is dominated by past hits.  Most of the new songs are clumped together in the middle of the CD:  “New Morning Sun”, “Tara’s Blues”, “Tell Me Again” and “When the Truth Comes Out”.  There is no drop of quality during this four-song clump, in fact “New Morning Sun” almost sounds as if lifted from Blue Rodeo’s late-80’s heyday.  The last of the new songs, “Paradise”, is left closer to the end, before the rousing finale of “5 Days in May” and “Lost Together”.

Plenty of hits abound, with only “Try” obviously absent.  There are also a couple of surprise tracks: the rarely played “Girl of Mine” from Diamond Mine, and “Disappear” from Tremolo.  The 8:04 “Disappear” is the album highlight, recalling the mighty feats of Blue Rodeo onstage in the 1990’s.  It rivals “Diamond Mine” for drama and instrumental gold, but has a beautiful melancholy power.

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Old man time may have taken his toll on Greg’s hearing.  Jim’s voice might be a little lower and huskier than it used to be.  This band, surely one of the best live acts Canada has produced, survives on.  The studio albums may no longer hit the charts like they used to, but Blue Rodeo have always seemed truly at home on the stage.  With the addition of Cripps (helping out on backing vocals as well as guitar), the band are still able to do the big bold rock songs like “Lost Together” and “Diamond Mine” at full strength.

There was once a time when the music press questioned if Blue Rodeo could remain a vital force without original member Bobby Wiseman on keyboards.  That was 1992.  Not only have they remained just as challenging as ever, but they have continued to evolve and grow.  Now it feels as if things have come full circle, back to that point in the mid-90’s when we realized the sky was the only limit for this band.  We look forward to whatever Blue Rodeo produce next.

4/5 stars

 

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REVIEW: Helix – It’s a Business Doing Pleasure (1993)

ITS A BUSINESS DOING PLEASURE_0002HELIX – It’s a Business Doing Pleasure (1993 Aquarius)

This is a good album — but it’s utterly ridiculous to see Amazon sellers asking $125 for a CD that I used to sell in store for $8.99.

After the death of guitar player Paul Hackman, killed in a tragic bus accident prior to this, Helix decided to carry on, somehow. Before the crash that prematurely ended the talented guitarist’s life, he and Brian Vollmer had been working on two separate projected discs. Brian had written songs with Marc Ribler, as he did on the previous record Back For Another Taste, which were earmarked for a solo album.  Meanwhile, Hackman was writing music for the next Helix album. When it came time to pick up the pieces and carry on, there wasn’t much written for Helix.  Although he regrets doing it today, Brian Vollmer decided to use the Ribler songs for the Helix record.

Vollmer recorded the album with Ribler, bassist Rob Laidlaw, and former Helix drummer Brian Doerner.  Having spoken to Doerner about this album, I know he felt it was strong and underrated.  I would have to agree.  Vollmer also needed a new Helix band to take the album on tour.  Greg “Fritz” Hinz and Daryl Gray remained on board.  Though they did not play on the album, they are pictured inside.  For the vacant guitar slots, they recruited former Brighton Rock guitar maestro Greg Fraser.  Even more exciting to fans was the return of Brent “the Doctor” Doerner.  This was easily the most exciting band lineup since the 1980’s.

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The record was a definite change of pace, due to its genesis as a Vollmer solo album.  Starting off, it’s instantly noticeable a Nashville influence .  Almost every song has that terrific old school Fender guitar sound, but with a rock n’ roll edge–a little like Mark Knopfler.  The songs are by and large a lot softer and more radio-ready, but also significantly more melodic and memorable.  “Classy” is a good word to describe the direction.

The first single “That Day Is Gonna Come” is upbeat, a tribute to the life of Paul Hackman. Next to “Billy Oxygen”, I think it’s possibly the best song they’ve ever done.  It received an excellent music video loaded with Brian’s own video-8 footage recorded over the years on the road. Just about every major Helix members appears in the footage.  It’s hard not to get nostalgic. Have you been to any of those towns? This is the best video Helix have made yet.

“Tug Of War” would have made a great hit, but sadly the record company weren’t behind the album enough to push it. Vollmer and Fraser did an acoustic rendition of this ballad live on MuchMusic, a recording I’m glad to have on VHS. The album version is more bombastic but just as good. “Wrong Side of the Bed” and “Can’t Even Afford to Die” are both upbeat acoustic rock tunes with lush backing vocals. Think John Cougar meets Helix. Lyrically, Brian was writing about subjects people could relate to, rather than pining over Joan Jett. Being broke, being hurt, but keepin’ on keeping on. Still upbeat but a little harder is “Misery Loves Company”. There are some dirty guitars and driving piano, but we’re still driving in the country. Even without a heavy rock band behind him, Brian’s voice keeps it in the realm of Helix.

“Look Me Straight in the Heart” was supposed to be a video. This power ballad is a duet with Brian and Canada’s Metal Queen, Lee Aaron. The video funding was pulled when Aaron couldn’t appear in the clip with Vollmer. It’s too bad, because it’s a great song and I love hearing Lee Aaron belt it out. Lee Aaron and Brian Vollmer singing a ballad? How could it not have balls! (Just enough.)

“Trust the Feeling” is largely forgettable balladry, but “Love is a Crazy Game” is haunting and quiet. There is a heavier, electric version on the B-Sides CD, and it’s hard to choose which is best. This one is certainly more unique. Of course, you can’t have too many ballads in a row, and they were pushing it with three, but thankfully “Sleepin’ in the Dog House Again” will wake you from your slumber. Kim Mitchell dropped in to play one of his typical gonzo guitar solos, topping off the only real ass-kicking rocker on the album. The closing song “Mad Mad World” (not the Tom Cochrane tune) is one of the best. Who doesn’t love whistles? Humorous lyrics and a great chorus help to end the album in style.

Some lamented that Helix “softened up” on the album; others admired the growth and maturity. Brian Vollmer called the record “a huge mistake on my part, and I take full credit for the blunder. The really sad thing about it all was that I was really proud of all those songs on the album and they were wasted because they did not fit under the Helix name.”

I’d hate to think of those songs wasted, because here I’ve been enjoying them for over 20 years. Perhaps under another name they could have been hits, perhaps not. In the end, this album helped Helix stay a band. It gave them something of quality to release in the wake of their greatest tragedy. It allowed the band to get out and play supporting it. Ultimately, those who were unhappy about the direction would satisfied by the heavy songs on the next album, 1998’s half-ALIVE.

I’d be happy if this album got a little more recognition, so here’s me doing my part.

5/5 stars

REVIEW: Blue Rodeo – Greatest Hits vol. 1 (2001)

Happy Mothers Day to all the moms out there!

BLUE RODEO GREATEST HITS_0001BLUE RODEO – Greatest Hits vol. 1 (2001 Warner)

Blue Rodeo are not a “Greatest Hits” band. Indeed, before this album came out, Jim and Greg routinely used to say, “We’ll only do a greatest hits when we’re finished.” Well, record company pressure must have gotten to them (or they may have just outlasted their own expectations), and they released this typical hits compilation: 12 hits and 2 new songs, just like every other band’s hits compilation.

The problem with Blue Rodeo is that they are so much more than the sum of their hits. Sure, “Rose-Coloured Glasses” (track 2) is a hit single, but what about “Rebel” or “Heart Like Mine”? (This is the album version of “Rose-Coloured Glasses”, not the very rare single remix, only available on 7″ single back in 1986). There’s simply no room on a single disc hits album for the songs that define the Blue Rodeo sound. Blue Rodeo were and still are more about albums, the bigger picture.  Especially in the early days, each album was a different direction from the last.  Each of the first five (and arguably six) first Blue Rodeo studio albums stand as critically important pieces of work.

Having said that, you do get a generous slice of hits here. Fans know these songs already, so I won’t spend too much time talking about them. “Lost Together”, the full length version of “Diamond Mine”, “Bad Timing”, “Try”…these are all songs that saturated the radio in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Peppered along with them are tunes like “Trust Yourself” from Casino, a minor single that some might have forgotten. I was pleased that “Side of the Road” and “Dark Angel” were here, which represent Blue Rodeo’s less commercial side.

For those who love Jim’s ballads, some of his most notable are here.  For those who prefer Blue Rodeo’s radio country-rocking side, there is “Til I Am Myself Again”, “It Could Happen to You” and the classic “Hasn’t Hit Me Yet”.  Greatest Hits vol. 1 is a fair slice of great tunes.  Certainly there are none to skip…just that there are plenty more where these came from.

Missing in action: any songs from The Days In Between, Blue Rodeo’s most recent album at the time. I guess that’s because The Days In Between just was the first underwhelming Blue Rodeo album. The US version of Greatest Hits subbed in Jim’s hit ballad “Bulletproof” from the later Palace Of Gold, instead of “It Could Happen To You” from Tremelo. (Palace Of Gold followed Greatest Hits, but not in the US where this was released afterwards.)

The two new tracks were a revelation. Blue Rodeo had started experimenting with a horn section, and the Greatest Hits tour featured these additional musicians on their back catalogue. The two new songs also feature the horns and strings.  This led into their next album, the aforementioned Palace of Gold, which utilized these instruments throughout.  A re-recording of “After The Rain” benefits greatly from their soulful sounds (not to mention extended solos and jamming). The Bee Gees cover “To Love Somebody” (lead vocal by Greg) has ended up being one of the best covers Blue Rodeo has done to date, live or otherwise. The new sound with horns would be fully realized on Palace Of Gold, but fear not if you don’t like this sound: they soon reverted to the classic configuration of the band.

My best advice is, if you want to really check out some Blue Rodeo, pick up those early albums one by one when you find them cheap (it’s not hard to do). If “Try” is your favourite song, pick up Outskirts, and then explore the rest of the gems on that classic record. Likewise if “Lost Together” is the only song you know, pick up that album and be surprised by the deep album cuts that you would have missed otherwise. And most of all, see the band live.

3.5/5 stars