High Class in Borrowed Shoes

REVIEW: Max Webster – Diamonds Diamonds (1981)

MAX WEBSTER – Diamonds Diamonds (1981 Anthem)

What a title for your first “greatest hits” compilation, eh?  Diamonds Diamonds emerged the year after Max Webster broke up, with no songs from the final album Universal Juveniles, the only one without Terry Watkinson.  Even though these kinds of posthumous records are usually not very good, Diamonds Diamonds is an exception.  It’s also one of the hardest Max Webster albums to find on CD, but a generous slice of vinyl at 13 tracks and 47 minutes.

“What do I know?” asks Kim Mitchell in the opening line of “Gravity”, the debut number.  Kim knew quite a bit actually, including how to write catchy music without it being overtly commercial.  He knew how to challenge listeners while delivering the hooks they craved.  “Gravity” is one such slice of brilliance.   It’s complex pop.

“High Class in Borrowed Shoes” is a classic rocker from their second album in ’77.  As much as it kicks, the lyrics and keyboard arrangement are not typical.  The title track “Diamonds Diamonds” followed “High Class” on the original album and it does again here.  Like a lullaby, “Diamonds Diamonds” floats on the wings of the backing vocal arrangement.  Next is “Summer’s Up” from the incredible debut Max platter.  Jangling guitars and dreamy keyboards make for a summer scene by the pool side, with drinks.  “Blowing the Blues Away” has a more traditional feel, country and blues and pop rolled into one, with a side order of quirky tones.  But it’ll make you feel good.  Continuing the feel-good celebration, it’s “A Million Vacations”, one of the greatest Canadian party songs of all time.  Kim Mitchell’s guitar work is sublime and baffling at once.

Side A ends with one of Max Webster’s most significant songs, “Let Go the Line” with lead vocals by Terry Watkinson who wrote the song, music and lyrics.  In Max Webster, lyrics were usually handled by the poet Pye Dubois.  In fact he wrote all but two of the lyrics on Diamonds Diamonds.  The two he didn’t (“Blowing the Blues Away” being the other) were written by Watkinson.  “Let Go the Line” could not be improved upon if you tried.  Kim’s regal guitar line, Dave Myles bass pulse, and the thrift of Gary McCracken’s drums are all flawlessly and perfectly fit to Terry’s ballad.  If Max Webster only had one “perfect” song, it’s “Let Go the Line”.

Fearlessly opening side two with furvor, it’s “The Party”!  It’s the off-kilter musicianship on tracks like this that had fans often comparing Max Webster to Frank Zappa.  Frank liked to have fun, too.  Well Max really liked to have fun!  “We’re all here for a celebration, the madcap scene and the Max Machine!”  That says it all.

Every decent “greatest hits” album needs unreleased songs.  Diamonds Diamonds has two decent ones, good songs that might be a bit too mainstream for a Max studio album.  “Hot Spots” is the first, a rip-roaring boogie of a good time.  By comparison, Kim could have recorded it on one of his early solo albums if Max didn’t release it on this.  It is chased by the outstanding “Paradise Skies”, another summery Max hit that keeps Canadian radio stations in business.  Melody and musicianship — that should be Max’s calling card.  The second of the new unreleased tunes is “Overnight Sensation”, the most ordinary (or forgettable) of the tracks.  The bassline really hops, and there’s even some cowbell, but the song isn’t comparable to something like “The Party” or “High Class”.

Although it’s better as an album opener, “Lip Service” (from Mutiny Up My Sleeve) is a bouncer.  “Socialutions, written down in our teens.  I mailed them to Kennedy, I typed them for Tito.”  Brilliance in a pen by Pye Dubois, barely contained by the bopping bass and upbeat keys.  Then before it’s all over it goes into a brief jazzy jam!  Finally it’s “Hangover”, also traditionally an opening song.  It’s the hardest rocker of the bunch, quirky as all hell and actually a good closer too!

Diamonds Diamonds still an important record today because “Overnight Sensation” and the outstanding “Hot Spots” haven’t been reissued on anything else.  You can’t say that about any of the songs on The Best of Max Webster (1989).  This is the one to get.  If you find one on CD, you’ve got yourself a good one.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Max Webster – The Party (2017 box set)

MAX WEBSTER – The Party (2017 Anthem 8 CD box set)

Normally when we review box sets like this, we prefer to review each album individually.  Three of the eight discs have already been covered here:  Max Webster (their debut), High Class in Borrowed Shoes, and Universal Juveniles (their final album).  The rest of the Max Webster albums will be reviewed in due time, so for now we will take a general look at their brand new CD box set, The Party.

The Max Webster catalogue (and to a lesser extent, the solo Kim Mitchell discography) has been well overdue for a remastering.  The original Anthem CDs are thin and tinny.  Rock Candy did a fantastic remaster of the first three albums with better sound and a generous booklet, but what about the rest?  I first heard about this project via Uncle Meat this past summer at Sausagefest.  It was one of those “know a guy who knows a guy” stories, but the bottom line was, Max Webster’s catalogue was being remastered.  And now we have The Party in hand as proof!

The contents include all five original Max studio albums, their concert opus Live Magnetic Air, Kim Mitchell’s very rare solo EP, and a bonus disc of rarities called The Bootleg.  Those who buy the forthcoming vinyl version will also receive a booklet with rare photos and other goodies.  The CD version has no booklet, but it does have nice gatefold packaging for each album.  It’s affordably priced, so we forgive the lack of a booklet on the CD edition. Vinyl owners can look at it as a bonus for buying vinyl.

If improved audio is what you are longing for, then you should be very satisfied with The Party.  It’s not overdriven, but it sounds fuller and deep.  They didn’t go for loudness.  This is all very good.  You can safely ditch your old CD versions, rendered obsolete by this box.

The Bootleg will be the main draw for many.  It does not disappoint.  In fact, it intrigues, because it teases that there is more.  Unreleased demos are listed as “Contraband” — reports suggest this refers to a collection of unreleased material still in the vault.

Max Webster apparently recorded their 2007 reunion show, or at least “Let Go the Line”.  It sounds brilliant and makes you pray for a live album of the show.  Terry Watkinson’s classic ballad sounds a little older, a little wiser, but just as brilliant as ever.  Other live stuff from 1979 was recorded in Oshawa.  “Oh War” simply smokes, and was not included on Live Magnetic Air.  Then there’s the crazy jam centred on “Research (At Beach Resorts)”.  These insane live sessions really show why Max Webster is held in such high esteem, almost like a second coming of Frank Zappa himself.

The unreleased demos include some songs that didn’t make Max’s albums.  Fans know “Deep Dive” from Kim Mitchell’s solo live album, I Am A Wild Party.  Max’s original 1982 demo is completely different.  Same melody, same words, but a vastly different arrangement.  It’s like rock and roll bluegrass, fast as possible, and insanely good.  It was likely deemed too different to be on the Universal Juveniles LP, but there’s no doubt it’s awesome and the highlight of this box set.

Another standouts from the batch of demos is a version of “Battle Scar” without Rush; just Max!  It’s a revelation; an interesting work in progress.  There are also two songs you’ve never heard before, “Walden 5” and “Better”, both from 1979.  Let’s just say that the quality of these unreleased Max songs is album level.  “Walden 5” just needed some editing.  A demo version of “In the World of Giants” from 1979 has way more guitar soloing.  Kim fans will love it!  Oh — and stay tuned for a surprise unlisted bonus track.

The box itself is just a cardboard sleeve, but at least an attractively packaged one.  Yes, a booklet would have been appreciated.  In lieu of that, we recommend Martin Popoff’s brilliantly detailed book Live Magnetic Air: The Unlikely Saga of the Superlative Max Webster to accompany this otherwise perfect set.

Oh, one last thing:  The two “new” songs that were included on the hits compilation Diamonds Diamonds are not in this box set.  So, to be a completist, you’d still need to track that one down.  Vinyl is recommended; and then you’d own “Hot Spots” and “Overnight Sensation” to complete the picture.  Just a word to the wise.

4.5/5 stars

 

REVIEW: Max Webster – High Class in Borrowed Shoes (1977)

Scan_20150730MAX WEBSTER – High Class in Borrowed Shoes (1977 Anthem)

It’s only the second Max Webster album, but the band were so tight and perfect that they got three radio classics off it.  “Diamonds Diamonds”, “Gravity” and the title track are all three radio staples, and “On the Road” a live classic that Kim Mitchell occasionally plays unplugged.  Every fan has a favourite Max album, and I think I probably know a couple who would put High Class in Borrowed Shoes as numero uno.

The album opens with the impressive “High Class in Borrowed Shoes”, a blaster that sounds to me like a Canadian Van Halen!  Max had tamed some of their wackier tendencies (“Toronto Tontos”, anyone?) and focussed their chops.  Not that the new Max (now featuring legendary drummer Gary McCracken) was normal by any definition.  Just listen to the lullaby-like “Diamonds Diamonds”.  Great song, but very different for a rock band.  Its dreamlike mood is heightened by the surreal lyrics by Pye Dubois.  Not to mention there are only six lines to the words!

“Gravity” would make my top five Max tracks in a heartbeat.  “What do I know?  I sat under a cloud.  I looked up, afraid to look down.”  Kim sounds like a little boy speaking the words, to great effect.  The chorus is a big one, backed by a Kim’s riffing.  I have no idea what this song is about, but to me the line “Forget that fear of gravity, get a little savagery in your life,” says everything.  Don’t be afraid to take chances.  As Pye’s friend Neil Peart once said, just roll the bones.  That’s what it means to me, anyway.

Proving he has always been capable of tender ballads, “Words to Words” is one of Kim Mitchell’s first.  The keyboards of Terry Watkinson keep it just a little left of center, but Kim’s acoustic work is impeccable and excellent.   Pye Dubois’ lyrics are magical and stirring.  It’s hard to overstate just how quality this song is.  However ballads are usually best followed by scorchers, and that’s “America’s Veins”.  Killer solos, smoking drums, and a chorus built for the concert stage: it’s here in one complete package.

“Oh War!” is an incredible monument of rock.  AC/DC did a song with a similar vibe called “Little Lover”, but “Oh War!” is a completely different animal.  The gonzo solos are more in the “Z” section of the rock aisle, as in “Zappa”.   And check out the words!  “‘Cause I say fuck you instead of thank you, your choice under your breath.”  Yes, that’s what Uncle Kim, Canada’s favourite king of the summertime, just said!  OK, so it wasn’t going to get on the radio with those words…but damn, it should have been.  This song could have been almost as big as “Battle Scar” had it been.

I have a tape here of Kim Mitchell doing “On the Road” live in the MuchMusic studios, acoustically, on their Intimate and Interactive show.  This is what you might call “campfire rock”, but that sells it far too short.  “On the Road” is more than a song that would sound good played live around a fire, it has genuine soul that you can feel.  It’s an incredible song, and once again, I wonder why Max Webster wasn’t friggin’ huge.  “Rain Child” is next in line, which I would describe as a slow burner.  Terry Watkinson’s keys take center stage, never intruding.  “Rain Child” is a classic album track, and perfect for winding down the album.

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Max Webster went mad on the last track, “In Context of the Moon”.  This is the second of four “Moon” songs on the first four records:  “Coming Off the Moon”, “Beyond the Moon”, and “Moon Voices” are the others.  “In Context” can’t be described easily, because it spans many styles and tempos in just five measly minutes!  How?!  You have to play this one a few times just to get everything that is happening.  It’s certainly one of the most challenging pieces of music Max have recorded.  The four musicians must have rehearsed the shit out of this one.  Anyway, at all times, it smokes.  Whether it’s the bright intro guitars, or the metal riffs that follow them, or the sheer madness (including bass solo) that ensues, “In Context of the Moon” is always riveting.  It’s just non-stop even though by the time you get to the end of it, you’ll wonder how you got there!

Final note:  My good buddy T-Rev, who has guest written here a couple times before, met Gary McCracken after he moved to Sarnia.  He was working at Fastenal when in came a guy to pick up an “order for Gary McCracken.”  T-Rev pondered a bit before enquiring, “I hope you don’t mind me asking, but were in a band called Max Webster?”  Yes, he had.  It was that Gary McCracken, and he was cool.  I love little stories like that.  Gary McCracken was Trevor’s biggest influence as a young drummer!

Popoff's awesome book

Popoff’s awesome book

There is nothing more to be said in just a single review.   For the whole enchilada, get the book from martinpopoff.com!  And be sure to get High Class in Borrowed Shoes for your collection.

5/5 stars