Friday, August 29, 2008

Singles Scene # 11

Parry Sound: my wife's maternal home, although it should be said Parry Sound is not her childhood home. My mother-in-law moved up there about ten years ago. In a large log cabin overlooking a lake she has maintained a modern day settlers lifestyle: chopping wood and watching CNN; clearing a woodlot and planting daisies; wood burning stove and flush toilets. In short, the perfect getaway.

In one corner is one of those modern touches we all have: the entertainment centre. A corner cabinet within which sits a 27 inch TV, a small stereo, a VCR and DVD player and a pile of CD's/DVD's. Buried in the back of the bottom shelf is a gorgeous carved wooden box that's about 7" x 7": single sized. It's full of singles from just about every generation of singles, good stuff too: Elvis, The Beatles, Dave Clarke 5, The Police. Seventy-five or so singles from the 50's, 60's, 70's and 80's. Unfortunately none of them have protective sleeves, which means that even if some of those Elvis or Beatles one's may have some value (I repeat, may), that value is eliminated by the small surface scratches on everyone of them.

My mother-in-law cites herself as a great fan of Canadiana. She watches CBC, reads Margaret Atwood, listens to Gordon Lightfoot because it's what good Canadians do. So how come all these singles and there's only one Canadian one? Another question: how am I supposed to listen to any of them? Seventy-five or a hundred records and no turntable. Their turntable is, in fact, hooked up a pre-amp and then the surround sound system in my basement 300KM away.

So I grab a few that strike my fancy to take home and listen too: Hermen's Hermits I'm Into Something Good, Bonnie Tyler's Total Eclipse of the Heart, Boney M's Rasputin and the lone Canadian single, The Guess Who's These Eye's. These Eye's was originally released in 1968. This single is the original, with Lightfoot on the b side.

I've heard this so many times through the years there's no surprise in it. As I noted back in June, I saw Bachman Cummings sing this song this summer. It was, I remember thinking at the time, a simple but brilliant song, the reason these two are still successful all these years later. The elegant intro chords were originally a non piano playing Randy Bachman composition. Burton Cummings has since said they were so simple that no self-respecting piano player would ever come up with such a thing (I could be paraphrasing here). It's true. The whole song is simple, pretty, and good.

The b side, Lightfoot, another song from the Wheatfield Soul album is a country-ish acoustic piece. The single is too scratchy to enjoy it, but it was not a hit and it probably doesn't deserve to be one. An alright song, but an add-on none the less.

A couple of days in Parry Sound of R & R and the best I can do is one Canadian single. It's too bad, but at least it's a classic of the genre, one of the best Canadian songs. A pretty good find all in all.

Milk Crate Classics #6: Dan Hill – Longer Fuse

I met Dan Hill a few times, before the fame set in. He liked to run cross country, as we called it then, and I belonged to a track and field club. One of the distance runners at the club was friendly with Hill, and he came out a few times. Then Sometimes When We Touch was released and the only other time I saw him was from the 2nd row at the Ontario Place Forum. He wasn't famous yet when I met him, but he had a few records out and we knew who he was. With the release of Longer Fuse in 1977, the album with Sometimes When We Touch, I heard him.

My copy of this album is pretty scratched up which is a testament to how often it was listened to. It's easy to pigeon hole a guy like Hill into someone like Celine Dion, who sings sappy love songs like Sometimes When We Touch, but the truth is something different. He was first off, a guitar player who wrote primarily on the guitar. He was, in fact, a folk singer not a balladeer. But fate gave him a huge hit with Sometimes... and he will always be known as a piano/ballad guy. And Longer Fuse will always be the album with that song on it. But like Dan Hill, it is very much more.

Listening to it now it holds up well. Nicely written songs with somewhat intelligent lyrics will often do that. Starting with the aforementioned Sometimes When We Touch, it's a song that, in my opinion, has gotten a bad rap. Yes it's sappy, but it's also finely crafted, passionate and smart. After that, the piano pretty much gets put away for the acoustic guitars. 14 Today is an old favourite, and comes back and wraps itself around me like a blanket. A mature song from a young man about the perils of growing up, it's both familiar and a discovery as it's been 20 or 30 years since I've listened to it.

Side one finishes out with more of the same, In The Name of Love and Crazy. The real treat of the side is the finale (this is true on side 2 as well) McCarthy's Day. A tribute to Hill's American parents, his black father and white mother left America for Canada the 50's - McCarthy's Day.

Way back in McCarthy's day
My parents left the USA
Young rebellious lovers
They left behind a nation far too proud
And powerful to say
That love transcends all colors
Some black men turned against my father
Some white men turned against my mother
Each race has their place they all would say

And with a past so battle worn
And a future begging to be born
They found a life that's growing still today songs

Side two starts off with a couple of weak songs. Jean and You are All I See are too familiar, too close in sound to the rest of the album without being as good. Things improve, marginally with Southern California before we get into the gems of the side, if not the album. Title track Longer Fuse is romantic, touching and a bit funky. Back to the sort of thing that made side one of this album good.

The album ends with my favourite song on it, Still Not Used To. A song about being a traveling musician with a growing audience, Hill's vulnerability as a performer is here for all to see, the same vulnerability that makes Sometimes When We Touch and Longer Fuse such wonderful songs:

Still not used to having people pay to hear me,
guess I'm still a child trying so hard to please
trying to seek approval through my songs...

Still Not Used To was recorded live at St James Cathedral and features a cello, mandolin, two acoustic guitars it's a pretty song. The live recording, in the beautiful sounding church give it a quality of sound that is rare, and is one of those songs that sounds so warm and beautiful on LP. Great closure of a decent album.

And that's what Longer Fuse is, a decent album. Half the songs are solid, very good songs, half less than stellar. The good ones make it listenable, and five more like it this might still be considered a classic.

Thursday, August 07, 2008

CD Review: Jeff Healey - Mess of Blues

I've never been comfortable with Jeff Healey's recorded opus. Anyone who seen Healey live will attest that he was a superior guitar player who had with chops and musicianship. His records (or rather CD's) always seemed restrained and insufficient, as if the record company was calling all the shots on it (they probably were).

Jeff Healey's final studio recording, the posthumously released Mess of Blues, is an example of how good Jeff Healey was when he was in his element, playing electric blues, R&B and standard rock and roll. Healey is an exceptional guitar player and a very soulful, under-rated singer and Mess of Blues lets him showcase both.

Starting with a couple of live tracks, I'm Tore Down and How Blue Can You Get showcase Healey the guitar-man rocking these two blues numbers. Later Mess of Blues has a fun side and it emerges at song #4 with Jambalaya. Healey plays this fun old gin joint jukebox standard with a fine pickin' grin and a blues-mans flair.

The albums risk is a cover of The Band's The Weight. A song that would be easy to butcher, Healey shows his artistry by delivering an enjoyable performance of a seminal rock song. The other classic rock song he covers is Neil Young's Like a Hurricane, the best version of this song I've heard.

From the title track, Mess of Blues to Shake, Rattle & Roll, Healey delivers some classic music without missing a step. He displays virtuosity and style and covers some great songs from the rock 'n roll/ blues play list.

If your taste runs like old rock 'n roll and electric blues then Jeff Healey's Mess of Blues is a CD you should get.