Music Reviews

Arranged alphabetically, by artist. See also full alphabetical listing and chronological listing.

Cold Roses
Ryan Adams and the Cardinals
Lost Highway, May 2005
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First Josh Rouse releases 1974, an ode to all-things seventyish, and then singer-songwriter flavour-du jour Bright Eyes releases two albums at once. Maybe the criminally prolific Adams felt them nipping at his heels, and this is his response: a double (how retro!) CD set that recalls everyone from MOR troubadors Jackson Browne and Gordon Lightfoot to where-are-they-now country-folk rockers like Murray McLauchlan, Danny O'Keefe and Ray Materick. There are some damn solid tunes here: the gently rollicking "Let It Ride," the confessional "When Will You Come Back Home," etc. Only problem? Too many of the tunes sound alike, sticking to a mid-tempo, vaguely twangy vibe, and with such a deluge of similar-sounding material, nothing really jumps out as an obvious single. And that's very un-seventies. A few less songs and a few more hooks woulda made this a killer single album.

Fortunately, Ryan Adams' albums are like buses: if you miss one, another one will come around soon...

Jacksonville City Nights
Ryan Adams & The Cardinals
Lost Highway, September 2005
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A decided return to what many consider Adams' best, this collection (his first in almost four months) sees the boy who would be king slipping out of cruise control. Whereas his last release, May's Cold Roses boasted arguably too many mellow mid-tempo ditties, this time out Adams varies the pace, indulging in a few honky tonk weepers (including a great duet with Norah Jones) and even rocks out a bit. While there's no denying Adams is one helluva writer, he's alway seemed strongest to me when he yelps a little and rocks out, and that's case with this uptempo chugfest, offering plenty of pedal steel torch and twang. Nothing new here -- booze and babes remain Adams' preoccuppations, but this time around he seems more focussed and on top of his game.

Are You Ready
Blue Rodeo
WEA International, May 2005
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Perhaps because they boast not one, but two fine singer/songwriters (Jim Cuddy and Greg Keelor), Canada's hard-working country rockers Blue Rodeo are constantly overlooked both in the States and the Americana-obsessed U.K. Yet even a quick listen to this, their tenth album, reveals solid songwriting and impeccable musicianship every bit the equal of, say, Ryan Adams' recent Cold Roses. Too busy playing the music they love to count their column inches, they proudly wear their influences, if not their egos, on their sleeves: the Beatles, the Band, the Byrds, the Stones and the folk- and country-rock songwriters of the sixties and seventies. The Chieftains' Paddy Moloney even drops by to add some pipes and flute on the folky "Phaedra’s Meadow" and Keelor conjures up his inner Dylan for the dark, bitter "Tired of Pretending," while kick-off track "Can't Help Wondering Why" is a primo piece of shimmery summer pop.

Back to Bedlam
James Blunt
Atlantic/WEA, October 2005 (U.S. release)
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Much has been made of Blunt's days as a British soldier in Kosovo -- but it's a past he's carefully shorn the glamour from in "No Bravery," the litany of atrocities he witnessed in Bosnia as a peacekeeper that forms the last cut on this album. Is it sincere, or does Blunt just have a keen eye on the plummeting support for the Iraq war both in his native Britain and the U.S., where he's trying to establish a commercial beach head? Doesn't really matter, I guess, because the other nine songs on this album are all love songs of various sorts, all soaring, earnest, heart-on-his-sleeve stuff reminescent of Jeff Buckley, Rufus Wainwright, Damien Rice and all those other daring young men with their flying trapeze sense of high drama and naked vulnerability. Still, most of the time Blunt never quite pushes that hard, preferring to sand down the edges with a little David Gray accessability, just to reassure the masses. Somehow it works, though -- particularly on such stadium-ready singalong ballads as "Goodbye My Lover," "High" and "You're Beautiful," all already hits in the U.K. Blunt's radio-ready soft lush pop could put him over equally big Stateside, where the pop charts -- or what passes for them these days -- could sure use an alternative to the "yo, bitch" school of male romanticism. You've been warned.

Early 21st Century Blues
Cowboy Junkies

Rounder Records, August 2005
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The studio equivalent of a 60s campfire singalong, Toronto's favourite Junkies loosen up and pass around the guitar (and banjo and other stringed instruments) and sing some of their favourite tunes about "war, violence, fear, greed, ignorance, loss…." Using other people's songs is a smart move -- they avoid the creeping sameness that had started to tinge their last few, all Michael Timmins-penned releases. They cover Dylan ("License to Kill") and Springsteen ("Brothers Under the Bridge"), a few traditional tunes, toss in two new originals and cap it all off with Lennon's "I Don't Want to Be a Soldier" (featuring an unexpected cameo from rapper Rebel) and a masterful take on U2's "One." Their folksiest and warmest-sounding album since Black Eyed Man -- and one of their angriest. As they sing in one of the two originals, the chilling "December Skies" (inspired by Canadian author Timothy Findley's classic novel "The Wars" and one of the strongest cuts here): "Let's all kill our children... and sing about it."

The Bootleg Series, Volume 7:
No Direction Home: The Soundtrack
Bob Dylan
Columbia Records, September 2005
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September 2005 is apparently Bob Dylan month, a month-long multi-media celebration of all things Bob circa 1960-65. There's the paperback release of Chronicles: Volume One, Dylan's unexpectedly readable b ut enigmatic authobiography; No Direction Home, a powerhouse two-part documentary covering his pivotal early sixties work directed by Martin Scorsese that will air on PBS later in the month and its concurrent release on DVD; the accompanying soundtrack (which we're reviewing here); The Bob Dylan Scrapbook,a giant slab of a coffee table book full of, well, scraps, plus a bonus CD featuring interviews and performances from a 1963 concert. Not to be outdone, both MOJO and Uncut, two British music mags, have accompanying CDs of Dylan covers in their September issues and even Starbucks has jumped on the bandwagon, offering Live at the Gaslight: 1962, an exclusive CD of an early concert appearance.

But what about the album? Not content to feature not only cuts from the documentary itself, but also many goodies not included in the film, providing a sort of shadow audio history. It's a mother lode of treasures for the dedicated Zimmiographer (or anyone else who gives a damn about music), ranging from recorded-in-a-bedroom rarities ("Rambler, Gambler," "I Was Young When I Left Home"), early live recordings (Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land") and plenty of in concert and alternate takes of some of his greatest songs, including a sneering, pissed-off stomp through "Ballad of a Thin Man" recorded before a hostile Scottish crowd displeased by Dylan's then-recent conversion to rock'n'roll, and the infamous "Judas" version of "Like a Rolling Stone" that never fails to thrill in its utter ferociousness. Like Bobby says, "Play it fucking loud."

Live at the Gaslight: 1962
Bob Dylan
Hear Music, September 2005
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The caffeine dispensers at Starbucks take their Hear Music sideline to a whole new level with this exclusive, never-before-released live recording that captures Dylan before the deluge. Rough ("A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" is joined in progress) and the set closer is disappointingly lopped off, earnest (Dylan sounds alternatively boyish and ancient), and featuring mostly traditional folk songs and a smattering of early works-in-progress ("Don't Think Twice, It's Alright", for example, has slightly different lyrics) this is not just a surprisingly listenable set, but an important and engaging portait of the artist as a young gun.

And the punch line, of course, is that Dylan's still very much with us, still out there on the road somewhere, headin' for another joint, and still blessing us with great music. And still refusing to be boxed in.

Petra Haden Sings The Who Sell Out
Petra Haden
Bar None, February 2005
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Is this chick nuts or what? While there are many fans who would rank The Who's 1967 tongue-in-cheek tribute to commercial radio and pop music as being one of the all-time great "concept" albums of the sixties (including me, who thinks it makes Sgt. Pepper look like the often-pretentious twaddle it actually is), it takes a real hunk of chutzpah to cover an entire album, as jazz bass great Charlie Haden's daughter Petra does here. But to cover it a cappella, using multi-tracking to sing everything (not just vocals but guitar, bass, horns and even drums plus the commercials and station indentification breaks the Who inserted between songs that really make the album) takes the audacity cake. That she pulls it off, and makes some damn fun and engaging music in the process -- despite the pretensions of the gimmick -- is utterly amazing. She sticks to the original arrangements for the most part -- and why wouldn't she? These are just great pop ditties. And while some songs, notably opener "Armenia, City in the Sky" and "I Can See For Miles," work better than others, it's the ballads that really shine, such as "Sunrise" and particularly "I Can't Reach You."

Great update on the cover art, too. If only most tribute albums were this clever -- or as much fun.

Master of Disaster
John Hiatt
New West Records, June 2005
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Johhny's got his groove back. After the often dull, edgeless kitchen scraps killing-time feel of last year's Beneath This Gruff Exterior, it's good to see Hiatt back in fighting trim, all yelping feistiness and foot-stomping odes to life as most of us know it. Clever rhymes, that great swooping, soul-inflected voice and some mighty fine musicianship (it's produced by the legendary Memphis dial-twitcher Jim Dickinson and his sons Luther and Cody of the North Mississippi Allstars lend a hand on guitar and drums respectively) make this one of Hiatt's most solid collections in a while, less a genre exercise and more just a great grab bag of tunes.

Magic Time
Van Morrison

Geffen Records, May 2005
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In a career of goofy album covers, this one may take the cake, but who cares when the Man is as on top of his game as he is here? Confident and cool, he's the Perry Como of the Celtic jazz/soul/blues continuum, crooning his way through a big-shouldered take on Como's own "I'm Confessin'" and Sinatra's "This Love of Mine," as well as solid originals like "Stranded" and "Celtic New Year." Things perk up a bit with "Keep Mediocrity at Bay," and he bitches again about the recording industry (yawn) on tunes like messianic "They Sold Me Out" and the far more effective closer, "Carry On Regardless", but overall this is laid-back soul at it's best, a mellow sensual groove for lovers of all ages.

Songs of No Consequence
Graham Parker
Bloodshot Records, June 2005
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Parker's still howling at the wind, all cantankerousness, bitterness and bile. with his usual savage wit and literate songcraft, he rails against radio (there's nothing on it), the aging of the baby boomers (did everybody just get old?) and the fatuous media ("Vanity Press"). Thanks to feisty back-up from New York punkers the Figgs (Parker's version of Crazy Horse), there isn't a dud in the bunch, but Parker's covered this ground before, and nothing really screams out of the speakers -- except, ironically, "Bad Chardonay," a road-weary look back at three decades of war in the rock'n'roll trenches that rips off the Ramones so well you don't give a damn. The lion roars, but he needs some new flesh to sink his teeth into.

Fair and Square
John Prine
Oh Boy Records, April 2005
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Don't mistake Prine's weathered, "Aw shucks" comfy slippers persona as meaning he hasn't got anything to say. In fact, this may be one of his must sharp and incisive albums ever. And it won't hurt a bit.

Around the Sun
Warner Bros, October 2004
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This quietly passionate album of yearning, both political and personal, is as open-hearted as a Wichita Lineman, recalling nothing in its epic musical reach so much as Jimmy Webb at his peak. Except that, gee, could they toss in a few more hooks? It all sounds good, but save for a few tunes, I don't exactly go away humming...

Seconds of Pleasure
Expanded version with extra tracks, Sony, April 2004
Original release 1980
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Alas, there were no seconds for this party on a platter. Caught just before they imploded under the weight of all that talent and ego, this was Rockpile's only "official" release (they had all played on members Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe's "solo" albums for years). But whereas the equally beer-drenched working relationship of Rod Stewart and the Faces just wanted to give you nods and winks, Rockpile just wanted to party like it was 1959. A savvy mix of sly toe-tapping originals ("Heart," "Teacher, Teacher") and tasty retro covers (Joe Tex's "If Sugar Was As Sweet") this re-release is augmented by four unplugged reworkings of Everly Bros. songs and three live cuts. They call it rock.

Devils and Dust
Bruce Springsteen
Columbia Records, April 2005
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Another low-key masterpiece, a moan of despair over muted guitar strums. Not as good as Nebraska, but more cohesive than The Ghost of Tom Joad. He may have pulled for Kerry, but he's singing for every soldier everywhere who's ever lost his faith in the title track. elsewhere he chronicles straying husbands, estranged fathers and sons and other people out on the run tonight with nowhere left to hide.

Yer Favourites
The Tragically Hip
Universal Music Canada, November 2005
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This fan-picked best-of collects 35 of the perennial Canadian road warriors' best-loved tunes, ranging from gentle acoustic ballads to burning roadhouse blues and crunching arena rockers. Passionate, literate and always enigmatic, it's amazing how solid these songs remain, standing alone and divorced from their album settings -- and many simply shine in their new settings, particularly such over-looked gems as "Firework" and "Gus the Polar Bear." Sure, many of the references may slip by non-Canucks, but you don't have to be Canadian to love these guys -- their passion and musicianship transcends all boundaries. Includes two new ones, "No Threat" and "The New Maybe."

Hot Rods and Custom Classics
Various Artists
Rhino Records Boxed Set, 1999
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Could it get any better? For geeky hot rod freaks like myself who misspent way too much of their early adolesence building plastic model cars (and inadvertently inhaling way too much glue) the way-cool packaging on this 4-CD set is a sucker punch to the solar plexus of nostalgia. Full of automotive-themed classics, obscurities (Honey Boy Allen? Arlen Sanders?) and curios (car ads, drag race announcements, a driving safety PSA from James Dean), this is about as pedal-to-the-medal rock'n'roll as it gets, from shoe-ins like Berry's "Maybellene" and the Beach Boys "Little Deuce Coupe" to rediscovered treasures like Dave Lindley's screaming cover of Steve Miller's "Mercury Blues" and Robert Mitchum's "Thunder Road" to holy-cow-how'd-I-miss-that? surpises like Ronnie Dee's yelping "Action Packed" and the Green Hornets' "Stolen Car," this set burns rubber in all four gears. Comes with a "big, bad book," decals and -- I kid you not -- a pair of fuzzy dice. Get motorvating!

Check it out... My only gripe? The songs that, no doubt due to licensing issues or space limitations, they didn't include. What am I talkin' about?

Walk the Line: The Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
Various Artists
Wind-Up Records, November 2005
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This is why you have to keep your eyes wide open all the time. With the roughly four gazillion compilations and reissues of Johnny Cash material currently available in the wake of Johnny Cash's death and subsequent canonization (no doubt largely thanks to the popularity of the air-brushed biopic), there's absolutely no reason or excuse to buy this turd. This isn't a covers album -- it's an impersonation album, and while the songs remain great, the impersonation sucks. Sure, Joaquin and Reese may have charmed as John and June in the film, but divorced from the visuals and cinematic suspension of disbelief, the schtick soon falls almost as flat as their voices. Gullible trendoids who wouldn't give Cash the time of day just a few years ago will lap it up and proclaim this a great album. It isn't -- and anyone who would fork over good money for this pale second-hand photocopy instead of investing in the real deal deserves to be horsewhipped -- or maybe shot, just so we can watch 'em die. Still, it will probably become a huger seller. Like the man says, "Cry, cry, cry."


Artists and recording companies wishing to send me review and promotional materials should address all correspondance and material to:

Kevin Burton Smith
The Thrilling Detective Web Site
3053 Rancho Vista Blvd., Apt. 116,
Palmdale, California

It might not be a bad idea to query me first though.