Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Review -- DR. RAGE and The UPPERCUTS -- Hittin' Wood and Diamond Hard

Dr. Rage and The Uppercuts
Absurd Machine Records
This is one of those CDs that completely threw me a wicked curveball.
When the CD first crossed my desk I took note of the bloody hand playing guitar on its cover, noted the name Dr. Rage and penciled it in as a likely foray into the world of metal.
When I finally cracked the cellophane a few days later and threw it on the player the lead cut Backbiters and Syndicators had a definite metal-influenced feel, and I thought 'OK here we go!'
However, Dr. Rage quickly changed gears, or at least geared it down a notch, as the CD continued moving from thoughts of metal, to what is best terms drivin' rock blues, in the same vein as that played by Big Poppa Chubby.
You start to hear the transition on Hey Yeah, the CD's second cut, and by the time the Doctor is into Cry Baby Cry and Hey Lil' Sister, your bluesin' big time.
There are several great cuts here, although I particularly like when Dr. Rage slows it down with the bluesiest cut of all; Ride On Thru, a feel he follows up nicely with September.
Of course the strength of this CD comes from the rockin' beat, and that comes through on numbers such as the aforementioned Cry Baby Cry, Hittin' Wood, Revolutions and Titus.
The CD is powered by songs penned by Dr. Rage and the band, which includes Les Dzialik on bass, Colin Musulak on drums and Chris Parkes on rhythm guitar, with Dr. Rage taking the lead guitar and vocals spot.
Just to add some heritage to the mix the Doctor does mix in a killer rendition of Sonny Boy, Williamson's Good Mornin' Lil' Schoolgirl, and a nice version of I Just wanna Make Love To You by Willie Dixon.
Out of Winnipeg, Dr. Rage really pulls of the rock and blues genre well, and I can only imagine live this guy would burn down a bar room stage. Check him out at www.drrage.com

-- Review first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 18, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- MIGHTY SQUIRREL -- Self-titled

OK, if you're a band that sits somewhere in the world of folk Americana and bluegrass and you're looking for a name, Mighty Squirrel would rate right up there as a great pick. It has that sort of down-home feel, which in this case is certainly reflected in this band's music provided that your home is a place where bluegrass tickles your musical fancy.
Mighty Squirrel is most recognizable for the absolutely alluring voice of female lead singer Caridwen Irvine-Spatz. She has a voice which is reminiscent of fine Celtic female singers such as Lorena McKennitt, and shows that Celtic and folk music are really two sides of a single coin, basically separated by an ocean but with similar roots. Irvine-Spatz's voice carries songs such as The Grinding Grain, Belle Hironndelle, Seneca Square Dance and Lady Franklin's Dream and makes them truly memorable efforts here.
As a band Mighty Squirrel does a nice job of offering up variety on the CD thanks to fine musicianship on cuts such as Gas Nigun, and the Squirrel Hunters. The group, which includes Irvine-Spatz on fiddle, Greg Spatz on mandolin, along with David Keenan and Ivan Rosenberg can play.
Just as a mix for the CD's sound Keenan also takes the lead vocal duties on We Will Have Our Day and while not as fine a voice as his female counterpart, it is a change of pace that breaks the sound just enough that it works.
This CD is a nice slice of Celtic-Americana folk, and is a relaxing listen. Very nicely done. Check them out at www.mightysquirrel.net

- Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 25, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- SUPER STACK -- Self-titled

7 (8)-out-of-10
To start with, I should explain Super Stack is not the newest breakfast dish at a local restaurant.
Nor, is Super Stack the latest bale hauler from one of the farm machinery companies.
Instead, Super Stack is a straight ahead Canadian rock band out of Ontario, and this CD is their first effort, and it's a good one.
People in Yorkton who appreciate live music, and good rock 'n roll should have been at Rayzr's Pub in the Yorkton Hotel this weekend since Super Stack played a two-night gig here. Some bands are best in a studio, and some best seen live, and Super Stack falls into the second category. Their live sets were definitely in the groove at Rayzr's and my opinion of the band climbed after enjoying them live Friday. That is why the double score. They gain a point on the live show over the CD alone.
Scott Donnelly has a memorable voice, one that in spite of straight ahead rock music, the band allowed to shine through clearly. He is also a killer on guitar with a number of really solid solos live.
Drummer Brian Lahaie was also fun to watch, with bassist Greg Mihajic.
Onto the CD, well these guys offer up 12 cuts of original material, although again they have a broader original repertoire live. They play straight ahead rock, although you get a bluesy feel underlying several cuts, which probably tells you were they will migrate as musicians as they mature. A lot of rockers go blues in later life.
I must say I prefer when Super Stack slows it down a gear. I really think Road Tales & The Love Lost and Fingers and Thumbs are two of the best songs offered on their debut CD. True Love and the Pie Lady follow the top two closely.
The lead cut Here I Am, Kick It On Down and High Again are the best of the more up-temp efforts.
These guys are on an extended tour across Canada and into the United States. Their live shows will win them a lot of fans, and they could well break bigger than they currently are, so you might want to get in on the ground floor and pick this one up. Check them out at www.superstackmusic.com

- Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 25 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review - ENTER The HAGGIS -- Live In Northampton

Enter The Haggis
Oh Wow! Can these guys play Celtic music.
I suppose with a name like Enter The Haggis they'd better be able to play the music of tin whistle, bagpipes and fiddles, but these guys do it damn well.
This is a live album, and I can tell you from the outset you'll wish you had been part of the audience.
The band hits the stage running with One Last Drink and No More Stones, both great original songs, then shift gears with a set of traditional Canadian fiddle music, that lets you know these guys have roots in the traditions of Celtic music.
On Another Round though Enter The Haggis shows some of the band's real strength, the willingness to expand the boundaries of the tradition of Celtic music. There are segments here that have a sort of Middle Eastern flare, mixed smoothly into a still clearly Celtic number, although this one has something of a new country feel too. Yes they throw a few styles into the blender and hit frappes.
Then we hit Cynical. Local music fans will by now be familiar with Volcanoless In Canada, and quite frankly this song would fit in one of their sets quite easily. It would even fit with Mitch Lysak's vocal style.
Of course true Celtic music often has a political message too, especially some of the older traditional ballads. Enter The Haggis doesn't shy away from that side of the genre either, with Marti's Last Stand clearly a statement on the stupidity of war. One of the songs here with the truest Celtic style of old, it's a great song, with some sweet tin whistle work to boot.
That's only the first six songs on the 12-song CD, and as you might already notice, I'm pretty high on this CD, well that and the fact I rated it a 9.5, which is the stratosphere in terms of scores for me. Well you're right. These guys really never miss a beat throughout.
They have a fine understanding of Celtic traditions, but are also wise enough to modernize the sound for the current era. This is the kind of CD that will make the most traditional Celtic listener push their boundaries, but will also open the genre to a new and younger generation. Lancaster Gate starts off as very traditional, then suddenly switches to a more pop sound, and it does so flawlessly.
Based in Toronto we aren't likely to see these guys locally, but you sure won't go wrong picking up this CD. Check them out at /www.enterthehaggis.com

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 18, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review - DEBRA LYN NEUFELD -- Bootleg

Debra Lyn Neufeld
String Breakin Records
Every once in a while, especially in the genre of the blues, you find a voice which doesn't quite match the material. I would put Debra Lyn Neufeld in that category.
Neufeld has a nice, husky voice, and frankly it should be bang on for blues. This gal's voice has the feel of the blues imprinted in every note.
However, this CD isn't as satisfying as it should be given Neufeld's voice. Lyrically, this CD, which has a somewhat Cajun blues feel, especially apparent on a cut such as Bone Appetite, doesn't generally grab me as a listener.
I've always thought blues lyrics were at least as important to the music, as the voice and the musicianship, truly a one-third, one-third-one-third partnership. Now to Neufeld's credit she has penned all 11 songs on the CD, although in this case I'd like to hear her on a couple of well-chosen covers to see if the result is better.
There are songs here which work well, such as Love Junkie, Sugar In Me, and Save This Heart, but generally they miss the bull's eye a bit for me. Sweet Della Jones too may be as good as it gets for Neufeld.
Neufeld, who hails from Winnipeg, tries hard to get into the Voodoo, Bayou blues vein, and on occasion she catches the 'gator by the tail, Like Save This Heart, but on a few too many cuts the 'gator gets away.
I do like the harmonica work of Gord Kidder on a number of cuts, in particular Sweet Pie Fruit (Deep Dish), a song where Neufeld most completely captures the old south blues feel.
Now I do imagine in person Neufeld would still be awesome, since over the course of a full range of sets she's likely to mix in some gravely covers and that could well be the difference in smoothing out the overall feel. I feel even this CD would have scored higher with two, or three self-penned cuts replaced with cuts selected which fit this gal's really appealing voice.
This gal is still worth checking out http://www.debralynneufeld.com/ and maybe one day she'll play a gig here and we can see this gal in person. I've got a feeling she would put on a good show with her guitar and a voice that you really do want to love.

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 18, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review - JESSICA ROBINSON - Hummingbird

Jessica Robinson
Hummingbird has been flitting around now for awhile for Jessica Robinson, and so I'd usually pass on reviewing it, but hey this gal has a tie locally so I have to give her a plug. Besides it's sort of timely to review Robinson's work, considering her career took a major step in her career capturing the GX94 Star Search in 2001, and it was only 10-days ago Jessica Moskaluke was crowned the 17th Star Search winner (see July 11 edition of YTW for details).
Quite frankly when I listen to Hummingbird I am surprised Robinson's career hasn't blossomed more than it has. This girl can flat out sing, and is certainly as good as many female vocalists getting a Nashville push these days. It does make you wonder what the difference between a big record push, and scratching out a career back home on the Canadian Prairies is?
However, that's a philosophical question which could spur a week's worth of speculation, so back to Robinson.
Robinson has her finger in penning almost every cut on the 11-song offering, many in combination with Steve Fox. Fox must like working with GX winners since he has been busy penning songs with another former champion; Samara Yung for her upcoming full length CD. (Keep reading YTW will be following that project as it develops).
Between Robinson and Fox they've come up with a great selection of material.
This lady starts strong with the title cut, and she never stumbles the rest of the way. I am impressed with the slower tempo Leader of the Band, an anthem for every school band leader who has ever held a baton (I bet it brings a tear to Larry Pearen's eye). This was written by Dan Fogelberg.
Other songs that rise above an overall solid group are I'll Save My Prayers (For Bigger Things), There It Is, There's Something About Planes and Bridges Behind Me.
Little Dirt Road is an upbeat, fun song that works as a change of pace too.
Robinson impresses here. It will be interesting to see how she steps forward from this since she has really found a groove with Hummingbird. This girl deserves to be heard by every country fan. A true winner. Check her out at www.jessicarobinson.net

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 18, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review - KAT DANSER - Somethin Familiar

Kat Danser
Wow! I never realized Stockholm, SK. was bayou country.
But, after listening to Kat Danser, a blues performer out of Edmonton, who was born in the Stockholm area I'm starting to think it's time to do some 'gator hunting in the area.
OK, so it's not bayou, just good old Saskatchewan parkland, but something sure put bayou-laden blues blood in this lady. On Somethin Familiar, Danser's second full-length recording effort, you hear a style could more easily have come out of a Louisiana swamp, rather than a small Prairie town.
Danser has a smoky, husky voice which she puts together on a CD packed with slow-paced, country influenced blues. A perfect example of the style is Yesterday's Blues, a laid back, soulful blues song.
While the style and voice Danser offers up may seem out of place, it still catches and holds you, as long as you are comfortable with the slow, lamenting blues. I love the explanation of her style on her website; “
She is one part backwoods juke joint, one part plow puller and two parts dusty ol’ canvas tent revival.”
To Danser's credit, she appears keenly aware of what fits her husky voice, and she has written a CD full of material that meshes perfectly with her voice. She lets the gravel in her voice work for her, with growly numbers that work perfectly. On the odd occasion she takes the music out of bull low, ramping it up to a second gear, like on the cut Keep On Movin' the results are the weakest on the CD. That isn't to say they are bad, but they don't attain the level of the slower cuts.
Meanwhile, Danser hits them deep with songs such as Gypsy Man, Bad Seed, Blame It On The Moon and Hangin' By A Thread.
This is ultimately a lady which would no doubt best be appreciated in one of those shadowy, smoke-filled, blues bars made famous by Hollywood, or maybe a concert out in some field among farm workers bent to their task – especially apparent on a cut like Carry Me Home. Both Danser's lyrics and her voice exude soul, to the point you just know this 29-year-old is destined to become one of this country's premier female roots vocalists.
Mark this one a can't miss, must have effort. Check Danser out more at www.katdanser.com

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 11, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review - GO - Don't Stay Broken

What is a more fitting CD to review this week than Go's Don't Stay Broken.
Go, local music fans will remember, was the winning band at the inaugural Battle of the Bands competition held at the Yorkton Exhibition in 2006, a title they had to relinquish with the crowning of a new champion for 2007 Friday (see related story this edition). I was fortunate to have been among the judge's for the event, and when we as a group of judges gathered after the final to discuss which band was most deserving of the win, we kept coming back to Go. It was a very tough competition, with Volcanoless In Canada making its own case for the win, but on that day Go were just on top of their game.
To listen to their CD, I still hear why we gave them the nod. Yes it's only a six-song EP, and I usually avoid reviewing EPs with so many quality full-length efforts around, but since Go had the local win, made the exception.
As far as a six-song effort goes, Go pulled together a pretty solid effort for their first time in the studio (Touchwood Studios in Regina).
There are a number of cuts here which have the 'radio friendly' sound which should ensure some radio play, something every band just breaking into the business so badly needs to take a step toward bigger and better things.
The CD starts off hot with Running For My Life, a song I remember as attention catching when they performed it in the Battle of the Bands competition. The title cut follows and is another strong song, that keeps Go's momentum flowing.
The final cut; The Other Side is also very good.
If one thing is missing here, it might be a change-of-pace ballad where the music is turned down a bit, and the tempo slowed. As it is though this is a definite rockin' first effort.
Go is made up of three brothers, Chad Greziuk on guitar, Jonathon on bass and Nathan on Drums, and is fronted by vocalist by Big O (aka Orren Orest Oshynko). Big O has a great stage personality, with a strong enough voice to help set Go apart from many bands, while the brothers do a solid job musically, and should only get better, especially considering how solid drummer Nathan is already, and he's still too young to have a brew if they play a bar.
This is a band with a lot of upside, and I'm glad to say I played a small role in their current level of recognition as a past judge.
I'd also hope people take an opportunity to support a local area band (they are from Foam Lake) by picking up Don't Stay Broken, it is a solid CD to add to any collection.

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 11, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Review -- JAY SEMKO -- Redberry

Jay Semko
Smoothwater Records
Saskatchewan music fans will be familiar with the name Jay Semko the lead voice for the Northern Pikes, a band which ranks among the best rock bands to come from this province. The Pikes are still wowing fans with occasional performances, including a grandstand performance at this years' Yorkton Exhibition grandstand (see related story this paper).
However, fewer fans may be familiar with Semko's solo career, and that is unfortunate because frankly his solo music beats anything the Pikes put together, at least in my books.
I became an instant fan of Semko's when I reviewed his solo effort Mouse way back in 1995. The CD, which was re-released a decade later in 2005, was a poetic masterpiece with haunting lyrics that still draw me to play it on occasion (I can't say that for many CDs from that long ago).
If you take a look at the calender you will note it has taken Semko a dozen years to release his next solo effort, a wait that is much too long for a fan.
The first spin of Redberry at least assured me the poet within Semko is still alive and well. This guy's music demands the listener's ear, and you easily succumb to the demand. You want to get inside Semko's head and follow the winding, and wonderful words he weaves into folk-inspired songs.
Songs such as Another Day and Come Across the Water are merely fantastic. While Semko has a great voice himself, the two songs have a little extra touch with the inclusion of a female voice. Serena Ryder does a very nice job of complimenting the polish Semko on a number of cuts here.
While those two songs may stand out, other cuts, including; Rob Roy Room, Juliet Is Bleeding are also great songs carried by the poetic lyrics which are Semko's solo trademark. Juliet Is Bleeding is noteworthy two since it is a duet with Andrea Menard, a gal with an incredible voice of her own. She also adds her voice to the song Saskatoon Smile, one of the most Prairie-influenced songs on the CD.
I also appreciate Semko isn't really worrying about radio play, at least mainstream radio, as he pushes almost every cut on Redberry to four-minutes, and beyond. That simply allows him to weave a more intricate picture with his words.
Redberry has a slightly different feel from Mouse, more folkish than the alternative pop sound of the previous effort, but it's equally good.
While it will be fun to turn back the clock to listen to Semko and the Pikes Friday, I really hope we do not wait another dozen years for Semko to release another solo CD. I also hope one day Semko plays here in Yorkton when he can focus on his solo music. That would be a great gig to be front row and centre at.
This one gets my highest recommendation as a CD to search out and savour. You can check it out at http://www.jaysemko.com/

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 4, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- FROM CHIMPAN-A to CHIMPAN-Z -- Designs

From Chimpan-a to Chimpan-z
Well, if a band got points based on its name alone, Chimpan-a to Chimpan-z would get a ton of bonus points, cause the name is quite inventive and catchy.
Take the name out of the picture, the next thing you immediately notice is the voice of Elsa Gebremichael, the female lead of the band. She has a high energy style, yet a vocally clear voice that allows you to hear the words, even with the band belting out some high energy rock behind her.
A blurb on the band's myspace page sums up the rock style this band puts out. “A dynamic center between driving punk, art rock experimentation, and thinking mans pop, the band’s sound is simultaneously thought provoking and infectious.”
Another thing I really like about this effort is the band's willingness to include some wonderful instrumentation mixes to the recording. A cello is incorporated on several cuts including Dead Eyes and Dreamcatcher, both of which also have a viola at work. This is not the type of music where you would generally expect such classical instruments to be used.
The CD also has harp on Love Is A Fire! And Can't Live, Flute on Designs and accordion on Bar Mitzvah.
This is a very entertaining CD from the opening cut Berlin to the end. It is high energy from the get go, just daring the listener to strap in and hang on for the fun ride. A very solid first effort worth a look. Check them out at http://www.chimpana2z.com/

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper July 4, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- JASON PLUMB and The Willing -- Beauty In This World

Jason Plumb and The Willing
Soccer Mom Records
There are always challenges to writing, even something a seemingly straightforward as a music review. In the case of Beauty In This World, it's the challenge of time. The CD arrived on my desk June 18, and since Jason Plumb and The Willing will be performing in Yorkton this Friday (see related story this issue), it was timely to have the review written in a week.
Now that doesn't mean it takes a week to write these few words, I write thousands of words weekly for this newspaper, but seven days does put pressure on the listening process. Like most of us, I like to slowly get into the groove of an album. The thoughts on an album after one listen are usually quite different than what one thinks after several listens. It's nice to spend some time with the music, to see if hooks stay in the mind, if you find yourself wanting to listen to it a week, or three after that first listen.
To be fair to Beauty In This World, I did give it several spins, but when you do it back to back, sort of like hitting the play again button on the old 8-track in the farm truck, it can become just music.
So, what did the rushed process mean in terms of Jason Plumb, best known as the former lead singer of The Waltons, a band that carved out a pretty good run a few years back?
Well, Plumb's latest effort has a definite retro feel too it. This is really like stepping back a decade, or two.
Do you remember Hall and Oates, a rather popular duo in the 1970's and beyond? Of course if you lived through that era you do. Plumb will rekindle those memories with his style here, and even with his voice.
There's also touches here that remind of Air Supply.
Given that feel, it's no surprise one of two songs on the CD not penned by Plumb is Skyhigh, a song which reached #3 on the Billboard charts for the British band Jigsaw in 1975.
The other non-original goes back to 1971, the Bill Withers song Hope She'll Be Happier.
So those comparisons, and his choice of cover songs tell you where Plumb now resides musically.
Personally, this style wasn't my thing in high school, more Meatloaf and The Eagles, but I do find this something of a nostalgic journey.
There are cuts here that are very good. I particularly like Drive, When Nothing Was Wrong (with an intro reminiscent of Billy Joel), and Starlight, Starbright.
Plumb does miss once on Protest Song, a sort of interlude song that he tries for a touch of humour missed into the lyrics, and it comes off as flat and lacking, especially against the backdrop of 10 far better numbers on the album.
Vocally, now there is the strength of this effort. Plumb has a flat out strong melodic voice. He can sing, and the retro-rock influence so evident in his writing, allows him to use his voice to full advantage.
So, if you like '70s music, or simply appreciate a good vocalist, then you should pick up Beauty In This World.
You can check out Plumb in more detail at http://www.jasonplumb.com/

-- - Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper June 27, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada

Review -- JEN LANE -- Self-titled

Jen Lane
This has turned out to be a week of music from Saskatoon.
This time though I move away from country to settle in and listen to a style more in line with the likes of Sarah McLachlan -- interestingly the CD was mastered by Chris Potter who works with McLachlan too. For her part Jen Lane has a sweet, laid back vocal style which is pleasant to listen to.
From the lead in The Real Thing, a powerful song to kick-off the CD, through the 11-cut offering, Lane's voice is wonderfully mellow, creating a sound well-suited to relaxing on a hot summer's afternoon. I particularly like Angie, Long Time Coming, Hold On Strong, and Call On Me.
At times she stretches into sultry stylings too. You hear that on numbers such as Barely Above Me, a number where Lane really gets the listener swaying in time with the song.
While Lane's voice has a relaxing quality, there is another level to her music too, and that is the depth of her lyrics. Like many female performers of this genre and era, the greatest strength lies in the words. While you can relax here, you are soon drawn into Lane's world, listening to the stories the lyrics tell, with her guitar and other instrumentation on the album merely a background tone to the words.
As a writer Lane has a maturity with the pen which one wouldn't expect from someone barely past their teens.
Lane is a poet with a guitar, and a darn fine poet to boot. In many ways her music is in a folk style, simply amped up just enough to be pop, but not enough that the instrumentation takes away from her voice, or the story of the lyrics.
This is a gal who would be an absolute treat in a small, intimate coffee house setting. By the way how is it that a progressive city like Yorkton doesn't have a performance coffee house yet? Then we could stop in, listen to someone like Lane and avoid sitting in our cars in some line-up waiting for a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Ah but I digress. Lane though, is a voice that should have a chance to play locally here too. She is certainly a treat on CD.
Check her out at http://www.jenlane.com/

- Reviews first appeared in Yorkton This Week newspaper June 27, 2007 - Yorkton, SK. Canada