Music Review: Red Velvet Car – Heart

Hi again…

Nothing beats live music. Hands down, the live experience trumps any audio or video recording I’ve ever seen of an artist performing. That said, the next best thing is a concert recording, preferably video so you can see the actual performance instead of simply listening to it.

I have never seen Heart live other than the occasional performance I’ve seen on television. It’s on my list of things to do. But their album Red Velvet Car is probably more intimate than I could possibly be, even if I was sitting in the front row. From beginning to end, I felt with each track like it was recorded in my living room. It might have been a LOUD living room at times where the windows rattled, but you know what I mean…

The sisters Ann and Nancy Wilson have been queens of rock and roll since Dreamboat Annie hit radio waves in 1975, but Red Velvet Car is their first release in six years. This album manages to not only capture the classic Heart sound – from the style of “Barracuda” to that of “Dog and Butterfly” – while adding the new dimension that only age and experience can provide. From the duo’s voices that sound as good as 35 years ago to the guitars, songwriting, and harmonies that only they can create, it’s damn good to hear them rocking out again with some new tunes.

And with ten new tracks, we got a lot of new music to enjoy. I don’t know whether it’s the quieter tunes like “Hey You” and “Sand” or the rocking tunes like “There You Go,” “Wheels,” and “Death Valley” that echo in my mind long after listening… But whether you enjoy the fierce energy of electric guitars or the solace of getting lost in acoustic guitars and voices emotionally telling what can only be personal tales, there’s something for anybody who enjoys good music on this album.

The opening track – “There You Go” – tells a cautionary tale about losing control and being burned. With guitar melodies and rhythms sounding barely under control, you feel like the train is rushing forward only to crash in a ball of flame… “There you go again / Walking straight into the freezing flame / There you go again / There you go in the media insane…” The band is telling some poor innocent soul to be wary of the whirlwind of fame, to watch out for herself.

“Wheels” is another song that just drives along like a freight train in the dark… Again, the guitars and bass lines simply pound the song forward to some unknown destination. As they sing “Just close your eyes now / And breath a sigh now / Out of here” – like some great escape on the rails or open road. It’s impossible not to tap your toes as it drives on. (Note to self – don’t listen to this song while in the car with a known speed trap… )

But it’s “Sand” that sticks with me the longest. The last song on the album, it’s a story of endings or loss. The acoustic guitars set the stage and Ann’s expressive voice felt like I was listening to a song played at a funeral. Something private shared with a crowd to let them know whomever it was that left them is still with them, like sand in the wind. “I asked a distant star / I wonder where you are / the shadow at my door / the friend who is no more…” I couldn’t help but think of a friend I’d lost years ago… “Surely this sweet sand will run out by and by / and while the days come down to you / you are just a traveler passing through…”

It’s the intimacy that just floors me each time I listen to the album. I truly felt as though I had somehow slipped into a jam session as a fly on the wall… soaking up the music and the tales.

Red Velvet Car will be released on August 31, 2010 and I would encourage anyone who’s heard Heart in the past to pick up a copy. It’s another great album from Anne, Nancy, and the band to listen to over and over again.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Heart albums below!

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Music Review: The Book of Aylene – Goodbye Picasso

Hi again…

When a passionate, talented artist finds another and things click, it’s kismet. That good fortune over the last three years has led songwriter Chris Dreyer and guitarist Scott Taylor to create some amazing music as the band Goodbye Picasso in New York City a few years ago. The band’s first album is The Book of Aylene (TBoE), which releases August 24, 2010.

TBoE tells the story about a musician who gets the girl, gets a great gig, and starts the downward spiral of drugs, relationships, and finally – losing the gig. Thankfully I was told this isn’t autobiographical in nature, which is awesome. In an age of overly engineered albums, it’s nice to find a concept album that is simply that… a concept seen through the arc of a series of tracks.

I’m positive there are many influences on the record, but as I listened I was reminded of groups from the 1970s, like Van Morrison and Simon & Garfunkle. The country influences aren’t far behind either, especially in the last song – “The Devil, The Bottle, and Me.” The hand of a storyteller was hard at work throughout the album, with a simplicity and honesty in words and melody providing a deep landscape upon which to layer some sweet instrumentals.

Though I love the faster, more upbeat or bluesy tunes on the album more than the ballads, the mixture meant styles changed across the album to reflect the tone of particular songs through the story arc. Everything from a rockin’ blues tune to acoustic strings and almost a wild west sounding piano can be heard as the tales progress and he falls further down the rabbit hole…

My favorite song on the entire album is the nearly drunken blues song “I Don’t Want Nothin'” with some riffs between saxophones and lead electric guitar that just sell the lyrics that much more. The musician is losing his girl, and he knows it. “Don’t call me superstitious when I catch you watching her / With your dirty little secrets of the places that you were / And you can play it cool / Or act the fool / It all looks well rehearsed / You’ve been talking me in circles, as if somehow I’ve not heard…”

But songs like “Lick the Thumb, Turn the Page” really define the struggling artist’s goal to find a way to be discovered playing gigs in some small town. “My drummer’s friend’s in A&R / He seems to think we could go far / It’s much harder than it sounds / Being no one in this town…” Playing to and for people through those initial years, “All these evenings that I’ve spent / with all these people I’ll forget…” The virtual blur of names, faces, places, and gigs has to wear on a musician’s soul.

[amazon-product align=”right”]B003V5C6SA[/amazon-product]And “The Song That Says Goodbye” tells the story when the musician really figures out that he’s losing it as things start falling apart. This is a ballad, almost. But it sounds more like he’s making excuses for himself until the end of the song, when he realizes he’s slipped too far and maybe his girl should keep her distance… “I kept on accusing everyone else / For these consistent bruises I gave myself / Is it real when you realize no wealth? / And you were best off losing with someone else…”

I could go on all day writing about these songs and the words therein. The tales embedded capture the manic cycle and downfall of a musician losing his battle with fame and fortune. When you add the beautiful musical compositions and soulful vocals, TBoE reaches a whole new level of introspection and sorrow as the musician hits rock bottom.

If you are looking for something new – something truly artistic and enjoyable from a group we should all get to know better – be sure to check out Goodbye Picaso’s The Book of Aylene when it’s released on August 24, 2010. It’s going to be a hard album to follow up after the invevitable national and world tours that will follow. I only hope that the band doesn’t read their own lyrics and start down this path of self destruction!

For more information about the band, their touring schedule, and lyrics for The Book of Aylene, be sure to check out GoodbyePicasso.com.

This article first appeared at BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

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Music Review: Safe Upon the Shore – Great Big Sea

Hi again!

Sometimes I get clubbed on the side of the head when I least expect it. Though I’d heard of Great Big Sea when I reviewed Séan McCann’s Lullabies for Bloodshot Eyes a few months ago, I really didn’t know much about this band from Newfoundland, Canada. I listened to Fortune’s Favour and it was good, but didn’t wow me. But when I heard Safe Upon the Shore it was definitely a wake-up call.

This is the 10th album from Great Big Sea, a band that’s been together for 17 years. Safe Upon the Shore was recorded over the space of six months in New Orleans, St. John’s in Newfoundland, and anywhere inspiration happened to strike – including buses and dressing rooms while on tour. Evidently a good portion of the album was recorded on band member (and one of the founders) Alan Doyle’s laptop, which provided a mobile recording studio just about anywhere they happened to be.

Doyle, Bob Hallett, and McCann were the driving songwriters on the album, but it also included some co-writers you might not expect – like Russell Crowe and Canadian singer-songwriters Randy Bachman, Jeremy Fisher, and Joel Plaskett. With the New Orleans vibe and additional influx of influences, the group managed to push their usual sound to something I found to be truly inspired.

With a mix of styles, from folk and Bluegrass to rock I’d be happy to hear in any pub, this group of five musicians – Doyle, Hallett, McCann, Murray Foster and Kris MacFarlane – provides a full bodied sound that uses damn near everything that isn’t nailed down… Guitars, bouzouki, mandolin, banjo, piano, accordion, concertina, whistle, harmonica, fiddle, pipes, bodhran, drums, keyboards, and lord knows what else. If it has strings or keys, I bet these folks can probably pick it up.

But on this album it was the mix of deeper, haunting tracks with those imbued by humor that really caught my attention. For me, albums are made or broken by the way they’re constructed. The “landscape” of music that allows a comfortable mix from highs to lows and everything in between. Safe Upon the Shore provides a landscape as rich as the pictures of Newfoundland I’ve seen… from shores to hills, ice to sky.

The other thing you’ll immediately notice if you listen to the lyrics is the sadness buried in the cheerful melodies. It’s that irony that works for songs like “Good People” touting the fact that we’ll always have good people even when things are at their worst… “We’re running out of trees and we’re running out of space, but we’ll never run out of Good People…” And in “Over the Hills” they describe the life of a soldier – “Safe at home we’d rather stay / watch our children grow and play / we owe the Crown so now we’ll pay – over the hills and far away.” But it’s duty that leads good and men away from their families when their leaders call.

There’s too much on the album I absolutely loved, so I’ll just focus on a few tracks.

“Yankee Sailor” manages to be both cheery and sad describing a love that’s not to be with a beautiful acoustic guitar driving the tune. “We were poor / but I was satisfied / and I thought that you were too / You were pure / and I was terrified / I wasn’t good enough for you…” And when that lass met the Yankee Sailor that led her across the waves he knew he’d lost her. “America is beautiful / and I sure hope you’re right / if I could see you across the water / I’d say America is beautiful tonight…” The whistle in the background, with some amazingly simple but gorgeous harmonies adds emotional depth to this story of love lost.

In “Hit the Ground and Run” we hear the story of a shotgun wedding with some amazing Bluegrass… “You better lock the church door tight ’cause at the slightest crack of light that boy is gonna run…” This song hits the ground running and doesn’t let up to the end with it’s driving banjo riffs and hilarious story sung with humor.

It was “Safe Upon the Shore” that really drove this album home for me. A haunting ballad sung a cappella, the tale unfolds of a woman waiting for her “darling sailor boy” to come home. The lyrics alone are heartbreaking, but the slow reveal and Séan McCann’s emotion-laden voice that really drove this track home. “Now fisherman they cast their nets like miners pan for gold / and sailors push off from the docks and pray the gales will hold / the sea just sits silently / but sometimes she does more / and someone weeps as her love sleeps safe upon the shore…” It reminded me of the poetry of Gordon Lightfoot‘s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” which has haunted my musical memory for 30 years.

But in “Road to Ruin” with its “You can take the sunshine / I can take the moonshine / You can take the high road / I can take the low / though later in the evening / the one thing I believe in / I’m on the road to ruin / it’s the only way to go” I found my wife and I described… Again, the humor of accepting the lives we lead and relationships we keep manages to merge amazingly cheerful music and ironic lyrics into a tune that made even me want to dance.

Where Fortune’s Favour didn’t really capture my soul, Safe Upon the Shore managed to do that quickly and never let me go. I’ll be listening to this album for quite a while and shouting far and wide that I too am on the “Road to Ruin” and happy to be there!

Be sure to check out Safe Upon the Shore when it’s released on July 13, 2010. For more information about the band, check out GreatBigSea.com.

This article first appeared on BlogCritics.org here.

–Fitz

p.s. Pick up this and other great Great Big Sea albums below!

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