Wildcard (Americana North)
Ridley Bent tells great stories, always has, but his first album, Blam, was a genre-bending mash-up of backbeats and dusty tales that left him with the ponderous "hick-hop" tag, even if Buckles and Boots and the almost-too-slick Rabbit on My Wheel saw Bent lean hard to plow a straightforward country furrow.
Wildcard, though, should squarely establish Ridley as a straight-up, rootsy singer/songwriter, as his lyrical pictures and, most importantly, his sing/speak vocals, find themselves the right musical settings on all nine songs (the CD contains a bonus, three-track EP called Blood Trilogy).
Wildcard antes up strong, with a twanger of a tale about a card-playing truck driver (who name checks Winnipeg) called Fill Yer Boots, and it continues through the rockin' vibe of Brooklyn Texas, the honky tonk of Big Black Hole and a surprising, rearranged reading of Tom Petty's You Got Lucky. The plaintive tones of High Lonesome and Roll it in the Barn are also fun, but the standout cut is definitely Good Ol' Cowboy Angel Band, which involves a heavenly choir of cowpokes and the afterlife reunion of a father and son.
Locals can hear all this material live this weekend, as Bent launches the album with a release party at the Park Theatre on April 5. 3-1/2 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Good Ol' Cowboy Angel Band, You Got Lucky, Roll it in the Barn
-- John Kendle
Turning Rocks (Secret City)
With its third album, Turning Rocks, Montreal-based Thus: Owls has created one of the most fascinating, challenging and wildly diverse albums in recent memory. On the elegiac opening track, As Long as We Try a Little, singer Erika Angell, with her ethereal Kate Bush-like vocals, sets the alluring tone for the balance of the album. The Swede commands attention and she does it in a way that is based less on cooing pretense than it is on skilful manoeuvring of her operatic vocal tone and colour.
It would be simple to label Turning Rocks as purely modern psychedelic chamber-pop, but the songs are so reliably thick with promise that you just cannot stop listening to the album. The band provides both light and dark shadings that balance crackling intensity with explosive emotion. Smoke Like Birds tiers tracks of Angell's vocals into each other, creating a swoony, hypnotic filigree of sound, layered on a lush underlay of music.
Syd Barrett meets the Cowboy Junkies? That's not far off. Five stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Ropes
-- Jeff Monk
Life Journey (Universal)
With Life Journey, musical elder statesman Leon Russell has proven that his 2010 return to popular consciousness, thanks to the album Union with Elton John, was no fluke. Most importantly, though, this 12-tracker is filled with cover versions of songs that Russell can easily wrap his gravelly pipes around, but it is no nostalgia trip.
The album opens strongly with the Robert Johnson classic Come On In My Kitchen, which drives in a direct musical road straight back to Russell's tight connection to '70s icons Joe Cocker, Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett and many others. Leon's thundering piano style figures prominently on the blues and gospels tracks; the creamy backing of the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra on a quartet of nuanced songs only adds to the colourful palette Russell still delivers.
Album closer Down in Dixieland is a swinging second line New Orleans funk workout that gives hope for lots more of the same from Russell going forward. Hopefully this particular journey isn't anywhere near through just yet. Four stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Big Lips
-- Jeff Monk
Miss Quincy and the Showdown
Roadside Recovery (Independent)
Miss Quincy is Jody Peck, a talented songwriter, guitarist and powerful wailer based in Vancouver. The Showdown is powerhouse drummer Joy Mullen and upright bassist Shari Rae.
Drenched in cheap whiskey, the sweat of many nights on stage and the dirt of 100,000 kilometres of road in seven countries, Miss Quincy and the Showdown is a force of nature when it comes to their superlative blend of tribal blues (Mad Love) and old-school rock 'n' roll heartbreak (Talkin' Trash). Water Tower bleeds desperation. On Making Money, the rhythm section handily propels a seductively wicked tale of life on the road that oozes sensuality, making it the ultimate example of aural sex, and then follows it with Take it to the Well, a gorgeous soul- and gospel-influenced track tempered with just the right amount of organ, reverb, echo and lonesome lead guitar.
With the aid of producer Matt Rogers (The Harpoonist and the Axe Murderer) Miss Quincy and the Showdown have created an endearing roots/blues collection that should easily endure the test of time. Four stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Making Money
-- Bruce Leperre
Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life (Rhino)
One of the greatest heavy metal vocalists ever, the late Ronnie James Dio left an indelible mark on the genre through his work with Rainbow, Black Sabbath and his solo career. The tribute album Ronnie James Dio: This Is Your Life brings some of the biggest names in metal to honour Dio, who died in 2010 of stomach cancer. Proceeds from the album go to the Ronnie James Dio Stand Up And Shout Cancer Fund.
Tops here is an epic nine-minute medley by Metallica that starts and ends with A Light In The Black and weaves in Tarot Woman, Stargazer and the frenetic concert opener Kill The King, probably Dio's best Rainbow song. Adrenaline Mob's cover of The Mob Rules sounds so much like Dio it's scary and Anthrax adds a molten version of Neon Knights.
Germany is well represented, with the Scorpions covering The Temple of the King and Doro adding Egypt.
A big disappointment is Judas Priest singer Rob Halford fronting a Dio solo band lineup on a low-octave version of Man on the Silver Mountain, where you keep waiting for vocal bombast that never happens. And was there really no one better than comedian Jack Black to cover the classic Last In Line? 3-1/2 stars
DOWNLOAD THIS: Ronnie Rising Medley (Metallica)
-- Wayne Parry, The Associated Press