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Reviews of this week's CD releases

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POP / ROCK

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 30/11/2017 (1830 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

POP / ROCK

Skydiggers

Warmth of the Sun (Latent Recordings / Warner Music Canada)

For over a quarter-century, singer/songwriters Andy Maize and Josh Finlayson have been the heartbeat of Toronto’s Skydiggers, ever since the duo took over Andrew Cash’s Monday night Acoustic Meltdown residency (and added his brother, Peter, to their original lineup) at the Spadina. Many musicians have since been Skydiggers over the years but Maize and Finlayson have never faltered. Like others of their vintage, they may have flown below the pop culture radar recently but every couple years they re-emerge to remind us of the purity of their vision of Gram Parsons-inspired roots rock.

Such is the case with Warmth of the Sun, a 12-song album recorded with the most recent version of the band, which includes bassist Derrick Brady, guitarist Aaron Comeau, singer Jessy Bell Smith and drummer Noel Webb. Produced by Cowboy Junkies’ Michael Timmins, the record is a live-off-the-floor delight, full of the hip-shaking vibe the ‘diggers always produce live.

Standout songs include Push Comes to Shove, a slow-burning confession of love that is Maize’s specialty, and Show Me the Night, a loping, country-tinged showcase for Smith’s sweet alto. Skydiggers’ records are often marked by ear-turning covers and there are two on this one — album closer The Air that I Breathe, by The Hollies, and a tender, acoustic version of The Rock, the first of the three songs that were strung together by The Tragically Hip to form what became The Depression Suite on that band’s We Are the Same album. hhh1/2 out of five

Stream these: Push Comes to Shove, The Rock, Show Me the Night

– John Kendle

Bob Dylan

Trouble No More – The Bootleg Series Vol. 13 (1979-1981) (Columbia/Legacy Records)

In a 1979 New West Magazine article about the release of Bob Dylan’s album Slow Train Coming, San Fransisco-born music scribe Greil Marcus called the singer’s new-found advent to Christianity as “southern Californian suburban fundamentalist.” This two-CD set offers 30 tracks culled from His Bobness’ tours promoting all three of his Christian albums — Slow Train Coming, Saved and Shot Of Love. During these shows Dylan did not revisit his back pages in any way and instead delivered passionate messages about faith, forgiveness and following the path backed by a blisteringly hot band that included a handful of compelling female backup singers.

To try and easily package this as “gospel” music is incongruent with the music that was boiling over from the stage. Dylan himself sounds like a man possessed on tracks like the fiery rocker The Groom’s Still Waiting At The Alter and the kinetic blast that is Shot Of Love. Band members Spooner Oldham (keyboards), Jim Keltner (drums) and bassist Tim Drummond were experienced studio players that took the opportunity, night after night under Dylan’s direction, to kick out the proverbial jams on these fresh compositions.

Guitarist Fred Tackett must be singled out for his noteworthy playing on nearly every track. If you love his work with tasty California groovers Little Feat then his aggressive playing here will literally floor you. Some of the tracks are presented more than once to give listeners an idea of the kind of feral alterations Dylan would make in arrangements even over a short period, always challenging himself and his band to keep things interesting. They are all-brilliant, and leave you with the feeling that even though Dylan dumped Christianity shortly after, in retrospect this period was a high water mark in his career. Includes unreleased tracks. hhhhh out of five

Stream these: Gotta Serve Somebody — (Germany, 1981), When You Gonna Wake Up? — (Oslo, 1981), Blessed Is The Name — (Santa Monica, 1979)

— Jeff Monk

ROOTS / COUNTRY

JAZZ

Various Artists

Oscar With Love (Mack Avenue/Two Lions)

Canadian jazz giant Oscar Peterson died almost exactly 10 years ago (Dec. 23, 2007). This tribute release, timed for that anniversary, has loving tributes from a huge list of jazz pianists, each of whom recorded a track on Peterson’s beloved Bösendorfer grand piano. Oscar’s widow, Kelly Peterson, was the driving force behind the project.

The artists include Chick Corea, Robi Botos, Renee Rosnes, Oliver Jones, Monty Alexander, Kenny Barron and Michel Legrand, to name just a few. This release might have a somewhat limited appeal in that there are basically hours of solo piano over three cds — albeit very fine piano. There is occasional accompaniment from long time Peterson colleague and native Winnipegger Dave Young on bass.

The playlist is almost totally comprised of tunes associated with Peterson or composed specifically in his honour for this album. Peterson is perhaps best remembered for his driving, swinging sound with cascades of notes, and in the jazz world his talent was significantly recognized and copied. It is interesting on this release to hear multiple styles all reflecting to some degree a debt to that approach. Without question jazz piano has evolved over the years. This doesn’t diminish the wonderful variety of styles that are represented here from that marvelous earlier period. If you enjoy jazz piano and loved Oscar Peterson, you will luxuriate in this release. It’s obvious that in the recording of it, these artists did. hhhh out of five

Stream these: One For Oscar (Chick Corea), The Smudge (Kenny Barron)

— Keith Black

CLASSICAL

Mara Gibson

SKY-BORN (Navona Records)

American composer Mara Gibson’s second album SKY-BORN with Navona Records is a gripping response to a variety of artistic sources, showing her deft hand and unflinching approach to music-making.

The new release performed by her fellow faculty members at the Kansas City-based UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance features six different works with such evocative titles as Folium Cubed and Spark.

Gibson draws on a palette of extended instrumental techniques in a series of six interspersed preludes in Conundrums, inspired by Jim Condron’s abstract paintings and performed with conviction by pianist Holly Roadfeldt. One Voice, featuring mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen and violist Michael Hall. becomes a haunting, sparsely textured response to Michigan-based Hannah Ensor’s poetry. The CD’s longest work Blackbird performed by the Cascade Quartet is infused with rugged, visceral energy based on Wallace Stevens’ iconic Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird, while title track Sky-Born for vocal ensemble and cellist Esther Seitz features more lyrical, imitative lines juxtaposed with percussive rhythmic cells.

While not wholly for the faint-of-heart, this new album displays a compelling contemporary voice with a restless imagination, able to morph other forms of artistic expression into daring, musical odysseys. hhh1/2 out of five

— Holly Harris

U2

Songs of Experience (Interscope Records)

Like its 2014 predecessor, U2’s Songs of Experience is the product of a difficult and drawn-out recording process.

Much more so than Songs of Innocence, however, U2 has made an exciting, stage-ready album that doesn’t blush or blink in its use of the band’s signature sounds — The Edge’s chiming guitar, Adam Clayton’s trebly, adhesive bass, Larry Mullen Jr.’s sharp and responsive drums and Bono’s heart-on-his-vocal-cords singing.

Songs of Experience was supposed to be completed “soon enough” after Songs of Innocence, but things kept getting in its way.

From the automatic iTunes download fiasco of Innocence, Bono’s debilitating bicycle accident in New York three years ago and another, more recent, yet-to-be-described health scare, plus the changing political landscape and the wildly successful 30th anniversary tour of The Joshua Tree, which is barely over, sometimes the pause button was getting pressed and sometimes it was rewind or rip it up and start again.

As the band’s unavoidable frontman, Bono has worn the ensemble’s colours most brightly — the Christian zeal, the obsession with technology and its excesses, the penchant for big statements, his full immersion in the politics of the moment and his firm commitment to numerous humanitarian and philanthropic causes.

Some of those themes appear on Experience. While the last two albums — the other was 2009’s No Line on the Horizon — had some strong songs and sounds, there was a sense of erratic dispersion, of the whole being less than its components.

The new record is a thrilling listen because U2 sounds fully integrated again, a band with everyone on the same page and, just as importantly, in the same groove.

Swan Lake-like strings launch opener Love Is All We Have Left, as Bono duets with his own electronically modified voice on another of his typically zeitgeist ballads.

Breaking the musical mood, if not the lyrical one, Bono seems to relive his bike crash on Lights of Home as the distorted acoustic guitar and cymbal splashes give way to an emotional solo from The Edge and a gospel-like, gap-in-the-clouds ending with assistance from the group Haim, who also get co-credit for the music.

You’re the Best Thing About Me has more of U2’s DNA of thumping drums and ringing guitars, but the message is ambivalent — you’re magnificent but I’m leaving anyway.

Kendrick Lamar raps on the transition between Get Out of Your Own Way and American Soul, not really integrated in either, and Lady Gaga sings backing on Summer of Love.

Red Flag Day, a counterpart of the anthemic songs on 1983’s War, references the scores of migrants drowning in the Mediterranean Sea and The Showman could be a Bono mini-biopic.

Closer 13 (There Is a Light) pairs up with the opener as album bookends of Bono’s most vulnerable moments.

Nearly every song has a different producer or combination thereof but they all seem to have been peeking at each other’s notes.

The result is the best U2 album since All That You Can’t Leave Behind.

It’s not so much a return to their roots as a modern expedition across their vast reservoir of sounds and themes.

★★★★ out of five

—Pablo Gorondi

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