Easy Keeper (Acronym Records)
It’s been a long five years since Del Barber released Prairieography, a record that refined his folk-rooted story songs by placing them squarely within an electric country framework, full of easy backbeats, keening pedal steel, sweet organ swells and, critically, variations in tempo that enlivened his tunes. The album was Barber’s high-water mark but was rather bizarrely followed by a collection of hockey songs and then... three years of crickets.
It turns out Barber needed some time to himself — time to farm and start a family, time to ponder life’s mysteries and rediscover his musical muse.
Easy Keeper is proof the break was time well-spent, as its 11 tunes bring whole worlds to life in Barber’s succinct, musical short stories. Working with Winnipeg guitarist/producer Grant Siemens, Barber and his band set these songs to beautifully breezy musical accompaniment, from loping country blues to easy two-steps and gently keening folk. Siemens’ expertly understated fretwork, Bill Western’s pedal steel and Geoff Hilhorst’s soaring organ all serve to accentuate the record’s theme of seeking peace in wide-open spaces.
Most of the 11 songs here tell tales of men and women making their way through life’s maze and stopping to ponder how they got where they are and how to make do. The album’s one thematic outlier, Blood On the Sand, a murder ballad set in the Carberry desert, reflects a certain acceptance of fate, but Barber’s outlook is far from pessimistic. In these stories of reflective gas-station attendants (No Easy Way Out), early mid-life crises (Everyday Life) and fleeting contentment (Ronnie and Rose), Barber’s world view is that life is what we make it — an outlook best summed up by a line on the album-closing title track: "It’s wonder that’s the virtue that’ll take you anywhere."
★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Everyday Life; No Easy Way Out; Easy Keeper
— John Kendle
Charlie Parr (Red House Records)
With more than a dozen albums under his belt, Minnesota’s Charlie Parr is re-introducing his music with the self-titled Charlie Parr.
Just over a year ago, the 50-something Parr took a spill off a skateboard, smashing his right shoulder and causing sufficient damage that Parr had to relearn his instruments. He got back on the proverbial horse quickly and this album is a testament not only to his startlingly adept, Piedmont blues-style finger-picking guitar chops, but his determination in moving his career forward.
He mines his own back catalogue on a few tracks and introduces some charming new originals. While there are literally hundreds of folk and blues players on the scene, Parr has the kind of savoir faire that gets your attention and this is not esoteric stuff in the least.
In Parr’s hands, songs like the touching Love is an Unraveling Bird’s Nest, the heart-tugging Heavy and the just plain exquisite To A Scrapyard Bus Stop reveal beautifully the artist’s more melancholy side. The flip side of Parr’s folksier excursions is his slice-of-life accounts about what sound like real adventures. On Stealing a Sailboat is a humorous account of Parr, his friend Ed and their ill-fated choice made at a marina. Parr’s resonator guitar technique is stunning here, making the tale even more enjoyable as it progresses.
Parr’s cover of fellow Minnesota folk-blues legend Spider John Koerner’s Running, Jumping, Standing Still is especially kinetic. Parr also pays tribute to late Hüsker Dü dude Grant Hart with his radiant cover of Twenty-Five Forty-One. Jubilee is a frantic primer on the effective use of tandem guitar and harmonica that proves Parr obviously suffers no lingering ill effects from his accident. Mag Wheels is an engaging sojourn into near-perfect songwriting for this style, replete with the sort of cleverness allied with poignancy many others would sell their souls to be able to conjure.
★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: On Stealing a Sailboat; Mag Wheels
— Jeff Monk
London Symphony Orchestra with Gianandrea Noseda
Shostakovich: Symphony No. 4 (LSO Live)
The pungent flavour of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 4 is on full display thanks to the London Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of principal guest conductor Gianandrea Noseda. They deliver a biting, brilliant interpretation of the epic-scale work, which famously requires more than 100 players. Censored for almost 30 years by the Soviet Union after its 1936 completion, the three-movement work’s eventual première by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra in 1961 notably cemented the composer’s reputation as a master symphonist with a compelling voice and something to say.
The full-bodied orchestra with its bolstered brass and percussion sections attack the symphony’s unrelenting technical demands like banshees, with the opening Allegretto poco moderato — Presto holding together cohesively despite its whipsaw machinations from acerbic march to plaintive English horn and more lyrical string themes, to jocular bassoon interpolations.
The following movement, Moderato con moto, inspired by Mahler’s Purgatorio movement of his unfinished 10th Symphony, provides a relative measure of repose until the floodgates open during Largo — moderato. After launching with its grim Mahlerian funeral march, the finale barrels through to bitterly mocking vaudeville numbers, ultimately climaxing with pounding timpani strikes and strident brass. A final sustained chord layered with ghostly celesta offers a brooding denouement, with the powerhouse work delivered with passion and a steely conviction by this fearless ensemble.
★★★★1/2 out of five
STREAM THESE: Largo — moderato
— Holly Harris
Blue World (Impulse)
This new release of a 1964 session by saxophone legend John Coltrane and his most famous quartet has been not so much lost as hiding in plain sight. Not only that, but Canada was the prime mover in its creation.
In 1964, Canadian filmmaker Gilles Groulx was filming a movie in Montreal called Le Chat Dans Le Sac. He was a huge Coltrane fan, and somehow was able to convince the musician to agree to a recording session to be used as a soundtrack for the film. Historians totally overlooked this unusual event until a few years ago, but anyone who saw the film heard Coltrane, playing tracks such as Naima, for example, over the opening scene. The session was recorded at the famous Van Gelder studio in New York, and Groulx himself was present.
The music is made up of largely well-known Coltrane tunes that were recorded specifically for this movie. The album is quite brief, with several takes of Naima and Village Blues, for example. Perhaps the most fascinating thing here is one of the most amazing quartets in all of jazz (Coltrane with McCoy Tyner on piano, Jimmy Garrison on bass and Elvin Jones on drums) recorded music for a little-known Canadian art film without creating the slightest bit of publicity at the time.
Putting all the unusual backstory aside, the brief tracks here are definitely worthy of attention, reflecting the characteristic sound of a jazz giant and his quartet. One wonders what other hidden surprises might await us.
★★★★ out of five
STREAM THESE: Take your pick
— Keith Black