Five Alive
On Bruce, Liam, Murray, Noah and Ringo

Apologies for last week’s abbreviated column. I promised to tell you why I had to cut things short last week, and I also promised that the reason was pretty cool. So here it is.

I’m involved in a fairly amazing project called Made in Aurora. It’s the brainchild of Steve Warrenfeltz, who owns my favorite record store, Kiss the Sky. Earlier this month, a couple dozen local musicians converged on Backthird Audio in Aurora to record a compilation. Steve plans to press up hundreds of copies on vinyl (with an accompanying CD) and have it ready for Record Store Day, on April 16.

What’s my part? Well, I played piano on one song, Kevin Trudo’s “Once a Week Won’t Kill You,” and I wrote the liner notes that you’ll find inside the gatefold cover. The whole package looks and sounds fantastic. It features the talents of Dave Ramont, Greg Boerner, Noah Gabriel, Dick Smith, HOSS, Jeremy Keen, the Empty Can Band and the aforementioned Kevin Trudo. And it ends with all of the above, plus most of the musicians who played with them, gathered in a room and banging out a version of “In My Hour of Darkness,” by Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.

That list of names up there probably doesn’t mean much to you if you’re not from the area, but trust me when I tell you it represents a huge wellspring of talent. This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever been involved with. I’m not sure if Made in Aurora is going to be available outside of this area, but if it is, it’s worth hearing. And not just for me stumbling my way around the ebonies and ivories. (But mostly ebonies. Key of F#. Thanks, Kev.) I’ll keep you posted.

So this week, I thought we’d catch up a little bit. Here are five short reviews of five new records, some of which have been out for some time. This one’s beholden to no genre, no theme, no unifying thread. Just five records I like. And I think you’ll like them too.

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Bruce Cockburn has been making albums since 1970. That’s 41 years. It’s difficult for me to wrap my brain around that, but even more difficult to understand why he’s not more famous. Surely in that amount of time, he’s done a few things worthy of worldwide notice. But no, the great Canadian songwriter soldiers on in relative obscurity, playing to dozens instead of thousands, and making album after album that none but the faithful will hear.

Yes, I’ve sung this song before. I may have sung it about Bruce Cockburn. But that doesn’t make it any less true. The just-released Small Source of Comfort is his 31st album, and it’s another argument for his place among the greats. It’s not the best record of his career, but it’s not as hastily-assembled as his previous one, Life Short Call Now. This one feels fully thought-out – it’s more mellow, more carefully arranged, more of a rumination. But it once again ably demonstrates Cockburn’s mastery of the guitar, and piercing way with a lyric.

Small Source of Comfort opens with “The Iris of the World,” which is at least partially about traversing the Canada-U.S. border: “Crossed the border laughing, never know what to expect, they want to know what church I’m from and what things I collect, they’re trying to plug holes in the hull while flames eat up the deck, the captain and his crew don’t seem to get the disconnect…” This is largely an album about going to and from, about leaving home and returning there, and taking in the sights along the way.

It’s musically diverse, but sticks pretty close to Cockburn’s well-worn territory. The acoustic stomp of “Five Fifty-One” is vintage, its tense chord progression matching the lyrics perfectly: “Knots in my muscles, too much traffic in my mind, it was five fifty-one, gray light creeping through the blind…” It’s followed directly by “Driving Away,” a typical slow-burn ballad about escaping responsibility. Annabelle Chvostek adds some tender duet vocals to this one.

And as is his custom, Cockburn delivers five (count them, five) instrumentals this time, ranging from the snappy “Bohemian 3-Step” to the propulsive “Comets of Kandahar” to the sweet “Ancestors.” I’ve never quite gotten used to the instrumentals on a Cockburn record – they seem to break up his train of thought – and in this case, three of them are sequenced practically in a row near the end of the record, making them feel like bonus tracks.

Ah, but Small Source of Comfort ends with an old song that never found a home until now. “Gifts” is not even two minutes long, but concludes things on a lovely, graceful note: “Silver rain sings dancing rhyme, sunlight on blue water, rocky shore grown soft with moss catches all our laughter, and it sends it back without its edge to strengthen us anew, that we may walk within these walls and share our gifts with you…”

So yes, I may start every Bruce Cockburn review lamenting his obscurity, but I only do that because he’s been so very good for so very long. Small Source of Comfort is a strong album – only the too-literal “Call Me Rose” stumbles – and another in a long line of reasons to become a fan of Cockburn’s work. He’s 65 years old now, and he’ll be 66 in May, so there’s no telling how many more of these we’ll get. To my mind, each one’s a treasure.

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Liam Gallagher thinks Beady Eye is the best band in the world.

Of course, as the singer, he’s slightly biased. But statements like that are about what we’ve come to expect from the brothers Gallagher, who formed Oasis together 20 years ago. Since then, the warring siblings have threatened to break up the band (and to wring each other’s necks) more times than I can count. And yet, Oasis kept on trucking, and along the way earned some respect. Their last album, 2008’s Dig Out Your Soul, brought them some very nice notices, some from critics that had dismissed the band only a couple of years before.

So no one took the Fighting Gallaghers seriously. But in August of 2009, Noel Gallagher finally had enough, and made good on his threats, leaving Liam holding the band together. Which he did – Beady Eye, despite the name change, is primarily the last incarnation of Oasis, including Liam, guitarist Gem Archer and bassist Andy Bell. Even the title of their debut album, Different Gear, Still Speeding, seems to say that very little has changed.

And it’s truth in advertising. Different Gear sounds exactly like Oasis, from the Manchester guitar sounds to the Beatles appropriations. If you like this sort of thing – and I do – this is a really good little record, right in line with the last few Oasis records. I’m especially fond of the skipping “Beatles and Stones” and the powerhouse rock of the opener, “Four Letter Word.” I’m also a fan of the sun-through-the-clouds “For Anyone,” all jangly acoustics and smiles. The band seems to have lost nothing with Noel Gallagher’s departure – this is a confident, capable piece of work.

That said, there’s nothing here you haven’t heard before from Liam Gallagher and his cohorts. In everything but the name, this is a new Oasis album, albeit a slightly more mellow one. If you found their brand of ‘60s-inspired Britpop creaky and irrelevant before, there’s nothing here that will change your mind. But if you like melodic rock with a touch of barrelhouse and some well-lifted Beatleisms, this is for you. I think it’s pretty damn enjoyable.

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Two years ago, the Dears all but broke up.

While making their bleak, oppressive fourth album, Missiles, most of the band called it a day, leaving only mastermind Murray Lightburn and keyboardist Natalia Yanchek. It looked like Missiles would be the dramatic Montreal band’s swan song, and it kind of sounded that way too – it was a tough record to get through, and it lacked the spark of the band’s previous work.

But holy hell, look what happened. Everyone came back into the fold, and the Dears have somehow turned things around and made their best record ever, Degeneration Street. They’ve retained their trademarks – a huge, sweeping sound, led by Lightburn’s powerful voice – but they’ve cut the song lengths down dramatically, and brought in some much-needed variety. Only three of these 14 songs top five minutes, and none top six.

In some ways, it’s the perfect mix of the wide-open vistas of No Cities Left and the down-and-dirty rock of Gang of Losers. But it’s more than that. This time the Dears have written their little hearts out, and allowed for some interesting detours. They open with one – the slinky “Omega Dog” slides in on a funky bass line and some slippery guitars, Lightburn whipping out his strong falsetto. “Blood” is a rocker and a half, while “Lamentation” is one of the band’s best epics, compressing 12 minutes of widescreen force into 4:20.

And then there is “Galactic Tides,” in some ways the Dears version of Radiohead’s “Exit Music (For a Film).” It sports a lyric and melody Muse’s Matt Bellamy would be proud to call his own, and it starts out spare and ghostly, but builds up and up, adding choirs and wailing guitars as it goes. This would be at least twice its length on prior Dears albums, but here it’s 4:38, and the smaller space gives it a sense of palpable urgency.

That sense remains all the way to the end. “1854” marries its supple bass line to a soaring melody (and man, this Lightburn guy can sing), while the concluding title track brings it all crashing down in a tense, off-kilter way. This is the most consistent album the Dears have made, as if they needed to hit bottom to understand that every record, every song is worth giving your all to fight for. Where Missiles felt like giving up, Degeneration Street feels like waking up. It may not be the last record the Dears make, but it’s so intense and vital that it feels like they thought it might be.

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Noah and the Whale had me on their side immediately, just by virtue of their name.

It’s a reference to director Noah Baumbach and his film, The Squid and the Whale. Anyone who knows me knows how much I like Baumbach – he’s stumbled here and there, but his first movie, Kicking and Screaming, remains one of my all-time favorites. Name your band after Noah Baumbach, and I’m going to check you out. That’s a given.

So the name got me in the door, but I remain a little conflicted about the music. Their debut, Peaceful, the World Lays Me Down, is a fine slice of indie pop, leader Charlie Fink intertwining his voice with girlfriend Laura Marling’s sweet pipes. But then Marling left (both Fink and the band), and they swept up the pieces and made the skeletal, broken-hearted The First Days of Spring. It’s an album that was probably cathartic to make, but takes a lot to get into. Fink’s tentative, untrained voice is one of the main drawbacks – on much of Spring, it was left to fend for itself, on its own in a bleak and sparse landscape. And it didn’t do well. If there had been wolves, it would have been brought down.

But I could see what the band wanted that album to be, and in some very important ways, they achieved it. The record’s journey from despair to hope feels earned, and by the end, even Fink’s shaky vocals seem important somehow, like the album wouldn’t pack the same punch without them. The question, then, became how Noah and the Whale would fare, stripped of that album’s conceptual underpinnings.

As if to answer my query, here’s Last Night on Earth, the second Marling-less Noah album, and it’s pretty swell. Fink hasn’t suddenly learned how to sing, but this time he’s surrounded his voice with much more support. The first notes of “Life is Life,” all electronic drums and synthesizer, will surprise you, but it settles into a groove quickly. The first three tracks, in fact, make great use of the fuller, more electro sound, especially the danceable “Tonight’s the Kind of Night.” It’s a left turn, but it brings them to a fascinating destination.

Fink does a fine Proclaimers impression on “Waiting for My Chance to Come,” one of the most successful numbers – imagine John Mellencamp’s band produced by Ric Ocasek and you’ve got the right idea. My favorite song here is “Just Me Before We Met,” a tale of undiscovered secrets. It’s set to a pulsing electronic beat, and Fink manages to wrap that voice around a pretty dynamic melody. Virtually everything about it works.

Last Night on Earth is a short 33 minutes, and its jump into electro-land isn’t exactly breaking new ground. But I like the record. It’s sweet and hopeful and ingratiating, and when its synth-gospel finale “Old Joy” is over, it leaves me with a peaceful feeling. I’d never say this is a masterpiece, or even a particularly excellent release, but for what it is, I enjoy it a lot more than I expected to. The band had me at its name, but the music has kept me around.

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And speaking of bands who had me at their name, here’s Ringo Deathstarr.

I’m going to repeat that for effect: the band’s name is Ringo Deathstarr. Just try to beat that. You can’t. It’s one of the best band names I’ve ever heard. It’s also the kind of name that buys you one free pass with me. If you’re creative enough to come up with Ringo Deathstarr, I’m interested to hear what else you can do.

So. Ringo Deathstarr’s debut album is called Colour Trip, and it takes me right back to high school. It sounds like My Bloody Valentine and Ride and a hundred other early shoegaze bands. The rhythm section is fast and punky, and the band drapes sheets of densely-reverbed guitar noise on top of it. Female bassist Alex Gehring is also the co-lead singer, and her high voice is practically drowned out by the din, but when it cuts through, it’s lovely. The songs are simple and melodic. Seriously, this sounds a lot like My Bloody Valentine.

And every time I listen to it, I like it more. It is little more than the sum of its influences, which also includes Psychocandy (of course), but no one seems to be doing music like this anymore, and it’s a style I enjoy. This is catchy and fun and at least as good as some of the high points of the shoegaze movement. It turns out, Ringo Deathstarr is more than just a clever-clever name. They’re a band worth tracking down.

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All right, next week we’ll have a lot to choose from. I’m buying new ones from the Strokes, Duran Duran, Panic at the Disco, James Blake, Richard Ashcroft and the Pet Shop Boys, as well as live documents from Green Day and Soundgarden. (Viva la ‘90s!) Hopefully I’ll have time to write another nice long column. Cross your fingers.

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See you in line Tuesday morning.