THE WAY THAT I WISH It WAS Maggie Fraser (independent) **** ½
This is a pleasantly haunting album. Maggie Fraser, a singer/songwriter based in Toronto, has a way with words. The Way That I Wish It Was is her first release as both singer and songwriter, which begs the question; what took her so long? That delicate yet not fragile voice spinning stories of equal parts hope and despair over an Americana/ folk backdrop is mesmerizing.
Maggie has been known up to now primarily as a songwriter with others recording her songs. The Way That I Wish It Was, with songs distinguished by a unique lyrical quality, seem to know how to find their way into that dark, secret place inside and keep us company there. The sound of the music is light enough, sometimes even cheerful with a jaunty touch of Celtic country soul but the lyrics, as with Leonard Cohen, pull you in deep. Each song is a vignette; The Cornfield is a lament for the way we treat the planet and lost innocence. My favorite track, Wild Black Dogs, pokes fun at our need to believe that we can actually control life.
The Way That I Wish It Was is a friendly sounding album that gives you much to think about as Maggie Fraser enlists a number of musical compadres, including husband Alec Fraser Jr. on circus bass/ drums/ guitars/ banjo/ keys/ percussion, who also engineered and produced by Alec. I really enjoy Maggie has an imperfect voice that is somehow perfect for delivering songs of this emotional depth. I can’t imagine someone like Celine Dion hollering her way through something like Your Ghost, a song about a widow grappling with profound loss. A less than technically perfect voice like Fraser’s lets you feel the truth of the song.
The Way That I Wish It was is a beautifully produced collection of songs about love, hope, despair, regret and loss- you know, life- and it will become one of your very best friends.
HOT TRACKS: Wild Black Dogs, After The Loving, Your Ghost
WAY AHEAD Mick Pini & Audio 54 (House Of Happiness Records) *** ½
21st century blues from guitarist Mick Pini and producer Craig Marshall, a/k/a Audio 54. While Craig’s heavy dependence on loops and samples can leave me a tad chilly at times, his modern flair coupled of Pini’s guitar playing and lyrics by Pete Feenstra is a rather agreeable blend.
“Craig provided the framework for the album and I saw it as my job to find a groove, and give it some feel” Mick says of Way Ahead. Not sure how many albums they’ve done together, but this is the 4th one to join my collection. “It seemed that our respective talents complimented each other” Craig notes. “Mick’s unrelenting ‘organic’ approach was in line with my own belief in the ‘magic of the moment’. My use of digital recording technology- new sounds and loops- was enhanced by Mick’s musical spontaneity.”
As with so many albums in the last couple of years, some of the roots of Way Ahead can be found in Covid. “I hadn’t played a show in two years because of the pandemic, so I was working in my studio” Mick says. “Craig suggested a new way to work within the blues framework which basically took me out of my comfort zone, and I thought why not try something new?” If I could describe the new album in one word, it would be “groove”; it comes across like a cool soundtrack with bits of Miami and Chicago in its soul. Head North, the number that kicks things off, is described by Pini as “Craig’s Bootsy Collins number, it’s got some nice bass on it”, and Nowadays is a noir-ish funk number with a cool horn break that chould’ve been on one the Sopranos’ soundtrack albums- a really cool feel.
To be honest, and I’m sure it’s a function of my age, I prefer musicians sparking off each other in real time to create magic. Having said that, Way Ahead also has considerable charm; it’s one of those albums you can just throw on and let yourself go. Who can’t use more of that?
HOT TRACKS: Nowadays, Head North, Papa Voodoo
SAD SONGS FOR HAPPY PEOPLE Jake Pinto (Mother West) ****+
An intriguing debut here from this former NYU jazz piano student. The title, Sad Songs For Happy People, is surprisingly accurate, The disc is at once confessional and celebratory, a combination of smart writing and 70’s musicality with elements of funk and jazz.
“There’s something beautiful about taking a sad song and putting it to a bright beat and bright instrumental” Jake says. “(It’s) just an interesting combination of melancholy, nostalgia, love and happiness.” Even on first listen I thought “this guy has to be a huge Beatles freak”, and Pinto readily admits that. There’s something about this record- the musicality, the compression on the instruments, the vocal effects- that gives it a mid to latter period Fab Four feel. He credits Ed Spear (Brandi Carlisle, Lady Gaga) with how Sad Songs turned out. “He mixed the record, but it was definitely sort of ‘mixing-plus’” Jake notes. “Such incredible ideas and brilliance… Ed really transformed the record.”
A jazz musician since his early teens, Jake attended NYU for jazz piano and was soon booking gigs worldwide. Despite his successes, he grew burdened by what he terms ‘institutional demotivation’. A rediscovery of his teenage passion for writing songs on guitar and singing just for fun led to forming a band called The Yeah Tones. When he got back to writing on piano, Jake found fresh excitement and energy, which eventually led to Sad Songs For Happy People. “The Beatles are still my favorite band” Jake says, “and I love the crooners like Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra; the directness of how they sing and tell stories.”
This album has an early 70’s vibe that you can almost taste; a combination of hooks, inventive lyrical ideas and savvy pop song craft with a nostalgic edge. “Ultimately, I just want you to feel it in your bones” Pinto says of his debut disc. “We generally numb ourselves to feeling because it’s so intense. I want the audience to feel something… anything.” Pretty cool stuff.
HOT TRACKS: Alone Together, Sit And Listen, Just Another Minute
GOLD Carter Sampson (Horton Records) *** ½
Country music by way of Oklahoma from this award winning singer/ songwriter/ performer. On Gold, Carter Sampson shares the heartfelt sounds and feelings that resonate from America’s heartland. Co-produced by Carter and her longtime Collaborator Kyle Reid this is an old fashioned throwback to the country music of yore- and a welcome return, I might add.
“Kyle & I recorded the first five songs of Gold at my house after he brought over a carload of recording equipment and set up shop in my living room” Carter says. I’ve never been so comfortable in a recording situation. I was in my own home and heck, I didn’t even have to put real pants on.” Then Covid interrupted of course, and the second half of the record was completed remotely. “We were on the same page and working well together” she says of Reid. “Aside from a couple of upright bass tracks by Johnny Carlton and one fiddle track by Lane Hawkins, the entire album was recorded by Kyle and me.”
If we’re going to call Gold a country album, it’s equally fair to consider it folk. These are the kinds of songs I can imagine James Taylor singing too. Though the instruments are layered and woven together in an intriguing blend this isn’t a melodically complicated disc… there’s a directness to it that matches the earnestness of Sampson’s lyrics. Black Blizzard addresses Oklahoma’s tangled history, a tale flush with trials and tenacity in the sobering circumstances of the Dust Bowl. Can’t Stop Now, the 2nd single, is about the uncertainty brought on by the pandemic. “I’m ready to put the covid break in the rearview mirror and get back to doing what I love, which is playing live and touring” Carter says.
Gold is like the records Barney Bentall has done outside of his band The Legendary Hearts; easy to appreciate on a strictly musical level, but so much more rewarding if you take the time to peel back the layers and crawl right inside the songs themselves. It’s well worth the effort.
HOT TRACKS: Pray & Scream, Can’t Stop Me Now, Gold
When I’m doing a final edit of my column for Gonzo Okanagan, I often put on albums I haven’t listened to in a very long time to keep me company. Lately, I’ve noticed such records sounding better than I remember them being, often significantly so. This has led to the thought of including a “classic” album review each week, starting today. That I feel them worthy of a second look renders my usual 5 star rating moot. That said, shall we get on with it?
THE FIRM The Firm (Atlantic Records) release date: 02/11/85
The Firm was formed by singer Paul Rodgers of Bad Company and guitarist Jimmy Page. As Page’s first album since the death of John Bonham in 1980 and the abrupt end of Led Zeppelin, though popular upon release it was compared to Jimmy’s previous work, and unfairly so. Many felt it paled in comparison, and I was one of those guys. Listening recently with fresh ears, I realize that judgement was hasty and unfair.
At the time Rodgers was done with Bad Company and Page, after some soundtrack work, was searching for a way forward creatively after Zeppelin. The Firm was designed as a short term project for both; just two albums and a bit of touring with an eye to getting Jimmy back on his feet as a musician. Recruiting drummer Chris Slade (AC/DC) and fretless bassist Tony Franklin, they hit Page’s own Sol Studios and came out with this disc.
In 1985 I dismissed The Firm for not sounding like Led Zeppelin, but here in 2023 I realize that that was the point. Paul Rodger’s soulful vocals paired with Jimmy Page’s inventive guitar work are an undeniable match. Slade gives them a solid backbeat, and Franklin’s fretless bass sound gives the songs an elastic quality that, all these years later, I’ve come to quite enjoy.
Midnight Moonlight was the first song Jimmy and Paul worked up. Page brought the music, left over from the Physical Graffiti sessions, and asked Rodgers “do you think you can do something with this?” The piece was reportedly much longer than the 9:13 epic that closes out the record. Page’s musical philosophy of combining light and shade is most effective here. Other highlights; Paul had always wanted to sing The Righteous Brothers classic You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling, so that is included. Radioactive was a successful single, followed by Satisfaction Guaranteed.
The goal with The Firm was to sound like neither Led Zeppelin nor Bad Company, and in that it succeeds. In some fleeting respects it feels rather like Page’s 1982 soundtrack for Death Wish II, but much stronger and with more of a sense of adventure. Though he could never match the commercial success of his old band, the question being asked was can Jimmy Page still conjure magick? The Firm answered with a resounding YES.
HOT TRACKS: Radioactive, Midnight Moonlight, Make Or Break