Monday, April 28, 2014

Super Duper Alice Cooper: the band, the man and the double life

I'd characterize myself as a casual Alice Cooper fan. I was too young to be part of the '70s frenzy which shot the band and its lead singer to stardom, and haven't been wowed by any of the records I've heard over the past 30 years. But I have a strong affection for The Alice Cooper Show, a 1977 live album that includes almost every song from the group that I feel I need to have (outside of "Clones," of course).

My appreciation of Alice Cooper hasn't increased after seeing the new Super Duper Alice Cooper documentary directed by Reginald Harkema, Scot McFadyen and Sam Dunn -- who increased my appreciation for Rush with their 2010 film Rush: Beyond The Lighted Stage. But knowledge is power and -- even though I interviewed Vincent Furnier (who legally changed his name to Alice Cooper during an era when his ego and lifestyle drove away his longtime bandmates) several years ago -- I now know a lot more about him than I did last week. I consider that a good thing.

The filmmakers cleverly interject the film with black and white clips of 1920's classic (and public domain) horror film Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which parallel the on- and off-stage lives of Furnier/Cooper and how they can tragically intersect.

There's Vince, the son and grandson of preachers with a moral compass who had never even had a beer until he was out of his teens and went to Los Angeles to pursue his dream of rock stardom. And there's Alice, the mascara-wearing, doll-butchering, snakehandling, fake guillotine victim of a frontman for one of the most explosive -- and probably the most controversial -- rock bands of the early and mid-1970s.

It's when Alice takes control of Vince -- plunging him into a life of booze and then cocaine addictions that almost cost him his family and his life -- that things get ugly.

Alice Cooper went from being in a talented but struggling rock band that was run out of L.A. because people didn't know what to make of its bizarre look and sound to becoming one of the biggest rock stars of a generation, putting on the most theatrical performances ever seen in the genre to that point, topping the album sales charts in multiple countries, scoring top 10 singles with "School's Out" and "You and Me," and appearing on a variety of television shows. But the frontman's lifestyle of excess was killing him.

He kicked his alcoholism after being institutionalized, but then got hooked on coke. He eventually battled his way through that, too, and successfully separated his two personas. The film ends (aside from brief text explanations of what the main characters in the film are doing now) with a triumphant return to the stage after a five-year absence at a sold-out Joe Louis Arena in Cooper's hometown of Detroit, Mich. on Hallowe'en 1986.

Whenever Furnier hasn't been on the golf course, Cooper has been writing, recording and performing steadily ever since. It's a triumphant story with a happy ending.

Although it bears the hallmarks of those VH1 Behind The Music shows where artists discuss their highs and lows, the 86-minute Super Duper Alice Cooper was obviously made by talented and caring filmmakers who put the time and effort needed to take the movie to a higher plain. Lots of research obviously went into the film and getting clearances for the wide array of film footage, photographs and songs used in it must have been a painstaking process.

It was worth it. The early musical years, especially, are an area of Alice Cooper's career that a lot of music fans (myself included) don't know much about. The film's insights into this era were the catalyst that hooked me like an eight ball and compelled me to see how things would play out -- even if I pretty much already knew what would happen.

Watch the Super Duper Alice Cooper trailer.

Super Duper Alice Cooper will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at 9 p.m. on April 28 at the Scotiabank Theatre. The star and its directors will be on hand to answer questions afterward and the event will be simulcast into 46 Cineplex theatres across Canada. Visit for the other venues.

The film will be shown again during the festival at 9:50 p.m. on April 29 and at 11 a.m. on May 3 at the Bloor Hot Docs Theatre.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Documentary offers a look at the man inside the Big Bird costume

I Am Big Bird: The Caroll Spinney Story opens with Spinney appearing on To Tell The Truth, a popular television show from the 1970s where celebrity panelists had to guess which of three guests is actually who they claim to be. Forty years on, and despite being responsible for one of the most iconic characters on the planet, probably 99 per cent of the population still couldn't tell you who this man is.

I Am Big Bird will change that, as it tells the story of the man who has helped entertain and educate generations of children while portraying Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch on Sesame Street. Through interviews with Spinney and numerous colleagues, we learn about a man who can be both simple and complex and who's fully deserving of the time in the spotlight that this documentary gives him.

The offspring of a loving, supportive and artistic mother and a distant and sometimes abusive father developed an interest in puppets as a child and that, combined with his feminine-sounding name, made him a target for school bullies. And as Spinney's relationship with his father further deteriorated, he enlisted in the air force and spent four years there before returning to civilian life and his passion for puppetry.

Spinney's big break came at a 1969 puppet festival where he met Muppet creator Jim Henson, who invited him to join his team on the fledgling Sesame Street. He didn't fit in well at first and almost quit the show, but it wasn't long before Big Bird and Oscar started playing bigger roles, which led to a dizzying and event-filled career that Spinney shows no signs of relinquishing even at age 80.

The film follows Spinney around the globe as Big Bird becomes one of the most recognizable characters in the world, but also delves into the personal life of the man in the yellow, feathered costume. There have been a lot of lows counteracting all of the highs he's experienced, including a painful divorce, the passing of several co-workers (including Henson in 1990 at age 53), the murder of a woman on his property and narrowly missing being on the Challenger space shuttle that exploded shortly after takeoff.

But Spinney's deep love for his second wife Debbie, his puppeteering work and the drawing he's done all of his life have kept him grounded and enabled him to press forward and create a happy separate life outside of the surreal Muppet world that has defined him to the public.

Many of us grew up with Sesame Street, and it's a treat to go behind the scenes of the program and meet many of the people responsible for getting it off the ground and pushing it forward for so long. But even if your life wasn't somehow touched by the show, you should be touched by this film.

Here's the trailer for I Am Big Bird

I Am Big Bird will be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 6 p.m. on April 27 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema (which will feature Spinney speaking to the audience after the film); 11 a.m. on April 28 at Isabel Bader Theatre; 1:30 p.m. on April 30 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; 1:30 p.m. on May 1 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; and 4 p.m. on May 4 at The Revue.

Friday, April 25, 2014

Archie Powell & The Exports - Back in Black

Archie Powell & The Exports' first two albums -- 2010's Skip Work and 2012's Great Ideas in Action  -- were among my favourites of their respective years, so the new Back in Black was eagerly anticipated.

I was a little unsure after the first listen since it veers away somewhat from the previously established blueprint, but repeated plays have pretty much assured this record of a similarly exalted status.

"Everything's Fucked" opens with a Powell scream and sets the tone for an album that's more aggressive and ragged than the past two power pop thrillers and bears more of a resemblance to the Chicago quartet's high-energy performances.

"Tattoo on My Brain" is more like the earlier more hook-laden material and reminds me of another favourite modern power pop purveyor: Gentleman Jesse. 

There are more screams and Powell's strained voice sounds so strained that it could give way at any time on the Nirvana-ish "Lean."

"Scary Dream" is heavy and discordant, while the melodic guitar riffs and sing-along chorus of "Holes" are offset by a harsher synthesizer sound.

"Electrocute My Heart" starts quietly and builds, with piano, guitar, synth and drums all playing key roles in pushing things along.

"Rodeo Crush" is softer and more sparse and sticks out from the rest of album.

"I'm Gonna Lose It," a song of lost love and yearning with doo-wop vocals, sounds like a rougher-edged Weezer cut.

The lyrics are more spoken than sung on the dark "Jump Off a Bridge," which comes across as the Butthole Surfers trying to make a dance record.

Just as you shouldn't confuse this album with AC/DC's biggest seller, even though they share the same title, the incomprehensible words and musical chaos of "Mambo No. 9" are a clear indication that it's definitely not Lou Bega's claim to fame.

Back in Black ends with the five-minute "Everything's Cool," a mid-tempo, melodic pop-rock number that shows Archie Powell & The Exports are still willing and able to return to their roots.

The intent of the group and producer Jonathan Alvin (Surfer Blood) was to capture the sound and spirit of a live performance. They achieved it, and I recommend that you see their great ideas in action for yourself if Archie Powell & The Exports play anywhere near you.

Need more zombies in your life? Check out Doc of the Dead

The 1932 film White Zombie introduced the zombie to popular culture. While going through different waves of popularity since then, fittingly, the phenomenon couldn't remain dead.

Zombies have never been more popular than they are today. The Walking Dead is the most popular show on cable television and there are zombie walks, zombie runs, zombie weddings, zombie obstacle courses, zombie conventions, zombie commercials, zombie video games and more being lapped up like brains by a ravenous public. Hell, an international zombie strategy was even discussed in the Canadian House of Commons last year.

Doc of the Dead, an 82-minute documentary directed by American Alexandre Philippe, examines the rise of the zombie through interviews with the likes of the head of the Zombie Research Society, zombie authors and scholars, scientists, the Toronto zombie walk founder and even a sex therapist. Zombie film and television show actors, actresses, directors and producers -- most notably Shaun of the Dead star Simon Pegg and genre king George Romero -- also talk about the phenomenon. Some even share their zombie survival strategies and engage in the slow versus fast zombies debate.

There are clips of director Romero's classic films -- Night of the Living Dead (1968), Dawn of the Dead (1978), Day of the Dead (1985) and Land of the Dead (2005) -- as well as discussions of them. But we also see and hear about other zombie and zombie-related movies, including I Walked With A Zombie (1943), Invisible Invaders (1959), my longtime favourite Plan 9 From Outer Space (1959), Return of the Living Dead (1985), Re-Animator (1985), Dead Alive (1992), Army of Darkness (1992), 28 Days Later (2002), Resident Evil (2002), Shaun of the Dead (2004), The Infected (2009), Contagion (2011) and World War Z (2013).

You don't have to have worn tattered clothes, covered yourself in goop and makeup and shuffled awkwardly down the street (which is something Romero says he can't see the pleasure in), or even visited Haiti (where turning people into zombies is part of the criminal code) to appreciate Doc of the Dead.

Zombies have seeped into pop culture so much that you can't escape them, no matter how slow they may lumber along. So while there's no need to hoard supplies or build a bunker to ward off a zombie apocalypse, there may be a desire to be mildly entertained while learning more about why the phenomenon has become so widespread. Doc of the Dead can provide that.

Watch the Doc of the Dead trailer

Doc of the Dead will make its international premiere and be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 11:59 p.m. on April 26 at Bloor Hot Docs Theatre; 9:30 p.m. on April 27 at Hart House Theatre; and 9:45 p.m. on May 3 at The Royal Cinema.

The strange and sordid tale of The Iron Sheik is told in documentary

Even if you weren't a wrestling fan in the 1980s, you were almost no doubt aware of Hulk Hogan. But "Hulkamania" probably wouldn't have existed if it wasn't for the pivotal role played by Hossein Khosrow Ali Vaziri.

Before you wear your finger nails down too much from the head scratching that will accompany your puzzlement from that name, Vaziri was -- and somehow still is -- better known as The Iron Sheik. And a new documentary illustrates that this man has a story to tell, and the creators have even provided subtitles in case you have difficulty understanding his sometimes broken English.

Vaziri was born poor in Iran in 1942 and became an amateur wrestling champion and a bodyguard to the Shah before, fearing for his life due to the complicated political and social situations in his homeland, he moved to the United States. He was the Amateur Athletic Union Greco-Roman wrestling champion in 1971 and went on to become an assistant coach for two U.S. Olympic teams later that decade.

Professional wrestling legend Vern Gagne invited Vaziri to turn pro, but he was also forced to train other wrestlers, drive trucks from city to city, referee and set up and tear down the ring in addition to grappling. It wasn't easy, but things started taking an upward turn when he adapted the Iron Sheik persona and became a hated heel -- which wasn't difficult considering the Iran hostage crisis of the era and Vaziri's constant insults of the stars and stripes.

Vaziri defeated Bob Backlund, who had held the World Wrestling Federation title for six years, to capture the championship belt. He lost it a short time later to Hogan. "Hulkamania" was born, pro wrestling became a phenomenon, and stars like Vaziri lived like rock stars.

While Vaziri continued to fight on his own, he increased his villain status by teaming up with "Russian" Nikolai Volkoff under the tutelage of manager "Classy" Freddie Blassie. Waving Iranian and Soviet flags, and Volkoff singing the Soviet national anthem before bouts, raised the heat against them and death threats from overzealous fans weren't unheard of.

Things came crashing down in 1987 when Vaziri and "Hacksaw" Jim Duggan were pulled over by New Jersey police, who discovered that they were drinking and high on cocaine, and marijuana and coke was found in the car. But the drugs didn't seem to be the primary concern of WWF president Vince McMahon. He was more upset that the public now knew that these two in-ring enemies were actually friends. The curtain had been removed from the heavily scripted world of pro wrestling.

Vaziri was dropped from the WWF and while he later made a brief comeback with the organization (as Colonel Mustafa) and continued to wrestle wherever he could, his days of Iron Sheik action figures and stardom had passed. The same couldn't be said for his drug and drinking habits.

Vaziri used his "medication" to ease the pain from his many ring injuries and the murder of his oldest daughter, but it also put a huge drain on his finances and relationships with his wife, two remaining daughters and many others.

It's around this point that Toronto twins Page and Jian Magen enter the picture. Their father and Vaziri had been friends in Iran and the boys were big Iron Sheik fans. When they found out how troubled their hero was, they travelled to his home in Atlanta, Ga. to try and help him. It was hard to break through to the stubborn wrestler but, even if they couldn't completely free him from his demons, the two entertainment promoters were able to launch another career for him.

Vaziri became a social media favourite with a variety of YouTube videos and outrageous tweets that have attracted 419,000 Twitter followers. He's become a popular guest on Howard Stern's radio show, makes a variety of personal appearances and even made headlines by appearing at Toronto City Hall to mock Mayor Rob Ford last year.

The next step in re-establishing Vaziri's place in the public's mind is The Sheik, which deserves credit for showing the man's dark side and doesn't just act as a promotional tool even though it was produced by the Magen brothers. A crowd-sourcing campaign raised more than $40,000 for the film, which includes interviews with wrestlers Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Jake "The Snake" Roberts, Mick Foley, The Road Warriors, Bret Hart, Koko B. Ware, "King Kong" Bundy, The Nasty Boys, Sunny, Bob Orton, Jimmy "Superfly" Snuka, Hogan and Duggan, as well as managers Brother Love and Jimmy Hart and WWF announcer Jim Ross. Actors Jack Black, Mos Def, Seth Green and Ron Jeremy also make appearances.

While familiarity with pro wrestling from the '80s will give you a good background on The Iron Sheik, I don't think it's necessary to enjoy this film about the up and down life of a man who can, in turns, be hated, appreciated and pitied.

Here's the trailer for The Sheik

The Sheik will make its world premiere in Toronto and be screened as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 9:15 p.m. on April 26 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema; 4:30 p.m. on April 27 at TIFF Bell Lightbox; and 6:30 p.m. on May 3 at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Love Me goes behind the scenes of international matchmaking services

Love Me opens by asking several men what love is, and it turns out that they think the way to find it is through the mail-order bride business.

This documentary, directed by American Jonathon Narducci, profiles five American men and one Australian from a variety of places and backgrounds who use the international online matchmaking services A Foreign Affair and Elena's Models to find wives from the Ukraine, where there are just 87 men for every 100 women. The major similarity among them is that they've become frustrated and claim they can't find compatible women in their countries. And most of them seem to prefer younger women.

A Foreign Affair has offices around the world and invites men to sign up on its website and then pay to send messages to women in other parts of the world. It also offers "romance tours" to male clients, where they're often outnumbered 10 to one by women at organized social events.

Love Me follows the trials and tribulations, the successes and failures, of these men and the women they fall in love with from a distance and then in person. These guys have spent thousands of dollars to find the woman of their dreams, and it sometimes seems like they're living more in a dream world than the real one.

There are two success stories, where Ukrainian women Vitalina and Inna form a bond with their American suitors and move to the United States and marry them -- hopefully to live happily ever after.

Another man finds the Ukrainians unfriendly and insincere and vows not to use these matchmaking services again. He later says that the experience helped give him a greater appreciation of local women and he ends up involved with one of them.

We're also introduced to A Foreign Affair founder John Adams and former mail-order bride and now Elena's Models owner Elena Petrova. They both seem like decent enough people who believe they're providing valuable and legitimate services that can bring happiness to men and women around the world. But I can't help but feeling that there's an underlying sleaziness to them and their business practices.

The most interesting stories, to me at least, are the relationships that don't go as planned. They show the desperation of the men and portray the women as either manipulative opportunists or confused damsels who maybe aren't sure what they want.

Michael travels from Australia to Kiev to meet Svitlana and her two daughters. He thinks he knows her well from their correspondence and, after seemingly enjoying their time together, he proposes and she accepts. A wedding in Bali is planned, but before that he receives an ominous email from the Ukraine that claims his bride to be is scamming him. The wedding goes ahead anyway, but the marriage isn't consummated and she cuts off communication with him after they return to their respective countries.

Svitlana admits to the camera that she has similar relationships with other men while she decides the best options for herself and her daughters. Michael doesn't give up, however, and returns to Ukraine to find out what's gone wrong. Svitlana says she doesn't love him and that the wedding was a mistake. He asks for his ring back and she walks out the door and out of his life.

Wisconsin farmer Travis falls for a woman just after meeting her in Ukraine, but he has to return to the U.S. and plans to keep the relationship going from a distance. He heads back to Ukraine three months later to ask her to marry him and, while something doesn't seem right, he thinks it will turn out okay. But when men show up to her apartment demanding $4,000 they claim she owes, he gives them the $200 he has with him and heads to the airport without proposing. The romance ends, but her online demands for money don't.

Bobby spent almost $10,000 on sending messages to a beautiful Ukrainian woman and flies there to see her. He's stood up at first and believes he may have been scammed, but meets her a day later. With a translator provided by A Foreign Affair, they talk, but he has doubts that it's the same person he's been communicating with online. But that doesn't stop him from asking her if she wants to move to the U.S. and marry him at that first meeting. Bobby believes that she's agreed and returns home thinking he's engaged.

But responses to the overweight and reclusive Bobby's messages are vague and he gives up hope. She's removed from the A Foreign Affair site because it's unclear if she was legitimate, but he was still out all of that money and went into state of depression and stopped his attempts at online dating before admitting to trying A Foreign Affair one more time. We're shown photos of a beautiful brunette and left with the feeling that he'll be heartbroken again.

Watch the trailer for Love Me

Love Me will make its international premiere and be screened in Toronto as part of the Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival at: 9:30 p.m. on April 25 at Scotiabank Theatre; 1 p.m. on April 26 at Scotiabank Theatre; and 7 p.m. on May 2 at Fox Theatre.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Old 97's - Most Messed Up

I've dug the Old 97's since first hearing the Dallas, Texas-formed band's Wreck Your Life album almost 20 years ago. There may have been some minor lulls since then, but not enough to make me lose interest. Still, I wasn't prepared for how consistently excellent the group's new Most Messed Up album is. There may not be a "Victoria" or "Timebomb" ear worm here, but, from start to finish, it's the best Old 97's album yet.

Most Messed Up opens with the almost six-minute "Longer Than You've Been Alive," where guitarist/lead singer informs and entertains while exuberantly chronicling the band's career. And things don't let up from there.

Miller, bassist/vocalist Murry Hammond, guitarist Ken Bethea and drummer Philip Peeples hold little back, musically or lyrically, resulting in a rockin' record with tales of sex, booze and reckless living sprinkled with a handful of F-bombs.

This aura of rock and roll excess is given a distinct air of authenticity by the appearance of Tommy Stinson. This guy's been a member of The Replacements and Guns 'n' Roses, so he knows a thing or two about depravity. The musician joined the quartet while it was recording in Austin, Texas and played guitar on several tracks, adding an extra edge to the proceedings.

Though some of the words are dark, they're shrouded by joyously upbeat and up-tempo tunes that should be a hoot to hear live. Even "This is the Ballad" isn't.

I thought Old 97's showed a strong return to form on its two The Grand Theatre albums, but Most Messed Up illustrates that this group is now at the height of its powers.

Dex Romweber Duo - Images 13

I liked the guitar and drums-pioneering Flat Duo Jets and enjoyed Dex Romweber Duo's three previous albums, but I think I've fallen in love with the new Images 13.

Okay, the cover looks a bit amateurish and is kind of ugly. But beauty is only skin deep and it's the music, not the packaging, that wrapped me in its arms.

Romweber has made a name for himself over the years as a man who knows how to cunningly combine Americana, surf, blues, rockabilly, pop, punk, country and garage rock elements and envelope them all in eerie darkness. He doesn't veer far from the formula here, but, with older sister (and former Let's Active member) Sara providing focused percussive support on the snare drum, he's done it better than he ever has before. And that's saying something for a guitarist/singer who's been a professional musician for more than 25 years.

The album opens with lead single "Roll On," a dark and smouldering blues rocker infused with surf licks that sets the tone for the next 11 songs. "Long Time Coming" offers a bluesy shuffle and you'll hear some '60s pop in “Baby I Know What It’s Like to be Alone” before coming to a happy surprise: a cover of The Who's "So Sad About Us," complete with jangly guitar and an upbeat sound that belies the title and lyrics. Southern Culture on the Skids' Mary Huff contributes vocals to the track, adding to a SCOTS connection established by Images 13 being recorded at Rick Miller's Kudzu Ranch studio in North Carolina.

The foreboding "Prelude in G Minor" is the album's first instrumental, followed directly by "Blackout!," which alternates crashing drums with a "Peter Gunn Theme" vibe but showcases guitar mastery throughout. "Blue Surf" is a frantic surf rocker and the final instrumental is album closer "Weird (Aurora Borealis)," a more experimental number featuring Melissa Swingle (Trailer Bride, The Moaners) on the saw.

The record is rounded out by: "I Don't Want to Listen," where Dex displays some deep, '50s doo-wop crooning; the acoustic but still edgy "Beyond the Moonlight;" the '60s pop-influenced "We'll Be Together Again," which was written by Eddie Cochran's girlfriend Sharon Sheeley after he died in a car accident; and the country-ish "One Sided Love Affair."

Jack White and Exene Cervenka have professed their admiration for Romweber. After hearing Images 13, you probably will, too. This is bound to remain one of my favourite 2014 albums when the end of the year rolls around.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Johnny Cash - Out Among The Stars

The 1980s was probably the least successful decade of Johnny Cash's long and storied career, but his only album from that era in my collection until now -- 1987's Johnny Cash Is Coming To Town -- held up well then and still does. And the only time I saw the man in black perform was in the mid-'80s, and I thought he was great.

So I'm not as surprised as many other people seem to be by the quality of the recently released "lost" Cash album, Out Among The Stars. Its 12 songs, recorded in 1981 and 1984 and originally produced by CBS Records Nashville A&R head Billy Sherrill, are definitely of a high enough grade that they should have been released 30 years ago. But, had they been, there's no way that they would have had the same commercial impact as they have now -- with Out Among The Stars debuting at #3 in the U.S. and #2 in Canada.

Cash parted ways with Columbia Records after 25 years in 1985 and he hadn't had an album chart in the top 100 since 1971. It wasn't until 1994, when he began his association with producer Rick Rubin with the first in the series of American Recordings albums, that he started registering with consumers again.

While Cash may have been largely ignored in the early '80s, he was by no means a has been. And Lost Among The Stars proves it.

"Baby Ride Easy" sits easily alongside the classic duets Cash recorded with his wife June, and she can also be heard on "Don't You Think It's Come Our Time?" Waylon Jennings joins Cash on the Hank Snow hit "I'm Movin' On," which predates their teaming up in The Highwaymen but which would have fit well on one of that group's three LPs.

Cash's familiar speak-singing style adds depth to "She Used To Love Me A Lot," which is on the album twice -- in its original version and as a bonus track produced by Elvis Costello. You should definitely check out the recently created video for the song, made by film director John Hillcoat. While it may not be as moving and powerful as the clip for "Hurt" that was shot shortly before his death in 2003, it packs a punch and vividly captures Cash's legacy.

Cash's penchant for story songs is shown on "I Drove Her Out Of My Mind" and "Tennessee," which features a children's chorus. The playfulness of past hits like "One Piece At A Time" and "Boy Named Sue" shines through on "If I Told You Who It Was," which features a cameo from fellow country legend Minnie Pearl.

And if there was ever any doubt, Cash proves he's equally comfortable in his "Rock and Roll Shoes" as he is writing and singing gospel numbers like "I Came To Believe."

Cash was originally backed on these tracks by some A-list Nashville session musicians, and the restored versions also include contributions from the likes the likes of Marty Stuart on guitar and mandolin, Buddy Miller on guitar, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Sam Bush on mandolin and Carlene Carter on harmony vocals. The musicianship is as solid as you could want and is further proof that this project wasn't just a slap-dash attempt to cash in.

I don't know if John Carter Cash will find any more previously unreleased material of this magnitude in the family archives, but this will suffice if he doesn't. It's always nice to have Cash on hand.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

The She's - Dreamers

I haven't heard The She's' Then It Starts to Feel Like Summer debut album, but my introduction to the all-woman group from San Francisco via the new Dreamers EP makes me want to.

These six songs convey images of classic '60s girl group pop, but with an updated edge, courtesy of guitarists Hannah Valente and Eva Treadway, bassist Sami Perez and drummer Sinclair Riley. The songs are dreamy and melodic, the three-part harmonies are tight (most notably on "Lots to Hide") and the listening experience is just plain fun and leaves you wanting to hear more.

The guitars gently chime in "Violet" and are more up front in the introduction to "Mystery," where the vocals are flatter in some places but don't hamper the song because the hooks are still there. "Jordan Baker" has the twee element of the other tunes, but a larger emphasis on the drums gives it a more forceful sound overall.

These girls are young but full of promise, and this EP shows that they're achievers as much as they are Dreamers.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Celebrating Ontario's best beers

Ontario's best beers were recognized at the 12th annual Ontario Brewing Awards at Toronto's Gladstone Hotel on April 3.

Servers walked around the venue with trays of bacon-wrapped shrimp, spring rolls, mini hamburgers and small pizza squares to give attendees a base in their stomach to help absorb the dozens of Ontario craft beers that were available to sample from glasses provided at the entrance. Here are the eight that I tried for the first time:

Descendants Harbinger Pale Ale is brewed in Wellesley and has a nice gold colour. The 5.5-per cent alcohol, 38 IBU beer poured with a thin head and a pleasant hoppy aroma. The easy-drinking ale, which comes in a distinctive bottle, had a bit of a citrus twang, refreshing hoppiness and a pleasant finish.

Beyond The Pale Imperial Super Guy is a 9.1-per cent alcohol, 90 IBU imperial rye India pale ale from Ottawa. It had a nice, foamy head on top of its amber base. The aroma wasn't as hop-forward as I was expecting. There were hints of pine and citrus along with a decent maltiness. It was crisp but slightly heavy. The high alcohol content wasn't overpowering and it was smooth on the palate.

The Publican House Ale, from Peterborough, was my least favourite of the evening. The 4.8-per cent alcohol lagered ale was a pale straw colour and poured with a small white head. It had a citrusy aroma and a somewhat biscuity, but pedestrian, flavour. The finish was boring.

Sudbury's Stack Brewing produces Angry Moose, a nine-per cent alcohol imperial IPA. The dark gold ale with a thin white head had a mildly hoppy aroma and similar flavour. The high alcohol content wasn't noticeable at all, and it left a pleasant, tingling sensation in my mouth afterward.

Nickel Brook Cuvee 2013 Reserve Ale is aged in bourbon barrels, which helps give it its rich auburn colour. Its ingredients include European and North American malts, Demerara sugar, dried figs, orange peel, raisins, cinnamon, cardamon, all spice, black pepper and vanilla beans. All of these elements seem to balance out in a non-distinct aroma but very complex flavour. The raisins, all spice and Demerara sugar seemed to be the most dominant elements of this 8.5-per cent alcohol beer, which didn't leave me with a good taste in my mouth.

Highlander Brew Co.'s Lion Grass is made in South River with lemongrass and dandelion leaves, although I couldn't really notice them. The 5.4-per cent alcohol beer is pale gold and pours with a thin head. It's a wee bit bitter and is fairly malty, which gives it a biscuit element. It's okay on the palate but has a dull finish.

Terrestrial India Brown Ale from Guelph's Wellington Brewery is a very dark brown and had a rich tan head when it was poured. It's pretty complex, with  a bit of malt along with smokiness, bitter chocolate and some nuttiness coming through from a combination of Cascade, Amarillo and Sorachi Ace hops. The 5.9-per cent ale has a lingering, slightly bitter finish.

I ended my tasting on a high with Ottawa's Big Rig Saison. The 5.5-per cent, 25 IBU beer is light amber in colour and had a rich white head when poured from a growler. It has a very pleasing, fruity bouquet, a taste that offers a good mix of fruit and spice, and a lovely finish. This is an excellent saison.

The winners were chosen from 251 beers submitted by 46 breweries from across the province, and certified judges chose gold, silver and bronze winners in 31 categories.

The gold, silver and bronze winners were:

North American Light Lager
Brick Laker Light
F&M Stone Hammer Light
Flying Monkeys Antigravity Light

North American Lager
Hogsback Vintage Lager
Lake Of Bays Top Shelf Classic Lager
Amsterdam Natural Blonde

Brick Waterloo Pilsner
Molson Coors Rickard’s Blonde
King Pilsner

Amber Lager
Hop City Barking Squirrel Lager
Great Lakes Red Leaf Lager
King Vienna Lager

Dark Lager
Side Launch Dark Lager
Brick Waterloo Dark
King Dark

King Bock
Cameron’s Deviator Doppelbock
Mill Street Weizenbock

Honey/Maple Beer
F&M Stone Hammer Maple Red
Mill Street Royal York Stinger
Bayside Honey Maple

Big Rig Hefe
Denison’s Weissbier
Magnotta True North Wunder Weisse

Belgian Witbier
Mill Street Belgian Wit
Amsterdam Boxer
Molson Coors Rickard’s White

Flavoured Wheat Beer
Amsterdam KLB Raspberry Wheat
Clocktower Raspberry Wheat
Beyond The Pale Pink Fuzz

Farmhouse Ales
Stack Portes De L’enfers
Big Rig Saison
Big Rig Belgian Blond

Lagered Ales
Publican House Ale
Clocktower K├Âlsch
Big Rig Gold

British Pale/Bitter
Muskoka Cream Ale
Black Oak Pale Ale
Highlander Scottish Ale

American Pale Ale
Great Lakes Johnny Simcoe
Collective Arts Rhyme & Reason
Great Lakes Crazy Canuck

British IPA
Mill Street IPA
Kensington Baldwin FishEye-PA
Brick Waterloo IPA

West Coast IPA
Cameron’s R.P.A.
Muskoka Twice As Mad Tom IPA
Beyond The Pale Imperial Super Guy

Dark IPA
Big Rig Black IPA
Flying Monkeys Netherworld
Wellington Terrestrial India Brown Ale

Amber Ale
Kilannan New Zealand Red
Clocktower Red
Sawdust City Ol’ Woody Alt

Dark Ale
Magnotta True North Copper Altbier
F&M Stone Hammer Dark
Amsterdam Downtown Brown

Nickel Brook Maple Porter
Highlander Blacksmith Smoked Porter
Six Pints Beer Academy Porter

F&M Stone Hammer Coffee Stout
Sawdust City Skinny Dipping Stout
Big Rig Stout

Fruit Beer
Amsterdam Framboise
Mill Street Frambozen
Turtle Island Smash Cherry Pale Ale

Vegetable Beer
Grand River Highballer Pumpkin
The Ship’s Rations
Big Rig Pumpkin

Flavoured Beer
Amsterdam Full City Double Tempest
Sawdust City Red Rocket Cinnamon Vanilla Cayenne Coffee Stout
Big Rig Triple Chocolate Cherry Stout

Strong Beer
Descendants Prologue Belgian Blonde
Sawdust City Princess Wears Girlpants
Amsterdam Vicar’s Vice

Nickel Brook Gluten Free
(This was the only beer entered in this category.)

Barrel Aged – Whiskey
Amsterdam Double Tempest
Wellington Frost Quake Bourbon Barrel Aged Barley Wine
Cameron’s Bourbon Barrel Deviator Doppelbock

Barrel Aged – Wine
Amsterdam Rye Peppercorn Saison
Sawdust City ODB
Great Lakes Gary

Imperial Stout/Baltic Porter
Muskoka Brewery Winter Beard
Big Rig Imperial Stout
Wellington Russian Imperial Stout

Newcomer Of The Year
Publican House Brewery

Beer Of The Year
Muskoka Cream Ale

Split Single - Fragmented World

Jason Narducy formed and fronted Verbow in the mid-'90s, but he's since become better known as a sideman through playing bass and providing backing vocals for Liz Phair, Bob Mould, Robert Pollard, Superchunk and Telekinesis. He's back in the centre stage spotlight again now, however, with Split Single.

A guy who has a resume as impressive as Narducy's has probably met a lot of talented musicians over the years, and he invited two of them to join him in what started as a solo project. Narducy sings lead, plays guitar and keyboards, while Britt Daniel (Spoon, Divine Fits) plays bass and sings backing vocals and Jon Wurster (Superchunk, Mountain Goats, Mould, Pollard, Ben Gibbard) sits behind the drum kit.

They recorded Fragmented World's 10 songs in four days at Los Angeles' renowned Sound Factory with producer Ken Sluiter (Jerry Lee Lewis, Kelly Hogan, OK Go, The Mekons).

The album title is fitting since the music is somewhat fragmented in its diversity. The propulsive "Monolith," a short and to the point rocker, reflects Narducy's punk roots and comes closest to what I envisioned Split Single sounding like before I played the album. "Made For Breaking" is also short and punchy, while opener "Waiting for the Sun" and "Last Goodbye" are slower and more melancholy.

"Searches" features more prominent keyboards along with some '80s indie rock jangly guitar, while the sub-two-minute title track reaches back farther and is reminiscent of Big Star. "Never Look Back" and closing number "My Heart Is Your Shadow" update those power pop influences and round out an album that's not going to set the world on fire as the next big thing, but which illustrates the trio's terrific talents.

Split Single will perform at the record release party for Fragmented World on April 5 at Schubas in Chicago.

Tuesday, April 01, 2014

New Brews Willis video

If you've ever seen Toronto trio Brews Willis perform, the term "Great Energy" would likely be among the first to come to mind.

Well, that's about to become more ingrained in your mind, as the lo-fi, garage-rocking punk outfit has just issued an entertaining new video for the title track of its five-song Great Energy EP. It's the first clip that drummer/vocalist Pare Bruce has directed on his own and follows the equally entertaining "Ride the Island Baby" and "Where the Sharks Swim" videos from the group's raucously fun Nerped By A Zircon debut album.

If those samples are enough to make you a fan, new Brews Willis T-shirts are on the way.

If that's not enough, Bruce, singer/guitarist Ross Carvelli and singer/bassist Sam Vipond will travel to Los Angeles this month to record a new LP. Party's Over will move the group toward "a bit more alternative/'90s grunge-inspired sound," according to Bruce.

Perhaps the boys can visit the Beverly Hills home that their namesake actor listed on the market last year for $22 million dollars while taking a break from recording. And fingers are crossed that the album turns out better than The Return of Bruno.