Entertainment

Courtney Barnett, Bachman, Shania Twain top this week's new music

By Darryl Sterdan, Special to Postmedia Network

(L-R) Shania Twain, Randy Bachman and Courtney Barnett.

(L-R) Shania Twain, Randy Bachman and Courtney Barnett.

ALBUMS OF THE WEEK

Courtney Barnett
Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit


"Put me on a pedestal and I'll only disappoint you," warns Courtney Barnett. "Tell me I'm exceptional, I promise to exploit you." The lady doth protest too much. As anyone who became acquainted with Barnett's music via her 2013 release A Sea of Split Peas can tell you, the idiosyncratically witty indie-pop singer-guitarist from Melbourne is exceptional indeed. And her debut album Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit is pretty much the opposite of a disappointment: It's one of the most charming and unique offerings of the year so far, not to mention the 25 year old's launching pad to the mainstream (exemplified by a recent appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show). The secret to her success is in her songwriting -- specifically her ability to pen and play numbers that sound as if she's tossing them off even though closer examination reveals her superb craftsmanship. Case in point: Album opener Elevator Operator is the tale of a cubicle drone who ditches work one day, gives his tie to a homeless man and heads for the top of an office tower in an elevator -- only to meet a rich, middle-aged cougar who suspects he plans to kill himself and tries to talk him out of it. Not exactly the stuff of pop fluff. Yet Barnett's casual delivery, all deadpan conversational tones and Australian accent, makes it sound as if she's sharing a story someone told her earlier that day. It's typical of her rambling, richly detailed (and often self-deprecating) narratives, which often deal with the neuroses, fears and foibles that lurk beneath the mundanities and mendacities of everyday existence. Barnett doesn't gussy things up on the musical side either, preferring simple melodies, straight-forward arrangements and no-frills production straight from the slacker-rock garage. But don't sell her short; some of these infectiously poppy songs might remind you of a cross between Liz Phair (minus the hypersexuality) and early Sheryl Crow (without the slick sonics). Better start building that pedestal.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

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Bachman
Heavy Blues


Yep, just Bachman. Either Randy's finally decided he's famous enough to go with the mononym, or he just figures it sounds heavier. Given the title of the Can-Rock icon's latest, it's probably safe to assume the latter. And given the guitar-solo guest list that includes Neil Young, Robert Randolph, Joe Bonamassa, Luke Doucet, Peter Frampton, the late Jeff Healey and others -- not to mention producer Kevin (Caveman) Shirley behind the glass -- it's definitely safe to assume it lives up to that title. Backed by a female rhythm section that takes its cues from Moon/Entwistle and Mitchell/Redding, Bachman delivers a high-voltage set of power-chord originals that harken back to The Who, Cream, Hendrix and other classic rockers -- and BTO at their beefiest and least fragile, of course. Pity he didn't recruit a few like-minded frontmen -- as usual, Randy's underwhelming vocals are the weak link in the chain here. Even so, by any name, this is a solid offering.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

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Allison Moorer
Down to Believing


Turnabout is fair play. A few weeks back, Moore's ex Steve Earle weighed in with the bluesy Terraplane, which included a few songs that seemed to deal with the end of their union. Now it's her turn -- and as is often the case in these situations, her feelings are mixed. For about half her eighth studio album, the 42-year-old Nashville vet comes out swinging with a self-penned slate of raucous roots-rockers about wrecking balls and wolves at the door (the latter a metaphor for their son's autism); the rest of the time she softens and reflects soberly and somberly on broken bonds and getting back on your feet. Stirring stuff either way.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

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OLDIES OF THE WEEK


Shania Twain
Still the One: Live From Vegas


Man! This feels like the Grand Ole Opry on acid. Based on this 90-minute DVD, Twain's surreal Sin City residency has everything you expect from a Vegas spectacupalooza. Like giant video screens, concert-level lighting, flannel-clad line dancers and all the attendant glitz, glamour and gaudiness. And it also has a few things you might not expect. Like a flying motorcycle, live horses, an onstage saloon and a campfire singalong. Most importantly, of course, it has Twain, doing her best to keep things aw-shucks and down-home even as she impressively belts out her plethora of massive radio blockbusters while quick-changing into all the skimpy costumes from her videos. If all that don't impress you much, perhaps the hour-long documentary that follows the show from conception to completion will do the trick.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Judas Priest
Defenders of the Faith: 30th Anniversary Edition


"┬őDelivering the goods as usual -- if a little belatedly. Defenders of the Faith, the ninth studio album by metal gods Judas Priest, came out in early 1984, so this 30th anniversary edition is a tad tardy. But it makes up for that with a remaster of the original disc -- including the hits Love Bites, Freewheel Burning and Some Heads Are Gonna Roll -- plus two bonus discs with an '84 live show (one cut of which appeared on a 2001 reissue). And it comes housed in a nifty box with a die-cut cover, double-gatefold packaging and a softcover booklet. Keep the faith, fans.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Staple Singers
Freedom Highway Complete: Recorded Live at Chicago's New Nazareth Church


It's the gospel truth. In full. Half a century after it was recorded in the immediate aftermath of the Selma freedom marches, this uplifting 1965 church performance from the iconic family band has been restored, refurbished and reissued in its 75-minute entirety. So you get several previously unreleased, soulfully moving spirituals and originals from singer-guitarist Roebuck (Pops) Staples and his children -- most notably daughter Mavis, whose heavenly vocals power the topical title cut and others. Of course, you also get several minutes of a preacher badgering the congregation for donations, but hey, count your blessings.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

The Lookouts
Spy Rock Road (And Other Stories)


Once upon a time, in the remote California mountain town of Iron Peak, guitarist Larry Hayes recruited teenage drummer Frank Wright III and a bassist to form The Lookouts in 1985. Over the next five years, they made two albums and a few EPs chock full of irreverent, high-spirited pop-punk nuggets -- two dozen of which are gathered on this compilation. Why should you care? Because Wright grew up to be Green Day's Tre Cool, his pal Billie Joe plays guitar on some of these cuts, and Hayes ended up founding pioneering punk label Lookout Records, making this an important slice of history for old and young punks alike. End of story.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

NOW HEAR THIS

Mark Knopfler
Tracker


More of a Backtracker, really. Dire Straits leader Knopfler is in a nostalgic mood on his eighth solo album (not counting soundtracks and collaborations) -- and no, he's not pining for the days of Brothers in Arms. Instead, he revisits his early days in London, reminisces about old jobs, friends and loves, and generally adopts the contemplative, wistful tone you anticipate from a guy who recently turned 65. Just as naturally, that tone dovetails seamlessly with the mellow beauty of his music, which continues to favour the Celtic-infused Americana, laid-back folk and soulful roots of recent albums like Privateering -- and continues to be built around his Dylanesque grumble and understatedly magnificent fretwork. Right on track.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Marina & the Diamonds
Froot


Sometimes the best concept is no concept. Or at least a simpler one. For her third disc, Welsh popstress Marina Diamandis streamlines her approach, nixing the overarching themes, superstar producers and songwriters of 2012's Electra Heart in favour of a smaller, more personal work. She wrote the songs herself, produced them with David (Faultline) Kosten and cut them with a band that favoured pop sensibilities over dance beats -- and allow her to make the most of her striking vocal range and depth. She's still a few hits shy of standing out from the pop-diva crowd, but Froot is easily her sweetest offering so far.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Houndmouth
Little Neon Limelight


Once is a fluke. Twice is proof. So if you look fondly upon From the Hills Below the City, the critically lauded 2013 debut from Indiana roots foursome Houndmouth, rest assured they have not succumbed to the sophomore slump on this followup. Instead, they capably and satisfyingly pick up more or less right where we left them -- celebrating the swampy gospel-Americana shamble of Dylan and The Band, while seeding it with enough contemporary southern-fried indie-rock to sow a jubilantly cathartic hybrid. At the rate they're going, third time will be more than a charm.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Hayden
Hey Love


One presumes Hayden Desser would hate to advocate despair, grief, loss or heartbreak to anyone. But they've always worked for him. And still do -- quite magnificently and movingly, it must be said -- on the singer-songwriter's eighth studio release. Continuing his campaign to make Ron Sexsmith seem giddy as a schoolgirl, the 44-year-old bard of the brokenhearted presents another journal of introspective acoustic-guitar and piano-based laments about troubled times, unhappy birthdays and how more goes wrong than right in this life. Thankfully, some things never fail him -- like his sleepy Ray Davies vocals, straight-from-the-heart lyrics and gentle touch with a melancholy melody. May he never find happiness.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Twin Shadow
Eclipse


Are those who don't remember the '80s doomed to repeat them? Perhaps. But it needn't be a totally negative experience -- not if George Lewis Jr. provides the soundtrack. On his third studio album (and major-label debut) as chillwaver Twin Shadow, the Dominican-born, Florida-raised multi-tasker bridges the classic synth-based sound of Prince with the contemporary R&B crooning of artists like The Weeknd (with faint echoes of everyone from TV on the Radio and Sam Smith to countless arena-pop acts dispersed here and there). And while his intensely ambitious style threatens to overshadow the substance of these cuts at times, Lewis delivers the best of both worlds often enough to make it clear he's ready to come out of the darkness and into the light.

RATING: 3.5 (out of 5)

Hawk Nelson
Diamonds

Mysterious ways? Not so much. These Canadian Christian popsters are still doing the Lord's work on their seventh studio album. And the former emo-punks are doing it more accessibly than ever, setting their openly spiritual lyrics against contemporary arena-pop tracks that are every bit as catchy and well-produced as anything on the pop charts. Clearly, someone's seen the light.

RATING: 2.5 (out of 5)

Jimmy Somerville
Homage


The small-town boy goes to the disco. Make that back to the disco. Former Bronski Beat and Communards frontman Somerville has never hidden his love for the glittery sounds of the '70s. But on this half-dozenth solo outing he comes out in a big way, expressly and expertly channeling the glory days of Studio 54 with a slate of originals built around four-on-the-floor beats, wah-wah guitar scratches, finger-popping basslines, punchy horns and sweet string synth lines -- all topped with his creamy falsetto vocals, of course. Mighty real.

RATING: 3 (out of 5)

Kodaline
Coming Up for Air


They say a camel is a horse designed by committee. Similarly, this sophomore album from Irish rockers Kodaline makes them sound like a band designed by committee. Specifically, a committee that wanted a generic group that could pen arena-sized anthems that combine every stylistic and lyrical cliche they could nick from U2, Coldplay and Snow Patrol, along with a dash of Arcade Fire and Mumford and Sons just to mix things up a bit. They're not the only ones who could use a bit of fresh air.

RATING: 2.5 (out of 5)

Sheppard
Bombs Away


"Well, we rushed it," sings George Sheppard on his eponymous band's debut album. Who's he kidding? It actually took nearly a year for the Australian sextet -- which also includes his sisters Amy and Emma -- to release this disc in North America, after hitting big back home last summer. Of course, now things are moving fast for them, thanks mostly to the tribal-pop smash Geronimo. There's nothing else here that's quite as instantly irresistible, but their gospel-tinged brand of bouncy folk-pop is pleasant enough to keep Bombs Away from being a dud.

RATING: 2.5 (out of 5)

Kronos Quartet
Tundra Songs


Art imitates life. And other art. The avant-garde string quartet takes off to the Great White North on its latest collaborative release, commissioning Canadian composer Derek Charke and enlisting Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq for an artistic Arctic travelogue. Charke's sharply textured, minimalist works reflect the cycle of seasons, the vastness of the landscape and the relationship between man and environment. Drawing upon his recordings of northern nature and civilization, Kronos create an energetic and enigmatic soundscape, weaving together everything from synthesizers to Polaris Prize-winner Tagaq's otherworldly sounds with their own imitative circular bowing. The results are as hauntingly beautiful as the land they celebrate.

RATING: 4 (out of 5)

IN THE PIPELINE

March 31

Death Cab For Cutie, Kintsugi
Robben Ford, Into the Sun
Full Devil Jacket, Valley of Bones
Hollywood Undead, Day of the Dead
Jodeci, The Past, The Present, The Future
Angélique Kidjo, Sings
Kitty, Daisy & Lewis, The Third
Jesse Malin, New York Before the War
The Prodigy, The Day Is My Enemy
Darius Rucker, Southern Style
Boz Scaggs, A Fool to Care
Ron Sexsmith, Carousel One
Ringo Starr, Postcards From Paradise
The Staves, If I Was
Sufjan Stevens, Carrie & Lowell
Teenage Bottlerocket, Tales From Wyoming
Three Days Grace, Human
Scott Weiland and the Wildabouts, Blaster

Twitter: @darryl_sterdan
darryl.sterdan@sunmedia.ca


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