What We’re Listening To This Week

19 11 2009

7 Worlds Collide

The Sun Came Out (Sony)
If it’s getting close to Christmas, it must be time for benefit albums—and this latest incarnation of the 7 Worlds Collide project offers some tasty tunes for a good cause. Originally organized as a series of  2003 New Zealand benefit concerts in support of Medecins Sans Frontieres by Crowded House frontman Neil Finn, this new 24-track double album brings together a number of the original participants with some new players (and their families) to benefit a whole new cause (Oxfam). Strongly anchored by members of Radiohead (Phil Selway, Ed O’Brien) and Wilco (Jeff Tweedy, John Stirratt, Glenn Kotche, Pat Sansone) plus the likes of Johnny Marr (the Smiths, Modest Mouse), Sebastian Steinberg (Soul Coughing), KT Tunstall, Tim Finn (Split Enz) and New Zealand favourite Bic Runga, among others, the best thing about The Sun Came Out is the collaborative nature of the project—rather than the usual “here’s my track” offering, we get a real sense of musical melding here, with most playing on each other’s tracks. Another factor that makes this project notable is that all the songs had to be original, and indeed many of them were made up on the spot once the players assembled at Finn HQ in New Zealand. (Be sure to check out the website, where there’s a series of informal videos capturing the sessions.) As eclectic a batch of songs as you’d expect, given the back catalogue of some of the artists, it’s hard to pick favourites out of such a strong batch of songs; better to just put the whole darn thing on for a spin and enjoy it en masse.

Various Artists

Amchitka: The 1970 Concert That Launched Greenpeace (Greenpeace)
The introduction by Irving Stowe (dubbed by many as the father of Greenpeace) sets the tone for this fascinating slice of West Coast music history: “Brothers and sisters in green peace. Green peace is beautiful, and you are beautiful because you are here tonight. You came here because you are not on a death trip; you believe in life, you believe in peace and you want them now. By coming here tonight, you are making possible a trip for life and for peace; you are supporting the first green peace project, sending a ship to Amchitka to try to stop the testing of hydrogen bombs there, or anywhere.” Which, in a nutshell, was the genesis for both this 1970 fundraising concert at the PNE Coliseum and what would become the internationally recognized organization Greenpeace—raise some money to send a ship to protest nuclear testing. Invited to make that happen were noted ’60s-era folk activist Phil Ochs, rising Canadian star Joni Mitchell and surprise guest James Taylor, who was there at Mitchell’s invitation rather than Stowe’s and was just starting to make his own mark on the musical scene. (Also on the $3 concert bill, which attracted some 10,000 people, were Vancouver stalwarts Chilliwack, whose set is sadly not included here.)

Remastered from the original reel-to-reel archival recording, this 26-trac double album (plus 45-page commemorative booklet, including the original poster art, some great images and a lovely gatefold cover) nicely captures the sound and spirit of the concert by focussing on the performances more than the roar of the crowd. Ochs gets eight songs (including “The Bells,” “I Ain’t Marching Anymore,” and “No More Songs”), which serve as a great introduction for listeners who may have grown up after his era but are curious to hear one of the originators of activist music, while Taylor puts in a seven-song set, which plays like an early James Taylor greatest-hits package (“Something in the Way She Moves,” “Fire and Rain,” “Carolina On My Mind,” “Sweet Baby James”) . . . but it’s always a pleasure to hear his smooth voice when it’s young and strong. No big surprise, Joni Mitchell‘s 10-song set is the strongest—including “Big Yellow Taxi” backing into “Bony Maroni,” “Carey,” “The Circle Game” (or at least most of it, as the tape ran out during the original concert!), “Hunter,” “My Old Man”—and while it’s all naturally Mitchell’s early work on display here, it shows the talent that is to come. It’s also great hearing her perform “Woodstock” less than a year after the event itself. Ideal for aging hipsters looking for two hours of early ’70s flashbacks—or as an audio memory for anyone who was actually there—but for the rest of us, it’s simply a strong live album, much like George Harrison’s noted Concert for Bangladesh (which the Greenpeace gig predated by a year). This one’s available exclusively through Greenpeace’s website, where you can buy it as a physical album or as MP3 downloads.

Imogen Heap
Ellipse (RCA/Megaphonic)
The third full-length album from this busy British songstress and two-time Grammy nominee who tends to pop up on other people’s projects more than her own, Ellipse is a solid contribution to Heap’s stunningly sort-of-spooky signature sound. (There must be something in the English water that keeps producing the likes of Kate Bush, Tori Amos and Heap herself.) The perfect album for housebound rainy days, introspective early mornings or moody evenings with a candle and a lover, there’s a lot here to keep your ear intrigued; the 13 songs here definitely make this anything but a single-play disc. Tracks like the plucky “Earth” bounce around like a canary in a cage, while the appropriately tagged “Tidal” washes you down with its smooth melody and “Half Life” sweeps you up in atmospheric lushness. If you want to play the comparison game, I’ve been enjoying Ellipse more than anything Amos has put out recently, and will continue to spin it in the months to come.

Billy Bragg
Mr. Love & Justice (Cooking Vinyl)
Okay, so this one was released last year but I’ve been listening to it now in advance of Billy Bragg’s date in town this week. That said, Mr. Love & Justice is another strong album in an already impressive catalogue of work, offered here in both full-band and acoustic solo versions. Personally, I prefer the fuller sound offered by his supporting band the Blokes (who backed him on ’02s England, Half English), as it’s more musically satisfying; check out the lonesome trombone on “M for Me” for a good example. (Even Bragg himself admits that the acoustic set, while offering good “value for money” didn’t quite work; they were originally record for a promotional video project that didn’t really come together. “My only regret is that some of the songs were brand new and I hadn’t really played them in,” he says of the acoustic tracks. “I don’t play ’em like that anymore.”) Featuring 12 solid tracks ranging from the pop-y (the Morrisey-esque “I Almost Killed You”) to the usual social-justice anthems (“O Freedom,” which easily stands among his most powerful songs), Mr. Love & Justice is a must-have for any serious Bragg follower who has been just itching for an original follow-up to his recent greatest-hits package—or a good introduction for anyone looking to discover what makes Billy Bragg stand out from the late-20th century singer-songwriter pack.

—John Threlfall

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