April 2021 Album of the Month: The Sound of the True North



 Various Artists

The Sound of the True North

True North Records/NoiseTrade 




Ever feel like you’re in the 18th century–1752 to be precise–when the calendar changed from the Julian to the Gregorian and 11 days disappeared? In our case, though, an entire year slipped away. My 2021 album of the month was actually released in 2019, but it’s worth turning back the clock for this glorious lost-in-Covid release.


I’m not usually a fan of compilations, but the Mississauga, Ontario-based True North Records consistently puts out fine music and there are no dogs yelping on this fine sampler. Talk about opening big. Buffy Ste. Marie is 80-years-old, but you’d never know it from listening to “You’ve Got to Run,” which also features Inuk throat singer Tanya Tagaq. This is First Nations music at its defiant finest and I challenge you to sit or be apolitical still while listening to it. Ste. Marie’s voice has lost some of its vibrato, but that’s actually a good thing, as that form of high warbling is out of style.


Where to go from there? How about the well-known but woefully underappreciated Bruce Cockburn, who shows anyone who doesn’t already know that he’s no slouch when it comes to serious acoustic blues. “Blind Willie” is a classic that sounds amazing from his Cockburn’s hands. Juno Award winner Craig Cardiff offers “To Be Safe, Loved & Home,” a hopeful, uplifting, and timely song. Leeroy Stagger’s “Hey Hey! (Song for Gord)” is an earworm in the very best way. It’s about the Gordon Downie from The Tragically Hip and honors the departed rocker in a joyous, infectious fashion does so in a folk/rock song. Like a lot of Canadian rock, The Mahones have the sense to know that rock is meant to move you, not just impress. The Mahones are a bit like Great Big Sea is that they roll folk, rock, and Celtic into one big party.


If you know anything about Canadian music, you know that the surname Rankin is synonymous with great musicianship. Jimmie Rankin checks in with the country-laced “Loving You Never Gets Old.” That old mandolin sizzle and Rankin is so spirited that you’ll be picking grass out of your mane. For pure fun, it’s hard to beat Old Man Luedecke’s tongue-in-cheek bluegrass “Easy Money.” Listen beyond the opening and I’ll bet you’ll find yourself walking about singing its chorus: I dream about easy/I dream about easy money…. Yeah, said no banjo picker not named Steve Martin, ever. Need your soul to shake down to its roots?


Crystal Shawanda sounds like Aretha Franklin reincarnated on “When It Comes to Love.” You’d never guess from the way she sings about the American South, Motown, and Boston that she’s from a First Nations island of just 3,200 souls in southern Ontario.

“Rise Again.” Matt Andersen’s soulful and gospel-influenced “Quarter on the Ground” and Jeremy Benjamin’s piano-driven, sensitive “Something Broke” round out an amazing collection of songs. This stuff is good enough to resurrect the sullied reputation of mix tapes. 


Rob Weir  


Spring 2021 Cleanout: Katzman, Regrettes, Scroggins & Rose, Shalhoub, Sweater Set and more


Time once again to try to clean out the old musical backlog. Here are some capsules with links to my favorite track and another to try if you’ve got a thirst for more.



Los Angelino Theo Katzman serves potage on his latest record, which has the intriguing title of Modern Johnny Sings Songs in the Age of Vibe. Katzman gives us some rock, soul, funk, pop, and jazz, and shows his chops as a singer, guitarist, bassist, keyboard player, and percussionist.


            Recommend: “You Could Be President” is a backdoor slam on he who shall not be named. Katzman’s soulful, but affected falsetto befits the song. This one is cool live studio track with backing musicians. 

            Try:The Death of Us” has a self-explanatory title. Katzman knows how mix his funk with pop hooks 



Staying in LA for a moment, The Regrettes are a feminism-meets-genre hopping quartet that borrow from punk, DYI garage band, riot grrrl vibes, pop, and sly parodies of mid-20th century girl groups. It is built around lead vocalist Lydia Night. Their latest EP is titled How Do You Love?


            Recommend:“Dress Up” highlights their mashup traits. Are they serious or just having a goof? Yes. 

            Try:Pumpkin” is quieter, but no less insouciant. 



If we head up the Left Coast to San Fran, you will find the blue/newgrass sounds of Scroggins and Rose. Tristan Scroggins plays mandolin and Grammy-nominated Alicia Rose the fiddle, though her classical chops might make you want to call it a “violin.” As the last comment suggests, their version newgrass–showcased on Curios–is more classically influenced than the usual jazz/trad mix. Their music takes some concentration, but it’s worth it.


            Recommend: “I Can Find a Way to Fix It” has Tristan in a minimalist mood. Alicia gets to do the fancy stuff.  

            Try:“Calabacitas is in the same vein, though the two trade fancy licks. You’ll hear how Rose garnered that Grammy nom. 



Cross the Bay to Oakland for a meet-and-greet with Lebanese/Arab-American singer Naima Shalhoub, whose Siphr is moody and melancholy, yet defiant. Shalhoub is a powerful singer with controlled vibrato. She’s also a social activist, which no doubt helps her put her special spin on the blues.


            Recommend: “Two Rivers” is sung in Arabic with lyrics drawn from the Book of Isaiah and guitar work suggestive of Tuareg blues. The song’s meaning is open to interpretation, as befits someone who has also mused over borderlands of other sorts

            Try: The bump-and-thump “Roumieh Prison Blues.”  Its namesake is an infamous overcrowded lockup in Lebanon where several violent protests have occurred. 



Hiss Golden Messenger is a folk/folk rock band out of Durham, North Carolina. They will be dropping a new album soon, but their 2019 Terms of Surender is worth investigating. They are anchored by lead vocalist/guitarist MC Taylor in a lineup that’s sometimes a solo, but also expands to as many as eight others. The approach shifts accordingly and invites handles such blues, rock, swamp rock, Americana, and bluegrass.


            Recommend: “I Need a Teacher,” which was inspired by a Tarheel state teachers’ strike. (NC is one of the worst places to be a teacher!) The song honors educators and their students. 

            Try: The title track “Terms of Surrender,” which has a bit of country flavoring.  



There’s something delightfully retro about The Sweater Set (Maureen Andary and Sara Curtin). This DC-area duo has been touring for more than a dozen years and recorded their latest release Fly on the Wall in 2018. Gigging was delayed first by maternity duties–both had a set of twins within months of each other–and, of course, the Covid shutdown. Theirs is folk with a bit of cowgirl lurking around the edges.


            Recommend: “Dawn Chorus” with its splash of clarinet, big rolling strums, and mellifluous harmonies.

            Try: “Hostage” is a love song with a retro feel.



The rock band Strange Ranger used to be called Sioux Falls. I gather they been based in Montana and Portland, Oregon, though a recent article places them in Philadelphia, so take you pick. It generally builds songs around the lead vox of Isaac Eiger. Their rock is of a softer, shimmery variety, and their latest record is 2019’s Remember the Rockets.


            Recommend: “Ari’s Song,” which opens to Fiona Woodman’s bird-like vocalizations before Eiger comes in with his high tenor. It’s more sunshine pop than rock. 

            Try: “Pete’s Hill,” highlights the band’s atmospheric approach. Don’t bother trying to make out the lyrics; lushness is the point.



Melody Duncan sounds British, though she’s actually an Atlanta native. Maybe it’s her lollipop girl group tones. She has toured with some of the biggies–Emmylou, Steve Earle, Brandi Carlilie, The Mulligan Brothers–but Wolf Song is a solo venture that has hints of folk, indie rock, and chamber-pop. My short take is that I like her fiddling, guitar, and keys but I’m just not a fan of little girl voices.


            Recommend:Wolf Song,” which isn’t about four-legged critters per se.

            Try: “Paper,” which has the mentioned chamber-pop flair


Rob Weir





When the Stars Go Black a Tough Detective Novel






By Paula McClain

Random House, 384 pages.



Paula McClain is one of literature’s finest storytellers. When Stars Go Dark draws inspiration from a dark incident from 1993: the disappearance of 12-year-old Polly Klaas from her home in Petaluma, California. McClain uses that horrific incident to build a fictional tale that reminds us that high-profile cases often have the unintended effect of drawing interest away from those that don’t get as much media attention. They can blind investigators to smaller pieces that assemble a larger puzzle, or tempt them to force-fit ones that don’t match.


Detective Anna Hart, McClain’s protagonist, has numerous blinders of her own. She founded the Searchlight program that specializes in seeking missing girls, but fails to see how her obsession has made a hash of her personal life, or that deep-seated baggage bleeds into her work. Anna is tough and resilient, but prone to hard crashes. She is in Mendocino, where she came of age, as she and her husband need a break from each other. McClain drops hints about why this is the case, but skillfully dribbles out the details. We do know, though, that Anna’s crusty exterior formed when her mother died of a heroin overdose and young Anna and her siblings were separated by Child Services. Anna did not take well to foster care until she landed in Mendocino, where she was taken in by Hap and Eden, back-to-the-land naturalists. Hap taught her about surviving in the woods, where Anna also found solace.


Anna’s plan is to play hermit in a remote cabin and reevaluate a life filled with “heavy loss.” The first problem with that plan is that people remember her in Mendocino; the second is that a subteen girl named Cameron Hague has gone missing and it sure looks as if Sheriff Will Flood is out of his depth in searching for her. Several complications: Will was an old flame, Anna’s breasts are milk-swollen, she often zealously oversteps boundaries, and Cameron’s parents, Emily and Troy, are show business people seeking to avoid publicity. In situations such as this, parents are often the first suspects, plus the marriage is rocky, Cameron was adopted, and Troy’s brother Drew–now a vintner living in a palatial home in Napa–has a dodgy past (involving an underage girl) and is a pretentious jerk in the present.


As Anna pries, the dead-case unsolved murder of Jenny Ledford comes to light, as does the more recent disappearance of Shannon Russo and that of Polly Klaas. Are the four cases related? Russo, an older bad girl type, seems a different scenario, but Anna wants to check out everything, whether or not it’s her call. Nothing seems to add up, including the fact that Emily Hague flunked her polygraph test.


This is a gripping novel that pulls on the heart strings, albeit sometimes too tightly and too obviously. Like most detective/mystery tales, this one involves meticulous clue-searching, probing into the backgrounds of both the missing and suspects, tossing out rotted red herrings, and building to a carefully protected reveal. When the Stars Go Dark is also complicated by Anna’s own woes, things about Cameron about which her adopted parents were unaware, and a town filled with offbeat characters. Several of the last, including a psychic, ageing hippies, an artist, an English teacher, and a barmaid factor into the story. So too do dysfunctional families of several sorts.


In addition to the obvious metaphor of light being prematurely extinguished, the title also owes something to a poetry collection of the same name published by Jim McGarrah in 2009. Rilke, however, is our chief poetic suspect. In McClain’s novel, Anna, Cameron, and perhaps McClain herself are Rilke fans, especially of his poem “I Am Much Too Alone in This World Yet Not Alone.” As the title suggests, it’s also infused with double meanings. Cameron is also moved by Jane Eyre. Another clue?


I am usually a fan of mysteries in which the lead investigator is flawed rather than some know-it-all bafflegab who sees what no one else can. Anna Hart definitely falls into the first category and forces us to contemplate obsession as a double-edged sword. I also prefer those that ring true over the anodyne. I would not say that mystery is McLain’s m├ętier, but When the Stars Go Dark is a welcome (albeit unsettling) digression.  


Rob Weir