By James Sandham

Time is ticking down: The JUNO Awards are coming! April 1, to be exact. And while most of the attention will be focused on the big prizes – like the JUNO Fan Choice Award, for which big names such as Arcade Fire, deadmau5 and Drake are nominated, or the award for Album of the Year, which sees mega-names like Justin Bieber and Michael Bublé among its nominees – there’s a little-known category to which no one seems to pay much attention: Recording Package of the Year.

It’s probably not the sexiest category – there are probably no graphic design groupies hanging out behind Scotiabank Place after the show – and it might even be a bit out of favour these days, what with albums being released digitally and with little concern for packaging at all. But album artwork has long been the under-appreciated flipside to any musical release. All the more reason to celebrate it then!

This year’s nominees for Recording Package of the Year include art director Jannie McInnes; designers Robyn Kotyk, Graydon Sheppard, Sammy Rawal and Petra Cuschieri; and illustrator Heather Goodchild for Feist’s album, Metals. Also nominated are designer Jeff Harrison and illustrator Kim Ridgewell for Chris Tarry’s album, Rest of the Story, which is beautifully packaged to resemble an illustrated book. Without mentioning the other nominees in the category, there’s clearly a lot of talent out there, so we decided to take a look online to come up with some of the most interesting Canadian album artwork we could find. Aesthetics, of course, are necessarily a subjective experience – but we’ve narrowed it down to five album covers that really stood out.

OG Hindu Kush
In 3D

OG Hindu Kush are an Ottawa and Montreal–based rap group who, according to their Facebook page, aren’t “your favorite rapper’s favourite rap group.” Rather “they’re your favourite blood money billionaire’s guilty conscience.” However they prefer to be known, one thing is clear: their album art and packaging are impeccable. In 3D, which was released in 2011, combines the current 3-D craze with great comic book graphics and a sweet pair of retro blue and red 3-D glasses, which come with the album. Nice work.

 

Anvil
Juggernaut of Justice

One thing about metal bands is that they always go large with their album artwork. And Anvil, Toronto’s own masters of metal, are no exception. To wit: their 2011 release, Juggernaut of Justice. The level of visual excess in this artwork is awesome: a sea of people carrying the band’s emblem through parting, wave-wracked waters. It’s so epic it borders on biblical, so grossly garish that you can’t help but smile.

 

 

Black Mountain
Wilderness Heart

Vancouver’s Black Mountain do rock and roll. Their 2010 release, Wilderness Heart, was long-listed for 2011’s Polaris Music Prize. If the judging had been on album art alone, I’m sure it would have won. This image is just… so… awesome.

 

 

 

Archagathus
Canadian Horse

On the other end of the metal artwork spectrum, we have Canadian Horse, the 2011 release by Winnipeg’s Archagathus. (Although, for the purist, this would probably be considered grindcore, not metal.) As far as album art goes, I guess Canadian Horse falls into the category of “so bad it’s good.” From the hot pink lettering to the sax-blowing rider, the artwork is perfect in its tastelessness – not unlike Archagathus’s music.

 

 

Neil Young
Harvest

And then there are timeless classics like this one. Neil Young was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1982, and is the winner of seven JUNO Awards. His 1972 release, Harvest, remains an icon of album design. From the flowing elegance of the script to the minimalist simplicity of the single orange harvest moon, it’s a classic in all senses of the word. And it sounds just as good too.

 

 


By David Ball

Celebrated folk singer, activist, actor and teacher Buffy Sainte-Marie was born to Cree parents in Piapot Reserve, Saskatchewan, on Feb. 20, 1941. She was later adopted by a white family and grew up in Maine. Sainte-Marie broke onto the folk music scene in the 1960s with her first three efforts, It’s My Way!, Many a Mile and Little Wheel Spin and Spin. While these albums covered a wide variety of styles (traditional folk, ballads, blues) and themes (love, war, incest, drug use), it was her scathing socio-political anthems, such as “My Country ‘Tis of Thy People You’re Dying” and “Now That the Buffalo’s Gone,” that helped her blaze a trail as folk’s most prominent voice highlighting the plight of Native North Americans.

While Sainte-Marie’s unique and often unsettling high-registered vibrato was one factor that likely prevented her from reaching a wider mainstream audience, being unknowingly blacklisted by the Lyndon Johnson administration and excluded from radio playlists didn’t help either. As a result, some of her best compositions became better known as covers, including “Universal Soldier” by Donovan, “Until It’s Time for You to Go” by Elvis and Janis Joplin’s take on “Cod’ine.”

Always interested in other genres, Sainte-Marie recorded a critically acclaimed country record in Nashville in the late ’60s and tried her hand at rock with 1971’s She Used to Wanna Be a Ballerina, collaborating with Crazy Horse and Ry Cooder. The latter contained several quality originals as well as covers of Leonard Cohen’s “Bells” and Neil Young’s “Helpless.” From the mid ’70s onward, the multi-JUNO Award–winner explored her other talents, including acting, with a five-year stint on “Sesame Street” (1975-80) and composing music for films (winning an Academy Award, a Golden Globe Award, a Gemini Award and a JUNO for co-writing “Up Where We Belong” with then-husband Jack Nitzsche for An Officer and a Gentleman). She also earned a PhD in fine art from the University of Massachusetts, was instrumental in the creation of the JUNO category for Best Music of Aboriginal Canada, was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame  in 1995 as well as Canada’s Walk of Fame and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Her 2008 No. 1 hit Canadian album, Running for the Drum, won the 2009 JUNO Award for Best Aboriginal Recording of the Year.

 

I’ve passed on many concerts over the decades only to later regret my short-sighted and stupid decisions. The following ranks right at the top (along with Johnny Cash and R.L. Burnside)…

It took only 56 minutes to sell out all 32,000 seats for the Grateful Dead’s two-night stand at Hamilton’s Copps Coliseum on Feb. 22, 1992. The Deadheads – the legendary band’s almost-as-legendary core fan base – began lining up at the Steel City arena’s box office two weeks before tickets for the March 20 and 21 gigs went on sale. Andre, one of my oldest best friends and card-carrying tie-dye–wearing Deadhead, attended both concerts. His observations echo the sentiments of most Deadheads regarding the quality of Hamilton, minus the end bit: “First night was better than the second. I prayed three months for that ‘Dark Star’ and to this day, I may or may not have seen a dragon the second night.” I don’t want to speculate what Andre’s second sentence means, but it seems that Jerry Garcia and company delivered a truly mind-bending “Dark Star,” their dark epic masterpiece. I’ll never get over skipping seeing them since the Dead’s next planned trip to Hamilton was cancelled in 1995 after the untimely death of leader Captain Tripps (Garcia).

 

I’d be remiss not to mention this item…

On Feb. 23, 1970, the premiere of the JUNO Awards took place in front of an intimate gathering of 250 at St. Lawrence Hall in downtown Toronto. The Canadian music industry awards began in 1964 as the RPM Gold Leaf Awards, established by RPM’s editor and publisher Walt Grealis. The name was switched to JUNO in 1970, but the category winners were still decided by RPM reader polls until 1975. Today winners are selected via The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences juries and sales. JUNO was originally called Juneau in 1971 in homage to then-head of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, Pierre Juneau, who was instrumental in establishing Canadian content rules for broadcasters in promoting Canadian acts.

Interesting to be sure, but let’s get to the good stuff. Some artists (plus a couple of “interesting” categories) that took home wooden statues (yes, they were made from trees waaaaay back then) at the first ceremony included: Andy Kim, who won the award for Top Male Vocalist; Ginette Reno, who captured the wooden award for Top Female Vocalist; and Gordon Lightfoot, who surprised nobody when he won Top Folksinger (or group). I love these last two categories: the JUNO for Top Record Company went to RCA Records and the award for Best Produced Single was won by The Poppy Family. And no, I didn’t make the latter category up.

 

Traditionally, the end of February is Grammy Award time. Without further ado, here’s more Grammy news…

It was indeed an unforgettable night for Natalie Cole and her Canadian-born ace producer David Foster (an Officer of the Order of Canada, five-time JUNO Award winner and Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee in 1989) at the Feb. 25, 1992, Grammy Awards. Cole’s Unforgettable: With Love and its massive hit single won seven awards, including best album, best song and best record. And Foster took home producer of the year honours for his work on the album and single. Speaking of which, because of Foster’s deft hand, the duet “Unforgettable” sounds like an exciting and effortless collaboration between Natalie and her late father instead of an ingenious overdubbing mash-up. Nat King Cole may have died in 1965, but he got to sing with his daughter thanks to Foster.

Next week: Keith Richards and Pete Townshend

“Universal Soldier” by Buffy Sainte-Marie


By James Sandham

Well hello there, music lover. Good to see you back on the blog. Or if you’re just joining us, then welcome. Why don’t you make yourself at home? Get comfortable, stay for a while, and put some music on while you’re at it.

It seems you’ve caught me in a mellow mood today. It’s grey out there, music lover. February’s dirty dishwater sky is hanging low across the city and a cold wind’s whispering outside my house. It’s on days like today I find it best to stay inside, drink tea, wear slippers and go back through old vinyl. That’s what I’ve been doing, and I just let the needle drop on this: Blue by Joni Mitchell. Can we talk about how awesome it is?

Ah, Joni Mitchell. She reminds me of my first apartment and the girl I lived with there, now my wife. But it’s not just nostalgia that makes Mitchell’s work so resonant – there’s something else, something about her voice and the way it just climbs from the speakers, fragile but elegant, like snowbells climbing from the soil, a soft harbinger of bucolic times to come…. Or maybe I’ve just got spring on the brain – it’s entirely possible on a grey day like this one. But in any case, I’d be hard-pressed not to argue that Joni Mitchell was made for mellow days like today, and that Blue, her fourth album, seems like it was made for this mood in particular.

It’s been more than 40 years since Blue was released, way back in 1971, a whole decade before Mitchell herself would be inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame. But she was already very well established as a musician then, and Blue was an instant commercial and critical hit, reaching No. 15 on the Billboard 200 and No. 3 on the UK Albums Chart. The New York Times would later choose it as one of the 25 albums representing “turning points and pinnacles in 20th-century popular music.” High praise indeed. But totally warranted.

Mitchell wrote Blue after a tough breakup with then-boyfriend Graham Nash, a British singer-songwriter best known for his work with Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. She had taken a break from live performance at this time and was travelling around Europe after the breakup – in a bit of a mellow mood herself, by the sounds of it, because it was there that she composed much of the material that would eventually form Blue. Consequently, a lot of the album’s content centres on relationships, from the infatuation of “A Case of You” to the melancholy withdrawal and self-doubt of “River,” in which she sings of her desire for “a river I could skate away on.” There’s an emotional immediacy to these songs that is undeniable, a fact Mitchell herself acknowledged, remarking that “at that period of my life, I had no personal defences… the advantage of it in the music was that there were no defences there either.” As listeners, we’re all the richer for it.

The success of Blue would start Mitchell touring again and performing her music live. It was still only the beginning of a career that’s spanned decades, in which there were still many great albums to come. But Blue stands out among them – especially on vinyl, hissing and crackling on the turntable. And especially on grey days like today.


By David Ball

A rare concert treat and perfect early Valentine’s Day date night combined for East Berliners.

Folk-singer and guitarist extraordinaire Bruce Cockburn performed on the east side of the divided German city on Feb. 13, 1985 (he gigged West Berlin a day earlier). Cockburn was one of the few music acts from the West ever permitted into communist Berlin. The Ottawa native included eight concerts in Iron Curtain countries during his 27-date European tour in support of his 1984 LP Stealing Fire.

“The border guards were giving us a pretty hard time until they realized that we were musicians,” Cockburn said, on crossing the border from West to East Berlin. “At that point they started getting friendly and we passed through, pretty unscathed” (cockburnproject.net).

The thought-provoking singer-songwriter’s World of Wonders cut “Berlin Tonight” was inspired by his experiences in the divided city.

 

The Tickle Trunk opened for the last time, breaking the hearts of kids of all ages…

The iconic CBC children’s variety show “Mr. Dressup” filmed its last episode on Valentine’s Day in 1996. Ernie Coombs (Mr. Dressup) and his lively cast of characters, including puppet sidekicks Casey and Finnegan, decided to retire after 29 years of entertaining children from coast to coast, educating and expanding young minds along the way. “Mr. Dressup” may not have been a music-based show, but it deserves special TWIH recognition. The program encouraged creativity and provided an introduction to the wonders of music to kids across the country. Most episodes did feature music, often during craft time when Coombs was drawing or creating something magical out of everyday household items. The most fun was seeing Coombs break into song as a character inspired by a colourful costume he’d find in his Tickle Trunk.

Coombs was born in Lewiston, Maine, and came to Canada in 1963 with Fred Rogers to help his colleague create “Butternut Square” for the CBC. Mr. Rogers eventually returned to the United States, but Coombs stayed to further develop his popular Mr. Dressup character. Just three days after “Butternut Square” aired its last episode, “Mr. Dressup” premiered on Feb. 13, 1967. Where I’m sitting, this is one of the fastest spinoffs in TV history! Coombs won the Earle Grey Award in 1994 and became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1996. He passed away in Toronto on Sept. 18, 2001, at the age of 73.

 

Two great Canadians took home Grammys at the ceremony held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles on Feb. 15, 1979…

The award for best female pop vocal performance went to Nova Scotia’s Anne Murray (who was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 1993) for “You Needed Me,” while Oscar Peterson (inducted into the CMHF in 1978) won the award for best solo jazz instrumental performance for his album Oscar Peterson Jam – Montreux ’77.

Murray’s 1979 win was her second Grammy of four; her most recent came in 1983 when A Little Good News won the award for best female country vocal performance. Although Grammy hasn’t called again, her 1983-93 career proved fruitful as she was still raking in plenty of other prestigious awards, including five JUNO Awards, several Canadian Country Music Association Awards, American Music Awards, Country Music Association Awards, East Coast Music Awards and a Gemini Award for good measure.

Oscar Peterson’s 1979 Grammy was his third of eight, including 1997’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Shockingly, the Montreal-born jazz legend didn’t win his first Grammy until 1975, although over his illustrious 50-year career the Canadian Music Hall of Fame member and Officer of the Order of Canada won countless big awards, citations and honorary degrees.

 

Congratulations k.d. lang!

The cowpunk turned torch singer graced the cover of the premiere edition of Entertainment Weekly with the accompanying headline: “Beyond the Grammys – In today’s divided, divisive music scene, Neneh Cherry and k.d. lang rise above the rest by stirring up smart new sounds.” The hip American pop culture magazine focused on television, film, music, literature and theatre, offering in-depth news stories, insider reports, reviews, features, gaming, comics and tech.

The country singer-songwriter was an intriguing choice for EW’s first cover for a couple of reasons: Combining outspoken intelligence with incredible talent, lang had been pushing boundaries following the release of her 1988 major label debut, Shadowland, which boldly embraced traditional sounds of the ’40s and ’50s instead of the preferred slick pop-country of the time. Also, the magazine hit newsstands a week before the 1990 Grammy Awards, where lang won the award for best female country vocal performance. The Edmonton native’s impressive showing at the ceremony and success throughout the ’90s certainly legitimized the magazine’s bold choice of cover. Question: Where the hell has Neneh Cherry been hiding?!

 

On Feb. 18, 1882, Alfred De Sève became one of the first Canadian musicians to perform with a major American orchestra. The Montreal-born violinist appeared as a feature soloist with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E Minor.” De Sève was a well-known musician in Quebec before he moved to the US in 1881. After his stint with the BSO, he became the concertmaster for the Boston Philharmonic and later toured the US as a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestral Club. He returned to Montreal in 1899 to teach violin, most notably at McGill Conservatory. Before his death in 1927, De Sève taught some of the brightest young talents of the time and composed for piano, violin, solo and orchestra.

 

Next week: More Grammys (hey, it’s that time of the year!) and Buffy Sainte-Marie

“You Look Good To Me” by the Oscar Peterson Trio, Montreux Jazz Festival ’77


By James Sandham

February: that bitterest of months – but broken by a brief respite on which we laud the Lord of Love, St. Valentine, holy patron of affianced couples, happy marriages, love and (somewhat incongruously) beekeepers. And what better way to sing his praises than literally – through song. Here are five of our favourites to set the mood.

Joni Mitchell – “A Case of You”

Ah, Joni: flaxen-haired beauty, 1981 inductee to the Canadian Music Hall of Fame, three-time JUNO Award winner and Companion of the Order of Canada. There’s nothing not to love here, and no question of her claims to accomplishment after you’ve heard a composition like this one. Forlorn, bittersweet, drenched in melancholy yearning – it’s everything a love song should be. A true song for the lonely romantics.

 

Leonard Cohen – “Dance Me to the End of Love”

Jump from 1981 to 1991 and we find this inductee: three-time JUNO Award winner Leonard Cohen – who, like Mitchell, is also a Companion of the Order of Canada. (Gordon Lightfoot is the only other singer-songwriter to receive the prestigious recognition.) Providing a decidedly more cerebral take on the issue of love, this song blends Cohen’s superb use of metaphor and lyricism in an ode to unending romance, to a life of love and a love of life. It also contains one of my favourite lines: “Dance me through the curtains that our kisses have outworn / Raise a tent of shelter now, though every thread is torn / Dance me to the end of love.” Nothing says enduring love like that.

 

Diana Krall – “The Look of Love”

Whoa. Can we slow it down a bit here? Let’s slip into something a little more down tempo – the ineffable Ms. Krall (eight-time JUNO Award winner), crooning her 2001 single from her hit album The Look of Love. This is serious mood-setting music; in my mind I hear this playing while I’m walking through the door to find a bottle of champagne chilling on the side table, rose petals leading across the room.… Sorry, I’m getting carried away here.… Music does that to me.…

 

Divine Brown – “Old Skool Love”

A 2009 JUNO Award winner for R&B/Soul Recording of the Year, Toronto-born Divine Brown gives us a soulful take on today’s theme with this track. Sultry and warm, with a hint of sad nostalgia, it’s an ode to those idealized loves of our past, those fiery first romances that only seem to get better, retrospectively, with time. As she puts it, “I don’t want you back / But I’ll never ever love the same way again.” I think we can all identify with that sentiment.

 

Barenaked Ladies – “Be My Yoko Ono”

Scarborough’s favourite fellows round out our selection today, with this little gem of a song. The winners of eight JUNO Awards, Barenaked Ladies use this song to play off one of music’s great loves, and employ their signature charm and silliness to capture an aspect of amour so far omitted from our selections: its innocence, naïveté and fun. And maybe that’s the mood you’re looking for. In that case, we hope we’ve helped set it. Hope your Valentine’s Day is a happy one.


By David Ball

The late Kate McGarrigle was born on Feb. 6, 1946, in Montreal, Quebec. Kate and her older sister, Anna, first made a name for themselves as songwriters in the 1970s. From the mid ’70s onward they were an internationally renowned folk duo, attracting a legion of admirers, including Elvis Costello, Joan Baez, Billy Bragg, Nick Cave and Emmylou Harris.

Raised by French-English music-loving parents in Montreal, Kate began learning to play the piano at a young age. She had started writing her own songs by the early 1960s while studying engineering at Montreal’s McGill University. During this time, Kate and Anna, who was art school–educated, began their professional music career, joining Jack Nissenson and Peter Weldon to form the Montreal folk ensemble Mountain City Four. After the band dissolved in 1967, the McGarrigles embarked on their own musical paths: Kate as a performer and Anna primarily as a songwriter.

Kate moved to New York City in 1970 and hooked up with singer-guitarist Roma Baran. The two women began gigging the local club circuit, as well as touring the northeast United States, singing folk and blues standards along with original McGarrigle compositions. They were eventually offered a recording contract, but turned it down. Kate and Baran split up in 1971, and not long after Kate married fellow folk singer Loudon Wainwright III and settled in upstate New York. Their marriage ended amicably in 1976 and produced two kids, Rufus (b.1973) and Martha (b.1976), both popular musicians in their own right.

By the early ’70s Kate was dissatisfied with NYC and Greenwich Village, and she got in touch with Anna, who was based in Montreal, and they began circulating tapes of their songs. Linda Ronstadt did a famous interpretation of Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel” while “Midnight at the Oasis” songstress Maria Muldaur recorded Kate’s “The Work Song” in 1973. These covers caught the attention of Warner Brothers, and the record giant signed the sisters to a contract. Their beautiful and emotionally charged 1975 self-titled debut, which includes Kate’s “Talk to Me of Mendocino” and Anna’s “Heart Like a Wheel,” is widely embraced by folk fans and critics alike as a masterpiece. Their two follow-up albums didn’t do as well commercially, but did contain some standout tracks that further cemented the sisters as concert headliners and important singer-songwriters. Partly due to the demands of raising families, the duo recorded sporadically through the 1980s. They returned to prominence in the 1990s with two JUNO Award–winning albums, Matapédia and The McGarrigle Hour, and were made Members of the Order of Canada in 1994. During their 25-year career, the sisters released 10 studio albums, including two in French. Their final effort was 2005’s The McGarrigle Christmas Hour, a collaboration of family and friends performing both traditional and original songs. After many years courageously battling cancer, Kate succumbed to the disease on Jan. 18, 2010.

 

Corey Hart’s Boy in the Box was certified diamond in Canada during the second week of February 1986, with one million units sold. The follow-up to his 1983 debut, First Offense, was only the second album by a Canadian artist to sell a million copies; Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductee Bryan Adams was the first with 1984’s Reckless. Released in June 1985, Boy in the Box featured four charting singles, including “Never Surrender,” which spent an impressive nine consecutive weeks at No. 1 in Canada and peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard charts. “Never Surrender” finished up in second place on the 1985 year-end Canadian chart, edged out by Northern Lights’ “Tears Are Not Enough” (see below). Boy in the Box’s next two 45s cracked Canada’s Top 5 and the US’s Top 30 respectively. Only the fourth single, “Eurasian Eyes,” failed to chart south of the border. Hart has been nominated for a whopping 21 JUNO Awards and captured one statue when “Never Surrender” was named 1985’s single of the year.

 

Many of Canada’s finest musicians joined forces at Toronto’s Mantra Sound studio on Feb. 10, 1985, to record the charitable song “Tears Are Not Enough.” Calling themselves Northern Lights, the supergroup recorded the song to raise funds for relief of the 1984-1985 famine in Ethiopia. The undertaking was inspired by the United Kingdom’s all-star Ethiopia famine project, Band Aid, and the song “Do They Know It’s Christmas?”

“Tears Are Not Enough” was produced by David Foster and written by Foster, Jim Vallance, Bryan Adams, Paul Hyde, Bob Rock and Rachel Paiement, and the event was organized by respected band manager Bruce Allen. Over 50 singers took part in cutting the single with solos done by (in order of appearance) Gordon Lightfoot, Burton Cummings, Anne Murray, Joni Mitchell, Dan Hill, Neil Young, Bryan Adams, Corey Hart, Bruce Cockburn, Liberty Silver, Geddy Lee and Mike Reno. Other stars can be heard singing as duos or trios, including Paul Hyde teaming up with fellow New Wave trailblazer Carol Pope, and the grouping of Quebec superstars Véronique Béliveau, Robert Charlebois and Claude Dubois. The chorus members included the likes of Oscar Peterson, Tom Cochrane, Paul Shaffer, Tommy Hunter, Liona Boyd, Jane Siberry, Kim Mitchell and Sylvia Tyson.

“Tears Are Not Enough” was issued as a 12-inch single (ah, the good old days) by CBS in March 1985, and by April it was RPM’s No. 1 song, selling 300,000 copies. As of 1990, proceeds topped $3.2 million with 10 per cent going to Canadian food banks. It was also included on the We Are The World LP (“Tears Are Not Enough” preceded the USA For Africa project by a month) while a music video and 90-minute documentary of the Northern Lights session were filmed with the latter airing via the CBC on Dec. 22, 1985.

In a new semi-regular category I’m calling: “This Week in Celine Dion History…”

On Feb. 11, 1997, Celine Dion received a special award in New York City in recognition of her 50 millionth record sold. The honour was made all the more impressive given that one of the highest-selling albums of all time, Let’s Talk About Love, wouldn’t be released for another nine months.

Next week: Mr. Dressup, Anne Murray and Oscar Peterson

“Go Leave” by Kate McGarrigle


By James Sandham

Why, hello there, music lover. You’ve caught me in the midst of some organizational endeavours – I was just going back through my music library, trying to impose some order. You’d think it would be easy these days, in the era of iTunes and digital music – I can sort by artist, album, genre…. I even have a bunch of playlists, more specifically refined, with titles like “Music for Late Summer,” “Rainy Day Tunes,” “Psychedelic Party Mix” and “Desiree’s Workout Mix” (that one belongs to my wife). Yet nonetheless, there are still some songs that just don’t seem to fit in anywhere.

“Here Is What Is” and “Where Will I Be” are two of these misfit tunes. They’re by Daniel Lanois, from his 2008 album Here Is What Is. And I’ll be honest with you, music lover: most of the time, I don’t even think about them. But then, every couple months or so, they come into my head. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about, perhaps you’ve got a few similar songs of your own. And so it struck me, the other day, as the lonesome melody of “Where Will I Be” drifted through my head, that this is really symbolic of Lanois as an artist: he’s criminally underappreciated. Because these are great tunes. Yet for some reason, they just don’t feature on the radar. Not usually at least.

That Lanois isn’t generally a household name is even more incomprehensible than the fact I only seem to think of his music in passing, every couple of months – especially when you consider the scope of his achievements. He was inducted into the Canadian Music Hall of Fame in 2002, capping what was then already a long list of mighty accomplishments. He produced Bob Dylan’s 1989 album, Oh Mercy, worked with Dylan again on his 1997 Grammy Award-winner Time Out of Mind, and co-produced U2’s Grammy-winning mega-hit The Joshua Tree (among other albums by the band, such as Achtung Baby, All That You Can’t Leave Behind, and their 2005 Grammy-winner, How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb). Lanois then went on to release a film in 2007 (Here Is What Is, which documents the making of the eponymous album), and also collaborated with Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball, which won the Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Folk Album in 1995. And this is just a small sample of his extensive list of accomplishments – he’s also won eight JUNO Awards and had 17 nominations…. The list goes on!

But let’s put these accomplishments in perspective. Let’s consider that Lanois, who in his own words will “always be a French-Canadian kid,” was born in little ol’ Hull, Quebec, before moving to Hamilton, Ontario, at the ripe age of 12. It was there that his musical interests blossomed. In 1971, at the age of 20, he set up his first recording studio. It was in his mother’s basement. Even though it was just a four-track facility, it still began to draw impressive names – Rick James and Raffi (remember him? The children’s performer?) being a couple of the early ones. Five years later, Lanois would move on to found Grant Avenue Studios, where he recorded local Ontario acts like Teenage Head and Martha and the Muffins (whose bass player, incidentally, was Lanois’ sister, Jocelyne).

But Lanois’ big break would come when Time Twins, clients of Grant Avenue Studios, introduced him to Brian Eno. He and Eno worked closely together on albums by artists including Harold Budd, Jon Hassell and Brian Eno himself. Over the course of their working together, their personal relationship and professional respect deepened. Then, in 1984, Eno asked Lanois to co-produce U2’s The Unforgettable Fire. He got to know Bono, who would later recommend him to Bob Dylan. From there he would go on to work with Peter Gabriel, eventually producing Gabriel’s multi-platinum album So.

The rest, as they say, is history – and in Lanois’ case, it’s a history far too extensive for one article alone. You’d really need to write a book. But in 2008, it led to Here Is What Is, and those two fantastic tracks that, every once in a while, always drift into my head. So I’ve started a new playlist, just to make sure I’ve got these on hand. It’s called “Criminally Underappreciated.” So far, it contains only those two songs. And so far, I’ve still only listened to it once. But maybe that’s appropriate – like Lanois, it’s good to know they’re there, behind the scenes, for when you need them.


By James Sandham

Well hello there, music lover. Thanks for joining me on the blog. Perhaps you’re reading this from your office. Or perhaps you’re at home. Either way, I hope you’re someplace warm and listening to some music. That’s what I’m doing here in my office, with the heater cranked up – browsing through some tunes. And specifically, I’ve been listening to these guys: the 1984 Canadian Music Hall of Fame inductees, The Diamonds. Can we talk about how awesome they are?

I don’t know what it is about this time of year – maybe it’s the snow, the inherent patterns of winter or the nostalgia such recollected repetition tends to engender – but I love listening to old music in the winter. It’s warming – far more so than the cheap space heater that’s pumping away beside me. It’s one of the things the Canadian Music Hall of Fame is great for – cycling back through old inductees, discovering their music, and settling in to experience (or perhaps to re-experience) some nice, old-school tunes.

And The Diamonds’ music, if anything, is just that: nice, old-school tunes. There’s something supremely innocent about their kind of sound. It takes you back to simpler days, to that idealized vision we all have of the past, when music was sweet and melodic and usually about love (or the lack thereof), and rarely about violence or materialism or any of the problems that we know, and can’t ignore, that plague us these days. Not to mention their clothes. Those suits! It seems that in the days of The Diamonds (or so we can imagine), everyone was well-dressed, happy and lookin’ for love.

And why wouldn’t they be? Regardless of nostalgia’s distortion, I think the case can be made that times were simpler back then. Take the story of The Diamonds for instance: These were four guys who met pretty much by chance, but who went on to become one of the most successful groups of their era.

It all started with some random encounters at the University of Toronto. That’s where Phil Levitt and Ted Kowalski (two of the original four members) were going to school. They met during a surveying class. Ted introduced Phil to his buddy, Bill Reed, who then joined the group. Then, while auditioning for a local talent show produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, they met Dave Somerville, a sound engineer for the broadcaster. Realizing they all loved music, they got together, did a show in a church basement (at St. Thomas Aquinas, right here in Toronto), and based on the enthusiastic reception, decided to go pro.

Fast-forward a year and a half: After some grooming by Detroit gospel group The Revelaires, and now under the management of local CBC Radio and TV celebrity Nat Goodman, The Diamonds drive to New York City. They try out for “Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts,” a CBS Radio show, and tie for first place. Their prize: guest artist for a week with the show. This lands them a recording contract with Coral Records. A later audition in Cleveland brings them another contract, this time with Mercury Records. Soon they’re in film – The Big Beat, performing their hit “Little Darlin’” – and on the TV shows of such notables as Steve Allen, Perry Como and Tony Bennett. Then onto “American Bandstand.” Man, the ’50s…. And all this while looking sharp in great suits.

Yes, times were different back then. The world was different. Clothes were different. Music was different, too. But the music can still bring us back – for a little while, at least – as we remember what it must have been like. It’s cold outside, music lover. So why not play some Diamonds. Get cozy. And drift back a bit, and think how it must have been.