Remember December, Vol. II: Album(s) of the Year

The Delaware Valley faces a variety of weather-related advisories and warnings this morning. The same historic storm that brought snow to Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South is brushing the Delaware and Jersey coasts, and is large enough that those of us inland are facing slushy and slippery roads if we dare to leave the comforts of our homes.

It’s a reminder that the year is coming to a close.

‘Tis the season for merriment, of course, with office parties, family gatherings and auld lang syne, and our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the greatest movies ever made), but it’s also a time for reflection. In the case of this blog, that means contemplating the music that stirred my soul over the past 12 months and selecting my Album of the Year. I gather the contenders, listen to them from start to finish, listen to them again and again, and cogitate long into the night. What’s No. 1? What’s No. 5? Should I list honorable mentions?

First, though, the caveat that I first penned in a Facebook post back in 2010: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

Second: The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.

Third: I’m not prone to highfalutin analysis, per se, and only think about meters and rhymes if they teeter or grind a song to a halt. On American Bandstand’s “Rate-a-Record” segment, the cliched “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” critique became a thing of jokey scorn, though it had much merit. Likewise, my pet phrases of “it takes you there, wherever there is” and “wow, just wow,” though overused, have merit. Great music takes us away from the immediate – it makes good times better and bad times manageable.

With that in mind, here are the Old Grey Cat’s Albums of the Year…

5) Neil Young – Hitchhiker. Neil released two albums in 2017: the archival Hitchhiker, which he recorded in one night in 1976, and the Promise of the Real-backed The Visitor. Hitchhiker, which was released in September, is a gem that shines brighter with each play while The Visitor…I like what I’ve heard, but – given that it was released on December 1st – haven’t heard it enough to weigh in, as of yet. But Hitchhiker…as I said in my review, “it’s a magical, mystical set.”

4) The Staves & yMusic – The Way Is Read. The Staves, of course, are sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, whose luscious harmonies are a thing of utter wonder. yMusic is a chamber ensemble that, honestly, I know little about, but their musical flourishes on the album are reminiscent (to me, at least) of the instrumental passages in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. In short, The Way Is Read is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year – or decade, for that matter. It’s bright, dark, brave and hypnotic, with swirling strings and intertwining vocals.

It’s also why I’ve barely listened to The Visitor, as it was released a week earlier. There’s a strong undertow to the music that just pulls me in.

3) Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing. Before this year began, I’m sure I saw Lucy Rose’s name in one of the British music magazines I flip through (and sometimes buy) at Barnes & Noble. But it took the Staves for me to hear her. They sing on “Floral Dresses,” which was one of the lead singles from this five-star delight, and mentioned that fact on their Facebook page in March. That led me to discover this video…

As I wrote in my review of Something’s Changing, “The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern.” I’ve turned to it many times throughout the year. Lucy recently tweeted out a picture of her day’s listening – Joni and Neil albums, all. Those influences are in the grooves, just beneath the surface; anyone who enjoys either of those greats would do well to snap up this set.

Oh, and if I named a Single of the Year? “No Good at All” would be near or at the top.

2) Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat. The Boston-based singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire took out her anger over the Chump election with this cathartic set. As I wrote in my review, “Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane. There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.”

Oh, and for what it’s worth, she played all the instruments except drums.

I mentioned in my original review that Pussycat likely won’t age well – 25 years from now, when Chump’s but a bad memory (akin to Nixon now), this set will take a backseat to such classics as Become What You Are, in exile deo, Made in China and How to Walk Away. And that’s okay. But for right here, right now? It hits the spot. It’s my second-most played album of the year.

It’s also home to one of Juliana’s greatest songs of all time (says I, of course), the nostalgic – and decidedly nonpolitical – “Wonder Why.”

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. Yes, Honest Life was released in the U.S. in late 2016 and, as a result, shouldn’t qualify for this list, let alone for the year’s most ballyhooed music honorific, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year. And, yet, here we are.

My contorted logic is thus: It was released in the U.K. in January; I read reviews of it in Mojo and Uncut the following month; so, ergo, it qualifies.

It’s my most played album of the year. As I wrote in my review, “In a sense, it’s a simple singer-songwriter album that, due to the age we live in, has been categorized as country because of the country-flavored overtones on some of the songs. In another era, though, ‘Table for One’ or ‘Put the Fire Out’ would have been played by radio stations that also programmed Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.”

“There is nothing revolutionary in the grooves, in other words. And, yet, there is everything revolutionary in them. That conundrum-powered clarity, carried forth by Andrews’ evocative vocals and lyrics, echoes everything from Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town to the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, to say nothing of Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul and First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold. Each of those LPs, after all, chronicle the human experience in ways that are unique yet familiar.”

I not only stand by that assessment, but – after a year’s worth of repeated plays – would argue that Honest Life stands shoulder-to-shoulder with each of those albums. It speaks to the heart and mind. It’s soulful, country and folk. The songs are plaintive and pretty, mesmerizing and wondrous, and dozens of additional superlatives rolled into one.

Like any great art, Honest Life takes you there, wherever there is. In other words, wow. Just wow.

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Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year

Any year that I see Juliana Hatfield in concert is a good year. And a year when I see her twice? Logic, at least my logic, says it should be good times two – i.e., great. And to see Juliana cover not one but two Olivia Newton-John songs while backed by Wesley Stace & the English UK? The surreal sweetness of the moment just can’t be beat. For that alone, 2017 should be damn near the best year of them all.

But this has not been a normal year. It’s as if someone spiked the water supply with mescaline in January and the hallucinations have yet to end. I’ll sidestep diatribes about America’s answer to Hugo Chavez, the human Scrooge McDucks that call themselves Republicans, and the leches that call themselves men, and instead share this:

When the music starts, we just slip away – just like a river rollin’ down…

Live music often has a more visceral impact than via CD, LP or digital download. It’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he or she feeds off you and … you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. The worries of the world cease to be, albeit for a few hours, and when you leave the venue you feel spiritually renewed.

From Lights Out in January to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) this past Thursday, and including such stalwarts as Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys and Shawn Colvin, we enjoyed more live music this year (21 shows by my count) than the past few years combined. Some shows were good, others great, and a handful absolutely sublime.

First, though, a caveat: As all things “best of” on this blog, I work from a deck stacked by my aging demographic, idiosyncratic tastes, and budget. I enjoy singer-songwriters with folk-rock and/or country overtones, and delight in discovering new artists within that realm, and generally rock out to the same artists I’ve rocked out to forever and a day, including (but not limited to) Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Kinks, Joan Jett, Paul Weller and Juliana Hatfield, among others.

And, with that, here’s Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year. (Click through to read my original reviews.)

1) Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA, 10/4/17. This show fell in what was the awful week that included the mass shooting at a country-music festival in Las Vegas and the passing of Tom Petty. Perhaps that explains the jubilation I felt at being able to forget, if only for a few moments, and let go. And, too, it was just a killer concert.

2) Kasey Chambers at the World Cafe Live, 7/5/17. Breathtaking. That’s the only word for this show, which found the Aussie country-music maven weaving heartfelt odes from thin air. Even now, watching this video, I’m stunned at how good she is.

3) The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle, 4/24/17; and Juliana Hatfield with Wesley Stace & the English UK at the Ardmore Theater, 10/12/17. When formulating this list, I found myself going back and forth as to which of these shows should be third or fourth on my list. At the Boot & Saddle, Juliana and the Three personified “brutal grace.” It was raw, raucous, loud and great, and – given than the bulk of the setlist was Pussycat-heavy, cathartic. The only strike against it were the muffled vocals.

The Ardmore show, both in her solo set and when backed by the English UK, was near the reverse, with an expansive set list that included such gems as “Slow Motion” and “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” and way-cool covers of two Olivia Newton-John songs. Here’s one:

Watching that clip again, just now, I couldn’t help but to smile.

Anyway, both shows spoke to me in equal measure. Her songs, new, old, rocking, mid-tempo or ballad, are ingrained in my soul. So, why rank one above the other? For the purposes of this list, the two concerts are a tie…

4) Courtney Marie Andrews at the Boot & Saddle, 5/9/2017. As I wrote in my review, this was as magical and mesmerizing a concert that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in my concert-going career. Courtney reminds me of Shawn Colvin circa the early and mid-‘90s, who synthesized a wide swath of influences into a hypnotic whole.

5) The Staves at the World Cafe Live, 3/9/2017. What did I love about this show? Everything! Within moments of its start, it felt as if we’d stepped through a time portal to some point in the early ‘70s. About the only thing missing: bell-bottom jeans.

And, finally…honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway was the definition of compelling, but not a conventional concert due to the monologues. Thus, I’m not including it within my Top 5 (though, if I did, it wouldn’t knock Weller from the top spot). Also, Garland Jeffreys at the World Cafe Live Upstairs was grand; Lulu at the Sellersville Theater was wondrous; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the World Cafe Live were sublime; and Tift Merritt at the World Cafe Live was utterly captivating.

As Tift sings, “Love Soldiers On.” And it does.

Today’s Top 5: October 1978 (via Record Review Magazine)

Ah, 1978. I remember it well. But I have no memory of ever having seen or read this magazine, a bi-monthly that, due to the lack of advertisements within its pages, looks like it attempted to subsist on subscriptions and newsstand sales. There’s a full-page ad for Carole King’s Welcome Home album on the inside front cover; another full-page ad on the inside back cover for YSL Records, which specializes in Japanese imports; and there’s an ad on the back for Intensive Care, an album by jazz musicians Louie Bellson, Ray Brown and Paul Smith that’s billed as “the first audiophile release from Discwasher Records.”

Beyond that? There’s a half-page “classified” section that charges 50 cents a word; and this Akai-infused subscription pitch:

The magazine itself, as the subhead promises, offers “in-depth coverage of rock, jazz and classical music.” Here’s the contents page:

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: October 1978 (via Record Review Magazine).

1) The Rolling Stones – “Miss You.” Jon Sutherland thinks much of the Stones’ Some Girls album, which he says is “the most sweeping and powerful Stones production since Sticky Fingers” and “their finest album in nearly a decade.” He also takes a shot at the punk scene: “The Stones created the spirit the punks are now borrowing, but the punks don’t have the touch of the masters.” Ouch!

Sutherland concludes his love-fest with “[t]he Stones started the trend toward hard rock and the tenacious comment that goes with it. No one does it any better. Probably, no one ever will. The Rolling Stones are the greatest rock and roll band in the world and Some Girls is a reconfirmation of that fact.”

2) Cheap Trick – “Surrender.” Page 11 features Record Review Interview: Cheap Trick, by Boni Johnson, which mixes critical insights with quotes from Rick Nielsen. Of this song, Johnson writes that it’s “as definitive of the Cheap Trick sound as anything they’ve recorded. The melodic guitar lead, strong hooking chorus line, the dash of pop sensibility, and the simple instrumentation are all evident.”

The band had yet to break big in the States, though they had overseas. “In Japan, we’ve done very well. ‘Clock Strikes Ten’ and ‘I Want You to Want Me’ (both from In Color) were hits and we’ve scored gold albums, but it’s just a matter of time before it happens in America too,” according to Nielsen.

That time came the following year, of course, after their at Budokan live album was released.

3) Bob Dylan – “Where Are You Tonight?” Michael Davis weighs in on Bob Dylan’s legacy as well as the bard’s latest album, Street Legal. “There are those who consider Dylan close to a god, and others who regard him as a has-been with the majority somewhere in between. That he should inspire such a wide disparity of views should come as no surprise since the man has followed his changeable muse throughout the last two decades…”

Of the album itself, Davis concludes “I’m a little disappointed, but there are rewarding tracks here. That doesn’t mean I’m going to stop listening to the ones that puzzle me; I know Dylan’s music well enough by now to know that the pieces don’t necessarily fall together at the beginning.”

4) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “The Promised Land.” Davis also tackles Springsteen’s third album, Darkness on the Edge of Town, his first since 1975 due to a legal fight with his former manager, Mike Appel. “It appears that he was determined not to lose touch with the streets that inspired most of his songs,” writes Davis. “But of course that environment changed for him. The people that he draws his material from in Darkness on the Edge of Town are no longer street urchins, hanging out on the boardwalks and endlessly cruising and fighting their time away. They are working men who put in 40-hour weeks at jobs that slowly eat away at them, and though they try to ease their frustrations through love relationships with women and competitive relationships with other men, they are only partially successful.”

This song, says Davis, exemplifies “Bruce’s vision of working life existence.”

5) Buffalo Springfield – “Rock & Roll Woman.” Richard Nisley delves into the short but storied catalog of one of greatest rock bands of the 1960s, Buffalo Springfield. The band “had  a string of hits in the second half of the last decade, among them ‘For What It’s Worth,’ ‘Bluebird’ and ‘Uno Mundo,’” explains Nisley. “But they are better remembered for having Stephen Stills, Neil Young, and for their last album, Jimmy Messina, as members. Each went on to become a superstar in his own right, a status the band never achieved. Not that it didn’t have the chance; what it needed was time. The band was together about two years and had another year passed it likely would have emerged from the pack that included the Jefferson Airplane and the Byrds as the country’s top rock group.” Perhaps. Perhaps not.

And in the end…there’s this preview of a surefire box-office hit…

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