Today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play

After investing in a refurbished Iomega external CD burner in 2001, or thereabouts, for my low-budget DIY computer, I stopped relying on the radio for my on-the-go music needs. Instead, I made CD copies of favorite albums, created cool compilations and best-ofs, and (generally) only turned on the radio to check traffic or the weather via all-news KYW-1060AM – a routine I’ve mostly maintained, though the CDRs were eventually replaced by my iPod, iPhone, Pono Player and, now, Apple Music via my iPhone.

Prior, however, my go-to radio station was WXPN, a listener-supported AAA station in Philadelphia. They played a good-to-great mix of new and old, singer-songwriters and alternative country, plus non-alternative rock. They went deep on albums, routinely playing more than just one cut, and generally avoided the tried-and-true tracks found elsewhere on the dial. I liked it enough that Diane and I became members at some point, and renewed every year until…

…the summer of 1996, when we found ourselves – thanks to an acquaintance who owned a CD store – at a Penn’s Landing luncheon for businesses that supported the station. When the station’s program director, whose name I’ve long forgotten, stopped at our table, I mentioned my surprise that they weren’t playing anything from Maria McKee’s recent Life Is Sweet album – my favorite of the moment. My memory, and it may be exaggerated by time, is that he glared at me, shook his head and said “never” and “not on my watch” (or words to that effect), and made haste for the next table.

Granted, the glam-infested Life Is Sweet was a dramatic departure from the country-rock stylings of 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which XPN had featured a fair bit, but the title track wasn’t. It should’ve been played. The (perceived) rudeness of the program director annoyed me even more, however. I let our membership lapse.

Anyway, through the 2000s and first half of the 2010s, the only time I listened to XPN was when Diane was with me and, for whatever reason, requested it. And for a time, whenever we tuned in it seemed a Steely Dan song was playing. Odd, that. Then, in 2015, First Aid Kit was booked for the station’s annual three-day XPoNential Festival and members paid less for a ticket, so – sound basically unheard for umpteen years – I rejoined.

I assumed, because they played First Aid Kit (and, according to their searchable playlist, they did – “My Silver Lining” on and off for six months, then “Stay Gold” pretty much ever since) that the rest of what they programmed would be similar. I began listening – and was quickly disappointed. They rarely play more than one song from a new release, instead going the FAK route – one song for months, then maybe replacing it with another – and seemed more a descendent of the long-gone WDRE, a modern-rock station that never quite gained traction during the mid-‘90s, and WMMR, a mainstream rock station, than the XPN of yore. Maybe it had to do with when I tuned in – mornings on the way to work, and late afternoons on the way home – but…

I let my membership lapse again.

But still, sometimes, I find myself listening – it’s easier, and safer, than tapping on my iPhone while driving, so when an album ends I sometimes switch to XPN. Once in a while, I hear something and think, “wow, who is that?” Then they play ZZ Top, the Moody Blues or any of a number of “classic” acts that leave me flipping to KYW or, of late, WOGL, an oldies station that is enjoyable in small doses.

All of which leads to today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Near You.” In April of this year, I asked – via a tweet – why they weren’t playing anything from Courtney’s Honest Life album, which was released last October. Back in the day, they would have been all over it, playing “Put the Fire Out,” “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” and “Irene,” plus the title track and “Table for One.” One of their deejays liked my tweet, in fact…but, nothing. Nada. Zip. Months later, however, and a search of their playlist shows that they have played “Irene” a handful of times.

They should followup by placing this track, a new recording of an older song that she’s releasing on September 15th, in frequent rotation. It’s a powerful, moving tune.

2) Lucy Rose – “No Good at All.” I reviewed Lucy Rose’s recent Something’s Changing album yesterday, and included this clip. It’s a wondrous, addictive number that, according to XPN’s playlist search, has been played exactly once, three days after the album’s release.

3) Paul Weller – “Long Long Road.” They’ve played Paul Weller – a man without whom “modern rock” would not exist – exactly 14 times this year. Think about that. He’s scheduled to play the TLA in October, however, so the time is ripe to up those numbers. This is a standout track from his recent A Kind Revolution album.

4) Garland Jeffreys – “14 Steps to Harlem.” Here’s another artist without whom “modern rock” would not exist; and, to XPN’s credit, they do play him from time to time. But instead of dipping into his past catalog, why not feature something new? This, the title track to Garland’s latest album, is a beaut.

5) Karrie – “I Don’t Hear You.” The Irish singer-songwriter’s summer single is utterly addictive.

And two bonuses:

6) Courney Marie Andrews – “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” And, just because, here’s one of those Honest Life songs XPN should be playing at least once a day. This is from a recent appearance on Swedish TV…

7) Maria McKee – “Life Is Sweet/After Life.” Finally, the song that obstinate program director refused to discuss in 1996 should have the digital dust blown off the CD and played. It a true lost classic.

Lucy Rose: Something’s Changing – The Review

What a wild, wacky week it was.

At times, it felt almost as if we were stuck inside a giant pinball machine. A rocket-like spring wheezed at the start, lights blared above and a succession of ding-ding-dings echoed around us. A metallic ball ricocheted near. And just when we thought we were in the clear, the rocket-like spring wheezed again, another flurry of ding-ding-dings erupted, and another metallic ball zoomed toward our heads.

And somewhere in there, as I’ve done time and again since its July 14th release, I turned to Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing to calm my fraying nerves. The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern. Here’s one highlight: “Floral Dresses,” which – due to the Staves lending their wondrous harmonies to it – introduced me to her in March

The video adds heft to the bittersweet rumination, which is about breaking free of familial expectations, by showing the universality of the experience.

She’d already turned many ears prior to that pairing, I should mention. So much so that, in 2016, she undertook a fan-booked tour of Central and South America, where her music has never been physically released. She played 33 gigs over eight weeks, minimized expenses by staying with fans and their families, and learned a lot about herself in the process. This is the mini-documentary she made about the experience:

Another highlight of the album is “Second Chances,” about rising above self-doubt:

“Soak It Up” is yet another of the set’s stand-out tracks; and though it’s likely just me, I hear echoes of Pink Floyd at its start:

My favorite track, however, is the one I featured on July 1st: “No Good at All.” It’s positively intoxicating. (I’m not alone. Diane just said, while I was playing the video, “I love this song!”)

As I’ve mused before, “popular culture” – as such – long ago splintered into a thousand niches, and is likely beyond repair; and for those of us of a certain vintage, aka middle-aged (or older), it sometimes seems easier to lean on the tried-and-true rather than seek out new sounds. Who has the time to weed through Spotify or Apple Music playlists?! (If I had, maybe I’d have discovered Lucy Rose sooner.) Yet singer-songwriters old and new still sing and write, and make the world a better place one song at a time. This week, as over the past few weeks, Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing did just that for me. I highly recommend it.

Here’s the album in full via YouTube:

(I should mention that she announced this week that she’ll be opening for Paul Weller when he tours the States this fall. Should be one helluva double bill. And given than I bought my tickets for the Philly show when they went on sale in May, I’m now doubly psyched.)

For additional perspectives on the album, here are reviews from the Guardian, Paste magazine and AllMusic.

The Essentials: The Long Ryders’ State of Our Union

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Great albums transcend their times. Such is the case with this gem from 1985, which sounds as fresh my ears now as it did then.

In fact, if push came to shove and I really had to whittle down my voluminous Top 10 (lotsa ties!) to, say, a mere 25 titles (not as many ties!), this – the third release from Messrs. Griffin, McCarthy, Sowders & Stevens – would likely be among them. Since I bought State of Our Union at the newly minted (and now defunct) City Lights Records in State College, Pa., that fall, I don’t think I’ve gone longer than a few months without listening to it or – thanks to the 2-CD Anthology (1998) and Final Wild Songs box set (2016) – songs from it.

In many ways, the 11-song set – along with the Ryders’ 1983 E.P. 10-5-60 and 1984 LP Native Sons – served as a primer for what’s now called “Americana” music. It integrates rock ’n’ roll, R&B, country and folk into a tasty whole, contains glorious guitar work and incisive lyrics, and features melodies that burrow into the brain like a groundhog beneath a back deck. As with those earlier efforts, the Long Ryders build upon the traditions begun by such forebears as Bob Dylan, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Flying Burrito Brothers while incorporating a punk and post-punk ethos. They embraced the past while remaining relevant to the present, in other words, such as on the Tom Stevens-penned “Years Long Ago,” about how the nostalgic pull of the past often hides ugly truths:

“If we return to the places we lived in before
We turn from all that we’ve gained
If we lived out a life that we struggled to change
Just to turn back the calendar page
Then we’d see that our memory betrayed us
We’d see what had frightened us so
We’d hear all the voices that fall silent now
Pieces of years long ago.”

Another highlight: the anthemic “Looking for Lewis & Clark.

Another: “WDIA,” which offers a history lesson on the importance of America’s first black-run radio station to generations of black and white youth.

And another: “State of My Union.” Robert Christgau, the dean of American rock critics, said that the song “aggravates the honest chauvinism of Ronnie Van Zant’s reflections on the same subject with the gratuitous self-righteousness of Neil Young.” That’s a criticism, I think, but I find it funny. It’s a great song. Here’s a live version (and, yes, I’ve shared it before):

Here’s the album, via YouTube, in full (plus a few bonus tracks drawn from the Looking for Lewis & Clark EP that were added for the CD release):

The track listing: