Today’s Top 5: Yesterday & Today

My original plan for this week’s Top 5 was to countdown cool songs from 1996, when the Netflix series Everything Sucks! is set. If you haven’t seen the show, it’s a comedy-drama about a handful of high-school kids, and two of their parents, in Boring, Ore., that’s cut from the same cloth as Freaks & Geeks. (I won’t say more for spoiler reasons.) It’s good, if flawed, hitting the funny bone as often as it tugs at the heartstrings.

But that would’ve required a time commitment that, this Sunday, I couldn’t make. So, instead, here’s one song from ’96 – an overlooked wonder that kicked off the American Routes radio show today on XPN – and four relatively new releases.

1) Dale Watson – “A Real Country Song.” This song, which laments the disappearance of authentic country music from the airwaves, was released in 1996. Sad to say, 22 years on, real country music remains on life support.

2) Kasey Chambers & the Fireside Disciples – “The Campfire Song.” The Aussie country singer-songwriter (one of my favorites) announced this week that her next album, Campfire, will be released in mid-April.

3) The Last of the Easy Riders – “Unto the Earth.” I discovered this Colorado-based band, whose music conjures the Byrds and Flying Burrito Brothers, via a review in the most recent Uncut, and listened to their full-length debut, Unto the Earth, this morning. It’s quite good. (Side note: The opening guitar solo in this, the title tune, recalls Blondie’s “Call Me.”)

4) Caitlyn Smith – “Scenes From a Corner Booth at Closing Time on Tuesday.” The singer-songwriter has co-written songs recorded by Rascal Flatts, Garth Brooks, Lady Antebellum and Meghan Trainor, among others, but only released her debut, Starfire, earlier this year.

5) Violetta Zironi – “Oasis.” I don’t know much about this folksinger beyond this: She’s Italian; has a gorgeous voice; and released her debut EP, which doesn’t include this gem, last month.


First Impressions: Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain

For decades, just about, I usually rolled out of bed in the predawn, gulped coffee while browsing the news (and newsfeed) or working on my website/blog, and departed for the office some two hours later, right around 7:30am. I maintained that early-to-rise routine on weekends, too – even if we were out late the night before. It was just the way of my life. These days, however? Most weekdays, I wake late, don’t turn on the computer until the night, and barely glance at my iPhone until I arrive at the office around 8:30am. So it was somewhat serendipitous that I fired up the MacBook this past Thursday morning – albeit for just 10 minutes – and discovered, by way of Facebook, that NPR’s First Listen was none other than Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain album, which is due out on March 23rd.

I streamed it during the commute that followed, and found myself – for the first time ever, I think – cursing what was an atypical easy ride. The lack of slowdowns, accidents, or debris on the highway made it appear that I’d arrive at work before the album ended. (Thankfully, my fear was for naught: a jam at the Valley Forge exit, where some 10 lanes narrow into two, caused me to pull into my company’s parking lot about five minutes after the 43-minute listen had ended.)

I played it again that evening. And again this morning – times four. Not enough listens for a proper review, but enough to share my first impressions. Which are:

Unlike Honest Life, which was – by and large – a fairly stripped-down affair, the 10 songs here are fleshed out with organ, electric guitar, and Sweet Inspirations-esque backing vocals. A gritty guitar often reverberates, sawing through songs – such as the title track or “Took You Up” – like a serrated blade through softwood lumber. (Wood houses, for those unaware, are framed with what’s known as softwood.)

Now that I think about it, however, that’s an imperfect metaphor, as the song structures are beyond solid. The guitar does no damage, in other words; rather, it acts more like an accent or umlaut, fleshing out the sound and emotions. So, shifting to a more apt analogy, the sonic stew conjure the likes of Dylan (both Bob and Thomas), Joni, Lucinda, and the Band, plus – especially on “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo” – Iris DeMent. (“Livin’ in the Wasteland of the Free” is calling out to be covered in concert, Courtney. Just sayin’.)

But, mostly, the echoes are just that – echoes. Courtney synthesizes those (real or imagined) influences into a tasty gumbo of her own.

Lyrically, she makes the universal personal and the personal universal. Whether or not she lived the experiences, “Lift the Lonely From My Heart,” “Rough Around the Edges” and “Took It Up” sound like the confessions of a battered soul. (From “Took It Up”: “Is it the journey or the destination/is this love or is this addiction/circumstances are meant to be/what does that say about you and me?”) The piano intro in “Rough Around the Edges” – which is just a stellar song – is akin to a soft wind carrying the melody of a long-ago tune, though which one I can’t yet identify. On the flip side, she sounds contented in “This House,” which – though it’s not much of a house – she considers a home.

I’ll have more on it in the coming weeks. But this much I can say now: Once the album drops next week, I’ll be playing it over and over, and over, again.

(It’s available for purchase here, by the way.)

The Essentials: Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind

(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.)

It seems like yesterday, but it was long ago: As 1980 dawned, I was 14 and finishing my final year at Keith Valley Middle School, which housed the 8th and 9th grades in the suburban Philadelphia school district of Hatboro-Horsham. By year’s end, I was 15 and a newly minted sophomore at the Hatboro-Horsham Senior High School.

Highlights of the year are many: The Far Side comic strip debuted; the Pittsburgh Steelers won their fourth Super Bowl; the U.S. Men’s Hockey Team beat the Soviets to win the Gold Medal at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, NY; The Empire Strikes Back flickered onto movie screens for the first time; Pac-Man first ate a ghost; CNN launched; the Robert Redford-directed Ordinary Peoplestill a powerful film – premiered; and the Philadelphia Phillies bested the Kansas City Royals in the World Series.

But for all that good, there was plenty of bad: Paul McCartney was busted in Japan for trying to smuggle in marijuana for personal use; the Iranian Hostage Crisis dragged on throughout the year; unemployment averaged 7.1 percent while inflation soared to 13.5 percent; the Philadelphia Flyers lost to the New York Islanders (and linesman Leon Stickle) in the Stanley Cup finals; and, in December, John Lennon was assassinated.

On the political front, Jimmy Carter’s mastery of politics proved to be nil. Don’t me wrong: He’s a good man, and a great former president, but he was the wrong leader for the times. In fact, after near four years in office, the only thing he could inspire people to do was vote against him. First, he faced a formidable challenge in the year’s Democratic president primaries from Massachusetts senator Ted Kennedy; and then, in the fall, he lost in a landslide to Republican challenger Ronald Reagan.

There were also, I should mention, a slew of good-to-great albums released. Rather than replicate Wikipedia’s list, I’ll highlight ones that I added to my collection at the time: the Pretenders’ self-titled debut; Linda Ronstadt’s Mad Love; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind; Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass; Eric Clapton’s Just One Night; Paul McCartney’s McCartney II; the Kinks’ One for the Road; Pat Benatar’s Crimes of Passion; Al Stewart’s 24 Carrots; the Xanadu soundtrack; and Rockpile’s Seconds of Pleasure.

That wasn’t every new release I picked up that year, mind you, but – memory being what it is – they’re the ones that, off the top of my head, I remember dropping onto my turntable or, in the case of the Pretenders’ debut, slipping into my Realistic all-in-one stereo’s little-used cassette deck.

A few of those releases got tons of repeat plays in my household – Mad Love, Against the Wind, McCartney II, One for the Road, Crimes of Passion and Xanadu, especially. And at year’s end, as was my custom, I selected my Album of the Year from those six candidates – Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s Against the Wind came out on top.

Even now, I’d make the same call. Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band’s The River, Van Morrison’s Common One, Neil Young’s Hawks & Doves, the Jam’s Sound Affects, and a few other LPs would be in the running, but – when all is said and done – Against the Wind is it for me.

It’s why I have a framed lithograph of the album cover on the wall above my desk.

The 10 songs yearn and burn, ruminate and illuminate, and ride an interstate jammed with regret and hope. The songs rock (“Horizontal Bop”), roll (“Long Twin Silver Line”), cogitate (“No Man’s Land”) and contemplate (“Against the Wind”). And, like a fine wine, they’ve only gotten better with age.

One highlight is the mid-tempo “You’ll Accomp’ny Me”:

Another: the title cut.

And “No Man’s Land” –

To my ears, it’s one of Seger’s greatest (if lesser-known) songs. As I hear it, and I could be wrong, it’s a metaphor about the struggles faced by writers of every stripe – the difficulty of creating something from nothing. It also contains one of my favorite lyrics:  “But sanctuary never comes/without some kind of risk/illusions without freedom/never quite add up to bliss.” They sound more profound than they likely are, I think, but it’s no matter. They make me think, as do the lines that follow:

The haunting and the haunted
Play a game no one can win
The spirits come at midnight
And by dawn they’re gone again.

Who hasn’t had a great idea late at night only to have it fade come the morning light?

Lyrically speaking, the only song that probably hasn’t aged well is “Her Strut,” which was inspired by Jane Fonda. But the guitars are killer. (And, for what it’s worth, Jane likes the song.)

The album’s closer, “Shinin’ Brightly,” is probably the greatest song Van Morrison never wrote:

As a whole, the album proved a success: It became Bob’s first – and only – No. 1 LP, eventually selling more than 5 million copies. It’s also the home to three songs that made the Top 20 (“Fire Lake,” which reached No. 6; “Against the Wind,” which cracked the Top 5; and “You’ll Accomp’ny Me,” which reached No. 14.)

And, as with his other Silver Bullet Band albums, the band itself only plays on some songs; the others, which I’ve asterisked below, feature the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

Side One:

  1. The Horizontal Bop
  2. You’ll Accomp’ny Me
  3. Her Strut
  4. No Man’s Land**
  5. Long Twin Silver Line**

Side Two:

  1. Against the Wind
  2. Good for Me**
  3. Betty Lou’s Getting Out Tonight
  4. Fire Lake**
  5. Shinin’ Brightly**