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**

Today’s Top 5: Of Marshmallows, Music & Nor’easters

Earlier this week, I planned to use this morning to write a grand essay about audience expectations, artistic inclinations and one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” which was partially inspired by Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.”

It begins:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

There’s more, of course, and – as with “The Idea of Order at Key West” – much of the poem is referential and deferential to the power and source of poetry (and art as a whole) – it’s a perfect subject for a thought piece, right?

But a funny thing happened between then and this afternoon:

A nor’easter blew through the Philly region (and the Northeastern U.S.) yesterday. Among its other misdeeds: heavy rain, strong winds and blinding snow. It was the first two that caused me to work from home; the snow was something of a surprise, as the last weather map I saw showed my hometown on the borderline between receiving none and two-or-so inches. (And if the latter, said the same report, accumulations would mainly be on the grass.) So imagine my surprise when I opened the front door at 12:30pm and saw what appeared like a white blanket draped across the neighborhood.

Still, that shock aside, it wasn’t much different than all of my workdays: busy, busy, busy. As 5 o’clock neared, I began calculating just how much longer I could vs. should work. Fridays are Fridays, after all, and tired eyes are tired eyes, but deadlines and commitments must be met. Before I could map out my end time, however, the lamp beside the desk flickered – and, just like that, we lost power. “Don’t worry,” I told Diane. “It’ll be back soon.”

But, as the minutes turned into an hour, and that hour into hours, it became obvious that it wasn’t to be soon.

To make a bad thing worse: the storm also killed cell coverage for us. I.e., no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. No iCloud. Even making a phone call proved problematic: It took two hours before I was able to call our electric company to report the outage and learn what the ETA for power to return was. (The initial estimate: the 4th at 5pm.) The only good: my Morphie battery pack for my iPhone kept it at 100 percent for the next 20 hours; Diane’s iPads were more or less fully charged; and, though her iPhone wasn’t, my MacBook was – and we used that to bring her phone back to life. (Not that she could do anything with it beyond read.)

I have several portable hard drives filled with music, but we wanted to be transported into another world – a good movie or TV show. Without access to the Cloud, or my powered hard drives (where I store things I’ve downloaded through the years, options were severely limited – some episodes of Pretty Little Liars, which Diane never got into, and the pilots for Veronica Mars and Once Upon a Time, which were both free downloads at some point from iTunes. So we watched both on my MacBook while lying beneath a small stack of blankets in bed.

The Veronica Mars pilot remains a thing of genius. It took us away from a chilly, dreary night to sunny Neptune, Cal., where a seemingly hardened teen detective shows herself to be, in reality, a marshmallow. I still miss that series. Once Upon a Time was less genius and more fluff, but fun fluff. (It’s still on the air, actually, though we stopped watching ‘round about Season 4.)

This morning, cell reception was back though the electricity wasn’t – but it wasn’t a super-cold night, so in that sense we were blessed. The downstairs was 52 degrees (Fahrenheit), as the picture shows; it could have been much, much worse.

After a run to Dunkin’ Donuts, where the Girl Scouts-branded Coconut Caramel coffee truly hit the spot, we gathered our various gadgets and hightailed it to my mother’s to charge everything that needed charging. It was there, round about noon, that we learned from Facebook that our power had likely been restored, as a nearby business was back online. And, sure enough, when we swung home, it was – the upstairs TV was blaring like a banshee.

We headed out to celebrate at our favorite restaurant – only to discover that it was closed due to a power outage of its own. In the immortal word of the eminent philosopher Homer, “D’oh!”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Of Marshmallows, Music & Nor’easters.

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Physical.” The latest song from Juliana’s forthcoming ONJ tribute is an absolute stunner. In a Stereogum article, she says “Olivia Newton-John’s lusty ‘Physical’ is a groovy, bouncy song, but my take on it is darker, more aggro, because I don’t think of lust as fun or funny; I think it’s dangerous and disruptive and mostly unwelcome. So that is my interpretation of “Physical”: the human condition is a bummer, and desire a frustrating impediment to serenity.”

2) Maryanne Window & Mary Lou Lord – “Long May You Run.” So I just discovered this sweet rendition of the Neil Young classic, which is from early 2014, this past week. Maryanne Window is an Australian musician and producer, and collaborated with Mary Lou on her 2015 Backstreet Angels album (an overlooked treasure). Here, she takes the lead while Mary Lou sings backup.

3) The Staves – “Sadness Don’t Own Me.” I’ve been playing the Pine Hollow EP over and over (and over) on my commutes of late. It’s stress-reduction set to song. And this song… as Diane just said, “It’s just so beautiful.”

4) Lucy Rose – “All That Fear.” Hearing the Staves always leads me to Lucy Rose due to “Floral Dresses.” Earlier this week, she shared the video for this Something’s Changing out-take and said this about it on her Facebook page: “My husband Will and I filmed this on our first night in Australia. I was jet-lagged, unwashed hair and had nothing to hide. I wanted to show a side of me that for so long I wouldn’t have shown anyone and a side of me I’ve grown to love.”

5) Laura Marling – “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The British folksinger recorded this spellbinding cover of the Bob Dylan classic for the Peaky Blinders finale.

And one bonus…

Courtney Marie Andrews – “Kindness of Strangers.” I shared this last week, and the audio before that. It’s another song I can’t get enough of. (Her forthcoming album, May Your Kindness Remain, is going to be grand.)