Category Archives: 2013

1980s Redux/Album of the Year

Under_Covers_IIIIt’s been said that if you remember the 1960s, you weren’t there. They were the years of crazy duds, free love and mind-altering substances, after all, plus much, much more, encompassing everything from JFK’s election and assassination to the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and “Abraham, Martin & John,” to say nothing of the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, the Summer of LoveMonterey PopWoodstock and Neil Armstrong’s “one small step for man.” Maybe they weren’t quite the dawning of a new age, but they were monumental times, an important era. There’s no arguing that.

The ‘70s, too, had their fair share of moments, music and fads. Women’s lib, Title IX, est, inflation, wage-and-price controls (instituted by a Republican president, no less), gas shortagesWatergatedisco and Jimmy Carter’s malaise speech pushed and pulled the populace like Play-Doh. In many ways, the decade can be summed up by three r’s: refinement, as the excesses of the 1960s were reined in; (mood) rings, as silly fads proliferated; and rock, which shattered into fragments, from singer-songwriter to progressive to heavy metal to adult contemporary. At the same time, disco drove its danceable beat through the brain like a dull machete and punk rock turned electric guitars into glass shards aimed at the heart.

Or not. Those are, admittedly, imperfect summaries of both decades; condensing 20 years into two paragraphs is impossible. The overall takeaway, however, is this: there were good times, bad times and a lot of in-betweens. I’ve borrowed this line before, as it’s one of the all-time best, but as Paul Simon sang in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation throws a hero up the pop charts.”  Every generation also has its fair share of ups and downs, hit movies, popular books, silly love songs, fashions and hairstyles.

The 1980s were no different. The decade is often derided as an era of shoulder pads, skinny ties and big hair – even by those of us who experienced them firsthand. But, really, it was simply a transitional time. As the final waves of the baby-boom generation receded into adulthood and adult responsibilities, the first ripples of Generation X appeared. MTVMiami Vice, Michael Jackson and Madonna held sway, as did new wavecollege rock and, by decade’s end, the relatively new genre of hip hop. AM was an anachronism by then and FM’s free-form days were, for the most part, a distant memory. Sure, there was lame music around (name me an era when there wasn’t), but good and great songs and albums also abounded. Often, they just weren’t easily found.

Which is a roundabout, rather wordy lead-in to my Album of the Year for 2013 (drumroll, please): Under the Covers Vol. 3 by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs. It conjures the spirit of the ‘80s to a T – for good reason. It is the ‘80s.

If you’re unaware, the album series – which began in 2006 – tackles a different decade each time out. Volume 1 featured songs from the 1960s, Volume 2 songs from the ‘70s and this one songs from the Age of Reagan. The covers aren’t re-imaginings of the originals, but faithful renditions – sonic celebrations of the source material, if you will. In lesser hands and voices, the end result could well teeter into karaoke territory, but Sweet’s and Hoffs’ obvious love and respect for the songs lifts the sets into another realm – and none of the realms are quite as high as the one achieved on Volume 3.

Perhaps it’s that they’re covering songs from their contemporaries – Hoffs, of course, was and still is in the Bangles, one of the top bands of the ‘80s; and though he didn’t break through until 1991 with Girlfriend and “Winona,” for a time Sweet was part of the same Athens, Ga., music scene as R.E.M. Or maybe it’s the song selection. Volume 1 was tight, a true delight, but some of the picks seemed obvious; and the deluxe/bonus track-laden version of Volume 2 suffered from the audio equivalent of suburban sprawl – it went on and on and on. Don’t get me wrong, each features moments of splendor, but neither is a five-star affair (though Volume 1 comes close). Volume 3, however, hits the mark from the get-go with “Sitting Still,” the b-side to R.E.M.’s first single (“Radio Free Europe”), and doesn’t let up, dishing out college-rock classics side-by-side with MTV staples – and a few cool detours into classic rock.

I’ll eschew a track-by-track analysis, but will point out Hoffs’ sassy take on Elvis Costello’s “Girls Talk” (which was a hit for Dave Edmunds as well as a highlight of Linda Ronstadt’s 1980 Mad Love album); the Kirsty MacColl-penned Tracey Ullman hit “They Don’t Know,” which contains what may well be Hoffs’ best-ever vocal; and her sultry reading of Roxy Music’s “More Than This,” which does Bryan Ferry proud. Sweet, too, has moments both sublime and stupendous – Tom Petty’s ”Free Fallin’,” the English Beat’s “ Save It For Later” and the Smiths’ “How Soon Is Now,” for example. And just as Volume 2 hid a few gems in its deluxe/bonus track version, the same’s true here – Sweet shines on Prince’s “I Would Die 4 U” and the Clash’s “Train in Vain.”

For me, though, nothing beats their take on the Go-Go’s: “Our Lips Are Sealed” is as flat-out fun here as when Belinda Carlisle & Co. performed it at the Keswick over the summer – my favorite concert of the year, I should add. (It makes me wish the Bangles and Go-Go’s would tour together as the Bang-Go’s.) It’s an instant-smile song. In fact, the same’s true for Volume 3 as a whole. No matter your mood, you’ll be feeling happy (or happier) by the time it’s done.

Which is likely why it beat out many other excellent sets for my Album of the Year. Diane Birch’s Speak a Little Louder would be my first runner-up, followed by Minor Alps’ self-titled set, Juliana Hatfield’s Wild Animals, Natalie Maines’ Mother, Patty Griffin’s American Kid and others that I’ll likely be kicking myself for forgetting to mention. They each have something to offer, but none come close to capturing the sheer magic of Sweet’s and Hoffs’ voices blending together as one – harmonies from heaven, they are.

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Of “Moments” & Katie Rox

Katie_RoxA few months back I wrote about Sandy Denny, the British folk-rock artist whose oeuvre I’ve begun investigating nearly 30 years after first thinking that I should. As I discovered, and am still discovering, she wrote and recorded many wondrous songs. One that I’ve come to adore is “Moments,” her final studio recording. “These are the moments that we love so well/Precious moments caught within a spell,” she sings at the outset, her sterling vocals imbued with a haunting tenderness.

As my wife Diane can attest, I have a knack for obsessing over bygone songs, albums and artists. Last year it was Dusty Springfield; after a lifetime of loving Dusty in Memphis, I took the plunge and explored the rest of her canon when a YouTube link led me to her rendition of the classic Carole King-Gerry Goffin song “Goin’ Back.” The year before that it was Peggy Lee, and the year before that it was the Original Carter Family, and on through the eras and artists. The main reason why I generally find myself rooting around popular music’s figurative attic: a dearth of new sounds that appeal to me.

That’s not to say there aren’t good works being released. Juliana Hatfield’s latest PledgeMusic effort, Wild Animals, is a rough-hewn jewel; and her upcoming Minor Alps project with Nada Surf’s Matthew Caws has all the earmarks of an instant classic. But I can count on two hands the number of new albums I’ve picked up this year that I listened to more than a few times. And new artists? Even less.

Which is why I was thrilled, in early July, to stumble across up-and-coming Canadian singer-songwriter Katie Rox’s PledgeMusic page. Her Facebook profile offers a succinct summary of her life and career to date, but that’s not what sold me on her. It was her voice, which is pure and sweet, but not too sweet, and her sense of humor – as evidenced by this funny promo…

…for her PledgeMusic project. Her YouTube page also contains a bevy of cool originals and covers, including one of Freddie Fender’s “ Wasted Days and Wasted Nights.”

So, what the hell? I pledged – and not just for the download or CD, but also for a cover song of my choice.

I should mention that cover songs are one of my favorite things to witness in concert – especially off-the-wall, unexpected gems. 10,000 Maniacs closing their set with “To Sir With Love” at WXPN’s Five Star Night benefit in 1992 remains one of my favorite concert memories. There are dozens upon dozens of such songs I could easily have picked for Katie to sing, of course, and I actually considered quite a few, including ones by Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris, Neil Young and Juliana Hatfield.

In the end, though, I went with my current infatuation, “Moments.” Katie’s voice just seemed a perfect fit for it. And I’m glad I did. As she notes in the intro, prior to my request she was unfamiliar with both Sandy Denny and the song (which means she’s with 99.9 percent of people in North America) yet that doesn’t steal from her performance. It’s tentative to start, and understandably so, but by song’s end she’s in the zone: “Cherish deep within you/the love you get today/let the moment linger/for tomorrow steals that away…”

I didn’t just pledge for a song, however. I pledged to support Katie’s project, and with or without “Moments” it would have been money well spent – as evidenced by one of the completed songs, which she made available to her Pledge backers in late July. Titled “Too Late,” it conjures Kasey Chambers (though minus the Aussie accent) circa “The Captain”  with its subtle twang, moody melody and vocals that grow slightly less restrained by song’s end. It’s a stunner.

Diane went with a cool cover, too: Paul Westerberg’s “Things.”

If you like what you hear in Katie’s music, pledge. And if you don’t, hey, that’s cool – but do check out the other artists on PledgeMusic. You may just find someone whose music you’ll one day treasure.

Live Music Is Better…

What a fun few weeks it’s been. Months may pass and there’s nary a show that interests us, then a spurt of concerts are announced, tickets are purchased and the calendar fills up.

This time, the run began on June 4th at the World Cafe Live Upstairs in Philadelphia. If you’ve never been there, it’s the smaller of the two WCL rooms, really no more than a restaurant-bar with a stage at one end. Capacity is likely 120 to 150, depending on how many tables are set up, but it’s rare that we’ve been there for a sold-out gig. This night the headliner was the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named; we first saw her in 1989 at the now-defunct Chestnut Cabaret, where she was backed by a crack band that included Dave Alvin on guitar.

Now, I’ve witnessed some bad performances – most concert-goers have. Back in the mid-2000s, for instance, the Australian alt.-country singer Kasey Chambers headlined the Keswick Theatre in Glenside while sick with the flu. Her voice was shot, she was near-delirious with fever and 40 minutes after the show began it was over. But, since my first concert in 1983 until June 4th, I’ve never witnessed an act deliver a thoroughly atrocious performance.

That is, I hadn’t until the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named stumbled to the stage with a glass of Maker’s Mark in hand. On a few occasions she launched into one song while her band began another – her mistakes, not theirs. And the second time was something she’d sung 10 minutes earlier! She also rambled near-incoherently, gave the finger to a WCL staffer who stopped her from bringing her dog out of the dressing room (it would have violated a health code), and rambled some more.

On the ride home, Diane mentioned that the show almost made her want to quit live music altogether. Hyperbolic, perhaps, but thankfully our next concert – which came a mere two nights later – stopped such talk. The singer-songwriter Patty Griffin took to the stage at the Kimmel Center’s Verizon Hall with “Wherever You Wanna Go,” the lead-off track of her recent American Kid album, and proceeded to lay down an extraordinary 90-minute set that rocked the emotions even as it connected with the intellect. “Carry Me” from her classic 1998 Flaming Red album fed into “Ohio” from her new one and… wow. That “wow” extends to the hall – the acoustics, at least from our second-row seats, were incredible. The best I’ve ever heard.

That same night, the fabled ‘60s rock-R&B act the Rascals were performing theirOnce Upon a Dream revue, a stage show put together in large part by the E Street Band’s Little Steven Van Zandt, at the Academy of Music. We caught it two nights later, on Saturday. Essentially a history of the band, the 30 song-strong set was interspersed with pre-recorded interview segments, as demonstrated in this clip of “Mickey’s Monkey”-”Love Light.” At times the pre-recorded bits stole from the momentum of the music, yet even with that it was wondrous to hear such songs as “How Can I Be Sure,” “Groovin’” and “People Got to Be Free.”

The final concert of the run came last Wednesday at one of my favorite venues, the Keswick. It’s not as plush as Verizon Hall and the acoustics aren’t the best – but it’s much closer than Philly, and parking is free. (Always a plus, in my book.) The act: the early-1980s practitioners of perky pop, the Go-Go’s, who sound as good now as they did back then. (One day they should tour with the Bangles and bill themselves as the Bang-Go’s. Just a thought.) To say the night was flat-out fun would be an understatement. People stood and bopped about to most of the songs, including – of all things – a Kiss (!) tune during the pre-encore flurry of “ Our Lips Are Sealed” and “We Got the Beat.” Also included in the mix: the Belinda Carlisle solo hit “Mad About You” and the Rolling Stones’ “Paint It Black.” If heaven was a place on Earth, that night it would’ve been in Glenside!

Of course, it’s only normal to compare and contrast concerts when you see a few in a short amount of time. Me, I generally subscribe to the Neil Young school of thought: “Live music is better/bumper stickers should be issued.” They’re all good and great.

Unless, that is, it’s the Singer-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named. Then warning labels should be affixed.