Category Archives: 2014

Today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant

Life. It’s sweet. Every day is a gift, every moment a treasure, despite the pain and misery we sometimes endure. Those are cliches, I know, but I believe them – especially while listening to The Natalie Merchant Collection, which I’m doing as I write. The set, for the uninitiated, features her seven studio albums alongside one disc of new and old songs performed with a string quartet, and another disc of, as the press release states, “rare and previously unreleased tracks recorded between 1998 and 2017.” It’s due out on July 14th, but those of us who preordered received it early.

Much has and will be written about the collection, I’m sure, and I plan to write about it myself this weekend, after I’ve had time to digest the new material and contemplate what the set, writ large, means in the scheme of things. I will say, however, that if you had told me back in 1986, when I first heard Natalie with the 10,000 Maniacs, that I’d still be listening to her all these years later…well, I’m not sure how I would have responded. But I’m glad she’s still making music, and glad to still be a fan.

Anyway, for now, here’s today’s Top 5: Natalie Merchant. Not necessarily her greatest songs (though some are), but great songs and performances, nonetheless.

1) “Carnival.” (From Tigerlily.)

2) “Life Is Sweet.” (From Ophelia.)

3) “Break Your Heart.” (From Ophelia.)

4) “I’m Not Gonna Beg.” (From Motherland.)

5) “Space Oddity.” (From 1999’s Live in Concert, which isn’t included in the collection.)

And three bonus tracks:

6) “Maggie and Milly and Molly and May.” (From Leave Your Sleep,)

7) “Ladybird.” (From Natalie Merchant.)

8) “Frozen Charlotte.” (From Butterfly, the collection’s disc of new and old material recorded with a string quartet.)

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Albums of the Year, 2014

I wrote in a previous post that, of late, I’ve been immersed in a deep dive of the past year’s best music in order to anoint my “Album of the Year” – a highly coveted award, I hasten to add. Past winners have included Sid & Susie, Susanna Hoffs, Juliana Hatfield, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Tift Merritt, Paul Simon and Rosanne Cash. The selection process itself is fairly straightforward: I review all that I’ve purchased; and re-listen to those I deem worthy. But now, with 2014 fading fast to black, and as I reflect yet again on all that has passed, I wonder why I bothered.

Sometimes you just know – call it love at first listen. The first notes of the first song seep from the speakers with the grace of an Audrey Hepburn or the grit of a Humphrey Bogart and, well, that’s that. Without listening to the rest, you know that this is it, the one, the set of music that will fill the soundtrack of your life not just for the foreseeable future, but for the rest of it. The way it works with me is quite simple: When the album comes to an end, I play it again. And, as Denny Laine once sang with Wings, again and again and again, after that.

I’m being a tad hyperbolic, of course. Inevitably, another album comes along – think of it as the seven-week itch. Yet, the best albums draw us back, time and again, for the rest of our lives. When I look over my Album of the Year selections, for instance, I’m amazed at how many I still play on a regular, or semi-regular, basis. Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, my No. 1 pick for 1995, has been in constant rotation since we saw her in concert in July. And I re-ripped my twin picks for 1985, Lone Justice’s self-titled debut and the Long Ryders’ rollicking State of Our Union, just last weekend and loaded the FLAC files onto my Pono player. They still sound remarkably fresh.

Anyway, any year that sees not one, but two Neil Young releases is a good year for music. The first, A Letter Home, was a very cool collection of covers that he recorded in Jack White’s old-time recording booth. It’s intimate, touching and slightly surreal, akin to a dispatch from the past to the present – or vice versa. The second, Storytone, features Neil, backed by an orchestra, singing from the heart. It was the lesser of the two, in my opinion, but still strong enough to be mentioned here. Call them the Fourth and Fifth Runners-up.

Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album is my No. 3 for the year. I reviewed it before, so shall not dwell on it here. However, the more I listen to it, the more I love it – and I’ve listened to it a lot. “Ladybird” is amazing.

The final runner-up: Rumer’s Into Colour, which was released in England in early November. It’s a heartfelt, at times sublime set that conjures the glorious adult pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s – think the Fifth Dimension, Dionne Warwick and the Carpenters, with a dash of Laura Nyro and TSOP tossed in for good measure. I plan to review it in-depth upon its U.S. release in February, but for now here’s “Reach Out,” one of the stand-out tracks:

And, finally, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year for 2014 should shock absolutely no one. From the moment I clicked on the YouTube video for “Cedar Lane,” which First Aid Kit posted a week or so before the release of Stay Gold, I knew. The song is familiar yet new, somewhat akin to a vintage coat purchased in a secondhand store. It’s comfortable. Stirring. Mesmerizing. The same holds true for Stay Gold as a whole.

I reviewed the album in July, so won’t do so again. But I will add this addendum to my initial thoughts: It’s grown stronger with each listen, and I’ve listened to it at least two hundred times over the past six months. In fact, my only knock against it is the same knock I have against much new music: The dynamic range is flattened out, so the highs and lows are neither high nor low. I’d love to hear them as nature intended – well, I did when I saw them at my Concert of the Year, but hopefully you know what I mean.

Other favorite concerts of 2014: the Bangles, Natalie, Neil and Jackson Browne. Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were fun, too. And, with that… Happy New Year!

On Albums of the Year & the Pono Player

I’m deep into contemplating my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honor. On a date yet to be determined, though definitely sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I’ll bestow the award to what I deem to be the top release of 2014. Which means, of course, that I’m sifting through and re-listening to the candidates, and drifting away on the potent melodies therein. I’m cogitating, contemplating, deliberating, pondering and ruminating, as well as chewing, stewing and mulling over the music, and debating the merits of individual selections with Diane and Tyler, our all-knowing feline sage. It’s serious business, a major decision, the kind of thing that keeps me up at night.

(Or, perhaps, not.)

I began the practice in the late ‘70s after reading the year-end picks of music critics. Granted, those scribes had access to much more music than I. Back then, I relied on birthday and Christmas money, plus my allowance, to buy albums. Today, it’s not all that different: I still budget. And, like most folks, that budget often takes a hit from competing needs and wants. Also – I’m 49 years old. Most current music holds no interest to me. So, though I was and am a music obsessive, I don’t pretend to be an all-knowing seer of any particular year’s releases. Specific artists and albums? Yes. Music history in general? Yes. The Top 40, especially of late? No.

I also, from time to time, get it wrong. A great, recent case in point: 2012. I was smitten with Susanna HoffsSomeday album, which was – and remains – as perfect a pop record as I’ve heard. I listened to it again last week and again tonight, in fact, and it’s as wondrous as I remembered, if not better. But my runner-up for that year, Psychedelic Pill by Neil Young & Crazy Horse, has become one of my most-played albums of recent vintage. It’s home to propulsive rhythms, swirling and whirling guitars, and, above all, majestic melodies. To my ears, “Driftin’ Back,” “Ramada Inn” and “Walk Like a Giant” rank with Neil’s greatest works.

Yet, I can’t help but to think that the most important music-related item of the past year hasn’t been a recording, but a player – the Pono Player, to be precise. I wrote about it a few posts ago and now, almost a month later, thought I’d expand upon that initial critique.

First, as I think I said last time out, I am not an audiophile. The emotional raison d’être of music has always superseded “sound quality” for me. Through the years, I’ve enjoyed – some may say obsessed over – music via staticky AM radio, cassettes worn so thin that the music on the flip side seeped through, and muddy vinyl (and later CD) bootlegs. But there’s something magical about unencumbered music. It’s akin to the differences between standard-definition TV and HD. If landscapes in HD look incredible, then high-resolution soundscapes are spectacular.

Sometimes.

The difference is stark when comparing lossy MP3s to the high-resolution FLAC files. The differences between a well-mastered CD (or CD-equivalent ALAC or FLAC files) and high-res ALAC or FLAC files are negligible when listening via my mid-tier, THX-certified Logitech desktop speakers. “Walk Like a Giant” from the high-res (24-bit, 192kHz) Psychedelic Pill that came with my player sounds just about the same to me whether it’s coming from the Pono Player or the ALAC rip of the CD via my MacBook Pro.

I think I hear a difference, but I could be wrong, and if there is a difference it’s not much of one. When moving between the Pono Player and my iPhone 5, however, the difference is obvious. On my mid-tier Bose headphones, the high-res version is a richer experience – similar, in a sense, to comparing an old-school 4×3 TV picture to the now-standard 16×9 widescreen. Likewise, when listening via our decade-old, mid-tier bookshelf system downstairs – “fuller-bodied” springs to mind. The ALAC-encoded “Walk Like a Giant” sounds good via my iPhone, mind you, but the high-res FLAC file via the Pono Player sounds complete. And in my car, there’s no comparison. The high-resolution music sounds immense. (When I upgrade my desktop speakers, which will likely occur mid-2015, I’ll report back.)

I’m still unsure what it is, exactly, that makes the difference. 16- vs. 24-bit? 44.1- vs. 96- or 192kHz? The DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that’s housed in the oblong Pono Player? All of the above? Or a combination of some? I will say this: my CD-equivalent, ALAC-rip of Susanna Hoffs’ Someday sounds fresher, warmer and richer than via my iPhone. “Picture Me” is a pure delight. It’s Beatlesque, beautiful and utterly sweet.

All that said, there are areas where the Pono player could stand improvement. Battery life is one. I don’t think I’ve gotten more than six hours out of a charge. (It’s not a big deal for me, as during the workday I charge it via my work computer, but it may make a difference to others.) Also, file sizes are much larger than typical MP3s or AACs, so larger storage is necessary. It comes with 64GB, and can take up to a 128GB microSD card, but given the low cost of flash memory, why not up the internal to 128GB or even 256GB? A larger screen would be nice, too, so long as it doesn’t negatively impact the battery life.

Now that I’m used to it, the Pono Music World software (used to transfer the digital files to the player) works great – when my Mac sees the player, that is. Sometimes I have to dock and undock it several times before it’s picked up. And while purchasing high-res files from the Pono Music store can be done from within the software, I’ve found it easier to do via a web browser. Navigation in the store, as it’s currently designed, is a chore – it’s not intuitive, and high-res content isn’t readily identifiable until you click onto an album to see the track listing. Of course, like the player, both the software and store are first-generation affairs – I assumed, going in, that some kinks would need to be ironed out.

All that said, when or if the Pono Player gets around to a Version 2, which I hope they do, I’ll spring for it. I’m no audiophile, as I said above, but after listening to high-resolution files and regular CD rips on this first version, I can’t imagine not having one.