One of the best books I’ve read about music-obsessive syndrome is neither a psychology textbook nor a Rolling Stone-imprinted tome, but a work of fiction: Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity. If you haven’t read it, you should, but if you’ve seen the movie that will suffice for the purpose of this essay. Despite relocating the setting from London to Chicago, John Cusack & Co. remained fairly faithful to the story about a record-store owner who dissects his past relationships in an attempt to understand why his latest has faltered. Along the way we’re introduced to a motley crew that make and trade Top 5 lists (example: Best Side One Track Ones) and mix tapes.
As High Fidelity demonstrates, music obsessives tend to gravitate to obscure, criminally ignored acts even as we rejoice in those well-known bands and artists that have had profound impacts on popular music. In our collections, the Velvet Underground and MC5, to choose two of the (stereotypical) former, share space with such paradigm-shifters as the Beatles and Bob Dylan. We are evangelists for these acts, whoever they may be, championing them to one and all. Some are (relatively) new, others not, and in days gone past they provided the grist for the mix tapes we shared with friends.
In today’s vernacular, of course, a mix is synonymous with a self-made compilation CD and/or an MP3 playlist – but I miss the days of cassettes and limited space, and the late-night sessions of mixing and matching melodies, rhythms and rhymes. Creating the modern equivalent requires one to only point, click and save – an exercise devoid of tactile pleasures, to say the least, and one that too often results in a flawed set. In fact, my main complaint of the mix CD, with its 80 minutes of uninterrupted space, is the same as that for many official releases – sprawl. You (or, at least, I) feel compelled to use up every last digital byte, inserting thematically suspect or wildly indulgent songs that, back in the day, wouldn’t have made the cut. The never-ending playlist suffers from that lack of enforced discipline all the more. With those tapes of yore and lore, however, you created compact, 45-minute suites of sonic bliss with strings of intricately linked tracks by favored artists: the Bangles, Prince, Three O’clock,Rainy Day, Long Ryders, Lone Justice, Tom Petty, whoever, with the finale – Opal’s “ Soul Giver,” perhaps, if you’d saved and shaved enough time by rewinding tight to each preceding cut – acting as an accent or umlaut on the delivered joy. And, of course, with every end there was a beginning: seconds after that last song faded, the tape flipped and the next set kicked in. Or not. Chances are, if you were listening in your car, you arrived at your destination a song or two ago; if at work, had a meeting to make; or, if at home, had chores that took you beyond the reach of the stereo. (Music-obsessives are not immune from the mundane demands of life, after all.)
I thought of all that while enjoying a Jessie Baylin concert recently at World Café Live Upstairs with my wife Diane and three of our favorite friends. If you haven’t heard of Jessie, well, you should – follow the embedded links. She’s an up-and-coming singer-songwriter whose latest release, Little Spark, marries the classic pop and soul of Dusty Springfield to the SoCal sound of the 1970s. In other words, it radiates a timeless vibe. The heady yet understated “ Hurry, Hurry,” for instance, would be a perfect neighbor in a mix to Dusty’s sultry “ Just a Little Lovin’” or “ Breakfast in Bed.” Live especially, “ The Winds” reminds me of an atmospheric Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers number, especially with Clint Wells’ guitar solo at the end. It’d feel at home before or after “ The Insider.” “ I Feel It Too”, a country-tinged gem, provides a perfect lead-in to Linda Ronstadt’s cover of Lowell George’s “ Willin’.” And the moody “ Yuma,” with its lyrical acuity and brooding undertow, easily slides beside just about any Jackson Browne song, as does “ Little Spark,” which could well be a Late for the Sky outtake.
At the end of the day, though, we judge albums as whole works of art, not for the individual tracks that we may single out. In that sense, Little Spark is everything a stellar album should be: consistent, disciplined and – as the mix tapes I once loved to make – packed with melodies, rhythms and rhymes that complement and play off one another, and that linger in the mind long after the music’s stopped. I have a hunch that, by year’s end, it’ll wind up on my Top 5 Albums of 2012 list, where it’ll likely be rubbing elbows with the planned subject of my next essay: Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball.