Category Archives: Jessie Baylin

Generational Reflux

Here’s a thought derived from this morning’s headlines, which speak of violence in America’s streets and the Middle East.

We have been here before.

I’ve made this point in past posts (I’m something of a one-trick pony): Just as Paul Simon sings in “The Boy in the Bubble” that “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts,” every generation experiences its share of discontent, unrest, upheavals, partisan bickering and/or war. The main difference: Our collective memory has become as short as our collective attention span – no doubt due to the History Channel’s shift away from documentaries and to “reality” programming. (Yes, that last part’s a joke.)

I’ll sidestep the political stuff simply because, well, it gets tiresome (few – on either side of the divide – ever change their mind from a reasoned argument or the facts, but instead dig in their heels), and instead focus on the primary subject of this blog: music.

The claim is often made, generally by middle- and older-aged folks (but even sometimes by the young), that there’s no good music being created. Everything is manufactured, soulless, awful. Examples are generally whoever is at the top of the charts – Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Beyonce, Jay Z, etc. That the same has been said time and again throughout pop-culture history, usually by the old guard about the new, is lost on them. The pop confections of the past are always tastier than those of the present for a myriad of reasons. Chief among them: nostalgia.

Now, as anyone who knows me can confirm, I listen to my fair share of yesteryear favorites. I carry large parts of Paul McCartney’s and Neil Young’s catalogs everywhere I go on my 64-gig iPhone. I crank up Bruce, the Kinks, Who and Runaways, groove to Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and Gladys Knight, and blast the Beatles, Bangles and Go-Go’s, almost always singing along if I’m driving alone. And I can’t imagine life without the Long Ryders, Lone Justice, Opal and Three O’Clock, whose songs take me back to my college days in the ‘80s. Nanci Griffith, another longtime favorite, conjures the first time I met my wife, Diane.

But I don’t restrict myself to the tried-and-true. Nor should you. There’s always good music being made – it just doesn’t always make the mainstream press or restrictive radio playlists. (I’ve written before how I find new music; it requires effort, but is well worth the work.)

So, without further adieu, here are a few relatively new acts who, I think, appeal beyond the generational divide. Each is relatively young and still in the process of becoming. And while they mine slightly different terrains, they’re all singer-songwriters.

Diane Birch is someone who, thanks to the vagaries of today’s pop culture, has only achieved minor success, yet is a major talent. She conjures Carole King, Laura Nyro and Stevie Nicks, among others, while staying true to herself.

Melody Gardot has achieved acclaim within the jazz world, though in bygone eras she would’ve topped the mainstream pop charts. She’s bewitching.

Rumer, at least in these pages, needs no introduction.

Natalie Duncan is a wondrous, still developing soul singer from Britain. Five years from now I wouldn’t be surprised if she had a No. 1 hit on both sides of the Atlantic.

Even First Aid Kit, whose Stay Gold album is a strong candidate for my Album of the Year, essentially hails from the singer-songwriter genre (and Sweden).

And Jessie Baylin, like First Aid Kit, also comes from the Americana camp. As Diane reminded me, her Little Spark was one of the best albums of 2012.

The one thing that’s missing: rock music. That’s more a matter of my current mindset than anything, however. I do rock out, but more often to such old-school acts like Neil Young & Crazy Horse, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band, and Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band. (I’m a big fan of the ampersand.) That said, I’m told Gaslight Anthem and the Everymen are great. And Ida Maria reminds me, in a good way, of the Runaways –

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Of High Fidelity, Mix Tapes & Jessie Baylin

jessie_baylinOne 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 BanglesPrinceThree O’clock,Rainy DayLong RydersLone JusticeTom 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.