Tag Archives: No Good at All

Remember December, Vol. II: Album(s) of the Year

The Delaware Valley faces a variety of weather-related advisories and warnings this morning. The same historic storm that brought snow to Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South is brushing the Delaware and Jersey coasts, and is large enough that those of us inland are facing slushy and slippery roads if we dare to leave the comforts of our homes.

It’s a reminder that the year is coming to a close.

‘Tis the season for merriment, of course, with office parties, family gatherings and auld lang syne, and our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the greatest movies ever made), but it’s also a time for reflection. In the case of this blog, that means contemplating the music that stirred my soul over the past 12 months and selecting my Album of the Year. I gather the contenders, listen to them from start to finish, listen to them again and again, and cogitate long into the night. What’s No. 1? What’s No. 5? Should I list honorable mentions?

First, though, the caveat that I first penned in a Facebook post back in 2010: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

Second: The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.

Third: I’m not prone to highfalutin analysis, per se, and only think about meters and rhymes if they teeter or grind a song to a halt. On American Bandstand’s “Rate-a-Record” segment, the cliched “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” critique became a thing of jokey scorn, though it had much merit. Likewise, my pet phrases of “it takes you there, wherever there is” and “wow, just wow,” though overused, have merit. Great music takes us away from the immediate – it makes good times better and bad times manageable.

With that in mind, here are the Old Grey Cat’s Albums of the Year…

5) Neil Young – Hitchhiker. Neil released two albums in 2017: the archival Hitchhiker, which he recorded in one night in 1976, and the Promise of the Real-backed The Visitor. Hitchhiker, which was released in September, is a gem that shines brighter with each play while The Visitor…I like what I’ve heard, but – given that it was released on December 1st – haven’t heard it enough to weigh in, as of yet. But Hitchhiker…as I said in my review, “it’s a magical, mystical set.”

4) The Staves & yMusic – The Way Is Read. The Staves, of course, are sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, whose luscious harmonies are a thing of utter wonder. yMusic is a chamber ensemble that, honestly, I know little about, but their musical flourishes on the album are reminiscent (to me, at least) of the instrumental passages in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. In short, The Way Is Read is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year – or decade, for that matter. It’s bright, dark, brave and hypnotic, with swirling strings and intertwining vocals.

It’s also why I’ve barely listened to The Visitor, as it was released a week earlier. There’s a strong undertow to the music that just pulls me in.

3) Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing. Before this year began, I’m sure I saw Lucy Rose’s name in one of the British music magazines I flip through (and sometimes buy) at Barnes & Noble. But it took the Staves for me to hear her. They sing on “Floral Dresses,” which was one of the lead singles from this five-star delight, and mentioned that fact on their Facebook page in March. That led me to discover this video…

As I wrote in my review of Something’s Changing, “The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern.” I’ve turned to it many times throughout the year. Lucy recently tweeted out a picture of her day’s listening – Joni and Neil albums, all. Those influences are in the grooves, just beneath the surface; anyone who enjoys either of those greats would do well to snap up this set.

Oh, and if I named a Single of the Year? “No Good at All” would be near or at the top.

2) Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat. The Boston-based singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire took out her anger over the Chump election with this cathartic set. As I wrote in my review, “Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane. There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.”

Oh, and for what it’s worth, she played all the instruments except drums.

I mentioned in my original review that Pussycat likely won’t age well – 25 years from now, when Chump’s but a bad memory (akin to Nixon now), this set will take a backseat to such classics as Become What You Are, in exile deo, Made in China and How to Walk Away. And that’s okay. But for right here, right now? It hits the spot. It’s my second-most played album of the year.

It’s also home to one of Juliana’s greatest songs of all time (says I, of course), the nostalgic – and decidedly nonpolitical – “Wonder Why.”

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. Yes, Honest Life was released in the U.S. in late 2016 and, as a result, shouldn’t qualify for this list, let alone for the year’s most ballyhooed music honorific, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year. And, yet, here we are.

My contorted logic is thus: It was released in the U.K. in January; I read reviews of it in Mojo and Uncut the following month; so, ergo, it qualifies.

It’s my most played album of the year. As I wrote in my review, “In a sense, it’s a simple singer-songwriter album that, due to the age we live in, has been categorized as country because of the country-flavored overtones on some of the songs. In another era, though, ‘Table for One’ or ‘Put the Fire Out’ would have been played by radio stations that also programmed Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.”

“There is nothing revolutionary in the grooves, in other words. And, yet, there is everything revolutionary in them. That conundrum-powered clarity, carried forth by Andrews’ evocative vocals and lyrics, echoes everything from Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town to the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, to say nothing of Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul and First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold. Each of those LPs, after all, chronicle the human experience in ways that are unique yet familiar.”

I not only stand by that assessment, but – after a year’s worth of repeated plays – would argue that Honest Life stands shoulder-to-shoulder with each of those albums. It speaks to the heart and mind. It’s soulful, country and folk. The songs are plaintive and pretty, mesmerizing and wondrous, and dozens of additional superlatives rolled into one.

Like any great art, Honest Life takes you there, wherever there is. In other words, wow. Just wow.

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Today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play

After investing in a refurbished Iomega external CD burner in 2001, or thereabouts, for my low-budget DIY computer, I stopped relying on the radio for my on-the-go music needs. Instead, I made CD copies of favorite albums, created cool compilations and best-ofs, and (generally) only turned on the radio to check traffic or the weather via all-news KYW-1060AM – a routine I’ve mostly maintained, though the CDRs were eventually replaced by my iPod, iPhone, Pono Player and, now, Apple Music via my iPhone.

Prior, however, my go-to radio station was WXPN, a listener-supported AAA station in Philadelphia. They played a good-to-great mix of new and old, singer-songwriters and alternative country, plus non-alternative rock. They went deep on albums, routinely playing more than just one cut, and generally avoided the tried-and-true tracks found elsewhere on the dial. I liked it enough that Diane and I became members at some point, and renewed every year until…

…the summer of 1996, when we found ourselves – thanks to an acquaintance who owned a CD store – at a Penn’s Landing luncheon for businesses that supported the station. When the station’s program director, whose name I’ve long forgotten, stopped at our table, I mentioned my surprise that they weren’t playing anything from Maria McKee’s recent Life Is Sweet album – my favorite of the moment. My memory, and it may be exaggerated by time, is that he glared at me, shook his head and said “never” and “not on my watch” (or words to that effect), and made haste for the next table.

Granted, the glam-infested Life Is Sweet was a dramatic departure from the country-rock stylings of 1993’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved, which XPN had featured a fair bit, but the title track wasn’t. It should’ve been played. The (perceived) rudeness of the program director annoyed me even more, however. I let our membership lapse.

Anyway, through the 2000s and first half of the 2010s, the only time I listened to XPN was when Diane was with me and, for whatever reason, requested it. And for a time, whenever we tuned in it seemed a Steely Dan song was playing. Odd, that. Then, in 2015, First Aid Kit was booked for the station’s annual three-day XPoNential Festival and members paid less for a ticket, so – sound basically unheard for umpteen years – I rejoined.

I assumed, because they played First Aid Kit (and, according to their searchable playlist, they did – “My Silver Lining” on and off for six months, then “Stay Gold” pretty much ever since) that the rest of what they programmed would be similar. I began listening – and was quickly disappointed. They rarely play more than one song from a new release, instead going the FAK route – one song for months, then maybe replacing it with another – and seemed more a descendent of the long-gone WDRE, a modern-rock station that never quite gained traction during the mid-‘90s, and WMMR, a mainstream rock station, than the XPN of yore. Maybe it had to do with when I tuned in – mornings on the way to work, and late afternoons on the way home – but…

I let my membership lapse again.

But still, sometimes, I find myself listening – it’s easier, and safer, than tapping on my iPhone while driving, so when an album ends I sometimes switch to XPN. Once in a while, I hear something and think, “wow, who is that?” Then they play ZZ Top, the Moody Blues or any of a number of “classic” acts that leave me flipping to KYW or, of late, WOGL, an oldies station that is enjoyable in small doses.

All of which leads to today’s Top 5: Songs XPN Should Play…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Near You.” In April of this year, I asked – via a tweet – why they weren’t playing anything from Courtney’s Honest Life album, which was released last October. Back in the day, they would have been all over it, playing “Put the Fire Out,” “How Quickly Your Heart Mends” and “Irene,” plus the title track and “Table for One.” One of their deejays liked my tweet, in fact…but, nothing. Nada. Zip. Months later, however, and a search of their playlist shows that they have played “Irene” a handful of times.

They should followup by placing this track, a new recording of an older song that she’s releasing on September 15th, in frequent rotation. It’s a powerful, moving tune.

2) Lucy Rose – “No Good at All.” I reviewed Lucy Rose’s recent Something’s Changing album yesterday, and included this clip. It’s a wondrous, addictive number that, according to XPN’s playlist search, has been played exactly once, three days after the album’s release.

3) Paul Weller – “Long Long Road.” They’ve played Paul Weller – a man without whom “modern rock” would not exist – exactly 14 times this year. Think about that. He’s scheduled to play the TLA in October, however, so the time is ripe to up those numbers. This is a standout track from his recent A Kind Revolution album.

4) Garland Jeffreys – “14 Steps to Harlem.” Here’s another artist without whom “modern rock” would not exist; and, to XPN’s credit, they do play him from time to time. But instead of dipping into his past catalog, why not feature something new? This, the title track to Garland’s latest album, is a beaut.

5) Karrie – “I Don’t Hear You.” The Irish singer-songwriter’s summer single is utterly addictive.

And two bonuses:

6) Courney Marie Andrews – “How Quickly Your Heart Mends.” And, just because, here’s one of those Honest Life songs XPN should be playing at least once a day. This is from a recent appearance on Swedish TV…

7) Maria McKee – “Life Is Sweet/After Life.” Finally, the song that obstinate program director refused to discuss in 1996 should have the digital dust blown off the CD and played. It’s a true lost classic.

Lucy Rose: Something’s Changing – The Review

What a wild, wacky week it was.

At times, it felt almost as if we were stuck inside a giant pinball machine. A rocket-like spring wheezed at the start, lights blared above and a succession of ding-ding-dings echoed around us. A metallic ball ricocheted near. And just when we thought we were in the clear, the rocket-like spring wheezed again, another flurry of ding-ding-dings erupted, and another metallic ball zoomed toward our heads.

And somewhere in there, as I’ve done time and again since its July 14th release, I turned to Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing to calm my fraying nerves. The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern. Here’s one highlight: “Floral Dresses,” which – due to the Staves lending their wondrous harmonies to it – introduced me to her in March

The video adds heft to the bittersweet rumination, which is about breaking free of familial expectations, by showing the universality of the experience.

She’d already turned many ears prior to that pairing, I should mention. So much so that, in 2016, she undertook a fan-booked tour of Central and South America, where her music has never been physically released. She played 33 gigs over eight weeks, minimized expenses by staying with fans and their families, and learned a lot about herself in the process. This is the mini-documentary she made about the experience:

Another highlight of the album is “Second Chances,” about rising above self-doubt:

“Soak It Up” is yet another of the set’s stand-out tracks; and though it’s likely just me, I hear echoes of Pink Floyd at its start:

My favorite track, however, is the one I featured on July 1st: “No Good at All.” It’s positively intoxicating. (I’m not alone. Diane just said, while I was playing the video, “I love this song!”)

As I’ve mused before, “popular culture” – as such – long ago splintered into a thousand niches, and is likely beyond repair; and for those of us of a certain vintage, aka middle-aged (or older), it sometimes seems easier to lean on the tried-and-true rather than seek out new sounds. Who has the time to weed through Spotify or Apple Music playlists?! (If I had, maybe I’d have discovered Lucy Rose sooner.) Yet singer-songwriters old and new still sing and write, and make the world a better place one song at a time. This week, as over the past few weeks, Lucy Rose’s Something’s Changing did just that for me. I highly recommend it.

Here’s the album in full via YouTube:

(I should mention that she announced this week that she’ll be opening for Paul Weller when he tours the States this fall. Should be one helluva double bill. And given than I bought my tickets for the Philly show when they went on sale in May, I’m now doubly psyched.)

For additional perspectives on the album, here are reviews from the Guardian, Paste magazine and AllMusic.