Tag Archives: The Staves

Today’s Top 5: Of Marshmallows, Music & Nor’easters

Earlier this week, I planned to use this morning to write a grand essay about audience expectations, artistic inclinations and one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” which was partially inspired by Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.”

It begins:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

There’s more, of course, and – as with “The Idea of Order at Key West” – much of the poem is referential and deferential to the power and source of poetry (and art as a whole) – it’s a perfect subject for a thought piece, right?

But a funny thing happened between then and this afternoon:

A nor’easter blew through the Philly region (and the Northeastern U.S.) yesterday. Among its other misdeeds: heavy rain, strong winds and blinding snow. It was the first two that caused me to work from home; the snow was something of a surprise, as the last weather map I saw showed my hometown on the borderline between receiving none and two-or-so inches. (And if the latter, said the same report, accumulations would mainly be on the grass.) So imagine my surprise when I opened the front door at 12:30pm and saw what appeared like a white blanket draped across the neighborhood.

Still, that shock aside, it wasn’t much different than all of my workdays: busy, busy, busy. As 5 o’clock neared, I began calculating just how much longer I could vs. should work. Fridays are Fridays, after all, and tired eyes are tired eyes, but deadlines and commitments must be met. Before I could map out my end time, however, the lamp beside the desk flickered – and, just like that, we lost power. “Don’t worry,” I told Diane. “It’ll be back soon.”

But, as the minutes turned into an hour, and that hour into hours, it became obvious that it wasn’t to be soon.

To make a bad thing worse: the storm also killed cell coverage for us. I.e., no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. No iCloud. Even making a phone call proved problematic: It took two hours before I was able to call our electric company to report the outage and learn what the ETA for power to return was. (The initial estimate: the 4th at 5pm.) The only good: my Morphie battery pack for my iPhone kept it at 100 percent for the next 20 hours; Diane’s iPads were more or less fully charged; and, though her iPhone wasn’t, my MacBook was – and we used that to bring her phone back to life. (Not that she could do anything with it beyond read.)

I have several portable hard drives filled with music, but we wanted to be transported into another world – a good movie or TV show. Without access to the Cloud, or my powered hard drives (where I store things I’ve downloaded through the years, options were severely limited – some episodes of Pretty Little Liars, which Diane never got into, and the pilots for Veronica Mars and Once Upon a Time, which were both free downloads at some point from iTunes. So we watched both on my MacBook while lying beneath a small stack of blankets in bed.

The Veronica Mars pilot remains a thing of genius. It took us away from a chilly, dreary night to sunny Neptune, Cal., where a seemingly hardened teen detective shows herself to be, in reality, a marshmallow. I still miss that series. Once Upon a Time was less genius and more fluff, but fun fluff. (It’s still on the air, actually, though we stopped watching ‘round about Season 4.)

This morning, cell reception was back though the electricity wasn’t – but it wasn’t a super-cold night, so in that sense we were blessed. The downstairs was 52 degrees (Fahrenheit), as the picture shows; it could have been much, much worse.

After a run to Dunkin’ Donuts, where the Girl Scouts-branded Coconut Caramel coffee truly hit the spot, we gathered our various gadgets and hightailed it to my mother’s to charge everything that needed charging. It was there, round about noon, that we learned from Facebook that our power had likely been restored, as a nearby business was back online. And, sure enough, when we swung home, it was – the upstairs TV was blaring like a banshee.

We headed out to celebrate at our favorite restaurant – only to discover that it was closed due to a power outage of its own. In the immortal word of the eminent philosopher Homer, “D’oh!”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Of Marshmallows, Music & Nor’easters.

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Physical.” The latest song from Juliana’s forthcoming ONJ tribute is an absolute stunner. In a Stereogum article, she says “Olivia Newton-John’s lusty ‘Physical’ is a groovy, bouncy song, but my take on it is darker, more aggro, because I don’t think of lust as fun or funny; I think it’s dangerous and disruptive and mostly unwelcome. So that is my interpretation of “Physical”: the human condition is a bummer, and desire a frustrating impediment to serenity.”

2) Maryanne Window & Mary Lou Lord – “Long May You Run.” So I just discovered this sweet rendition of the Neil Young classic, which is from early 2014, this past week. Maryanne Window is an Australian musician and producer, and collaborated with Mary Lou on her 2015 Backstreet Angels album (an overlooked treasure). Here, she takes the lead while Mary Lou sings backup.

3) The Staves – “Sadness Don’t Own Me.” I’ve been playing the Pine Hollow EP over and over (and over) on my commutes of late. It’s stress-reduction set to song. And this song… as Diane just said, “It’s just so beautiful.”

4) Lucy Rose – “All That Fear.” Hearing the Staves always leads me to Lucy Rose due to “Floral Dresses.” Earlier this week, she shared the video for this Something’s Changing out-take and said this about it on her Facebook page: “My husband Will and I filmed this on our first night in Australia. I was jet-lagged, unwashed hair and had nothing to hide. I wanted to show a side of me that for so long I wouldn’t have shown anyone and a side of me I’ve grown to love.”

5) Laura Marling – “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The British folksinger recorded this spellbinding cover of the Bob Dylan classic for the Peaky Blinders finale.

And one bonus…

Courtney Marie Andrews – “Kindness of Strangers.” I shared this last week, and the audio before that. It’s another song I can’t get enough of. (Her forthcoming album, May Your Kindness Remain, is going to be grand.)


The Staves: Pine Hollow (Live) – The Review

The Staves unveiled a welcome surprise yesterday, February 23rd: Pine Hollow (Live), a six-track EP. According to their Facebook announcement, they recorded the songs over three nights at the Pine Hollow Studios in Eau Claire, Wis.

The set features three cover songs and three of their own now-classic compositions (from their If I Was and The Way Is Read albums). The first cover is Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago”; the second is Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene”; and the third is the Dino Valenti-penned Karen Dalton song “Something’s on Your Mind”:

(Speaking of Valenti, one day I’d love to hear the Sisters Staveley-Taylor share their spin on his “Let’s Get Together.”)

Another Pine Hollow highlight is their rendition of “Sadness Don’t Own Me” from If I Was:

“Trouble on My Mind,” originally released on their semi-recent yMusic collaboration, The Way Is Read, is as stunning with a piano as it is with strings.

What’s amazing about the EP: Everything. Their vocals swoop in and out, blend together, intertwine like strands of triple-helix DNA, and cushion a wearied soul like few others. My only criticism, and it’s not really a criticism: six songs just aren’t enough.

(In addition to the usual download outlets, the EP is available on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.)

Remember December, Vol. II: Album(s) of the Year, 2017

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.