(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Released in June 1980, Jackson Browne’s Hold Out album is notable for two reasons. Critics disliked it, as evidenced by Rolling Stone‘s Kit Rachlis calling it “probably the weakest record he’s ever made”; and, powered by the singles “Boulevard” and “That Girl Could Sing,” the platter spun its way to the top of the charts, becoming his first (and only) No. 1 LP. 

It’s also notable within my life for another reason: It was the first current Jackson Browne LP that I purchased. As I’ve written before, my journey into music fandom began in earnest in the spring of 1978. Everything was new to me, even the old; I was, literally and figuratively, a kid in a candy store. I picked up the “Doctor My Eyes” 45 at some point that summer and followed it on occasion with a few of his LPs; I had a hierarchy of fallbacks when I went to record stores, and Jackson’s were usually third, fourth or fifth down the rung. By the time I picked up Running on Empty, which was released in late 1977, it was late 1979. (In some respects, in those days, he was singing about things that were beyond my years – but that was part of the appeal.)

In any event, I came home with Hold Out not long after hearing “Boulevard,” the first single, on either WMMR or WYSP.

“Down on the boulevard/they take it hard/they look at life with such disregard/they say it can’t be won/the way the game is run…” Those lyrics echoed life then and echo life now, some 40 years later. “The hearts are hard and the times are tough.” Amen.

“That Girl Could Sing” was another immediate favorite. Written for singer-songwriter/backup vocalist Valerie Carter, it’s an evocative portrait of a free spirit: “She was a friend to me when I needed one/Wasn’t for her I don’t know what i’d done/She gave me back something that was missing in me/She could of turned out to be almost anyone/Almost anyone/With the possible exception/Of who I wanted her to be…”

Those are tracks 3 and 4 on the LP; the opener, “Disco Apocalypse,” sets the stage for them quite nicely, detailing the mindless appeal of the era’s club scene; in some respects, it’s “The Pretender” for the disco age: “In the dawn the city seems to sigh/And the hungry hear their children cry/People watch the time go by/They do their jobs and live and die/And in their dreams they rise above/By strength, or hate, or luck, or love…”

Cowritten with David Lindley, “Call It a Loan,” – about the fear that comes with falling in love – is another highlight.

The remainder of the album is as strong. Lyrically, sure, at times it teeters on the brink, especially on the song for Lowell George, “Of Missing Persons,” but – melodically and sonically speaking – it just sounds great. Warm. It could well have been recorded yesterday.

That said, I’d be lying if I said I wore out the album’s grooves at the time. In truth, I moved on to other albums, other songs. As one does. In the decades that followed, I’ve played Late for the Sky or Running on Empty many, many times – and, until a few months ago, Hold Out not once. A month or so ago, however, I found myself stuck in stop-and-go traffic on the 15/501 during my evening commute. “That Girl Could Sing” began circulating and percolating in my brain, and I remembered lying on the floor of my old bedroom and reading the lyrics on the record sleeve as Jackson sang them. There was and is something magical and mystical about the first listen, of having the music usher you elsewhere. 

I’ve listened to the album quite a bit in the weeks since that ride home. As one does. I’m surprised at how well it’s aged and that, at their best, the lyrics are sage and true in detailing matters of the heart. Hell, I even like the closing “Hold On Hold Out,” which every critic I’ve read lambasts for its schmaltzy declaration of love.

The track list:

For the past two weeks, like many others, I’ve led a shuttered existence – just me, Diane and our wooly bully of a boss in the apartment. Although my alarm still sounds at 5:45AM, instead of heading out the door to work within an hour, as is my custom, I bide my time until 7AM, when I telecommute into the office. Once I sign off at 4PM, weather permitting, Diane and I go for a walk – and breathe in the fresh pollen.

In other words, aside from allergies, we’re doing okay.

Tomorrow, Diane and I will do what we did last weekend – take a 30-minute ride into the countryside while E Street Radio provides us a perfect soundtrack. We’ll also tune in, at 8PM ET, to watch Allison Moorer perform on Facebook and then, on Sunday afternoon, attend a Church of Birch revival meeting on StageIt. Last weekend, we watched First Aid Kit on Instagram, which was fun; Courtney Marie Andrews, the Tallest Man on Earth, Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen on YouTube, which was interchangeably entrancing and interminable; and Diane Birch on StageIt, which cheered us up a lot. I also enjoyed Neil Young’s first Fireside Sessions at the Neil Young Archives; it was pre-recorded, edited and – with all respect to the others – the best of the bunch.

Until Wednesday, I hadn’t listened to much music beyond E Street Radio and those online affairs; I just wasn’t in the mood – which I’m sure others can identify with. But that morning I had the hankering to hear Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band’s classic Against the Wind, which I played a few times, and followed it with Jackson Browne’s equally classic Late for the Sky and his under-appreciated Hold Out, Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, and Neil Young’s Trans. Yesterday, I revisited the 10,000 Maniacs’ Our Time in Eden a few times along with Paul McCartney & Wings’ Band on the Run. (“Stuck inside these four walls/never seeing no one…” takes on a new meaning in the context of today.)

This morning, my various newsfeeds were awash in new and recent songs from a host of my favorites; they provided a great distraction from the latest pandemic news and stock-market nosedive.

And, with that, here’s Today’s Top 5: Life During the Great Pandemic, Vol. I.

1) Hayes Carll & Allison Moorer – “That’s the Way Love Goes.” Originally a hit for Lefty Frizzell, this stunningly beautiful song is just that – stunningly beautiful.

2) Bob Dylan – “Murder Most Foul.” The bard of bards has apparently kept this 17-minute opus under wraps for…who knows how long. Whatever, it’s an instant classic – the kind of song that demands repeated listens. 

3) Jackson Browne – “A Little Soon to Say.” We learned on Tuesday that Jackson caught the COVID-19 virus while in New York for a benefit, but that he’s doing okay. Yesterday, he released this song, which though written and recorded, seems an apropos song for this odd time: “But whether everything will be alright/It’s just a little soon to say…”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Are You Alright.” Amongst the upheaval of four non-techies trying to figure out how to livestream, Courtney delivered a spellbinding rendition of this Lucinda Williams song. (It begins at the 24:08 mark if the link doesn’t work as intended.)

5) Hannah Cohen with Sam Evian – “Motion Pictures.” Although Courtney, the Tallest Man on Earth, Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen delivered a bounty of Neil Young covers during their 2 1/2-hour livestream, this was my favorite. It’s possesses a Mazzy Star-like vibe. (It’s at the one hour and 30 minute mark if the link doesn’t work correctly.)

Something Beautiful

Posted: March 21, 2020 in 2020, 2020s, Duffy
Tags: , , ,

Last night, as most nights, Tyler the Cat plopped onto the bed beside my head and sang me the song of his people; it’s often the last thing I hear before drifting to sleep. And when I open my eyes the next day, he’s there to greet me. Sometimes, in fact, my eyes open because of him – he tap-tap-taps me on the head with a paw. Most mornings, however, he’s simply happy I’m awake, doesn’t care if breakfast is late, and picks up his song where he left off.

We feared we were going to lose him last February, when we took him to an emergency veterinary clinic on a Sunday after a week of failing health. A battery of tests revealed that his BUN and creatine levels were off the charts. The vet explained that his kidneys were failing and hinted that it might be best to put him down.

Instead, we took him home. Our thoughts were quite simple: If it was his time, his time would be with us. We’d keep him comfortable and, in the meantime, pursue whatever reasonable measures we could. An ultrasound soon revealed one of his kidneys had shut down due to a blood clot that then either withered or burst, but that the other was fine. We introduced a new renal-friendly diet (easier said than done) buttressed by a potassium supplement and, as important, started a daily regimen of subcutaneous fluids.

The results were near-miraculous: Within six months, his levels were in the normal range. The fluids were reduced to every other day. Now, 13 months later, he cajoles me into playing with him – or, as he did yesterday afternoon, tricks me out of my seat. After a day of working from home, I shut down the work laptop and fired up my MacBook Pro, and signed onto the Neil Young Archives to watch the Fireside Session – Neil performing a half-dozen songs for those of us self-isolating at present. Tyler poked his head up, batted me on the leg and seemed to want to play. But as soon as I got up, he jumped into the chair.

We’re not out of the woods by any means, of course, but – for now – we’re on an even keel. He, and we, have adjusted to a new normal.

Which leads to this, totally unrelated item: the Welsh singer Duffy, whose Rockferry album is one of the new millennium’s great works, shared a new song with BBC2 Radio presenter Jo Whiley on Friday March 20th and posted the note she sent Whiley on Instagram. “It’s just something for you to play people on radio during these troubling times, if you like the song of course. If it lifts spirits. I don’t plan to release it, I just thought a little something might be nice for people if they are at home, on lockdown.”

(For those unaware, she recently revealed that she went through a harrowing ordeal that caused her to pull away from public life; that she’s chosen to share this song with us now speaks volumes about her soul.)

The dulcet tones of British singer-songwriter Harriet conjure the bygone era of mood rings, shag rugs and bell-bottom jeans, to say nothing of the adult contemporary songs that ruled the AM airwaves in the 1970s (in the U.S., at least) – think ONJ, the Carpenters, Carole King and Bread, among other MOR favorites. Her full-length debut from a few years back was an utter delight in that respect; about the only thing missing: wah-wah guitar effects.

One reason for the flashback sound is a factor beyond her control: her warm vocals, which echo Karen Carpenter’s not just in timbre, but inflections – the former a quirk of birth, with the latter probably learned through osmosis, as she was often rocked to sleep as a baby to the Carpenters’ music. Another reason: the songs. “Afterglow,” first heard on her full-length debut, is one example:

Released a few weeks back, Piano Sessions+ features nine songs stripped to their bare necessities: Harriet accompanied by pianist Scott Hayes. Some are covers, others – including “Afterglow” – reworked versions of her own tunes, and two are new. But that’s not all: Four unreleased demos are tacked on, too, including a cover of the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love.” Like many a great singer, she invests herself in the lyrics, and gives new life to well-worn songs. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” is a great example:

The other chosen covers are likewise exquisite. I only wish she’d picked a Jackson Browne song, too – “Late for the Sky,” maybe, or “Love Needs a Heart.” 

Of the Carpenters cover, she explained on Facebook that it is “something I’ve always been nervous about doing and have avoided, despite the Carpenters being so important to me. However, when [producer] Steve [Anderson] presented me with a new arrangement idea for “Goodbye To Love,” I agreed that we try it and at the end of another session we had, I recorded a quick vocal. After we finished recording, we never really spoke about it again and it’s not something that was ever meant to be heard by anyone but us. But when I started looking through old demos to include on this CD and considered the nature of this release, I thought now was the right time to share it.”

Cowritten and performed with Mick Talbot, “Nothing Until” is an empathetic look at an issue as relevant today as it was in 2012, when they recorded it in her flat. On Facebook, she recalled that “we recorded a handful of song ideas on my 8-track digital recorder! [Mick] is the kindest man and the most incredible musician; wonderful to watch. It was such a privilege to work with him. A few days later, I put the vocal down on the track at about 2’o’clock in the morning and distinctly remember having to sing so quietly into the mic so as not to wake any of my flat mates! I decided never to re-record the vocal as these circumstances made the recording feel so rich and intimate. The song is about addiction and feeling alone with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.one with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.”

As a whole, the album – which is only available as a CD via Harriet’s website – is a trip into the ethos of music long past. It’s just a singer and her songs, in other words, soothing despite the tinges of sadness and regret that bubble to the fore. It’s a perfect diversion to the crazy times in which we now live.

The track list: