Morning breaks somewhere in the world, always, with the first cracks of light slicing across the horizon like a knife through the edge of night. Mourning – of lost love and loved ones, dashed dreams, and so much more – breaks, too. The new day brings with it new hope, but it can’t and won’t be rushed. It comes when it comes. 

Singer, songwriter and pianist Natalie Duncan’s Free skirts the divide, delving into both sides with artful precision. The album opens with “Kansas,” which is akin to a sonic wave that sweeps from the speakers with strings and wordless vocals before morphing into something more. “How many people try to put out your light/you’ll never know, so you better glow/baby, come shining/baby, come shining…”

Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements come together in an uncluttered production that enables chords to breathe – and for Aaron Janick’s trumpet to float in from the distance like a dream on certain songs and interludes, such as on “Pools” (which I featured yesterday) or “Glass,” which samples Nina Simone. 

With Richard Spaven on drums and Alan Mian on bass, a solid rhythm anchors many of the R&B-flavored tracks. “Atrium,” an early favorite, is a good example. “Going backwards/all the same words/I’ve been through this/but it still hurts/I’m just waiting for some stillness…”

“Nova” is another.

If you listened to one or both, you’ll notice an old-school vibe that conjures, but doesn’t copy, Alicia Keys. “Sirens,” “Karma” and “Autumn,” on the other hand, are jazz-imbued tunes that would be at home on a Nina Simone LP, while “Strange” (“I know I am insufferable sometimes…) and “Brave” could well be unearthed Roberta Flack treasures. 

Shorthand comparisons aside, what comes through the most is Natalie Duncan. “Diamond,” the closing track, deftly blends old-school rap with her old-school soul in a way that’s both sweet and bittersweet. “Happiness is just a concept/happiness is something you can choose to remember or forget/happiness is never, ever having to regret…” (To quote Diane, “I could listen to her rap all day.”)

Free closes just as it begins – with strings and wordless vocals – as if to demonstrate that, just as night slides into day, day glides into night; it’s the cycle of life. With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack, however, the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.

I am not a Dylanologist nor do I play one on this blog, though I do consider myself a Bob Dylan fan. In 1979, at the age of 14, I purchased my first Bob Dylan album, Slow Train Coming, and despite disliking the LP’s religiosity, continued on the journey, hopping aboard the box cars known as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II albums and riding the rails to Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, though not in that order. The red and blue Rolling Stone Record Guides, as always in those years, were crucial engineers in my journey.

In the mid-’80s, when I was one of several rotating deejays on the folk show that aired on Penn State’s student-run radio station every Saturday and Sunday morning, his early works were staples of my shifts. In fact, I came to know a few of his ‘70s-era albums simply by playing their tracks on the air, as odd as that may sound. (A skip in the live Hard Rain album haunts me still.)

Anyway, as the times of hand have rotated around my life’s clock, a smattering of his latter-day works also entered my collection, including the 3-CD Biograph overview, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and the Greatest Hits Vol. III set, as “Dignity” was and is a latter-day favorite of mine, plus his recent Rough and Rowdy Ways LP, which to my ears is one of the year’s best. (It’s too soon for me to contemplate my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors, but I’m sure it will be in the running.) More often than not, however, when I’m in a Dylan mood, I turn to those ‘60s sides – Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, especially – or The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall) and Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964).

I’m also a fan of cover versions – not just of Dylan songs, but of the genre itself (if it can be considered a genre). At their best, covers shed insight into both the singer and the song. The Sid & Susie Under the Cover sets still receive play in my day-to-day life, as does Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. (What can I say? I’m weird that way.) And First Aid Kit’s renditions of a few Dylan tunes on Election Night 2016 said much about them, while simultaneously demonstrating the utter timelessness of the songs themselves. 

Until recently, however, I wasn’t familiar with the Nashville-based, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. She came to my attention by way of Twitter, believe it or not, as folks I follow also follow her (or vice versa); as a result, her tweets occasionally popped up in my feed. One day, and I don’t remember exactly when, her cover of Dylan’s recent “I Contain Multitudes” appeared.

Her vocals are smoother than Dylan’s gruff intonations, obviously, and the gravitas that drips from his every syllable is missing from hers – but it’s replaced by an intangible that’s difficult to articulate, yet equally hypnotic. It’s akin to eyeing a landscape from a glider rather than a plane, I suppose. The former, if I’ve done my research right, skirts the clouds; the latter, on the other hand, flies above them. Either/or, it’s quite cool. I ordered the LP the same day from her BandCamp page, expecting the delivery to be near the release date listed there – August 14th. Then, earlier this month, she released a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately” that features a Byrdsian texture. Again, quite cool.

The LP arrived on Monday with a note thanking me for purchasing the album, but – let’s be real – the nice note would mean little if the album itself didn’t live up to those first two teaser tracks. No worries, however. It does. Emma’s vocals capture the emotional raison d’être of the songs, with her inflections adding depth and all the other things that turn a cover song into a reflection of the performer’s own soul.

To my ears, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the standout of the eight songs. Emma captures the nuances of the lyrics, seemingly living them while singing them. The other tracks, as evidenced by the above two videos, also skirt the clouds, shedding a welcome perspective. Another immediate favorite is “The Man in Me” from New Morning, a Dylan album I’m not super familiar with. (That’s another notch in the album’s favor, actually: These aren’t the usual Dylan songs that get covered.)

My main criticism of many albums in the CD era and, now, digital age is length. Too often, artists release hour-plus affairs that would be stronger if they’d trimmed it to 40-or-so minutes and allocated the other tunes to b-sides (or whatever the digital version of those are). The reverse is true here, however, as the listener is left wanting more. I highly recommend Blonde on the Tracks, and look forward to exploring the rest of Emma Swift’s oeuvre.

For those curious, here’s the song list with their album home in italics:

Queen Jane Approximately – Highway 61 Revisited
I Contain Multitudes – Rough and Rowdy Ways
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Blonde on Blonde
Simple Twist of Fate – Blood on the Tracks
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – Blonde on Blonde
The Man in Me – New Morning
Going Going Gone – Planet Waves
You’re a Big Girl Now – Blood on the Tracks

    

Mortality and the passage of time has much been on my mind this past month, as I marked another year sailing around the sun on this ship we call Earth. We’ve entered unsettled waters of late, with towering waves thrashing the hull and cracking through rotted planks of wood that the captain, an incompetent steward if ever there was one, claimed sound prior to leaving port.

In any event, in this storm, I look back at all that’s come before with wonder and few regrets – yet, to borrow a lyric from Juliana Hatfield’s “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory,” find myself questioning “Where is the comfort in having been somewhere you know you can’t go again?” The past is behind us, in other words, and reliving past glories impacts the present not a bit. As she sings in “Fade Away,” albeit in a different context, “there is nothing I can say/that is not a cliche.”

If you’re unfamiliar with “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” (which is not a cover of the classic Johnny Thunders song made famous by Guns N’ Roses), that’s no surprise. Along with “Fade Away,” it’s one of 11 God’s Foot demos she served up as a PledgeMusic premium in late 2014, while accruing cash to fund the 2015 Juliana Hatfield Three album Whatever, My Love.

The God’s Foot album, for those not in the know, was slated to be the follow-up to her 1995 Only Everything album. It was more a concept and less a stack of specific tracks, with Juliana racking up six-digit studio costs while recording in Woodstock, N.Y. Atlantic Records, her label home, rejected her efforts due to the dearth of a radio-friendly tune that could be pushed as a single, however. She recorded some more, they said no, and finally she gave in and asked to be released from her contract. They consented, but retained rights to the material she’d recorded for the unfinished album.

Two decades and several bootlegged versions of God’s Foot later, including this one…

…she decided to share what she did have from the aborted album with fans. From what she noted at the time (and Live On Tomorrow – A Juliana Hatfield Fan Site recorded for posterity), “[t]he recordings were taken from an old cassette – the only version of these recordings that I have…the songs were recorded onto two-inch reel-to-reel tape and then most likely transferred to half-inch tape and then transferred onto a cassette for my listening pleasure and then that cassette ended up in the basement sitting in a paper bag full of cassettes and then years later (circa now) the cassette was transferred onto a CD.”

She also noted that “although I never finalized an official version and sequence of the album, some of you have heard versions of what people who made the songs available (not me) were calling God’s Foot. but, again, I never sanctioned the song choices. Since I knew the album was not ever scheduled for release, I never needed to finalize the song choices or mixes or the sequence.”

The download-only delight from 2014 was 320 kbps and sounds very good, with a minimum of hiss and no slo-mo warped interludes that sometimes happens with old cassettes. The songs possess an analog warmth, actually, and none of the brittle highs that marred many recordings during the mid-‘90s. I’d love to have the set on CD, LP or full-resolution FLAC/ALAC files, as I’m sure some sonic pleasures were lost when squeezing the songs into MP3s. 

To my ears, the God’s Foot demos harken back to the oft-sweet sounds of Hey Babe while foreshadowing the lushness of Beautiful Creature, in exile deo and How to Walk Away, with dollops of harder rock (“Get Over Me” and “Charity”) punctuating the set. Guitars are plentiful, vocals are upfront and, as on the aching “Don’t Need a Reason,” cushioned by down-soft backing vocals. The lyrics feature Juliana’s idiosyncratic takes on life and love. In the opening “How Would You Know,” for instance, she confesses that “I want you to see me/look into my soul/but how would you know/my eyes are closed….”

Why Atlantic Records rejected the songs is beyond me; if these 11 songs are any indication, the album was guaranteed to be one of the decade’s top discs; instead, it’s become one of the decade’s great lost sets. To lift another lyric from “Fade Away”:

In the rosy gloom of youth
Every moment has its truth
It’s gonna fade away…

Two songs did eventually surface on the now out-of-print Gold Stars 1992–2002: The Juliana Hatfield Collection: “Mountains of Love” and “Fade Away”; and a third, “I Didn’t Know,” was made available during Juliana’s honor-download experiment of 2006-07 (somewhere I have a few cancelled checks with her signature on the back). If there was any justice in this world, however, American Laundromat would partner with Atlantic and issue God’s Foot. But I’m not holding my breath.

The songs: