Austin-based singer-songwriter Nichole Wagner delves into matters of the heart, the daily grind, and a little baseball via 10 melodic dispatches on And the Sky Caught Fire, her full-length debut. Her lyrical acumen is deft; she displays a poet’s knack for illuminating the soul. “The Winner Takes All,” which opens the set, is a good example.

With just a few well-placed brushstrokes, she paints a scene that reflects the fading embers of a relationship, or at least the last wisps of an unsettled night. “Too late now, can’t take back what’s been said/And the sky caught fire as the smoke curled around your head.”

“Dynamite,” the second song, is about life in a factory town after the factory’s been shut down: “I can’t see living in a dying town/It’s like I left my soul in the lost and found/Every night I say that tomorrow’s the day/Initiate, detonate, blow it up and walk away.”

Another highlight: “Yellow Butterfly,” about a brief encounter with a winged insect of the nice kind… 

“This Kind of Love,” which I’ve shared before, is another gem. Like many of the other songs, it’s about moving on from a failed relationship: “There was a time I was certain you were what I wanted/Then the feeling faded, it left me haunted.”

Her rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me” is another highlight.

“Sparks & Gasoline,” the closing track, may well be my favorite. It’s about a gal and guy who are “more like Stevie and Lindsey than Johnny and June” yet their love is true. “You and me babe, we’ll continue to sing/Our songs are different but they mean the same thing.” (If you listen, you’ll also hear a funny line about designated hitters in baseball.)

If you enjoy country-flavored folk, such as Tift Merritt, Nanci Griffith or Mary Chapin Carpenter, And the Sky Caught Fire is well worth picking up. It’s a keeper. 

The track listing: 

  1. Winner Takes All
  2. Dynamite
  3. Yellow Butterfly
  4. Rules of Baseball
  5. The Last Time
  6. This Kind of Love
  7. Let Me Know
  8. Fires of Pompeii
  9. Reconsider Me
  10. Sparks & Gasoline

(The album is available from the usual suspects, including Bandcamp, and can be streamed via Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube.)

We finished the second and final season of Joan of Arcadia yesterday. For those of you counting at home, that means we whipped through the 23 Season 1 episodes and 22 Season 2 episodes in exactly 22 days. One of the things I like about the series is that it avoids the typical pitfalls associated with dramas that explore faith and humanity. Within the show, as in real life, faith leads to questions, doubts and realizations, but never easy answers.

One of my favorite moments comes near the end of its run, in the “Common Thread” installment. God commands Joan to return to knitting, a hobby she stopped when she was a kid. As always, there’s far more to the episode than just that; we don’t just see Joan casting on, stitching and purling for the next 40+ minutes. I’ll skip the rest of the story, however, to the moment in question, when Joan gently rebuffs her folks, who are trying to ease her guilt regarding a bad decision made by her former boyfriend, Adam. “I mean, we’re all connected like the scarf. One piece of yarn, if you cut it up into little pieces, it’s useless. You can’t make anything out of it. I am responsible, partly. We all are…for everything that we touch and everything that touches us.”

It’s never us vs. them, as much as we sometimes wish it so. It’s us vs us. 

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Of Questions & Faith (aka Joan of Arcadia, Part II)…

1) Kasey Chambers – “Abraham”

2) Van Morrison – “When Will I Ever Learn to Walk in God”

3) Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer – “Into My Arms”

4) Bruce Springsteen – “Rocky Ground”

5) Paul Weller – “Can You Heal Us (Holy Man)”

And two bonuses…

6) Natalie Merchant – “I May Know the Word”

7) Maria McKee and Bryan MacLean – “Sweet Dr. Jesus”

 

Thirty-eight years ago tomorrow, as I write, the No. 1 song on the Billboard pop charts was “Coming Up” – but not the catchy tune by one-man-band Paul McCartney from his madcap McCartney II endeavor, but the slightly less catchy live version by Paul McCartney & Wings (Mach III), taken from a December 1979 concert in Glasgow on what turned out to be the final Wings flight. 

Columbia Records, his label home, apparently didn’t think the American public would appreciate his sped-up vocals, so – although the live version is clearly the B-side on the 45, where it’s paired with the eccentric “Lunchbox/Odd Sox” – they promoted the Wings rendition as the A.

And lest fans who bought McCartney II be upset that the song they heard on the radio wasn’t on the LP, Columbia included a special one-sided single of the live version. It even came with a helpful “play other side” instruction on the flip side.

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Let me back up, albeit for a moment: I was 14 on this day, soon to be 15; and having a good time – it was summer, after all. No school. That meant late nights and late mornings, hanging with friends, and – yep, you guessed it – listening to plenty of music. In my neck of the woods, that meant tuning in WIFI-92, WMMR, WYSP and WIOQ.

In the wider world, Ronald Reagan was gearing up to accept the Republican presidential nomination in Detroit in a mere 11 days. President Jimmy Carter, on the other hand, was in the midst of stamping out an insurgency within his Democratic Party, as he was being challenged by Ted Kennedy, and wouldn’t secure his second shot at the Oval Office until the following month, at the Democratic National Convention in New York.

The reason for the tepid enthusiasm for Carter: the economy. Unemployment was rising – it crested at 7.8 percent this month, its highest mark since he took office in 1977, and inflation was at obscene levels – 13-plus percent for the month, and 13-plus for the year. There was also the matter of the ongoing Iranian hostage crisis.

The big movies of the day included Fame, The Empire Strikes Back, Urban Cowboy, Bronco Billy, The Blues Brothers, Airplane!, and, released on this very day in 1980, The Blue Lagoon. I don’t remember seeing any of them in the theaters, though I did eventually see all of them on PRISM, the local premium cable channel that also carried the home games of the Philadelphia Flyers.

As far as TV – it was summer, and summer meant reruns.

And when it comes to music – well, that’s what today’s Top 5: July 5, 1980 (via Billboard, which I occasionally bought), is about. Here are a few selected highlights…

1) Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet – “Against the Wind.” Dropping out of the Top 5 to No. 6 is this classic Seger song, which I rate not just with his best, but with the best of all time. It’s the title track to one of my “essential” albums.

2) Olivia Newton-John – “Magic.” In its seventh week, the Xanadu single inches up two spots to No. 14. Here she is lip-syncing to the song on The Midnight Special

3) Carole King – “One Fine Day.” “One Fine Day” is a song with a rich history – written by King and Gerry Goffin, it was first a hit for the Chiffons in 1963, when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts. Seventeen years later, King recorded it for her Pearls: Songs of Goffin & King album, and released it as a single. It reaches No. 16 this week (on its way to No. 12).

4) The Blues Brothers – “Gimme Some Lovin’.” Saturday Night Live’s John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd turned a love for the blues into a side project with legs. They released a hit album in 1978, and a hit movie and hit soundtrack in 1980. This week, the lead single from that soundtrack bounces (like a rubber biscuit) up seven spots to No. 22.

5) Pete Townshend – “Let My Love Open the Door.” Townshend had an unlikely Top 10 hit with this uptempo ditty, the lead single from his classic Empty Glass LP. This week, it’s No. 35 (on its way to No. 9).

And two bonuses…

6) Irene Cara – “Fame.” Cara sounds so much like Donna Summer on this, the joyous title track to the hit movie, that it almost seems unfair to say so. That said, I love the song and performance. 

7) Linda Ronstadt – “Hurt So Bad.” Falling from No. 26 to 80 in its 13th week on the charts is Linda’s spine-tingling rendition of the Little Anthony & the Imperials hit from 1965. (It hails from her 1980 Mad Love album, of course.) 

Who doesn’t want to review records?

Growing up, I certainly did. I devoured Rolling Stone, Record, Creem, Musician and other music periodicals less for the articles and more for the reviews, which I usually read first. Due to the lag between a record’s release and the review, on occasion I already owned an LP (or cassette) before I read the critic’s take. One thing that fascinated me: Why I sometimes liked something the reviewer didn’t. Another thing that fascinated me: the reverse. 

The former irked me, the latter made me feel smug. But neither changed my opinion on the necessity of reviews. I was always on the lookout for something new (or new-to-me), and the magazines covered things that never made the playlists of my local radio stations, MTV or VH1. As a result, I often bought things based on a review, with new releases discovered via the magazines and catalog items from the Dave Marsh-edited Rolling Stone Record Guide. Few were four- or five-star reviews.

Over time, I came to recognize the names of said reviewers. Some found folk sanctimonious and others thought prog-rock priggish, and even more treated pop like a dirty word. (I generally subscribe to the second myself.) But the only bad reviews were those that didn’t delve beyond the rudimentary yea or nay to explain or defend the assessment, and also didn’t detail the artist’s journey. Everyone has their own criteria for what is and isn’t good music, after all, and it’s easy to be dismissive of what one dislikes. (I’ve been that in the past, though not often in these pages.) Some fans want technical precision. Others seek emotional resonance, a melody they can hum along to, and/or lyrics that shed light on the human condition. And yet others are happy with just about anything that has a good beat that they can dance to…

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to the realization that there is no right or wrong. Not really. There’s preference and personal peccadilloes – aka so-called “guilty pleasures.” That’s about it.

Anyway, I still lean on reviews – both online and in print. Whenever my wife and I visit a B&N, I pick up the British music magazines Uncut and Mojo, buy a high-octane coffee drink in the cafe, and read the reviews of the new releases and archival reissues. What I look for is tailor-made to my tastes: Is it dreamy, upbeat, reflective, melody-centric, reminiscent of the Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers or the Velvet Underground? Joni, Linda or Neil?

Unlike yesteryear, of course, it doesn’t cost me more than my Apple Music subscription to check out whatever I’ve just read about. (Though, since I rarely use headphones, I have to wait ’til we’re in the car going home.) That happened last week with Melody’s Echo Chamber’s latest release, Bon Voyage. It’s the brainchild of Melody Prochet, who’s akin to a French Hope Sandoval with an airier vibe.

(Sometimes, of course, I stumble upon cool artists through other means – Erin O’Dowd, who I discovered on Kickstarter, springs to mind. Nichole Wagner, who I found via a Nanci Griffith fan group on Facebook, is another. Both are worth checking out.)

All of which leads to this, one of my first reviews to make it to print – on September 18, 1984, in the Ogontz Campus News, the newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. I doubt if anyone beyond the newspaper staff and contributors read it. (And I was just a contributor; I’d pop into the office, find the editor of the entertainment section, and turn something in. On spec. Sometimes it made it into the paper; sometimes not.) Reading it now makes me laugh and cringe at the same time – but it was the first step in the journey to me launching the original Old Grey Cat website and, then, this blog. (I post-corrected a few glaring errors that slipped through the newspaper’s crack proofreading squad…)