Life During the Great Pandemic, Vol. XI: A Brand New Me

Although fully vaccinated, Diane and I haven’t ventured out all that much in the past month – a bookstore trip here, a grocery run there, plus hanging out with friends on a few occasions, but primarily the same-old, same-old. Not that we’d have done much today, anyway. It was a rainy morning here in the Triangle with more of the wet stuff expected on-and-off throughout the afternoon and night. As a result, I’ve spent the bulk of the day here at my desk, headphones on and great music pumping from my MacBook Pro. The slew of new music that turned my ears for much of the year seems to have trickled to a stop, at least for now, so for the past week I’ve been listening to a mix of old favorites and albums, such as American Love Call by Durand Jones & the Indications, that I missed the first time around.

That’s a foreshadow of things to come on this blog, as you’ll soon read.

At present, I’m listening via headphones to the Dolby Atmos spatial audio mix of Alicia Keys’ sublime debut, Songs in A Minor, via Apple Music. For those unaware of what “spatial audio” is, it’s a replication of the surround-sound experience that uses two channels instead of five or seven. Apple dubs it “immersive” and “multidimensional” and is making it the default option for subscribers. The move makes sense for new music made with Atmos in mind, but I’m not sure it’s the way to go for archival treasures such as Songs. On “Fallin’,” for instance, Alicia’s vocals sound distant – like she’s stage center sans a microphone and I’m halfway back in a cavernous concert hall. “Troubles” and other songs, like “Caged Bird,” are the same, with the supporting vocals overwhelming her voice at times. (Of course, it could be that I’m so accustomed to the original mix that this one sounds weird to my ears.) “Rock Wit U,” with its “Theme From Shaft”-like intro, works much better, perhaps because the spatial soundscape replicates the original mix to greater extent.

I will say that the soundscape is noticeably flattened when moving from spatial audio to old-school stereo, which I just did. Alicia’s The Element of Freedom is now playing. (Yeah, I’m in an Alicia mood today.) At the time of its release in 2009, the album received mixed reviews, with some critics calling it okay and others doling out invectives. Pop Matters, for example, labeled it “well-made elevator music” and “boring, soulless, and pretentious.” Yet, to my ears, it sports a soulful sheen from the get-go and melodies that push ashore like waves. How anyone could not love it upon first listen, as I did way back when, is beyond me.

In any event, the lull in new releases has allowed me time to contemplate matters related to this blog. This post makes my 50th missive of 2021. I’ve written 27 First Impressions/Delayed Plays reviews, three First Reads pieces, seven Essentials essays, plus a smattering of other posts, including four Fogelberg Files installments (plus the introduction) and three resurrected from the archives of the original Old Grey Cat (1997-2006). Those 27 reviews equal the total number of new-music reviews I posted all last year, believe it or not. I’ve made a concerted effort to not litter the blog with Top 5s or self-indulgent missives such as this one, sidestep archival releases and instead seek out new music to spotlight.

A lot of that work, sad to say, went for naught.

To give you an idea: To date, my top five posts of 2021 consist of Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon, Roberta Flack’s First Take: The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition – The Review, The Essentials: Imagination by Gladys Knight & the Pips, First Impressions: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Way Down in the Rust Bucket and The Fogelberg Files: Home Free. The only post about a new artist to crack the Top 30 is my review of Sara Bug’s delightful debut; the remaining posts either focus on legacy artists or are legacy posts about legacy artists.

Thus, I plan to stop tilting at windmills and tweak the algorithm that drives what I write about, giving less weight to up-and-comers and more to legacy artists. I’ll still spotlight up-and-coming artists, mind you, just in a more selective manner.

All of which is to say: stay tuned.

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