Archive for the ‘2010s’ Category

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: 

Make no mistake: We have been here before. The 1918-20 flu pandemic infected some 500 million people around the globe, with experts citing anywhere from 17 to 100 million succumbing to it. Social-distancing measures were employed in some U.S. cities, and while they fared much better health-wise than those that didn’t, they suffered economic downturns. Life looked like it might be forever changed. But it wasn’t. As this World Economic Forum article shows, once the flu faded away, life pretty much picked up where it had left off.

That doesn’t lessen the stress of today’s stay-at-home orders, grocery shortages, economic disruptions and the incompetent federal response, mind you, or the fear of falling victim to COVID-19. The days may blur into weeks and the weeks may soon morph into months, but we, as a people, will endure.

That said, to me it feels like we’re stuck in the opening stanza of “Band on the Run” by Paul McCartney and Wings: “Stuck inside these four walls/never seeing no one…”

I haven’t been listening to much in the way of new music these days, preferring instead to treat the isolation blues with a heap of old favorites, including (but not limited to) McCartney, Rumer, Bob Seger, Bruce Springsteen, Suzanne Vega, Neil Young and, though she’s not “old” per se, Courtney Marie Andrews. There’s a comfort to be found in their tried-and-true grooves. They soothe the soul.

I thought I’d share select songs from some of them today.

Courtney Marie tapped into the collective unconscious for her 2016 Honest Life album, a set o’ songs I consider one of the best of the 2010s. “Put the Fire Out” slays me every time I hear it, especially when the backup voices come in on “hear the rock ’n’ roll at the Blue Moon Tavern.”

On a not unrelated subject, I experienced something of a spacetime anomaly in early March when I celebrated my 30th anniversary at my 23-year-old company. (I was grandfathered in during several takeovers, for those curious.) Anyway, the company doles out virtual tokens for such events, which can then be used to pick out a reward or rewards from a fairly extensive catalog. I used mine to get Diane the latest iPad Mini and both of us the Apple HomePod, as I’ve wanted one since it was first introduced. It may not be an audiophile’s dream, but the sound is excellent – and we subscribe to Apple Music, so it works out.

The first thing I asked Siri to play is a song I never tire of:

This morning’s picks included Van Morrison’s Inarticulate Speech of the Heart, which flows through and buttresses the soul like few others. It’s been one of my favorites of his since first hearing it during my college years; the poetic “Rave on John Donne” with its literary references and floating saxophone stops time for me.

Last night, I watched the April 7, 1979 episode of Saturday Night Live on Hulu, though not for the skits but the musical guest: Rickie Lee Jones, who performed “Chuck E.’s in Love” and “Coolsville.” This morning, after Van, I played her debut for what must be the 1000th time in my life (okay, maybe I’m exaggerating!). It sounds as fresh today as it did in 1979.

Stay safe, people. 

Diane and I were driving in the car this morning, on our way to brunch, with SiriusXM tuned to – what else? – E Street Radio, which was playing the February 2, 2016 concert from Toronto. It was the sixth date on that year’s River tour, which was tied to the 35th anniversary of the album and, too, the Ties That Bind box set released in 2015. (We’d see him 10 days later in Philly.)

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of that tour, Bruce and the band performed The River from start to finish. In this Toronto show, he introduced “Independence Day” – a song he wrote in 1977, debuted in concert in 1978 and recorded in 1980 – with a monologue similar to what we heard in Philly. “It was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” he explained. “It’s the kind of song that you write when you’re young and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity.”

Today, the fourth verse stood out to me: “Well, Papa, go to bed now, it’s getting late/Nothing we can say can change anything now/Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.”

It’s about the father-son dynamics unique to Springsteen’s own (self-mythologized) life, obviously, and yet it’s also more. It’s about the changing realities everyone confronts, at some point, in his or her life. When young, such change is expected and embraced. In the song, it leads the narrator to set out on his own. But for the old? Though the world we knew is no more, the memories – and our faded hopes – remain. That’s when bitterness sets in.

When I was a teen in the early ‘80s, I often rode my 10-speed bike from Hatboro to Memory Lane Records in neighboring Horsham, a 50-minute round trip, as it traded in used (aka less expensive) vinyl, and left balancing a small stack of LPs and 45s on the handlebars. Around the same time, for a spell, I belonged to the RCA Music Club, which featured insane deals a-plenty. It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive two, three, four or more cassettes in the same shipment. 

Some titles were new; others were new-to-me. Either-or, it didn’t matter. I played them and played them again, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, and then, in a few weeks, rode my bike back to Memory Lane and started anew with another batch of LPs and 45s. Or maybe, instead, I stopped at the Hatboro Music Shop or Sam Goody’s in the Village Mall, which stocked imports – though the prices at both were such that I rarely left with more than one LP. The summer before my senior year, I made the hour-long train trip from my suburban enclave into Philly every so often just to explore the esoteric stores on South Street.

By the end of the ‘80s, when I managed the CD departments at two video stores, it wasn’t uncommon for me to leave work with several CDs I’d sold to myself – and then head to the (relatively) new Tower Records on South Street or down to Jeremiah’s Record Exchange in Delaware to splurge some more. (In between, I was trading tapes with customers. Found lots of great music that way. To the left is one I made around that time. I was obviously in a bit of a country state of mind.)

I’m sure the same basic process played out for many folks reading this: We jumped feet-first into music fandom and obsessiveness, forever compelled to seek out new and new-to-us sounds. Sometimes we (or, at least, me) obsess over one artist or album for weeks or months on end. And then we move on. While there were and are many upsides to the process, there was (and is) one major downside: Some great music got (and gets) lost in the shuffle.

But given that most budgets bust from time to time, and spending must be reined in, you eventually re-acquainted yourself with the one-spin wonders and realized you were too quick in your initial assessment. In the age of streaming media, however, one’s budget is no longer an issue. Whether you subscribe to a streaming service or make do with ads, there’s never a reason to give something a second listen if it didn’t hook you on the first. 

Which, in a roundabout way, leads to this: Paul Weller released Other Aspects, Live at the Royal Albert Hall on March 8th, 2019. It came to be thanks to Weller’s sublime 2018 release, True Meanings, which is a laidback acoustic set accented by orchestral backing. Taking an orchestra out on the road is a tad expensive, however, so he booked a couple nights at the iconic Royal Albert Hall, hired an orchestra, and plotted out a 25-song set that matched the new tunes with past classics, and…voila! A live album was born.

I remember listening to it on the way to work shortly after its release and then on my way home that same night…and returning to the Day-Glo sounds of the Paisley Underground, which had been swirling in and around my head since the release of the 3×4 compilation earlier in the year, the next day. Part of that was due to nostalgia, another part due to escape. And, soon, Lucy Rose’s remarkable No Words Left caught my ear. And then another new release. And then an Oasis jag. And then something else…

I forgot about Other Aspects, in other words, until late December, when I pulled up my Apple Music library in order to listen to Weller’s solo debut for this Essentials piece. I saw Other Aspects listed with the other titles and clicked play…

…and was instantly hooked. How could I have not returned to it sooner?! It’s contemplative, which is where my head’s at right now. Taking life in. Pondering my present and future.

If you listened to “One Bright Star,” you’ll hear the initial strains of an orchestra, applause, and then Weller and his band kick off with the 22 Dreams track. It’s mid-tempo, lush, and anchored by Weller’s weathered, soulful vocals. That sums up the album in full, actually, which features 11 (of 14) songs from True Meanings, a handful of Jam and Style Council tunes, and gems from his solo years. Here’s “Strange Museum” from his solo debut, for example:

Another highlight: “The Soul Searchers” from True Meanings. It’s a tremendous song in the mode of his classic “Wild Wood.”

And speaking of “Wild Wood”… yep, that’s here, too.

As is (obvious from the album’s title) “Aspects,” another stellar True Meanings tune.

Another favorite: “Private Hell,” the Jam song from Setting Sons, which swaps its fiery and frenzied foundation for an orchestral underpinning. The picture Weller paints with his pointed poetry stings, still. (In some respects, life in the 21st century isn’t all that different than the pre-Internet age.)

In short, one’s headspace can make or break an album as much as the music itself. Such was the case here for me, upon first listen. But upon the second, third and fourth listens, which occurred nine months later? If I knew then what I know now, it would’ve been in my Top 5 albums of the year. It’s a wondrous, magical set. Check it out now… or when you’re ready to receive it.