Archive for the ‘2015’ Category

2015 in review

Posted: December 29, 2015 in 2015

My stats for 2015. All things considered – not bad!

Here’s an excerpt:

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 4,500 times in 2015. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 4 trips to carry that many people.

Click here to see the complete report.

“Live music is better/bumper stickers should be issued” – so says the bard, Neil Young, on “Union Man” (from Hawks & Doves).

Sad to say, the past year hasn’t been filled with many shows – far fewer, in fact, than in years past. Still, I was lucky to witness some memorable performances. (To read my reviews of the selected shows, click on the artists’ names.)

1) Neil Young & Promise of the Real @ Susquehanna Bank Center in Camden, N.J., 7/16/15.

2) Paul McCartney @ the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, 6/21/2015

3) Melody Gardot @ the Merriam Theater in Philadelphia, 10/9/15.

4) Rumer @ the World Cafe Live in Philadelphia, 4/7/15

5) Stephen Stills @ the Keswick Theatre, 7/9/15

And, two more:

6) First Aid Kit @ XPoNential Music Festival at Wiggins Park in Camden, 7/25/15

7) Garland Jeffreys @ the Sellersville Theatre in Sellersville, Pa., 4/18/2015. I didn’t review either of the Garland Jeffreys concerts we saw because…well, he’s always great. That said, the first show was the better of the two simply because it was electric. (I did, however, write about the opening act for that show, which you can read here.)


What a long, strange year it’s been – a wealth of music released and unheard by me, primarily due to the greying demographic I find myself in and the continued cloistering of my catholic tastes. Variety is the spice of life, it’s said, and I enjoy a wide range of styles and genres – everything from adult contemporary, pop, rock, R&B and soul to Americana, old-school country, folk and jazz. Yet, I find myself feasting less often on a sonic stew sautéed by up-and-coming chefs and, instead, savoring the sounds of the tried-and-true, with the chief stewards including such stalwarts as (small surprise) Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young.

That’s what I told myself going into this annual exercise, at any rate, but the results – as you’ll soon read – tell a slightly different story.

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, for instance, is still relatively new, given that her debut album, the classic Seasons of My Soul, dates to 2010. Theoretically, Into Colour, her third long-player, could be among this year’s picks, given that it was released in the U.S. in February. It’s not, though, because it was initially released in the U.K. in October 2014, made my Top 5 for that year, and I don’t go for double-dipping. She also put out – on her own label – the odds-and-sods B Sides & Rarities collection in late 2014, which was given wider release (and received many nice reviews) this year. It, too, is worth tracking down – as is my first Honorable Mention “album” of the year, her (very) recent Love Is the Answer.

IMG_0072“Album” is in quotes because Love Is the Answer is an extended play that features the Todd Rundgren/Utopia title tune and re-recordings of three songs that didn’t make the B Sides set due to (I believe) licensing issues – the Hall & Oates classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” which she first sang with Hall on Live from Daryl’s House; Carole King’s “Being at War With Each Other,” which she first covered with the Brit R&B singer Lemar at a BBC Radio 2 event in 2011; and a silky-smooth spin of William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You Got,” which she also sang with Daryl Hall on his TV show.

My second Honorable Mention is another E.P. – Greta Isaac’s Oh Babe. My only criticism: its brevity. I reviewed it (and her 2014 E.P., Down by the Water) earlier this year, so won’t repeat myself other than to say: They’re magical songs that resonate long after the final note fades to silence.

liannelahavasI discovered my No. 5 album during one of our regular B&N jaunts. While sitting in the cafe flipping through a Mojo or Uncut magazine, and sipping a vente white chocolate mocha with an extra shot of espresso and a dash of raspberry (a delicious confection, I hasten to add), an uptempo melody whirled and swirled around us like an age-old friend, yet it was one I’d never before heard. Diane liked the music, too, and before you know it I was headed to the music department to learn who, exactly, was singing. Lianne La Havas, an up-and-coming Brit jazz-R&B singer, was her name.

Blood, the album in question, is an intoxicating ride of melodies that move and groove like the soul classics of yesteryear, with Prince and Janet Jackson influences, too – most notably on “What You Don’t Do.”

rickielee_desireMy pick for No. 4: Rickie Lee Jones’ The Other Side of Desire. As I wrote in my Nothing to Do But Today: Top 5 post in July, the album “possesses a vibe that radiates instant familiarity.” Part of that, I’m sure, is due to me being a longtime fan of the hipster songstress, but I’d like to think the larger reason is because of the music itself. “Feet on the Ground,” which I highlighted then, remains one favorite (and my overall favorite track from the set). “Jimmy Choos” is another –

– and “Christmas in New Orleans” yet another. Here’s a stripped-down version of it:

neil_monsantoMy pick for No. 3: The Monsanto Years by Neil Young & Promise of the Real. Oh, I can hear the groans from some folks, most of whom either haven’t heard it or, if they have, didn’t actually listen to it. (That’s a distinction not everyone will get, I’m sure.) It’s an anti-GMO, anti-corporate, anti-greed broadside with much heart and (black) humor strewn throughout – which explains why the songs resonated with audiences when he played them live with Promise of the Real over the summer. They possess a glorious Ragged Glory vibe, with thick chords, even thicker rhythms, and melodies that linger long after the morning fog has burned off. “Big Box,” which conjures “Crime in the City” and “Ordinary People,” is one highlight; and the opening “A New Day for Love” is another.

Melody Gardot’s Currency of ManIMG_4459, my No. 2 for the year, is a riveting, R&B-infused collection of songs, possessing fat chords, sinewy melodies and incisive lyrics that delve deep into the state of the world. Homelessness and racism are among the themes  – as are matters of the psyche and soul. In concert, as is often the case, the music took off into a deeper dimension, but the recorded effort is just plain great. “Bad News,” as I wrote here, sounds like an out-take from Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee. Above all, though, there’s that voice…

…and “Preacherman,” the lead single, is a haunting, powerful and propulsive ode.

In fact, in almost any other year, that likely would’ve been my No. 1 (and, for a time, it was). This year, however, the honor goes to… (drumroll, please!)… If I Was by the Staves, three sisters (Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) from England whose harmony-rich folk-rock songs echo those of Crosby, Stills & Nash. In my initial take on the Greta Isaac E.P.s, I opined that when she and her sisters blend their voices together it’s akin to listening in on heaven. The same is true here. Whether one is singing alone, their voices are joining together or their vocals are swooping in and out like doves from above, it’s a sonic marvel.

The martial drums in “Make It Holy,” for instance, are a perfect touch, as is the addition of Justin Vernon’s voice to the mix. (Vernon, who’s the force behind Bon Iver, produced the album.)

As is common when creating my year-end lists, I listen to all the contenders, some of which have been collecting digital dust for months. I didn’t have to with this, which was released in March, simply because I’ve never stopped playing it for too long. (About the only time I did: in the initial weeks after the Currency of Man‘s release.) Many nights, after climbing into my car for my commute home from work, I plug my Pono Player into the aux jack, select If I Was and crank it up. (Listening to it loud is a requirement.) That it’s grown stronger with repeated listens speaks volumes.

One song that strikes me is “Sadness Don’t Own Me.”

Another: “Let Me Down.”

And another:

And that’s that.

IMG_5392Of late, I’ve been mining old music magazines, primarily from the early and mid-1980s, for my Top 5s. It’s a fun exercise, but one occasionally rooted with regret – as the adage often credited to George Bernard Shaw goes, youth is wasted on the young. But life is linear; time, for good and ill, doesn’t fold back on itself, enabling us to apply what we know now to then. Instead, it plays out the way it always has: day by day.

Who hasn’t wished for a do-over of something? I know, me, I read things I wrote long ago – hell, even last week – and shake my head. I love sentences littered with alliteration and internal rhymes, and lines that flow like rivers to the sea, for the words to wash down and take me to another town, to reference more than the topic d’jour. Like, say, the Byrds.

nattigerI also like preambles and non-sequiturs, seemingly disconnected thoughts that tie together within a sentence or two. For example: Twenty years ago, Natalie Merchant released her first solo album, Tigerlily. It was a low-key effort that resonated with listeners in a way many albums of its era did not. She yearned, burned, mourned and celebrated life, all while shedding the jangly folk-pop of her former group, 10,000 Maniacs, in favor of more streamlined sonics.

It was my Album of the Year that year. On my old website, which had a section about Natalie and 10,000 Maniacs, I called it a “sublime, if subdued, masterpiece.”

natpaint2I wish I had a dramatic story to tell of why its music mattered, and still matters, to me. I don’t. Life was good in 1995. Diane and I were together, and happy. I enjoyed my job, lived 15 minutes from the office, and arrived home most days by 5 o’clock. We attended concerts, usually smaller shows, every few weeks – including Natalie at the Tower that October, when she encored with an “Ode to Billie Joe” cover that included snippets from a string of other songs. We were in the balcony, near the front – not the best seats, but good enough.

No, like most fans, the restrained, moody melodies and lyrics of Tigerlily simply took root in my soul for no other reason than…who knows? The album spoke to me, just as Our Time in Eden did, and Blind Man’s Zoo before that, and In My Tribe before that, and The Wishing Chair (when I first signed on) before that. A while back, I wrote (here, to be specific) that my approach to fandom isn’t complex or hypercritical: “At the end of the day, at least as I’ve lived it, being a fan is about faith, second chances and redemption, about buying the next album regardless of whether I liked the last.”

In Natalie’s case, I’ve always liked the last – even albums like Leave Your Sleep, a two-CD set of nursery rhymes and poems set to music. (The English major in me couldn’t help but enjoy it.) Here’s her mesmerizing rendition of an e.e. cummings work:

That said, I’ve been apprehensive about Paradise Is There: The New Tigerlily Recordings. The project is basically Natalie applying the knowledge she’s acquired through the years since Tigerlily to new recordings of the same material. If it were a live celebration, a concert recording that spotlighted the album – that, I could wrap my head around. A few years ago, for instance, we saw Rickie Lee Jones recreate her first two LPs in a spellbinding concert; and, last year, we enjoyed Stevie Wonder play Songs in the Key of Life from start to finish. Other artists, including Bruce Springsteen, have done the same with classic albums from their oeuvres.

But a brand-new studio recording of the same material? Going in, I was looking forward more to the film – billed as a memoir – that’s included in the deluxe version than the music itself. The film, which is well worth seeking out, features a concise summary of Natalie’s life up to Tigerlily, and also delves into the whys and wherefores of the new recordings. She explains, for example, about how she hears imperfections in Tigerlily, and never considered certain things, like bringing in a string section for such songs as “The Letter.” Even if she’d wanted to, she says, she wouldn’t have known how to go about it.

The film also features fans discussing how the Tigerlily songs have impacted them – mothers of special-needs kids recall the wonder of “Wonder,” an Iraq War vet explains how Natalie’s music provided him shelter from the war, and others share their remembrances. My halting remarks didn’t make the final cut, as I predicted, but did make the outtakes – that’s me at 1:11.

Anyway, now that I’ve listened to Paradise Is There a few times, I’m still not sold on the notion that reworked renditions of the Tigerlily songs were necessary. Don’t get me wrong – it’s a powerful, strong set. It’s a bit like getting the family – or what’s left of it – together for a group photo that mimics one from years ago. Everyone looks older; and, people being people, no one is in the same exact pose. Such is the case here. Longtime fans will hear something new in the arrangements and Natalie’s vocal delivery, and the addition of strings adds depth and color to “The Letter” and “My Beloved Wife.” “I May Know the Word” is absolutely spellbinding, with the string section and Gabriel Gordon’s mesmerizing guitar work merging into one.

The original “I May Know the Word,” sans strings, is as powerful, however. Natalie sounds younger, of course, and her delivery quavers in spots, but that actually adds to the drama – as does Jennifer Turner’s restive guitar, which spirals stronger as the song unfolds.

The only stumble: “Carnival.” Gone is the near-minute preamble of percussion and electric guitar; and gone, too, is the intensity. A shuffle replaces the groove, and Natalie sounds resigned to what her eyes have seen and not, as on the original, dismayed.

That quibble aside, as I said above, overall Paradise Is There is a strong set – and how could it not be, given the songs? I’ll undoubtedly listen to it again and again in the weeks to come – whether it grows stronger with repeated listens, which is the earmark of a great album, remains to be seen (or, I suppose, heard). So, I guess, my longwinded review can be summarized as thus: It’s good. How good? To be continued…