Archive for the ‘2019’ Category

For those scoring at home, over the past few weeks I’ve deemed not one, not two, but three Neil Young albums as “essential.” As I noted a while back, at a certain point over the summer my listening habits retrenched to the tried-and-true, aka the music of my youth and college years. It’s not a new phenomenon – this blog is a testament to that. Some days, weeks and months I reconnect with past masters to the detriment of today’s pet sounds.

Much of music is what the listener makes of it, after all, and the connections I have with that old music were forged long ago. The Beatles together and apart, Neil, Linda, Springsteen, Seger, Weller, Maria McKee, and the Paisley Underground, among other acts and scenes, are just part of my musical DNA. In the decades since, of course, a slew of newer acts have attached themselves to my nucleotides, too, but – youth is youth. Certain sounds stick with us.

Which leads to this: A new song by an act I “liked” on Facebook (and featured in a Top 5) a few years back, and then promptly forgot about, leapt out and struck a chord with me yesterday when it appeared in my newsfeed. The group in question: The Sundowners. According to their FB page, the Liverpool-based band’s influences include, among others, the Velvet Underground, Byrds and Bangles. I gave the song a listen and – as I’m apt to say – “wow, just wow.”

They sound like they stepped out of a time capsule from 1966 or 1985, when the Paisley Underground was in full swing. Echoes of the Beatles (circa Revolver), Byrds (circa “Eight Miles High”) and Bangles (circa All Over the Place) are discernible in the grooves, yet the music sounds fresh and new.

Whether you’re young or old, or somewhere in-between, give them a listen. You won’t be disappointed.

It’s early Sunday morn as I write, and Roberta Flack is killing me softly with her songs. My trusty Tribit headphones cover my ears, and – though Bluetooth capable – are plugged into my Macbook Pro via an M-Audio Micro DAC. It’s a plug-in sound card that, as the picture shows, is just a tad larger than a thumb drive, and enables me to listen to 24-bit, 192-kHz music files in all their glory without first copying said files to my Pono player. 

A MacBook Pro can output 24/96 through its headphone jack, of course, by switching the settings in the MIDI utility, and the sound quality is quite good for both high-res files and the Neil Young Archives, which streams up to 24/192. But this $100 Micro DAC improves the sound, be it through my headphones or solid Logitech Z623 THX-certified 2.1 computer speakers.

I should mention that, a few summers back, I stopped using the Pono player on a regular basis. It overheated once, then twice, and then a few more times during the summers of ’16 and ’17 while I was out and about, and then, while listening in our den one hot-and-humid afternoon, it didn’t just overheat, but fried the 128g micro-SD card inside. (I made the “mistake” of listening while charging.) By that point, however, I’d already grown tired not just of adding and subtracting files from my micro-SD cards, but of toting two gadgets around.

Around the same time, I decided to give Apple Music a go. While there was a drop-off in quality, there wasn’t a drop-off in what – to me, at least – is the most important factor when it comes to music: emotional quotient. And, truthfully, what I hear via my iPhone or MacBook Pro is better than what I enjoyed via the Realistic stereo system my parents gifted me with for Christmas ’77  and the Realistic cassette deck I installed in my little brown Chevette in ‘85, to say nothing of staticky AM radio. All things are relative, in other words. Sometimes “good enough” is enough.

Yet, when at my desk and in the mood, I often fire up the Vox app and play some of the high-res files I collected from 2014 through early ’17 – or just stream from the NYA site. How to enjoy that music to its fullest? While there are many options, some of which are rather pricey, for me right now it’s the M-Audio Micro DAC. It gets the job done.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Sunday, 9/1/19. 

1) Roberta Flack – “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A few years back, Diane and I watched Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, a one-hour documentary about Roberta’s ascent to stardom, on (I think) Amazon Prime. For me, it was something of a revelation – I picked up a few of her albums from the Pono Store in the weeks that followed. This, her rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic (found on her 1971 Quiet Fire album), is just mesmerizing. 

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “American Tune.” One of Paul Simon’s greatest songs, from his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, was given the Simon & Garfunkel treatment during their now-legendary 1981 Central Park concert. The lyrics are as appropriate now as they were in ‘73: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/or driven to its knees/But it’s all right, it’s all right/We’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/we’re traveling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

3) Courtney Marie Andrews & Deer Tick – “You’re the One That I Want.” Speaking of duets… and to lighten the mood… there’s this clip of a Grease cover, which I just discovered last night. Trust me when I say, “It’s electrifying!”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train.” Speaking of Courtney, she’s part of the forthcoming collection of Tom Waits songs, Come on Up to the House, which also includes Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Phoebe Bridgers and Patty Griffin, among others.

5) Allison Moorer – “The Rock and the Hill.” One album I’m anticipating is Allison Moorer’s Blood, which will be released alongside her memoir of the same name in late October. If this tasty track is any indication, it’s going to be flat-out great. (If you’re so inclined, head over to Allison’s website and pre-order both it and the book. And then check out her online journal, which is always an interesting read.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Milky Way.” Another album I’m looking forward to is Colorado, which is also due out in October. It features Neil backed by a reconstituted Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren on guitar in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampredo). This, the first single, is both stirring and subdued at once.

The end of the decade is nigh. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it until this week, but the clock’s hands are tick-tick-ticking closer to midnight. Before this annus horribilis gives way to the Year of Visual Acuity, however, listen to this:

That’s the opener to Leslie Stevens’ new album, Sinner, which as a whole conjures a century’s worth of country music in its 10 tracks, echoing everyone from Glen Campbell to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and her Spyboy band. It’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.

It’s traditional. Alternative. Unique. Her voice trembles, rises and falls, dynamic and dramatic, in sync not just with the lyrics but the soul. Some are story-songs. Others are from the heart.

Here’s a live rendition of another of the album’s highlights:

Leslie Stevens is currently on tour in the States, and thankfully isn’t bypassing my neck of the woods. You can see where she’s playing, and buy Sinner, at her website. (It’s also available via the normal streaming sites.)

At some point over the summer, as evidenced by recent posts, I shifted into a somewhat nostalgic state of mind, with the songs and albums of Bruce Springsteen and Bob Seger receiving the most play – though I’ve also leaned on a few artists of more recent vintage, such as Lucy Rose. Their oeuvres delve deeper into the human experience than most, articulating dreams both dashed and achieved – and, at least in the case of Bruce and Bob, transporting me across the spacetime continuum to my late teens and early twenties. (To borrow a line from Lucy Rose’s “Floral Dresses,” “I’m growing older each passing day, but my heart remains the same.”)

That’s not to say I’ve totally eschewed the new, mind you. In between my time-travel excursions, I’ve explored and enjoyed a range of new releases. Some have gotten more play than others, but all are items that have stuck with me long after the music faded to silence.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. DCCCXVIII: 

1) LoneHollow – “Shoot to Kill.” Rylie Bourne’s vocals, both tone and phrasing, are magnetic, and this track – like their EP as a whole – is guaranteed to pull you back for repeated plays. It’s not a new song or performance, as she previously released it as a single under her own name a few years back, but it remains as stirring now as it did then. If I owned a club, I’d book the band for a month-long residency. And then book ’em again.

2) Tyler Childers – “All Your’n.” Childers recently topped the country charts with his Country Squire album, which conjures yesteryear in form though not subject matter. It’s not a five-star release by any means, at least not to my ears, but is a damn good outing – and a welcome alternative to modern-day country music. This tune, which mixes in some heady Stax rhythm & blues, is my favorite.

3) Dracula’s Miniskirt – “Unbecoming.” This Philly-area glam-and-goth band cites David Bowie, T-Rex, Patti Smith, the Velvet Underground and The Rocky Horror Picture Show as influences. Lead singer Spook Marlow’s vocals remind me of Zombie Birdhouse-era Iggy Pop, which is somewhat apropos since one of the songs on their EP is titled “Zombie Love.” You can check them out, and purchase their EP, via BandCamp. (Disclaimer: In years past, I worked with two of the band members.)

4) Penelope Isles – “Leipzig.” I don’t know much about this band beyond what I read in Mojo or Uncut last week (or was it the week before that?) during a visit to Barnes & Noble. They’re an Isle of Man-based band fronted by sister and brother Lily and Jack Wolter, and the music they make is hypnotic.

5) P.P. Arnold – “Baby Blue.” P.P. Arnold started her career with Ike and Tina Turner, but parted ways with them while in the U.K. in 1966. She quickly carved out a niche for herself with such classic sides as “The First Cut is the Deepest” (1967) and “Angel of the Morning” (1968). I highly recommend the two-CD best of Angel of the Morning, which blew my mind when I first heard it in 2012, as well The New Adventures of P.P. Arnold, which was released earlier this month.