Archive for the ‘2020’ Category

Morning breaks somewhere in the world, always, with the first cracks of light slicing across the horizon like a knife through the edge of night. Mourning – of lost love and loved ones, dashed dreams, and so much more – breaks, too. The new day brings with it new hope, but it can’t and won’t be rushed. It comes when it comes. 

Singer, songwriter and pianist Natalie Duncan’s Free skirts the divide, delving into both sides with artful precision. The album opens with “Kansas,” which is akin to a sonic wave that sweeps from the speakers with strings and wordless vocals before morphing into something more. “How many people try to put out your light/you’ll never know, so you better glow/baby, come shining/baby, come shining…”

Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements come together in an uncluttered production that enables chords to breathe – and for Aaron Janick’s trumpet to float in from the distance like a dream on certain songs and interludes, such as on “Pools” (which I featured yesterday) or “Glass,” which samples Nina Simone. 

With Richard Spaven on drums and Alan Mian on bass, a solid rhythm anchors many of the R&B-flavored tracks. “Atrium,” an early favorite, is a good example. “Going backwards/all the same words/I’ve been through this/but it still hurts/I’m just waiting for some stillness…”

“Nova” is another.

If you listened to one or both, you’ll notice an old-school vibe that conjures, but doesn’t copy, Alicia Keys. “Sirens,” “Karma” and “Autumn,” on the other hand, are jazz-imbued tunes that would be at home on a Nina Simone LP, while “Strange” (“I know I am insufferable sometimes…) and “Brave” could well be unearthed Roberta Flack treasures. 

Shorthand comparisons aside, what comes through the most is Natalie Duncan. “Diamond,” the closing track, deftly blends old-school rap with her old-school soul in a way that’s both sweet and bittersweet. “Happiness is just a concept/happiness is something you can choose to remember or forget/happiness is never, ever having to regret…” (To quote Diane, “I could listen to her rap all day.”)

Free closes just as it begins – with strings and wordless vocals – as if to demonstrate that, just as night slides into day, day glides into night; it’s the cycle of life. With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack, however, the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.

I am not a Dylanologist nor do I play one on this blog, though I do consider myself a Bob Dylan fan. In 1979, at the age of 14, I purchased my first Bob Dylan album, Slow Train Coming, and despite disliking the LP’s religiosity, continued on the journey, hopping aboard the box cars known as his Greatest Hits and Greatest Hits Vol. II albums and riding the rails to Freewheelin’, The Times They Are A-Changing, Another Side, Bringing It All Back Home, Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, though not in that order. The red and blue Rolling Stone Record Guides, as always in those years, were crucial engineers in my journey.

In the mid-’80s, when I was one of several rotating deejays on the folk show that aired on Penn State’s student-run radio station every Saturday and Sunday morning, his early works were staples of my shifts. In fact, I came to know a few of his ‘70s-era albums simply by playing their tracks on the air, as odd as that may sound. (A skip in the live Hard Rain album haunts me still.)

Anyway, as the times of hand have rotated around my life’s clock, a smattering of his latter-day works also entered my collection, including the 3-CD Biograph overview, Oh Mercy, Time Out of Mind and the Greatest Hits Vol. III set, as “Dignity” was and is a latter-day favorite of mine, plus his recent Rough and Rowdy Ways LP, which to my ears is one of the year’s best. (It’s too soon for me to contemplate my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors, but I’m sure it will be in the running.) More often than not, however, when I’m in a Dylan mood, I turn to those ‘60s sides – Freewheelin’ and Bringing It All Back Home, especially – or The Bootleg Series Vol. 6 (Live 1964, Concert at Philharmonic Hall) and Vol. 9 (The Witmark Demos: 1962-1964).

I’m also a fan of cover versions – not just of Dylan songs, but of the genre itself (if it can be considered a genre). At their best, covers shed insight into both the singer and the song. The Sid & Susie Under the Cover sets still receive play in my day-to-day life, as does Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John. (What can I say? I’m weird that way.) And First Aid Kit’s renditions of a few Dylan tunes on Election Night 2016 said much about them, while simultaneously demonstrating the utter timelessness of the songs themselves. 

Until recently, however, I wasn’t familiar with the Nashville-based, Australian singer-songwriter Emma Swift. She came to my attention by way of Twitter, believe it or not, as folks I follow also follow her (or vice versa); as a result, her tweets occasionally popped up in my feed. One day, and I don’t remember exactly when, her cover of Dylan’s recent “I Contain Multitudes” appeared.

Her vocals are smoother than Dylan’s gruff intonations, obviously, and the gravitas that drips from his every syllable is missing from hers – but it’s replaced by an intangible that’s difficult to articulate, yet equally hypnotic. It’s akin to eyeing a landscape from a glider rather than a plane, I suppose. The former, if I’ve done my research right, skirts the clouds; the latter, on the other hand, flies above them. Either/or, it’s quite cool. I ordered the LP the same day from her BandCamp page, expecting the delivery to be near the release date listed there – August 14th. Then, earlier this month, she released a rendition of “Queen Jane Approximately” that features a Byrdsian texture. Again, quite cool.

The LP arrived on Monday with a note thanking me for purchasing the album, but – let’s be real – the nice note would mean little if the album itself didn’t live up to those first two teaser tracks. No worries, however. It does. Emma’s vocals capture the emotional raison d’être of the songs, with her inflections adding depth and all the other things that turn a cover song into a reflection of the performer’s own soul.

To my ears, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands” is the standout of the eight songs. Emma captures the nuances of the lyrics, seemingly living them while singing them. The other tracks, as evidenced by the above two videos, also skirt the clouds, shedding a welcome perspective. Another immediate favorite is “The Man in Me” from New Morning, a Dylan album I’m not super familiar with. (That’s another notch in the album’s favor, actually: These aren’t the usual Dylan songs that get covered.)

My main criticism of many albums in the CD era and, now, digital age is length. Too often, artists release hour-plus affairs that would be stronger if they’d trimmed it to 40-or-so minutes and allocated the other tunes to b-sides (or whatever the digital version of those are). The reverse is true here, however, as the listener is left wanting more. I highly recommend Blonde on the Tracks, and look forward to exploring the rest of Emma Swift’s oeuvre.

For those curious, here’s the song list with their album home in italics:

Queen Jane Approximately – Highway 61 Revisited
I Contain Multitudes – Rough and Rowdy Ways
One of Us Must Know (Sooner or Later) – Blonde on Blonde
Simple Twist of Fate – Blood on the Tracks
Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands – Blonde on Blonde
The Man in Me – New Morning
Going Going Gone – Planet Waves
You’re a Big Girl Now – Blood on the Tracks

    

Last weekend, yesterday and again this morning, I played the latest installment of Bruce Springsteen’s Live Series, Stripped Down. It features acoustic renditions of 15 songs, from “Dancing in the Dark” at Neil Young’s 1986 Bridge Benefit in Mountain View, Cal., to “Empty Sky” from the final stop of the 2005 Devils & Dust tour in Trenton. Unlike the archival concert releases available on brucespringsteen.net, the compilations can be streamed from the usual suspects – in my case, Apple Music, but for those who eschew the subscription services, it’s also available (with commercials) via YouTube.

As one might expect, it’s a sterling set accented by songs that still resonate despite some – in theory, at least – being long past their expiration dates. The tales of tough times in the ‘70s and ‘80s, as depicted with a novelist’s eye in “Seeds,” “Youngstown” and “The River” are not dusty remnants of a bygone era, in other words, though some may initially hear them that way. As Springsteen sings in “Wrecking Ball,” “hard times come, and hard times go/yeah, just to come again” – and, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, tough times are back yet again.

“Youngstown,” to my ears, is the album’s pièce de résistance. Originally released on The Ghost of Tom Joad in 1995, it examines the corrosion of manufacturing jobs in what’s now known as the Rust Belt: “From the Monongahela Valley to the Mesabi Iron Range/To the coal mines of Appalachia, the story’s always the same/Seven hundred tons of metal a day, now sir you tell me the world’s changed/Once I made you rich enough, rich enough to forget my name…” It’s a detached, matter-of-fact portrayal of a working man whose way of life has been dispatched by the closing of a factory.

In any event, there’s little negative I can say about the live compilation except for this: None of the songs were recorded in Philadelphia, the city that championed Bruce first. C’est la vie. If you have Apple Music or Spotify, or access to YouTube, give it a listen – you won’t be disappointed.

The song list: