Archive for the ‘2020’ Category

Like many a rock nerd, I became infatuated with Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend in late 1991. Shimmering electric guitars and hooks a-plenty mixed together like morsels in a magical power-pop elixir that simmered atop the dying flames of ‘60s idealism. That unsung guitar heroes Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine (the former of Television, the latter of Lou Reed’s early ‘80s band) were whipping the white noise made the concoction even more tasty. Sweet’s fatalism, fueled by a failed marriage, rang as loud as the guitars. It was and remains a great album.

Altered Beast (1993) – his next album – sharpened the cynicism while trading the Beatlesque overtones of Girlfriend for a more overt Neil Young vibe – and the Son of Altered Beast EP (1994), which featured a handful of live tracks, upped the Neil quotient by including a cover of “Don’t Cry No Tears.” I played both a fair bit at the time and included tracks from each on various mixtapes.

My memories of 100% Fun (1995), however, are far more hazy; for whatever reason, the music simply didn’t connect with me – no doubt because of me, not it. Maybe if he’d released another album the following year, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but by the time he put out his next set, in 1997, I had moved on. As one does. The next times he popped up on my radar, and the only albums of his I’ve since purchased, are the three Under the Covers albums (2006, 2009 and 2013) he made with Susanna Hoffs.

I share that because I am not now, nor have I ever been, an omniscient music critic (though I did, for a short spell, sell reviews) who knows every artist’s oeuvre inside and out. I like what I like and write about what I like. So when I say that Catspaw, Sweet’s 15th solo set, is a damn good outing, believe it. Like Girlfriend, it contains high-octane guitars and hooks galore. And like Altered Beast, it occasionally veers into the darkness.

Another thing that old music geeks like me may appreciate: Playing “Name That Influence” with some songs. “Give a Little,” for instance, conjures Mott the Hoople. 

He recorded the album in his home studio in Nebraska, playing all the instruments except for the drums, which were handled by Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck. The guitars are upfront and in your face, which is always a plus, but what I enjoy even more are the little things. “Drifting,” for example, contains a guitar pattern (more noticeable via headphones) that conjures the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” while the ending channels the Beatles. It’s quite cool. 

I went for a brief drive earlier today, cranking Catspaw. In a flash, I was in my mid-20s and behind the wheel of my old car, simultaneously optimistic and cynical about the future. While all tomorrow’s parties have not come to pass (though some days it may seem that way), there are fewer of them left. if, like me, you drifted away from Sweet at some point in the recent or even distant past, give his latest a go. It’s a 40-minute trip well worth taking.

The track list:

Every year about this time, we look back at the past 12 months – in the parlance of The Old Grey Cat, that’s called “Remember December.” But as the New Year nears, the past begins to fade from the rearview mirror and we focus on what matters most: the road ahead. We often vow to do this or that to improve ourselves in some fashion. In my case, for example, one goal is to shed the 10 pounds I’ve put on since the work-from-home life began in March. (Sad to say, but playing with my cat doesn’t burn as many calories as I thought.)

I also have a few resolutions as it pertains to this blog:

  1. More First Impressions. 
  2. More Essentials.
  3. More Other Stuff – aka free-standing essays about matters du-jour and long ago, generally music-related but occasionally not. In years past, I generally coupled these with my Top 5s, but… 
  4. No more Top 5s – unless they’re focused on a single artist or band, that is. The scattershot entries, while fun to create, are – historically speaking – the least popular thing I do. (In other words, sayonara to my oblique homage to High Fidelity!)
  5. Better organization. I’ve already made progress on this: Over the past few days, I’ve streamlined my many categories into ones that make sense. Now, if someone wants to use the categories to look up a specific artist or band, they’ll find relevant entries and not cursory mentions in any of my 234 (yes, you read right) Top 5 posts. (One exception: My much-ballyhooed Album of the Year Awards.) I contemplated doing the same with the individual years and just relying on decades, but…they remain for now.

I also have a few other cards up my sleeve for the New Year. Until then…

I listened to Jackson Browne’s Hold Out yesterday and again today. It’s an album I rediscovered earlier this year after a four-decade break and, in the months since, have played a fair bit. It takes me back to the summer I turned 15, when life’s complications seemed simpler than the simplicities of life today. Granted, the Iranian hostage crisis was ongoing, the economy was anemic and NHL linesman Leon Stickle’s non-call on an obvious offsides had just cost the Philadelphia Flyers their Stanley Cup dream for the season, but I was a teenager. The promise of tomorrow loomed large.

Back then, I often slipped headphones over my ears, laid on my bedroom floor and escaped into in the music emanating from my Realistic stereo system’s turntable. (The advertisement below is for the model I had, which was a Christmas gift from my parents in 1976.) The diamond/sapphire stylus danced along the record’s grooves and discerned my mood as if by magic, never failing to lift me up when sad and/or making good times better.

In 2020, however, the promise of tomorrow often seemed non-existent. Matters of life and death, and tinpot despots, turned the year into a series of vile vignettes that played on a never-ending loop. The incessant drone made writing a challenge, especially in the early going. Many posts read not as the insightful essays I intended but wordy YouTube adverts. C’est la vie. (I’m reminded of the Wallace Stevens poem “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight,” essentially about the limits of language: “It is like a flow of meanings with no speech/And of as many meanings as of men.”) Yet, even in the bleakest of times, I delved into matters tempo, timbre and the heart with regularity: This has been the first year in which I didn’t take a weekend off.

All of which leads to this: My favorite posts of the year not about Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. (Those are always among my best.) They’re arranged chronologically, not by preference.

1) The Essentials: Indigo Girls – Self-Titled (1/5/20). Extrapolating insights about life writ large, especially as it relates to a generational sea change, is near impossible, but this piece about the Indigo Girls does it well. As I joke in the lede, “for those of us who came of age during them, the 1980s were akin to the 1960s with the 6 closed off.” (I.e., a lot of freedom had been lost.)

2) The Essentials: Jackson Browne’s Hold Out (3/28/20). Although it suffers from a few too many embedded videos, this is a good example of what I aim for with my Essentials entries, but don’t always achieve. (Plus, it features an oblique allusion to one of my favorite works of fiction, Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms.)

3) Roberta Flack’s First Take: The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition – The Review (8/8/20). The much-delayed reissue, which was pushed back from its original April release date due to the pandemic, is a listening experience well worth undertaking; and I delve deep not just into the music, but its backstory.

4) First Impressions: The Wine of Youth by Zach Phillips (8/29/2020). It’s easy to lose one’s self in despair, especially during this pandemic, but Zach’s album helped me rise like a phoenix from the embers of a deep depression. Perhaps because of that, this review was – hands down – the best thing I wrote all year. 

5) Today’s Top 5: Albums AWOL from Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums (9/27/2020). As Paul Simon sings in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “…every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.” Every generation also recasts the past, but rarely without controversy. One example: Rolling Stone’s 2020 all-time album countdown. It ruffled some feathers, especially amongst older music fans, but – as I write in my post – “These lists are not of ‘all time,’ but of their time; they reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, and that moment is generally set by those younger than me.”

And, with that, the annual “Remember December” navel-gazing exercise, circa 2020, has come to a close. On Wednesday, I’ll share my blog-related resolutions for the coming year and then begin implementing them on January 1st.

The Old Grey Cat is wrapping up a banner year – it’s had more visitors and page views over the past 12 months than all of 2014, ’15, ’16 and ’17 combined. (Truly, that stat staggers my mind.) One reason, of course, is the pandemic – with everyone stuck at home, the more time we’ve spent online. Another reason: the wealth of archival posts I’ve accrued since launching this blog in July 2014Unlike new posts, which thrive due to Facebook (and occasionally Twitter), older entries subsist from search engines – Google, especially.

Like most weekend bloggers, I’m sure, I share new posts to my personal Facebook page – where friends generally ignore or miss them – as well as to corresponding Facebook groups. (I don’t join groups to post links, however; that would be rude. Most are fan communities I’ve been a part of for years.) Then, after the figurative FB fire goes out, search engines occasionally reignite the flame. Such has always been the case for this blog, at any rate.

And, with that, here are my overall Top 20 posts of the year (along with the dates that I posted them).

  1. Neil Young: The Best of the Unofficial Canon (9/27/2015)
  2. First Impressions: Neil Young’s Archives II (12/13/2020)
  3. Of Concerts Past: Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band in Philadelphia, 9/24/1999 (7/6/2019)
  4. First Impressions: Bruce Springsteen – The Live Series: Stripped Down (7/25/2020)
  5. The Natalie Merchant Collection – The Review (7/4/2017)
  6. Melody Gardot: Live in Europe – The Review (2/11/2018)
  7. The Essentials: Maria McKee’s Life Is Sweet (6/23/2018)
  8. Shelby Lynne: Here I Am (Movie & Soundtrack) – The Review (8/12/2018)
  9. First Impressions: “Letter to You” by Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band (9/12/2020)
  10. The Essentials: Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Broken Arrow (12/22/2017)
  11. The Essentials: Juliana Hatfield – God’s Foot demos (7/26/2020)
  12. The Essentials: Neil Young – Time Fades Away (5/5/2018)
  13. About (7/12/2014)
  14. Today’s Top 5: Linda Ronstadt’s Rare TV Appearances (1/21/2019)
  15. First Impressions: Neil Young’s Homegrown (6/20/2020)
  16. First Impressions: Melody Gardot’s “From Paris With Love” (6/21/2020)
  17. Neil Young & the Santa Monica Flyers: ROXY – Tonight’s the Night Live -The Review (4/28/2018)
  18. Neil Young’s 1973, Part I: Lonely Weekend, Last Dance, the Tonight’s the Night Acetate (& More) (4/24/2018)
  19. The Essentials: Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky (2/16/2020)
  20. Today’s Top 5: Linda Ronstadt – Duets (2/12/2017)

(For my Top 20 New Posts of 2020, click here.)