Archive for the ‘2020’ Category

Years long ago, when newspapers were a thing, I routinely read the “Family Circus” comic strip, though it was, at least during the week, more of a one-panel oval. Created by Bill Keane in 1960, it focused on a family with four children – and a ghost called “Not Me.” Whenever a kid caused a catastrophe of some kind, the stern mom or dad would ask who was responsible. The kid, in turn, would shrug his or her shoulders while “Not Me” zoomed out of the room. 

I can’t help but think of it when listening to Courtney Marie Andrews’ “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” the latest teaser track from her forthcoming Old Flowers album. The song artfully puts into words a common response to life’s heartaches, heartbreaks and hardships – blaming everyone but ourselves for what’s come to pass:

Oh, but it must be someone else’s fault
Must be someone else’s heart who tainted mine
No, I cannot be to blame for the story of this pain
Oh, it must be someone else’s fault…

On Instagram, she explained that the song is “rooted in taking ownership of our own story and pain. I wrote this in Washington state one spring afternoon, and the message was something I’d tried to put to song for a long time.”

She also notes that “[t]he video embodies the power of sisterhood, and our ancestral trauma through the power of movement. Through these movements, I hope to embody the strength of our lineage, and overcome this old pain.” It may sound silly to dance the generational blues away, but the study of epigenetics demonstrates that trauma, while not ingrained into our DNA per se, is indeed passed down via familial lines. (See this BBC Future article for more.) There’s long been a debate about whether nature or nurture is the predominate influence on who we, as individuals, are; in truth, it’s a bit of both and, either/or, it matters less than self-awareness feeding self-actualization. To paraphrase one of my favorite soliloquies from Joan of Arcadia, we’re responsible for everything we touch and for everything that touches us.

All that science-minded philosophizing aside, “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” is a captivating country-inflected tune that features Courtney’s vocal prowess in full flower. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, then five more times. It’s a great song that, as Courtney’s songs often do, echoes the ages.

There are a myriad of tributaries through time that twist together as if one, but each offers a distinct experience that depends upon many factors, such as one’s age, race and gender. The summer of 1967 is a good example. Anyone steeped in pop-culture history, and even some who aren’t, likely know it as the Summer of Love, when Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released and the Monterey Pop Festival took place (though, technically, Pepper and the festival both fell in the spring). People in another tributary, however, remember or know those same months as the “long, hot summer” when riots erupted in such urban centers as Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Newark, N.J.

Just days after the Detroit riot, which followed the one in Newark, N.J., President Johnson spoke to the nation about the unrest. He emphasized the need to stop the lawlessness, but also addressed the underlying issues that fed it: 

“The violence must be stopped, quickly, finally, and permanently. It would compound the tragedy, however, if we should settle for order that is imposed by the muzzle of a gun. In America, we seek more than the uneasy calm of martial law. We seek peace that is based on one man’s respect for another man – and upon mutual respect for law. We seek a public order that is built on steady progress in meeting the needs of all of our people. Not even the sternest police action, nor the most effective federal troops, can ever create lasting peace in our cities. The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack – mounted at every level – upon the conditions that breed despair and violence. All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs. We should attack these conditions – not because we are frightened by conflict, but because we are fired by conscience. We should attack them because there is simply no other way to achieve a decent and orderly society in America.”

LBJ’s flawed presidency was derailed the following year, of course, by events in one of that era’s other tributaries, the Vietnam War. Although promises made by one president are often broken by the next, in the decades since we’ve seemed headed in the right direction – despite stumbles, of which they’ve been too many. (As Martin Luther King Jr. said, paraphrasing the abolitionist minister Thomas Parker, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”) 

As 2019 faded to a close, I often referred to 2020 as “the year of visual acuity.” I assumed that we, as a people, would visit a figurative ophthalmologist and leave with new specs that granted us better vision – not just of the present, but of the past. As the philosopher George Santayana wrote, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

American is burning. Again. Let us respond to it, now, and prevent it from happening again. And again. And again.

In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.

Some songs and albums swirl like wisps of smoke through the synapses only for a wrong chord or lyric, or some intangible element, to douse the combustion before it erupts into flames. Others, however, spark a fiery exchange between the presynaptic and postsynaptic portions of the neurons, with the heat rapidly intensifying with every passing second. The latter is the case for Jess Williamson’s recent Sorceress album.

After reading the Highway Queens review of it on Wednesday, I pulled up the 11-song set in Apple Music and hit play. Honestly, I was expecting whatever I heard to wash over my tired ears, as most new music from new-to-me artists has done this year. Instead, an array of colors flashed from my speakers as if from 1970s-era light boxes…

…with Williamson’s warm vocals front and center. (Yes, I hear colors. I also hear depth. And, in these songs, I also hear wistfulness, self-awareness and regret.) “As the Birds Are,” which conjures Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” is a good example of what I mean: “Oh to be as the birds are/Unburdened by loneliness/Oh to be a shining star/So far away with no regret/Oh to live in some photograph/Smiling and in love/Far from where I said all that/Shit about freedom…”

As a whole, her songs blend country, folk, rock and gentle psychedelia – somewhat akin to Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues, now that I think about it, though she splashes in some disco, too. Despite the disparate elements, or perhaps because of them, she soars high into the sky one moment, then parachutes back to Earth the next; it’s a compelling listen as a result. “Wind on Tin” is one example…

…and “Infinite Scroll,” a bittersweet ode about being invited to an ex-lover’s wedding, is another. 

I hear so much in those four minutes and 11 seconds – from Yvonne Elliman (circa “If I Can’t Have You”) to Jewel to…well, everything and everyone in between and beyond, including the Beatles, Dylan and Mazzy Star. It’s the past, present and future of popular music rolled into one, just about. No artist can live up to that hyperbole, of course, so I probably shouldn’t say that – but it’s where my mind goes when listening not just to “Infinite Scroll,” but the album as a whole.

Sorceress casts a spell like few others, in other words. Give it a go.