Archive for the ‘2020s’ Category

Although my CDs are still dancin’ across the proverbial waters, sans galleons and guns, I’ve been enjoying the archival Way Down in the Rust Bucket live set from Neil Young and Crazy Horse thanks to the high-resolution files that come with the purchase via the Greedy Hand store. Long-time fans who planted trees and/or were branches and leaves on the Human Highway and/or Rust List email groups should be familiar with the Nov. 13, 1990, show from the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, Cal., as fans were in attendance and audience recordings were made. Bootleg aficionados will know it, too, as it soon appeared in specialty shops under such titles as Don’t Spook the Horse, Feedback Is Back and Homegrown, not to mention the mammoth four-disc set Warpath, which coupled it with an audience recording that captured the first night of the 1991 “Smell the Horse” tour. 

I trawled my long-archived original Old Grey Cat site (1997-2006) and came away with reviews of two of those bootlegs. Here’s my original take on Feedback on Back, which – allegedly sourced from an audience tape – excised “Cowgirl in the Sand” in order to fit the show onto two discs; I’ve edited it ever-so-slightly…

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In the wake of Ragged Glory, in early 1991 Neil saddled up Crazy Horse for a tour that was eventually documented on the live double-CD Weld. If you’re familiar with that album (and you should be), then you know Neil and the Horse delivered more than just a rudimentary greatest hits set. They created a cacophony of feedback, laying down the musical equivalent of the bombs then blowing up Iraq. It was an intense affair with plenty of standards, true, but they were attacked in such a way that they came out new. One listen to the apocalyptic version of “Like a Hurricane” present on Weld is proof enough, but if need be crank up the version of “F+!#kin’ Up,” too. Maybe it’s me, but I hear it as ominous and threatening, sans the goofy spirit of the Ragged Glory rendition. It works on several levels – as does “Crime in the City,” another relatively new song that just plain kicks ass. The music accents the climate of the times even as it goes beyond them.

Feedback Is Back doesn’t do that. Taken from a warm-up date in November ’90 at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, it reflects and extends the mood of Ragged Glory: Loud, goofy and fun, with plenty of jammin’ just for the sake of jammin’ – and, no doubt, jammin’ in the name of the Lord, too. What else explains the inclusion on “T-Bone”? Yeah, that’s right. “T-Bone,” the guitar workout from re*ac*tor that features the “incisive” lyrics of “ain’t go no t-bone/got mashed potatoes.” Like the set in total, it’s not earth-shattering – but it is fun to hear Neil recast the lyrics time and again. The inclusion of more than a few infrequently played songs – “Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze,” “Bite the Bullet,” “Dangerbird,” “Don’t Cry No Tears” (complete with “a Las Vegas ending,” to quote Neil), the aforementioned “T-Bone” and “Homegrown” – in a set that features eight tracks from Ragged Glory amongst a handful of standards (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Sedan Delivery,” “Roll Another Number,” “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer”) gives a different spin to what the Smell the Horse tour may have been like if not for Saddam Hussein, George Bush and CNN: A lot looser. The sound itself, while not great, is solid throughout. Of note, however, this is not the entire show. (For that, one should seek out Doberman’s Warpath.) That said, Feedback Is Back ain’t bad. Please take my advice: Play it LOUD!

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Of Warpath, which was sourced from a different audience tape, contributor Lookout Joe “Shaky” Deal penned the main review, noting that “[t]he Santa Cruz set is a delight because of the relaxed feel of Young and his cohorts. They had not played together in public since the Fall of 1987 (okay, okay, there was the Bridge in October 1990 and the night before this) and they are obviously enjoying themselves. They play nearly all of their then-new album, Ragged Glory, as well as such rarities as ‘Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze,’ ‘T-Bone’ and ‘Dangerbird’ (it was a rarity then). They also dip deep down in ‘the old rust bucket’ for a storming rendition of ‘Cowgirl in the Sand.’ It is ragged. It is glorious. It is so right.”

I then chimed in with a sentiment I’d now use to describe Way Down in the Rust Bucket: “It’s an electric, goofy set – what else can be said about a show that includes ’T-Bone’?”

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The main difference between it, Feedback Is Back, the other bootlegs and treed CDs: the pristine sound. Listening to the high-resolution (192/24) files via my USB DAC and headphones is akin to being in the sonic sweet spot of the 800-seat Catalyst. Thick chords, winding guitars and sweeping melodies roll like sonic waves from the stage and leave you drenched with bliss. It’s not Neil’s greatest live album by any means, mind you, but is a welcome addition all the same. (One note: Like Feedback Is Back, “Cowgirl in the Sand” is AWOL due to an apparent recording malfunction, but was captured by the film crew so is on the DVD.) It’s available to stream on the Neil Young Archives – and membership is only $19.99/year, so if you don’t belong, join. Also, as I inferred up top, CDs and LPs bought from the slow-as-molasses Greedy Hand store come with a download code for the high-res files.

The track list:

Early Sunday morning, I strapped on my headphones so as not to disturb Diane, the cat or neighbors and clicked play on Australian singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke’s debut album, Echo. I noticed its release listed in Apple Music’s “indie folk” genre on Friday and decided to give it a go today – as background music while waking up, essentially. At first blush, it’s lo-fi, hushed and intimate, the kind of music that – in theory, at least – blends into the background while the coffee kicks in. But the nine songs don’t hang back; they circulate and percolate their way to the foreground, demand attention. They are, in a sense, fever dreams set to song, intense.

“Colourblind,” which opens the set, is a perfect example. It floats in from the horizon as if on a gentle breeze, but sidesteps gauzy sentiments while relating the stark realities of a failing relationship: “There’s a distance in our words/there’s a distance and it hurts and/all the king’s horses/all the king’s men, well, couldn’t/no, they couldn’t put it all back together again…” 

Sparke co-produced the album alongside Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Andrew Sarlo, who – among other credits – helmed Courtney Marie Andrew’s Old Flowers album; she’d been slated to open for Big Thief on their planned Australia-New Zealand trek in 2020 prior to the pandemic putting everything on hold. Framed by sparse instrumentation, including herself on acoustic guitar, she whispers, speaks and sings the lyrics, a self-professed “orchestra of truth” whose word symphonies alternate between social realism and abstract expressionism.

Pretty much every review or article I’ve read about her borrows from a press release the Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones label issued in January, when it announced they’d signed her, so I thought I’d do the same, but quote it verbatim: “Indigo Sparke brings her deeply personal lived experiences to her music, highlighting the spaces between the polarity of softness and grit. Pulling from her experiences of addiction, of healing, of queerness, of heartbreak, of joy, of connection, of the softness and of the grit alchemising it all into tenderness through her music, she conjures up a myriad of feelings that is undeniably potent.”

That’s true, but verbose. I’d have phrased it differently: These are murmurs from the heart and soul, one part poetry and one part prose. It’s the powerful “Carnival” culminating in the unlikely admission that “I feel like I can’t feel…” 

…and the haunting “Everything Everything,” in which she shares an unlikely epiphany: Everything, everyone, is dying. The young, the healthy, the old, the infirm – we all, every day, are one step closer to death. The past gave way to the present and the present will soon fold into the future; what we do will not, cannot, stop us from falling into the universe’s big black void. 

In the release announcing the album, she’s quoted as saying that “[w]hen writing and recording the record, I wondered how it would all come together. I felt like I was standing back in the desert, looking up at the blue night sky, wondering how all the stars would connect. I think sometimes it’s the dark matter or void space between them, that holds it all together. This record is an ode to death and decay. And the restlessness I feel to belong to something greater.” Whether she achieved all of that, I don’t know – it’s too early to say. But I can proclaim that Echo is one of those albums you’ll play a second time if you play it once, and play it a third, fourth and fifth time after that. It’s highly recommended.

The track list:

Wow. I’m not sure what I expected from Jillette Johnson’s third album, It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You, so…yeah. Wow. When or if the day comes that live, in-person music is again a thing, seeing her in concert will be a no-brainer.

Early Friday morn, when I first clicked play, I assumed the singer-songwriter of All I Ever See in You Is Me, her 2017 album that sported a Carly Simon sheen, would continue in the same vein. Instead, I was greeted by an atmospheric rock record with occasional country overtones, plus some David Bowie, Stones, Sheryl Crow and Oasis flourishes thrown in for good measure. It’s not as drastic a departure as, say, Maria McKee’s glam-infested Life Is Sweet was back in the day; if anything, it’s a logical extension of several All I Ever See in You Is Me tracks, including the title cut and “Not Tonight.”

Perhaps the best way to describe IaBDaILY: It’s less a singer-songwriter album and more a singer and her band – an important distinction. “Many Moons,” the lead-off track, is a perfect example. It’s a moody rumination on the invincibility we feel when young. “Oh to be 18 again….” (Who among us doesn’t look back with astonishment at some of the stupid situations we placed ourselves in?) If played solo at the piano or fleshed out with a tasteful arrangement, a la All I Ever See in You Is Me, it would work well – a good song is a good song, after all (and, as evidenced by my blog, I’m a sucker for singer-songwriters and tasteful arrangements, so I’d be happy). But in the hands of a crack band, the music goes from boozy to woozy to reflective, mirroring the lyrics each step along the way. That added dimension adds depth to “Many Moons” and the songs that follow, turning what would have been a good album into a great one.

The second track, “Angelo,” which finds Johnson and her compatriots channeling “Heroes”-era Bowie and prime Oasis, tackles the tragic passing of an acquaintance and the reality that there was little she could do to save him. “I didn’t know him well/But deep down I could tell what it cost/He was lost/Wings broken, arms open/Slumped over the seat/If anyone could help, it wasn’t me/It wasn’t me…” I never noticed it until her excellent cover of “Champagne Supernova” for the OurVinyl Sessions, but at times her voice possesses a Liam Gallagher-like quality – and it’s in full effect here, with the band giving her the perfect runway for her vocal flight. 

The title track is another thing of wonder, opening with a stereotypical 1950s R&B/ballad riff that expands, bit by bit, into a message of unadulterated love: “It’s a beautiful day and I love you, I want you to know/I was just calling to tell you so/I was just walking around in the sun/Thinking about you, yes, you are the one for me, baby…”

There’s far more to the album than those three songs, of course. “I Shouldn’t Go Anywhere” finds Johnson alternating between self-pity and anger while drowning her sorrows at a bar; and “Jealous” – which conjures Globe Sessions-era Sheryl Crow – features lyrics about envy: “It’s a zero sum game, I know that’s insane/Someone else’s gain isn’t my loss/Someone else’s shine doesn’t darken mine/But I feel sometimes quite jealous.” 

From what I’ve read, Johnson mined her own life experiences for the songs – and, in so doing, forged 10 mirrors that reflect ourselves back at us. Run, don’t walk, to the retailer of your choice – or just hit up any of the streaming services. It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You is a tremendous set that grows stronger with every listen.

The track list:

(Laura Elizabeth Hughes)

Even in the best of times, days have a way of blurring together. Pre-pandemic, for instance, many of us woke, worked, ate and slept again and again (and again), with each new workday the same as the last, until the weekend and accompanying fun arrived. Maybe that meant dinner out followed by a concert or, if not, a bookstore jaunt – or just catching up with friends or hanging with family. The pandemic’s stuck-at-home life upended that weekend routine, unfortunately, and now – for many of us, at least – every tomorrow is no different than yesterday.

Dublin-based singer-songwriter Laura Elizabeth Hughes deftly captures the stark sameness on her new single, “Days,” from her forthcoming, We, Myself, I EP. She explains in a press release that the song “was a step at confronting the nothingness routine that hit when I was out of work for four months. It’s repetitious, a choral of my own voice, my own thoughts, day in and day out. It’s the losing sense of time. It’s that limbo between Christmas and before New Year’s but in the middle of May. It’s all work and no play freneticism.”

As evidenced by “Days,” her songs are intricate and tuneful wonders. Some reflect realities relatable to everyone, while others flow from the speakers as if from the subconscious – or is that the collective unconscious? Last year’s “Pandemonium” is a good example. It’s stark and powerful, a melancholic wonder that ricochets around the brain long after it’s ended.

On her Facebook and YouTube pages, she describes it as “a fever dream I had about my best friend, the end of the world, a flask of tea and an old oak tree.” She expanded upon that in an interview with FV Music Blog, “I have very vivid dreams, and one night I had a dream I was down in my home away from home, and I had this overwhelming impending doom feeling. My best friend texted me to tell me the news that the end of the world was about to happen, zombies, rising tides, the whole shebang. And I panicked. She rang me to tell me to meet her at our Old Oak Tree with a packet of biscuits and that she would bring a flask of tea. So we sat in that tree, happy to be together and ok in the middle of the ‘Pandemonium’ that was about to ensue.” 

In any event, from what I’ve gathered, Hughes first got her start in 2008 when, as a teen, she began uploading cover songs to YouTube. It’s interesting to go back and watch her earliest available video, which is dated June 23, 2008…

It’s not perfect by any means, as she seems (understandably) tentative, yet – if you close your eyes – the performance reveals the innate beauty of her voice. She may not have all the phrasings down, or learned how to turn a song into a conversation, but that’s okay; those are things learned over time. Three years on, however, her growth as a singer is readily apparent, as this cover of Lana Del Ray’s “Video Games” demonstrates. She also seems much more at home singing to her phone (or computer) than before.

In any event, she soon attracted views. She leveraged that to raise money to fund a self-titled EP, which she released in 2013, and followed that up with another EP, Ceremony, in 2018. The former is a solid first outing; the latter, as the track “Straight for Tomorrow,” shows, is excellent.

Along the way, she also collaborated with Ryan O’Shaughnessy and Mark Caplice on O’Shaughnessy’s “Together,” which was Ireland’s entry in the 2018 Eurovision Song Contest; and, since, released the stellar single “For You (Home).”

At the same video session that produced “Pandemonium,” she and pianist Cian Sweeney laid down a sterling cover of Lana Del Rey’s “hope is a dangerous thing for a woman like me to have – but i have it.” It seems a good way to end this introductory overview (which, as happens with my Top 5s, went two songs over).