Archive for the ‘2020s’ Category

Diane and I were driving in the car this morning, on our way to brunch, with SiriusXM tuned to – what else? – E Street Radio, which was playing the February 2, 2016 concert from Toronto. It was the sixth date on that year’s River tour, which was tied to the 35th anniversary of the album and, too, the Ties That Bind box set released in 2015. (We’d see him 10 days later in Philly.)

For those unfamiliar with the specifics of that tour, Bruce and the band performed The River from start to finish. In this Toronto show, he introduced “Independence Day” – a song he wrote in 1977, debuted in concert in 1978 and recorded in 1980 – with a monologue similar to what we heard in Philly. “It was the first song I wrote about fathers and sons,” he explained. “It’s the kind of song that you write when you’re young and you’re first startled by your parents’ humanity.”

Today, the fourth verse stood out to me: “Well, Papa, go to bed now, it’s getting late/Nothing we can say can change anything now/Because there’s just different people coming down here now and they see things in different ways/And soon everything we’ve known will just be swept away.”

It’s about the father-son dynamics unique to Springsteen’s own (self-mythologized) life, obviously, and yet it’s also more. It’s about the changing realities everyone confronts, at some point, in his or her life. When young, such change is expected and embraced. In the song, it leads the narrator to set out on his own. But for the old? Though the world we knew is no more, the memories – and our faded hopes – remain. That’s when bitterness sets in.

Depending on how one calculates such things, I‘ve seen either 33 or 42 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in concert. The higher of the two numbers adds members of Hall of Fame groups, such as Jerry Butler of the Impressions, plus the “Tribute to the Byrds” band fronted by Gene Clark that featured original drummer Michael Clarke and second bassist John York (I’ve also seen Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and David Crosby); I’m hesitant to include them in my official tally as it’s somewhat akin to counting chads – but, in the immortal words of Grace Slick (via “Hey Fredrick”), “Either go away or go all the way in.” So I’ll count them if only for this post.

Mind you, I never set out to see that many (or few). It just happened.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony took place in early 1986 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Although the evening was filmed for the HoF’s archives, HoF spokesman Robert Altshuler is quoted in this report by New York Times scribe Robert Palmer as saying, “We intentionally avoided selling film or video rights for the evening, because we are and will remain a not-for-profit endeavor.”

In its first decade, the Hall of Fame was the culmination of many a baby boomer’s dream: The counterculture was finally leaping from the pages of Rolling Stone into the mainstream. The inductees were obvious, as all hailed – due to the rule that artists only become eligible 25 years after the release of their first record – from the baby boom generation’s collective youth, teens and early twenties: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, not to mention Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Byrds and Supremes. Were some major names left out? No doubt. But there’s no arguing the importance and influence of the selected icons (though I’m sure in today’s age of social-media outrage some ignorant folks would decry the “R&B” artists therein.)

In its 10th year, the ceremonies moved to TV; and, now, in its 34th year, that’s pretty much all it is – TV fodder. Some years it’s fun to watch. Some years it’s not. Nominees are decided by a select committee and the public is encouraged to vote, though that vote barely factors into the outcome, which is actually decided by about 1000 music experts. Looking at each year’s line-up, however, I’d wager that the results are tweaked more often than not. Worthy artists are honored, true, but worthy artists are also ignored. And, often, journeymen are feted as heroes simply because they’ve hung around. Nostalgia has come to count as much as importance or influence.

Who’s in and who’s not is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, in other words. Which is why, when I hear (or read) criticisms of certain artists being included, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Does Whitney Houston belong? Biggie Smalls? Why not? From its earliest years onward, “rock and roll” has had a wide berth. Born from a jambalaya of R&B, country and jazz, rock is far more than what passes as “rock music” in today’s world. It’s been vocal groups like the Platters and rock rebels like Elvis, industrial noise like Nine Inch Nails and grunge rock like Nirvana. It’s never been a specific sound. It’s an aesthetic, an attitude. In that sense, they all pass that test. 

Are there groups I think should be in that aren’t? Of course. A slew of acts from the late ‘70s and ‘80s have been overlooked, including the Jam, Go-Go’s, Bangles, Sonic Youth and Ciccone Youth (that’s a joke, folks), as well as Hüsker Dü, Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and [fill in the blank]. Whether any of them get in, who knows? I doubt it, myself. The cultural mantle has been passed from the baby boomers – who decried Generation X as “slackers” – to the millennials. And many millennials were weaned not on music, but video games. 

But at the end of the day, from where I sit, I don’t think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matters all that much. It’s akin to looking to any awards show – from the Grammys to the Oscars to whatever – or record reviews to validate your tastes. It’s silly. To me, the most important Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t located in Cleveland. It’s my music library – and yours.

Here’s an odd way to begin a review: Halfway through my first listen of the opening track of Aoife Nessa Frances’ Land of No Junction, “Geranium,” I switched to another album by another artist. It was early morning – aka still dark outside – and I was on my way to work, yet to be fully caffeinated, and I found the track too languid. Frances’ vocals were thick and omnipresent, akin to fog draped across a misty field.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.

The next afternoon, however, the staccato rhythm from “Geranium” began bouncing around my head. Her vocals clogged my inner-ear. On my way home, I clicked play on the album again and let the music flow. In the words of the bard Bob Dylan circa the Byrds on Younger Than Yesterday, “Crimson flames tied through my ears, rollin’ high and mighty traps pounced with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps.”

In other words, as the wafting rhythms and cloudy vocals of the second and third tracks – “Blow Up” and “Here in the Dark” – drifted from the speakers during my commute home, the music began to make sense – as did my initial reaction. I’d noticed a four-star review for the album in Mojo, but hadn’t read said review; all I knew was that Frances was (Northern) Irish. I expected something more celestial and traditional, singer-songwriterish…

…and traditional the music is, actually, just not traditional Irish. Instead, it conjures the Byrds and textured, psychedelia-tinged pop of the mid-1960s, as well as the Paisley Underground of the ‘80s. Check out “Libra,” the most upbeat song on the album, which would be at home on the Notorious Byrd Brothers or aforementioned Younger Than Yesterday:

The title track is another highlight:

Now that I’ve listened to it numerous times, I find Land of No Junction quite compelling and hypnotic. It possesses a strong undertow that pulls you under its seemingly calm surface. It’s more of a late-night album than an early-morning affair, more Opal than Mazzy Star, but regardless of when you listen, you’ll be glad you did.

When I was a teen in the early ‘80s, I often rode my 10-speed bike from Hatboro to Memory Lane Records in neighboring Horsham, a 50-minute round trip, as it traded in used (aka less expensive) vinyl, and left balancing a small stack of LPs and 45s on the handlebars. Around the same time, for a spell, I belonged to the RCA Music Club, which featured insane deals a-plenty. It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive two, three, four or more cassettes in the same shipment. 

Some titles were new; others were new-to-me. Either-or, it didn’t matter. I played them and played them again, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, and then, in a few weeks, rode my bike back to Memory Lane and started anew with another batch of LPs and 45s. Or maybe, instead, I stopped at the Hatboro Music Shop or Sam Goody’s in the Village Mall, which stocked imports – though the prices at both were such that I rarely left with more than one LP. The summer before my senior year, I made the hour-long train trip from my suburban enclave into Philly every so often just to explore the esoteric stores on South Street.

By the end of the ‘80s, when I managed the CD departments at two video stores, it wasn’t uncommon for me to leave work with several CDs I’d sold to myself – and then head to the (relatively) new Tower Records on South Street or down to Jeremiah’s Record Exchange in Delaware to splurge some more. (In between, I was trading tapes with customers. Found lots of great music that way. To the left is one I made around that time. I was obviously in a bit of a country state of mind.)

I’m sure the same basic process played out for many folks reading this: We jumped feet-first into music fandom and obsessiveness, forever compelled to seek out new and new-to-us sounds. Sometimes we (or, at least, me) obsess over one artist or album for weeks or months on end. And then we move on. While there were and are many upsides to the process, there was (and is) one major downside: Some great music got (and gets) lost in the shuffle.

But given that most budgets bust from time to time, and spending must be reined in, you eventually re-acquainted yourself with the one-spin wonders and realized you were too quick in your initial assessment. In the age of streaming media, however, one’s budget is no longer an issue. Whether you subscribe to a streaming service or make do with ads, there’s never a reason to give something a second listen if it didn’t hook you on the first. 

Which, in a roundabout way, leads to this: Paul Weller released Other Aspects, Live at the Royal Albert Hall on March 8th, 2019. It came to be thanks to Weller’s sublime 2018 release, True Meanings, which is a laidback acoustic set accented by orchestral backing. Taking an orchestra out on the road is a tad expensive, however, so he booked a couple nights at the iconic Royal Albert Hall, hired an orchestra, and plotted out a 25-song set that matched the new tunes with past classics, and…voila! A live album was born.

I remember listening to it on the way to work shortly after its release and then on my way home that same night…and returning to the Day-Glo sounds of the Paisley Underground, which had been swirling in and around my head since the release of the 3×4 compilation earlier in the year, the next day. Part of that was due to nostalgia, another part due to escape. And, soon, Lucy Rose’s remarkable No Words Left caught my ear. And then another new release. And then an Oasis jag. And then something else…

I forgot about Other Aspects, in other words, until late December, when I pulled up my Apple Music library in order to listen to Weller’s solo debut for this Essentials piece. I saw Other Aspects listed with the other titles and clicked play…

…and was instantly hooked. How could I have not returned to it sooner?! It’s contemplative, which is where my head’s at right now. Taking life in. Pondering my present and future.

If you listened to “One Bright Star,” you’ll hear the initial strains of an orchestra, applause, and then Weller and his band kick off with the 22 Dreams track. It’s mid-tempo, lush, and anchored by Weller’s weathered, soulful vocals. That sums up the album in full, actually, which features 11 (of 14) songs from True Meanings, a handful of Jam and Style Council tunes, and gems from his solo years. Here’s “Strange Museum” from his solo debut, for example:

Another highlight: “The Soul Searchers” from True Meanings. It’s a tremendous song in the mode of his classic “Wild Wood.”

And speaking of “Wild Wood”… yep, that’s here, too.

As is (obvious from the album’s title) “Aspects,” another stellar True Meanings tune.

Another favorite: “Private Hell,” the Jam song from Setting Sons, which swaps its fiery and frenzied foundation for an orchestral underpinning. The picture Weller paints with his pointed poetry stings, still. (In some respects, life in the 21st century isn’t all that different than the pre-Internet age.)

In short, one’s headspace can make or break an album as much as the music itself. Such was the case here for me, upon first listen. But upon the second, third and fourth listens, which occurred nine months later? If I knew then what I know now, it would’ve been in my Top 5 albums of the year. It’s a wondrous, magical set. Check it out now… or when you’re ready to receive it.