Archive for the ‘Courtney Marie Andrews’ Category

’Twas a strange, saddening and maddening year, 2020. The world writ large flitted like a moth above a flame, its wings increasingly singed and brittle and unable to provide the lift needed to escape a fiery end. Too many people fell ill. Too many perished. Too many lost jobs. In decades to come, historians will undoubtedly study the whys and wherefores of the pandemic, including how it impacted almost every aspect of daily life. One hopes they’ll focus on more than just the death toll, politics and economic fallout, however, and celebrate the stuck-at-home troubadours – many facing hardship themselves – who bucked our spirits.

The biggest change within my realm arrived in mid-March, when – like many others – I began working from home, which it looks like I’ll be doing through next spring. Prior, much of my music listening occurred in the car, stereo blasting while I rode the 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. Now? Aside from once-a-week grocery runs and the occasional doctor visit, it’s here in the den. Early on, I often pulled up the SiriusXM app on my phone and listened to E Street Radio for hours on end – or just played favorite albums. Part of that nostalgic indulgence hailed from the pre-pandemic life, to be honest, as last winter found me musing on the days that used to be even more than usual. From January through June, for example, I penned 17 entries in my Essentials series…but only three in the months since.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the flip switched.

I share that because music – as all art – is neither created nor experienced in a vacuum, though we sometimes tell ourselves different. The rush and crush of life colors our aspirations, perceptions and opinions, with – when it comes to us fans – tossed-off takes becoming gospel until, years later, we discover we were wrong. (Or not. Sometimes we were right all along.) Add to that this: I’m a 55-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it. (To borrow a lyric from Paul Simon, “I know what I know.”)

Such has been the case with my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year, at any rate. It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating endeavor to rank one’s favorites for the year. The selection process, then and now, is the same. As I explained in a long-ago Facebook post that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” I amended that, ever-so-slightly, last year: “The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.” (That said, I still buy a lot.)

The only real difference between then and now: The lobbying campaigns. Since I revealed the 25 top contenders last week, for instance, I’ve been deluged with emails and phone calls from their courtiers explaining why they should receive the OGC plaque. (Diane nudged me to choose her No. 1 as my No. 1, in other words. Though she shouldn’t have worried.)

And, with that…drumroll, please…here’s my Top 5 Albums of 2020 (links to my original reviews can be had by clicking on the titles):

1) Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. As I said above, Diane need not have worried. Springsteen’s studio reunion with the E Street Band is an album-long rumination on life, death and the ghosts that haunt the night – as well as the solace that only rock ’n’ roll can bring. As I summarized in my review, “It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.”

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. Simply put, this is a sterling treatise on heartache, heartbreak, forgiveness and moving on. From my review: “Often, such as with the hypnotic ‘Carnival Dream,’ the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating ‘Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in’ again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night.” I’d only add that Andrew Sarlo’s production is note-perfect.

3) Melody Gardot – Sunset in the Blue. As noted in my review, the album “finds the soft hues of the chanteuse’s heart lilting like a leaf lifted from the ground by a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon.” And: “[W]ords alone can’t quantify the beauty inherent in Sunset in the Blue. My wife says she hears hints of Billie Holiday within some songs; that may be so, but most of all I hear Melody, her heart and her soul. The music stops time for me in a way few other releases have this year.”

4) Stone Foundation – Is Love Enough? From my review: “These are days of worry and fear, of not knowing whether or if ‘normal’ life will return, but these songs strip away those unsettling concerns, albeit for just under an hour. The Midlands-based band is providing much-needed sustenance to my weary soul, in other words, and in the best way possible. Their music, as I used to say on my old website, ‘takes you there, wherever there is.’” ‘Nuff said.  

5) Natalie Duncan – Free. Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements fuse together in hypnotic fashion in this delectable outing from the British singer-songwriter, who first turned my ears way back in 2012. As I noted upon its release, “With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack…the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.”

And, in alphabetical order, two honorable mentions:

Malin Pettersen – Wildhorse. I often feel instant kinship with an album or artist – it’s as if they’ve been with me forever and a day. Such is the case here. The atmospheric song cycle seamlessly blends the past, present and future of country music; and, when the album comes to an end, you’ll want to play it again – at least, that’s what I do.

Zach Phillips – The Wine of Youth. This album buoys my spirits every time I listen to it, which is quite often. From my review: “Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. ‘It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,’ Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg.”

After a long-term relationship came to an end, Courtney Marie Andrews did what many an artist before her has done: Turned her grief (though that may be the wrong word) into the grist of song. The resulting 10-track album explores the love lost not with bitterness, but kindness and grace, and an embrace of what she and her ex forged during their years together. In the plaintive “Guilty,” for example, she sings that “Painful, love is painful/but I am thankful for/the time we shared.” And in “Together or Alone,” she confesses that “Now I’m the kind of person/who acts how I feel/and for a moment in time/I know what we had was real.”

I wrote in-depth about “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” in June, so won’t delve deep into it here – beyond to say it’s a tremendous tune about taking responsibility for what befalls us.

Such recognition doesn’t alleviate the heartache and heartbreak, of course; in some respects, it just makes the pain radiate all the more. It’s far easier to blaze hate for the other, to blame him or her for everything that went wrong than to face the fact that, just like falling in love, falling out of love happens – sometimes for reasons that belie logic, other times not. In the title track, for instance, she confesses that “I don’t see you that way/not the way I did before,” while also asserting “I’m not your object to break” and “you can’t hurt me that way/not the way you did before.”

She also delves into the delicate dance that is moving on. In the aforementioned “Guilty,” she finds herself thinking of her ex while with another man; and in “If I Told,” she describes herself to a date with absolute clarity: “I am a loner, I am stubborn” before questioning whether he can handle the world she lives in.

Sonically speaking, Andrew Sarlo’s production is as uncluttered and intimate as the songs themselves, with the space left between notes essentially an additional instrument. In “Guilty,” for instance, when she arrives at the final lines, “I cannot give my love to you/when I’m guilty,” you all but hear a tear streaking down her cheek.

Often, such as with the hypnotic “Carnival Dream,” the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating “Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in” again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night. 

Even an old stoic such as myself finds himself submerged in the emotion of the song cycle. “How You Get Hurt” should stop even the most hard-hearted in their tracks.

In another era, Courtney Marie Andrews would already be name-checked alongside Jackson, Joni and the other stalwarts of the ‘70s singer-songwriter crowd. That said, Old Flowers is rightfully being heralded for its honesty in exploring – to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens – the “ghostlier demarcations” of life and love. It’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. To quote from the poet Denise Levertov’s “Another Spring,” which is about death literal and metaphoric, “I am speaking of living/of moving from one moment into/the next, and into the/one after, breathing/death in the spring air, knowing/air also means/music to sing to.” 

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.

Days blur together. Nights, too. The rinse-and-repeat life has gotten old for everyone, as has the incompetent, incoherent and intolerable hack whose mismanagement led us to this abyss. But for 70 minutes yesterday on YouTube Live, Courtney Marie Andrews provided a respite from the madness and sadness that accents life during the great pandemic. She sang songs old and new, including a few requests and a beautiful rendition of John Prine’s “Angel From Montgomery.”

The entire show can be watched here:

Unlike her never-ending livestream event from a few weeks back with the Tallest Man on Earth, Sam Evian and Hannah Cohen, this one was perfectly paced. Songs flowed. Her voice soared. Souls were soothed. I should mention that the show served a purpose larger than lifting spirits: It was to raise funds for her bandmates, who are – like many others – out of work. (I donated what we likely would’ve paid for two concert tickets to see her, $50.) 

She said, near the end, that she hopes to do another livestream event and sing a few more of the requests, which she gathered from her social-media accounts. I’ll be happy to donate again, no matter what she plays, but… as fate dictates, two years ago today – not long after seeing her in our old (and missed) hometown of Philadelphia – I posted this top 5, Timeless Songs, which collected tunes I thought would be cool for Courtney to cover in concert. I’d still love to hear those songs, but now have additional suggestions…

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Song Requests for CMA’s Next Livestream. With one exception, they’re all covers because… well, I love cover versions. They’re cool.

1) Diane and I still talk about “Warning Sign,” an unreleased song Courtney performed at her 2018 show at the Boot & Saddle in Philly, with fondness. It sounded like a long-lost Dan Penn tune, just about. Now, stripping the song to an acoustic core might be difficult, but still… I’d love to hear her try.

2) “Prayer in Open D” is, hands down, my favorite Emmylou Harris song, and its lyrics take on an even greater poignancy now: “I can find no bridge for me to cross/No way to bring back what is lost…” Courtney is one of few singers who could do it justice. 

3) “All My Trials” is an old folk song that’s been covered many times through the years by everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Paul McCartney. One of my favorite renditions of it, though, is by Anita Carter of the Carter Family. It seems apropos for these times…

4) On that never-ending livestream I referenced above, Courtney and pals performed not one, not two, but four Neil Young songs – “One of These Days” and “Unknown Legend” from Harvest Moon, “Helpless” from CSNY’s Deja Vu, and “Motion Pictures” from On the Beach. Originally for this one, on social media, I suggested one of two classic Neil songs – “Powderfinger” or “Human Highway.” But the more I think about it, this song from his recent Colorado album seems a better fit – “Where did all the people go?/Why did they fade away from me?/They meant so much to me and now I know/That they’re here to stay in my heart.”

5) Jackson Browne released “A Little Soon to Say” a few weeks back, after it was revealed that he was recovering from COVID-19. Although written before the pandemic, its lyrics seem appropriate to today: “I wanna see you holdin’ out your light/I wanna see you light the way/But whether everything will be alright/It’s just a little soon to say…”