Archive for the ‘First Aid Kit’ Category

Of late, I fear my blog has become superlative central. Week after week after week, I laud and applaud select artists and albums, lavishing them with praise that, though neither feint nor faked, sometimes trades in the hyperbolic. There’s no getting around it, I’m afraid. Like many others, music has provided me much-needed solace during these tryin’ times, akin to God rays brightening the dreariest of days. I cherish the brief bursts of catharsis cracking through the dark clouds.

So, if my plaudits occasionally seem over the top, that’s why; I’m lost in the revelry of the moment. There’s also this, however: I rarely write about things I dislike. If I hear something that doesn’t suit my ears, I tend to set it aside and move on. (Thus, some albums folks may expect me to write about, as I championed the artists in the past, never appear in these pages.) Plus, as my ongoing Essentials and Of Concerts Past series show, much of the music I celebrate is mixed with memories of long ago; it’s easy to get lost in those. Earlier this week, for example, I found myself hummin’ a song from 1962…

…and indulged in some wistful nostalgia. (And, just as an aside, is there a better practitioner of that specific art than Bob Seger?) However, as often as not the music is new – Old Flowers by Courtney Marie Andrews and Free by Natalie Duncan are two examples, while Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks brings the past into the present with panache.

First Aid Kit’s recent rendition of Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” does, too, while also making me yearn for a COVID-free future. Concerts are much missed.

The tunes need not be upbeat to steal one away from the immediate; sad songs work as well as happy. Either/or, they just need an oomph, which is near impossible to put into words beyond – to appropriate a phrase from Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart (1915-85) – I know it when I hear it.

In some respects, I subscribe to Carl Jung’s theory of a collective unconscious, though I’m fairly certain that the collective shattered decades ago into hundreds upon hundreds of shards, some small, some large, akin to ice shelves breaking apart in the Arctic and Antarctica. While some shards have drifted far away, others are close enough together that one can hop between them; thus, whether the intangible oomph connects depends on a combination of chance, when one leaps and where one lands.

Anyway, in the days and weeks ahead, I plan to shift focus away from music and to some of the other stuff I occasionally write about, if only to cleanse the palate of the superlatives I’ve been tossing around. One guaranteed topic: James at 15 (later 16), an interesting – but not great – TV series that aired from 1977 to ’78 on NBC. Another: the documentary Seventeen, which explores the lives of teens in Muncie, Ind., during the early ’80s. I’ve also been thinking about baby boomers, Generation X and the micro-generation that lies between them, Generation Jones, and plan to apply my amateur anthropologist-psychologist training to each. (That’s a joke only James at 15 fans will get.)

Stay tuned…

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

Last night saw a who’s who of singer-songwriters gathering for a swank soiree at one of the region’s finest (if over-priced) restaurants. While some arrived in tuxedoes and others in gowns, a few underdressed artists explained/complained that they would have bedecked themselves if only they’d known they should. (“Who would’ve thought,” said one of the offenders.) The occasion: the Old Grey Cat’s first-ever “Album of the Decade” fete.

The six-hour event is now being edited into a one-hour TV special to air on the world’s top TV networks next Saturday night; apparently, watching an LP rotate on a turntable isn’t as enthralling as initially imagined. (That said, watching the LPs spin turned out to be more exciting than watching the CDs being dropped into a CD tray and then disappearing inside the player.)  

One of the night’s highlights came when select performers took to the stage to sing holiday songs. Up-and-coming Rhode Island-based country singer Charlie Marie, for instance, warmed hearts when she sang her latest single, “Old-Fashioned Christmas.”

And Shelby Lynne and Daryl Hall recreated their Live From Daryl’s House duet on Shelby’s bluesy “Xmas.” 

Lucy Rose, for her part, chided the Old Grey Cat for forgetting her No Words Left album in his rundown of the top albums of 2019 before forgiving him with her sweet rendition of Shakin’ Stevens’ “Merry Christmas Everyone.”

Maja Francis and First Aid Kit brought the house down with their stirring cover of Joni Mitchell’s “River.” (Technically, it’s not a Christmas tune, but…)

Finally, the Greta Garbo of rock ’n’ pop ’n’ soul, Duffy, returned from reclusion to close the festive fun with her stripped-down spin on Nat King Cole’s “Christmas Song.”

On Tuesday, I picked up Nolan Gasser’s Why You Like It: The Science & Culture of Musical Taste. Gasser is the chief architect of Pandora Radio’s Music Genome Project (MGP), which shapes the Pandora experience, and the book – which delves into the whys and wherefores of musical taste and preference – is intriguing. 

The MGP, for those who haven’t heard of it, is the underlying data map that guides Pandora Radio’s algorithm, which is what creates the personalized listening experience. Instead of stitching together discordant songs and leaving the listener frayed from the stylistic jujitsu, the algorithm links songs based on matches within their individual data maps and user feedback. If you like A, odds are you’ll like B, C, D and E, with your thumbs-ups and thumbs-downs further weighting the music matches and nixing the mismatches. 

Or something like that.

Until this week, I never opened Pandora’s box. So, for research purposes, on Tuesday I launched a station by selecting Neil Young’s “Heart of Gold”; Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” and Marshall Tucker Band’s “Can’t You See” followed and, honestly, that bored me enough to shut down the experiment in its tracks. Yesterday morning, however, I tried again and launched another station built upon one choice: the Bangles’ “If She Knew What She Wants.”

In total, I listened for about four hours and then, this morning, returned to it and listened for about three more. 

The total: 85 songs (give or take). On Thursday, I gave a thumbs-up to tracks I liked, thumbs-down to others, and let others play through without any reaction, as my hunch is that’s how many listen. On Friday, I only gave thumbs-ups, as flipping back and forth between browser windows gets old. Aside from a few interruptions from my feline, I kept track of the songs.

Now, back in the day, if I’d made a tape (using the requisite Maxwell XLII-S cassettes, of course) that began with the Bangles, I’d have included a few fellow Paisley Underground acts, such as the Three O’Clock and Rain Parade, an influence or two – the Beatles and Beach Boys – as well as, perhaps, the Plimsouls. I’d have made room for a few of the jangle-pop acts that followed the Bangles, too, such as the Blake Babies, Belly and Matthew Sweet, and added a few neat mixes – maybe Suzanne Vega’s “In Liverpool” going into the original version of “Going Down to Liverpool” by Katrina & the Waves (or ending Side A with one and opening Side B with the other).

Likewise, I probably would have included the original Simon & Garfunkel version of the Bangles’ 1987 hit: 

I may or may not have included the Go-Go’s, but if I did, I would have located my copy of Sid & Susie’s Under the Covers Vol. III collection and matched whatever song I chose (“Capture the Light,” maybe) with “Our Lips Our Sealed” as sung by the Susie in question, Susanna Hoffs. Or, if I had access to a bootleg of it, this cool version (from January 2016) of Susanna and Belinda Carlisle singing it together…

(I always liked to include “rarities” on my tapes.) Rainy Day, the one-off Paisley Underground collective, would have found its way onto the collection, too. I’d also stretch beyond the past, including Jade Bird’s rendition of “Walk Like an Egyptian”…

.. and Molly Tuttle’s “Light Came In (Power Went Out),” which possesses a power-pop sensibility…

…as well as this First Aid Kit song, “Nothing Has to Be True” (from their 2018 Ruins album), which would make a great closing track.

What Pandora returned, however, was predictable, though – by and large – enjoyable. On Thursday, it stuck tight to the ‘80s and Bangles, Cyndi Lauper, Go-Go’s, and Belinda Carlisle, while making room for Madonna and Berlin, as well. The biggest surprises were Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” and singer-songwriter Vance Gilbert’s “Twice Struck,” as both were stylistic mismatches. Quarterflash and Pat Benatar tunes were odd inclusions, too, as they they trade more in the AOR sound than jangle-pop. Pandora’s “Discover” mode, which I suppose delves deeper into the musical genomes, turned up the Motels, Tracey Ullman and Rachel Sweet, but not – as I imagined – Jules Shear or Big Star. 

Friday morning, it was more of the same, though the circle expanded to include solo tracks from Susanna Hoffs (including, surprisingly, one song from her delightful 2012 album Someday) and Jane Wiedlin (of the Go-Go’s), plus some not-quite-the-same songs from Whitney Houston and Bonnie Tyler. 

All of which is to say, after seven hours of listening, the Pandora formula seems more geared to making matches based on the chart hits from a particular era and not from the overall music of the era. That said, as the songs came and went, the playlist did dig a little deeper. Susanna Hoffs’ version of Lulu’s “To Sir With Love,” for instance, was a welcome delight…

.. and on a homemade mix I would’ve followed it with a track from Lulu herself because she is far more than Babs, the character she played in the film To Sir With Love:

But, again, such connections seem – at this stage of the listening experience, at any rate – to be beyond Pandora’s purview. Instead, it seems aimed more at casual music fans and/or folks who just want something playing in the background while they work. I have an open mind, however, so will continue with my Bangles channel to see whether it expands its reach, treads water, or retrenches. (I.e., expect the occasional update in the months ahead!)

Here’s my entire Bangles station experience:

Thumbs-Up or No Reaction (Thursday & Friday):

Bangles – If She Knew What She Wants
Cyndi Lauper – All Through the Night
Go-Go’s – Our Lips Are Sealed
Belinda Carlisle – Heaven Is a Place on Earth
Bangles – In Your Room
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Bangles – Eternal Flame
Madonna – Material Girl
Cyndi Lauper – Time After Time
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Belinda Carlisle – If Heaven Was a Place on Earth
Blondie – One Way or Another
Berlin – Take My Breath Away
(switched to “Discover” mode)
Motels – Only the Lonely
Susanna Hoffs – Falling
Tracey Ullman – (Life Is a Rock) But the Radio Rolled Me
Rachel Sweet – I Go to Pieces
Jane Wiedlin – Rush Hour
Suzi Quatro – Too Big
Susanna Hoffs – Grand Adventure
Rachel Sweet – B-A-B-Y
The Motels – Suddenly Last Summer
Jane Wiedlin – Give
Bow Wow Wow – I Like Candy
Girlschool – Yeah Right
Romeo Void – Never Say Never
David Wilcox – Out of the Question
Susanna Hoffs – Darling One
The Motels – Remember the Night
Jennifer Paige – Crush
(back to regular mode)
Bangles – Manic Monday (Extended)
Cyndi Lauper – True Colors
Go-Go’s – We Got the Beat
Eric Carmen – Hungry Eyes
Pat Benatar – Love Is a Battlefield
Bangles – Hazy Shade of Winter
Madonna – Open Your Heart
(Friday:)
Bangles – Walk Like an Egyptian
Cyndi Lauper – Girls Just Want to Have Fun
Madonna – Like a Prayer
The Motels – Only the Lonely (Re-recording)
Bangles – Waiting for You
Susanna Hoffs – To Sir With Love
Belinda Carlisle – Circle in the Sand
Soft Cell – Tainted Love
The Bangles – Something That You Said
Madonna – Angel
Cyndi Lauper – Iko Iko
Pat Benatar – Hit Me With Your Best Shot
The Bangles – Walking Down Your Street
Blondie – Call Me (Original Long Version)
Jane Wiedlin – One Heart One Way
Susanna Hoffs – Beekeeper’s Blues
Cyndi Lauper – She Bop
Madonna – Crazy for You
Belinda Carlisle – Mad About You
Pat Benatar – Heartbreaker
Blondie – Heart of Glass
Cyndi Lauper – True Colours
Go-Go’s – Vacation
Whitney Houston – I Wanna Dance With Somebody
Belinda Carlisle – I Get Weak
Madonna – Into the Groove (Remix)
Bonnie Tyler – Total Eclipse of the Heart
Pat Benatar – Invincible
Belinda Carlisle – Leave a Light On
Blondie – The Tide Is High
Susanna Hoffs – My Side of the Bed
Modern English – I Melt With You (Re-recorded version)
Roxette – Listen to Your Heart
Duran Duran – Hungry Like a Wolf
Go-Go’s – Head Over Heels
Eurythmics – Sweet Dreams
Susanna Hoffs – Always Enough
Prince – When Doves Cry

Thumbs-Down (Thursday only):

Bryan Adams – Summer of ’69
Debbie Gibson – Only in My Dreams
E.G. Daily – Waiting
Whiteout – Thirty Eight
Kate Pierson – Throw Down the Roses
Frida – I Know There’s Something Going On
Mental As Anything – Apocalypso
Quarterflash – Take to to Heart
Vance Gilbert – Twice Struck