Archive for the ‘First Impressions’ Category

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.

It’s an odd time to navigate new releases, as many seem – through no fault of the artists, I should mention – antiquated. In a flash, they’ve become relics from the pre-pandemic past, figurative instant meals packed with noodles, nostalgia and salt. A few exceptions exist, of course, as some themes, subjects and sounds age better than others. 

Hazel English’s Wake UP! is one of those exceptions. It’s not perfect, but it’s a worthwhile listen and addition to anyone’s music library.

Shoegazing. Dream pop. Jangle pop. Those are but a few of the terms critics are likely throwing around when referencing the well-crafted songs found on the Oakland-based, Australian singer-songwriter’s first long player. As a whole, her music conjures the Paisley Underground and its antecedent, the psychedelic pop of the mid-1960s, not to mention such acts as the Beach Boys and Shangri-Las, while never losing touch with the present. Mind you, it’s a balancing act. Sometimes she slips, but she never falls.

Sonically speaking, the songs often shimmer like moonlight dancing across the ocean at night. Echoes of long ago swirl through the grooves as if from old 45s found in the bargain bin at a thrift shop; at times, it’s akin to Hope Sandoval fronting the Shangri-Las.

Lyrically, however, a certain sameness accents many tracks on the second half of the 10-song set, as fraying and unhealthy relationships are the topics du jour. (Should she stay? Should she go? If she goes, there will be trouble. But if she stays, it may be double.) They’re good songs all, don’t get me wrong, but would have worked better if not stacked one after the other on the figurative turntable that is life.

The opening track, “Born Like,” sets the stage, inviting listeners to join her on a metaphysical trip: “If you look into my eyes/you’ll see yourself inside/swimming in our synergy/take me deep into your mind/our memories combined/they go on to infinity.”

“Shaking” is a slice of restrained frenzy that pulls you under its grooves due to a strong undertow. It’s intoxicating.

“Wake Up!” tackles the consumerist society we live in: “Do you trust what you see/is it just another scheme/get you to buy all of the things/you don’t really need.” 

As the album develops, however, the dreamy and dramatic atmospheres soon underscore themes of fraying and/or unhealthy relationships. In “Off My Mind,” for instance, she reflects on the indecision that leaves one stuck: “the way you’re treating me/I know that it’s not ok but/I’m caught in a moment in-between/and every time we talk/I just don’t know what to say ’cause/I’m caught in a moment in-between/I’m caught in a distant dream.” 

Likewise, in “Five and Dime” she seeks momentary escape from an oppressive situation: “gotta get away/’cause you’re taking up all of my time/you know i need my space/so i’m heading to the five and dime.” 

The promised metaphysical trip turns somewhat mundane by the album’s end, in other words, due to the thematic sameness. Separately, the songs are strong and even spellbinding; collectively, however, they blur together. Yet, that said, I found myself hitting repeat on the album early this morning for no other reason than I was enjoying it. It may not be perfect, but it is good. In the immortal words of the Shangri-Las, it’s “sophisticated boom boom.”

A few years back, Diane and I traveled from our old homestead in Hatboro, Pa., to the Ardmore Music Hall for what turned out to be one of our final shows in the Philly region. The reason for the trek: the singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne. She pulsated like a supernova once she hit the stage, not stepping into the spotlight but becoming one with the spotlight.

It was a remarkable night.

After the show, at the merchandise table, we picked up the DVD and soundtrack LP for Here I Am, an independent film that she starred in and was selling directly to fans, and a month or so after that I ordered the soundtrack on CD from Shelby’s online store – I wanted to be able to listen in my car, not just in my den. The CD arrived while we were in midst of packing, packing and packing for our impending move, so I ripped the CD and tossed it into a box (and, honestly, have yet to see it again).

That’s a whole lot of backstory to get to this: In the weeks and months that followed, the Here I Am soundtrack became one with my subconscious. A few soliloquies lifted from the film are tracks unto themselves and are no less brilliant than the songs. “I was looking at the moon the other night,” Shelby says in one, “and it’s the same moon that that waitress and gravedigger look at. It’s the same dreams. Everybody stands on a stage of some kind. Every spirit’s walking around under the same stage lights. You don’t have to sing to just be in the spotlight. Six feet under is six feet under. Doesn’t matter what dirt it is or where the dirt is.”

On the soundtrack, that leads into the fragile and vulnerable “Revolving Broken Heart,” which opens with its own spoken-word vignette: “The audience, they’re the real heroes. They watch you fall apart. They listen to what you’re not telling. They know what you’re hiding…”

The juxtaposition of soliloquy and song create an intimate, diary-like feel to the enterprise. But, as the soliloquy-free version above demonstrates, it loses none of its power without the spoken words. 

Since then, the movie has been retitled When We Kill the Creators, re-edited, and has earned much applause at film festivals; and Shelby has turned the soundtrack into a full-fledged album, which was released yesterday (4/17). As inferred above, the spoken-word bits and one song, “War Heroes,” have been dropped, the remaining tracks re-mixed, and a few new songs added. I must confess, however, that I was a little apprehensive about the tinkering until I heard the full album yesterday. While the album has a slightly different feel than the soundtrack, it is no less intimate or brilliant.

Unfortunately, I can’t reference my CD for the liner notes, as my Amazon delivery was pushed back to next week, but Shelby said on The Paste Happiest Hour webcast yesterday (she goes on around the 25-minute mark, but the interview – which features two songs – doesn’t begin in earnest for about five more minutes) that she recorded most of the tracks herself in her home studio; and that the new songs were also inspired by the film. 

Certain tracks, a la “Revolving Broken Heart,” expose a wounded soul. In “My Mind’s Riot,” for instance, she sings about a fraying relationship:

(That’s Shelby on sax, by the way – she last played it in 9th grade!)

Other songs, however, have a more soulful feel to them. As I mentioned last week, “Don’t Even Believe in Love” sounds like a long-lost Dusty in Memphis outtake to my ears. Beyond the drums being more prominent, I don’t hear much of a difference between it and the Here I Am mix, but in a sense it doesn’t much matter: After one listen you’ll swear it’s been with you forever. It’s just an incredible song.

In that Paste piece, Shelby also talks about how she can get the feeling of a song down even though she’s not technically proficient on every instrument she picks up. (In fact, she sums up the album as “just a bunch of feelings.”) From where I sit, as a music fan, emotional heft comes not from the purity of the playing in and of itself, but the purity of the intent behind it. (It’s why Neil Young and Crazy Horse are, to me, one of the all-time best bands.) “Here I Am” is an example of that – just Shelby and piano, it’s a dramatic and powerful tour de force. It resonates in the soul long after the song has faded to silence.

These are odd times due to the pandemic, of course, with many of us shuttered inside our homes and stressed by the unknowns that lie beyond our doors. Shelby Lynne’s new album won’t end any of that, but it will take you away from the worries for a spell. Give it a go. It’s available on all the usual streaming platforms; Amazon has the CD; and Shelby – through her website – is also selling autographed LPs.

The dulcet tones of British singer-songwriter Harriet conjure the bygone era of mood rings, shag rugs and bell-bottom jeans, to say nothing of the adult contemporary songs that ruled the AM airwaves in the 1970s (in the U.S., at least) – think ONJ, the Carpenters, Carole King and Bread, among other MOR favorites. Her full-length debut from a few years back was an utter delight in that respect; about the only thing missing: wah-wah guitar effects.

One reason for the flashback sound is a factor beyond her control: her warm vocals, which echo Karen Carpenter’s not just in timbre, but inflections – the former a quirk of birth, with the latter probably learned through osmosis, as she was often rocked to sleep as a baby to the Carpenters’ music. Another reason: the songs. “Afterglow,” first heard on her full-length debut, is one example:

Released a few weeks back, Piano Sessions+ features nine songs stripped to their bare necessities: Harriet accompanied by pianist Scott Hayes. Some are covers, others – including “Afterglow” – reworked versions of her own tunes, and two are new. But that’s not all: Four unreleased demos are tacked on, too, including a cover of the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love.” Like many a great singer, she invests herself in the lyrics, and gives new life to well-worn songs. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” is a great example:

The other chosen covers are likewise exquisite. I only wish she’d picked a Jackson Browne song, too – “Late for the Sky,” maybe, or “Love Needs a Heart.” 

Of the Carpenters cover, she explained on Facebook that it is “something I’ve always been nervous about doing and have avoided, despite the Carpenters being so important to me. However, when [producer] Steve [Anderson] presented me with a new arrangement idea for “Goodbye To Love,” I agreed that we try it and at the end of another session we had, I recorded a quick vocal. After we finished recording, we never really spoke about it again and it’s not something that was ever meant to be heard by anyone but us. But when I started looking through old demos to include on this CD and considered the nature of this release, I thought now was the right time to share it.”

Cowritten and performed with Mick Talbot, “Nothing Until” is an empathetic look at an issue as relevant today as it was in 2012, when they recorded it in her flat. On Facebook, she recalled that “we recorded a handful of song ideas on my 8-track digital recorder! [Mick] is the kindest man and the most incredible musician; wonderful to watch. It was such a privilege to work with him. A few days later, I put the vocal down on the track at about 2’o’clock in the morning and distinctly remember having to sing so quietly into the mic so as not to wake any of my flat mates! I decided never to re-record the vocal as these circumstances made the recording feel so rich and intimate. The song is about addiction and feeling alone with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.one with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.”

As a whole, the album – which is only available as a CD via Harriet’s website – is a trip into the ethos of music long past. It’s just a singer and her songs, in other words, soothing despite the tinges of sadness and regret that bubble to the fore. It’s a perfect diversion to the crazy times in which we now live.

The track list: