Archive for the ‘First Impressions’ Category

Like many a rock nerd, I became infatuated with Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend in late 1991. Shimmering electric guitars and hooks a-plenty mixed together like morsels in a magical power-pop elixir that simmered atop the dying flames of ‘60s idealism. That unsung guitar heroes Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine (the former of Television, the latter of Lou Reed’s early ‘80s band) were whipping the white noise made the concoction even more tasty. Sweet’s fatalism, fueled by a failed marriage, rang as loud as the guitars. It was and remains a great album.

Altered Beast (1993) – his next album – sharpened the cynicism while trading the Beatlesque overtones of Girlfriend for a more overt Neil Young vibe – and the Son of Altered Beast EP (1994), which featured a handful of live tracks, upped the Neil quotient by including a cover of “Don’t Cry No Tears.” I played both a fair bit at the time and included tracks from each on various mixtapes.

My memories of 100% Fun (1995), however, are far more hazy; for whatever reason, the music simply didn’t connect with me – no doubt because of me, not it. Maybe if he’d released another album the following year, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but by the time he put out his next set, in 1997, I had moved on. As one does. The next times he popped up on my radar, and the only albums of his I’ve since purchased, are the three Under the Covers albums (2006, 2009 and 2013) he made with Susanna Hoffs.

I share that because I am not now, nor have I ever been, an omniscient music critic (though I did, for a short spell, sell reviews) who knows every artist’s oeuvre inside and out. I like what I like and write about what I like. So when I say that Catspaw, Sweet’s 15th solo set, is a damn good outing, believe it. Like Girlfriend, it contains high-octane guitars and hooks galore. And like Altered Beast, it occasionally veers into the darkness.

Another thing that old music geeks like me may appreciate: Playing “Name That Influence” with some songs. “Give a Little,” for instance, conjures Mott the Hoople. 

He recorded the album in his home studio in Nebraska, playing all the instruments except for the drums, which were handled by Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck. The guitars are upfront and in your face, which is always a plus, but what I enjoy even more are the little things. “Drifting,” for example, contains a guitar pattern (more noticeable via headphones) that conjures the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” while the ending channels the Beatles. It’s quite cool. 

I went for a brief drive earlier today, cranking Catspaw. In a flash, I was in my mid-20s and behind the wheel of my old car, simultaneously optimistic and cynical about the future. While all tomorrow’s parties have not come to pass (though some days it may seem that way), there are fewer of them left. if, like me, you drifted away from Sweet at some point in the recent or even distant past, give his latest a go. It’s a 40-minute trip well worth taking.

The track list:

I boarded a time machine this morning: Richard Haswell’s With the Changing Light, which was released on January 4th. It’s an album that conjures the 1980s like few other new works I’ve heard in recent years. In a blink, I found myself transported from my den to a near-empty commuter train, circa February 1983, jostling its way from Philadelphia to my suburban home. I’d spent the day in town, as I sometimes did, meandering around South Street for a few hours before heading to the Ritz III to catch Piaf: The Early Years. Dusk descended into night during that ride home, the darkness punctuated by dim streetlights and TVs pulsating like multicolored stars through the windows of the passing houses and apartment buildings. Roxy Music provided the soundtrack, courtesy of my Walkman clone. I’d just discovered them.

Such is the power of the album, which – for me, at least – conjures Tangerine Dream, Simple Minds and Avalon-era Roxy Music, with a little Echo & the Bunnymen and Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure. It’s one part electronica and one part cool, with the music sure to push listeners of a certain age down the proverbial staircase of their minds to their youths. Lyrically, however, the concerns are not those of the teenager he sings about in “Dun Laoghaire 4am” (“I am 17 again/adrift in a time lapse”), but an adult taking stock of his present and past – as we all do, on occasion. The title track, for instance, delves into the doubts that plague many of us, especially at night. “The Promise,” on the other hand, is a parent’s lament, while “Lost and Found” is about an unexpected death. “Earth Citizen” is…well, you can guess that one.

All in all, it’s well worth a few listens. I recommend it.

Haswell, I should add, is an Edinburgh-based artist with 24 studio albums to his credit; prior to 2010, he went by the noms de plume of Rhubarb, G For Gnome and White Noise. With the Changing Light was primarily recorded between March and December 2020, when the world was locked down. He played most of the instruments, though saxophonist Pete Reilly, guitarist Lewis Kippen, bassist Thomas Urch and harmonica player Dave Smith provided remote assistance. 

 

The track list:

What a year, huh? While many of us faced the pandemic like a deer caught in headlights, Sir James Paul McCartney, MBE, constricted his pupils and spotted the oncoming danger, darting from the road and into a studio near his sheep farm, where he was in lockdown with daughter Mary and her family. Much like 1970’s McCartney album and 1980’s McCartney II, his previous one-man-band outings, he didn’t set out to record an album, per se. As he told BBC 6 Music’s Matt Everitt, “”I was just messing around.”

My first reaction: McCartney “messing around” isn’t to be underestimated. A great case in point: “Long Tailed Winter Bird,” which opens the 11-track album. It sprung from a song he’d recorded for Flaming Pie in 1997, “When Winter Comes,” which didn’t make that record but closes this one. In some respects, the leadoff song is akin to some of II’s synth delights, with the vocals (and minimalistic lyrics) primarily in place to add extra color to the proceedings.

“Deep Deep Feeling,” which clocks in at almost 8 1/2 minutes, is another case in point. It’s sparse and rhythmic, as eccentric in its way as the techno-centric II. It builds bit by bit, with its lyrics delving into the fear of giving one’s heart to another: “You know that deep, deep feeling/When you love someone so much, you feel your heart’s gonna burst/The feeling goes from best to worst/You feel your heart is gonna burst…”

My second reaction: Although he’s carried the weight and world upon his shoulders for decades now, he became accustomed to toting the extra baggage long ago. In “Slidin’,” a rocking statement of purpose that comes a little more than midway through III, he sings, “I know there must be other ways of feeling free/But this is what I wanna do, who I wanna be/Every time I try, I feel like I can fly/But I know that I could die trying…” (It’s the one song on the album that features players beyond himself: guitarist Rusty Anderson and drummer Abe Laboriel Jr., who’ve backed him since 2001.) 

My third reaction: A week before Christmas and all through the house, only a cat was stirring in hopes of not catching a mouse, but eating breakfast before dawn. That meant a slap to his dad’s head to cajole him out of bed and then a few nips on his heels while he prepared said meal. Which is to say, whimsy works wonders when not overdone – and such is the case with III. There’s plenty of McCartney’s patented homilies to heart, hearth and home, in other words, plus philosophical musings, but schmaltz is nowhere to be heard. In “Seize the Day,” for instance, he confesses that, “I bless the day when you came into my life/And I could finally roll back the blind/You helped me to realize that love was the greatest prize/I only had to open my mind…”

On “Women and Wives,” there’s wisdom to be shared: “Hear me, women and wives/Hear me, husband and lovers/What we do with our lives/Seems to matter to others/Some of them may follow/Roads that we run down/Chasing tomorrow…”

My final reaction: Unlike 1970’s McCartney, it’s fully formed; and unlike McCartney II, it’s very much a mainstream pop-rock outing. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s McCartney’s best album since 2007’s five-star Memory Almost Full, which also found him in a reflective mood. If it had been released a month or so ago, III wouldn’t just be in contention for my top 25 albums of the year, but it would have made it into the top tier.

The track list:

I’ve been holding off on writing about Neil Young’s Archives Vol. II, which was released on November 20, 2020, until I finished listening to each and every of its 10 discs. For those not in the know, it covers the fertile period from 11/15/1972 through 3/10/76, when he recorded such classic albums as Tonight’s the Night, On the Beach and Zuma – and held back a treasure trove of audio delights, including the since-released Tuscaloosa and Homegrown LPs. Also recorded during the timespan: the ill-fated Stills-Young collaboration Long May You Run. In total, 63 of the 131 tracks are previously unreleased, though the bulk of those are alternate or live versions of known songs. Twelve tunes are – theoretically speaking – brand-new to our ears. (I say “theoretically” because a few, such as the tender “Sweet Joni,” have been available on bootlegs for decades.)

The original deluxe edition, which was limited to 3000 copies, sold out in a matter of hours despite its mammoth price of $249.98. A second run is now scheduled, with a release date of next March, as is a “retail edition” with a reduced price of $159.98. (The Greedy Hand store is aptly named.) Me, I’ll likely buy the set as high-resolution downloads…and, until then, enjoy it via the Neil Young Archives website and iPhone app. 

The online Archives, I should mention, is a tremendous value for both new and old fans. For those of us who, years long ago, traded tapes and CDRs on the Rust List or Human Highway email lists and/or browsed the bins of indie record stores in hopes of stumbling upon bootleg LPs and CDs…well, it’s (almost) all there. Every official release. Live sets. The first Archives box set and, now, Archives II. Plus, next year, bootlegs of bootlegs are slated to appear. And, if that’s not enough, there’s tons of video – Neil’s 1984 appearance on Austin City Limits, when he was backed by the International Harvesters, is currently available to watch. (For those curious, it’s free for the holidays – and even when it’s not…it’s only $19.99/year.)

Best of all, one can access it on one’s smartphone (Apple or Android). Most days, I’m enmeshed at my desk for anywhere from a few to 10 hours. Monday through Friday, of course, it’s for my job, while on weekends it’s for this blog – or just goofing off. When the former, and in the mood, I listen via my iPhone, either plugging it into my desktop speakers or using Bluetooth headphones. Enjoying the music in high-resolution form isn’t to be had, yet it still does its job: It makes the day go faster.

Anyway, back to the Archives II: The many plaudits it has received are well deserved; here are a few such reviews: The Everybody’s Dummy blog; The Guardian newspaper; The LA Beat; Louder Than Sound; Rolling Stone; and Ultimate Classic Rock. Among the gems that I’ve returned to time and again: “Sweet Joni,” which I’ve loved since first hearing it on the Rock ’n’ Roll Cowboy bootleg compilation many years ago, and Joni, Neil and the Stray Gators ripping through “Raised on Robbery.” You can hear a snippet of it in this trailer:

There are plenty of other treasures to be had, of course. This Zuma-era take on “Powderfinger” is one:

Whether one should splurge on either the deluxe or retail edition is really a decision best left to each fan. One factor holding me back: the inclusion of the recent archival releases Tuscaloosa, ROXY: Tonight’s the Night Live and Homegrown, all of which I purchased. If you didn’t pony up the cash for them, the set makes better sense. Another factor: In my life, accompanying booklets – no matter how well done – are usually looked at once, maybe twice, and then placed back inside the box never to be seen again. (If high-resolution downloads aren’t to be had, I rip CDs as FLAC or ALAC files and listen to those.) Too, I’d rather put that $160 or $250 to supporting up-and-coming artists, most of whom are facing financial hardship.  

Anyway, as Diane can attest, I often cycle through my musical favorites – I can go months or more without playing anything by a longtime favorite simply because…well, to borrow a phrase from Neil’s erstwhile pal David Crosby, “time is the final currency.” For the last good while, for example, it’s been mostly Bruce Springsteen, Courtney Marie Andrews and Zach Phillips – but, after enjoying the Archives II for the past few weeks, I feel like it’s time to saddle up the Horse and go for a ride…