Archive for the ‘First Impressions’ Category

Melody Gardot’s Sunset in the Blue 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. In many respects, it conjures her 2009 breakthrough, the classic My One and Only Thrill, in sound and style, with deft orchestral touches underscoring her emotive vocals. The main reason for the similarity: she’s again working with that set’s production team – Grammy Award-winning producer Larry Klein, arranger/composer Vince Mendoza and engineer Al Schmitt. Yet Sunset in the Blue is no mere retread; the album incorporates the life and musical lessons she’s learned in the years since.

As evidenced by “If You Love Me,” the leadoff track, the space between notes is on full display throughout; she never rushes a phrase, preferring to hang back and, a la that leaf I mentioned above, ride the wind. Actually, now that I think about it, that metaphor is off: Her vocals are akin to a hawk gliding high in the sky until it spots prey, when it swoops low, talons out. She plucks us from the ground again and again, in other words, though we’re never left bloody. (Maybe that’s not the best metaphor, either.) Anyway, “C’est Magnifique,” which features Portuguese singer António Zambujo, is another example of what I mean.

The languid pace of the album is accented by similar, sumptuous melodies and rhythms; it’s like listening to a lush dreamscape, just about, and one you won’t want to wake from. Nine of the 13 tracks are originals co-written by Melody, though one of those – the duet with Sting, “Little Something” – is only available on the physical release, though it can be streamed from YouTube. (Which means, since my vinyl isn’t slated to be delivered until January, I’m stuck without it for the time being.)

Of the four covers: “Love Song,” written by Lesley Duncan, hails from Elton John’s 1970 Tumbleweed Connection LP, “You Won’t Forget Me,” by Richard Spielman and Kermit Goell, was first performed by Helen Merrill in 1956 (though it’s probably best known, these days, for Carly Simon’s rendition from her underrated 1997 Film Noir album); “Moon River” is, of course, the classic Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” by Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne, was first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh. Each, as one might expect, is luscious and wondrous in Melody’s hands. 

I’ll sidestep everything else I planned to write, as – honestly – words 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.

The track list:

 

Death has been much on the mind of near everyone these past seven months. How could it not? As a result, although recorded pre-pandemic, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letters to You, is in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. The ghosts of lost friends haunt some of the 12 tracks, while Springsteen contemplates his mortality on others. He also rejoices in the days that used to be via three cast-off songs of yore. As a whole, the album explores the same basic themes that accented last year’s Western Stars LP and Western Stars movie, but trades the pop gloss for the glorious cacophony that is rock ’n’ roll.

“One Minute You’re Here,” the first song, is not raucous, however, but a stark rumination about the dark clouds gathered in his soul: “I thought I knew just who I was/And what I’d do, but I was wrong/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” It’s not a sentiment unique to him, of course, yet those of us who long ago grabbed our tickets and suitcases and boarded his train to the land of hope and dreams may well hear ourselves in the lyrics.

The first single, “Letter to You,” ups the tempo, with electric guitars and an organ rising, falling and rising again like waves in rough water. Bruce has said the song is directed to us, his fans, but it matters not, really. It’s just a great song. His oft-used locomotive and religious metaphors continue with “Burnin’ Train,” with the band barreling down the long twin silver line.

“Janey Needs a Shooter,” one of the cast-off songs mentioned above, is next; like the other two, “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”, it dates to the early 1970s and sports a tangible Bob Dylan vibe. (It was reworked as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce for Zevon’s 1979 Bad Luck Streak at a Dancing School album.)

There are other sonic ghosts, too. “Last Man Standing” finds Bruce recalling his first band, the Castiles. The initial song written for what became this album, it was influenced by the passing of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and the realization that he was the last group member alive. (Though, best I can tell, there are a few short-term members still walking.) In spots, at least to my ears, it conjures the Drifters’ “On Broadway” – especially when Jake Clemons takes a sax solo.

In similar fashion, the piano intro to “House of a Thousand Guitars” conjures another song: “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” (Listen to both back to back for proof.) That said, it’s a great song about the salvation inherent in rock ’n’ roll: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars…”

“Ghosts,” the second single, is yet another killer track from the album, this one also inspired by the passing of Theiss: “I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ from the mystic far/Stone and the gravel in your voice/Come in my dreams and I rejoice….” Another ghost rises from the grooves by song’s end: the late Michael Been, as the outro conjures the Call’s “When the Walls Came Down.”

Sonically speaking, the E Street Band sounds huge; to borrow Bruce’s penchant for train metaphors, they’re often like a mammoth locomotive rolling faster and faster down the tracks, except that when they need to stop, they stop on a dime. There’s also something of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse ethos throughout, as it was primarily recorded live in the studio with minimal (if any) overdubs. As a result, the result marries Born to Run’s Wall of Sound (in this case, a tsunami of guitars) with Darkness on the Edge of Town’s straight-ahead attack. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.

I’ve been grooving to the new Stone Foundation album, Is Love Enough?, this morning and early afternoon. It’s rife with echoes of another era, yet those ancient reverberations never overwhelm the music in the moment; rather, they buttress it in ways near impossible to put into print. I’d planned to offer my thoughts about the set tomorrow, after a few more spins, but one play has led to a second, third, fourth and, now, fifth and sixth. 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.”  

Produced by founding members Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby, the album explores love in its many facets. In the release announcing the LP, Sheasby explains that, “We felt it was the right moment to move the big subjects such as hope, compassion, empathy and indeed love to the forefront of our writing. We wanted to attempt something ambitious.” Suffice it to say, they succeeded.

The album was recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn Studios in Surrey. Weller appears on five tracks; he takes lead on “Deeper Love,” provides backing vocals on “Picture a Life” (which, at this stage, is my favorite on the album) and plays guitar on three others; Weller’s Style Council mates Steve White and Mick Talbot also appear. 

They’re not the only guests, however. Durand Jones (of the Indiana-based soul revival band Durand Jones and the Indications) turns in a hypnotic vocal on the heartfelt “Hold on to Love.”

North London soul singer Laville and vocalist Sulene Fleming, who toured with the Brand New Heavies (and now performs with Talbot in Mother Earth), also step to the microphone, as does a Mr Memory (?) and none other than Peter Capaldi, who starred as the 12th incarnation of Doctor Who. The stars aren’t Weller or the other walk-ons, however, but Jones, Sheasby and their band, not to mention the songs themselves. They conjure the soul, R&B and funk of days gone by, from Average White Band to Earth, Wind & Fire to Parliament-Funkadelic to Style Council, while providing musical epiphany after musical epiphany. “I love this,” Diane said earlier of “Changes”…

…and, just now, “this music is so good!” That sums it up, I think.

The closing track features Capaldi reciting a quote from Vincent Van Gogh. “It is good to love many things, for therein lies the true strength, and whosoever loves much performs much, and can accomplish much, and what is done in love is well done.” The Stone Foundation has lived up to those words here. It’s one of my favorite albums of the year, thus far.

My ordered LP is still in transit, so my track-list pic is from Apple Music:

 

Since the pandemic’s start, Neil Young and Daryl Hannah have holed up somewhere in the wilds of Colorado. It’s a beautiful locale, rustic and atop a mountain – and sans decent broadband. As he noted in the Times-Contrarian in March, “When we first tried to live stream Fireside Sessions a few days ago, we died on the vine. We had no way to get to you because our signal was too shaky. That’s why we are making Fireside Session films, so we can get them to you with no interruptions direct from high in the Rockies.” Daryl films him on an iPad, edits the performances together, and then they leave the iPad outside their front door; a friend from town picks it up, takes it home and uploads it to the NYA site.

I share those facts because The Times EP is the audio from the sixth edition of the Fireside Sessions, aka the “Porch Episode.” The “shut up and sing” crowd will be happy to hear that Neil doesn’t make any political diatribes during the set, but they’ll likely be pissed that he instead uses the music to make his points. He kicks off with a song that once angered Ronnie Van Zant, “Alabama.” Unlike in ’72, however, the song’s become something of a metaphor for the nation writ large: “Your Cadillac has got a wheel in the ditch/What’s going wrong?”

“Campaigner,” inspired by an ailing Richard Nixon, is next; in some respects, it’s a reminder of the message shared in Matthew 5:44, “But I say unto you, love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Hate serves no one, in other words. That it’s coupled with “Ohio,” in which Neil named Nixon by name, strengthens that point, I think. 

A heartfelt performance of “The Times They Are a-Changin’,” the much-covered Bob Dylan protest song that dates to 1964, follows. “There’s a battle outside and it’s raging/It will soon shake your windows/And rattle your walls/For the times they are a-changin’…” Sad to say, it’s as on-point now as it was way back when.   

The first single, an update of “Lookin’ for a Leader” (originally from Living With War) follows: “Yeah, we had Barack Obama/And we really need him now/The man who stood behind him/Has to take his place somehow/America has a leader/Building walls around our house/He don’t know black lives matter/And we got to vote him out.”

“Southern Man” is next. Like “Alabama,” in the years since its release in 1970, the song has essentially become a metaphor for a mindset that has polluted human history from its start.

An aching rendition of “Little Wing,” which was first released on 1980’s Hawks & Doves (and on its intended original home, Homegrown, earlier this year) closes the EP. “Little wing don’t fly away/When the summer turns to fall/Don’t you know some people say/The winter is the best time of them all/The winter is the best of all…” It’s a delicate performance of a beautiful song, that – on the episode – culminates with Neil singing to the blue sky, as my picture up top shows.

Unfortunately, the EP is not available via all the usual streaming outlets. It can be purchased on CD, but only streamed by subscribers to the Neil Young Archives or Amazon, as Jeff Bezos’ mega-market offers, like NYA, “HD” streaming. (The EP itself is 24/48 due to the recording limitations of the iPad.) Interestingly, however, it can also be streamed from Amazon’s non-HD Prime service…and purchased from Amazon as MP3s! Weird, huh? So, no Apple Music, Spotify or Tidal, or any of the others, but “when you hear my song now, you only get five percent” MP3s can still be had.

Whatever. It’s a stirring set that longtime travelers and newcomers alike should enjoy. Seek it out; you won’t be disappointed.