Archive for the ‘Great Pandemic’ Category

I’ve been enjoying a slow-mo Fringe binge over the past few weeks, indulging the sensory perceptions with one or two episodes most afternoons. For those who’ve never experienced the inventive sci-fi thriller, which first aired on Fox from 2008 to 2013, it integrated such things as spacetime, parallel universes and odd phenomena into its storylines. In the largest sense, a small FBI unit is tasked with investigating so-called “fringe” events, but as Season 1 progresses the puzzle begins to reveal a very complex picture.

I discovered it during the summer of 2010, not long after Season 2 had concluded. Back then, OnDemand and online resources weren’t what they are now, but I managed to work my way through the first 43 episodes before Season 3 premiered. Nowadays, however, the entire series can be found on IMDb TV – with commercials, unfortunately. (While it’s a standalone streaming service, IMDb TV is also available via Amazon.)

Of course, one reason I have time to indulge in my Fringe binge is that my evening “commute” consists of about 10 steps from here, my desk in the den, to the living room. Diane and I have played it extremely safe since the pandemic began, venturing out only to get the mail, to visit a doctor or dentist, to pick up groceries via curbside pickup, or – now that fall’s upon us – a walk around the neighborhood. Occasionally, a friend of Diane’s will stop by, but masks and social distancing are mandatory. On a nice day, they sit on our balcony; on a lousy day, they sit inside, but with the windows open.

I miss going into the office, of interacting with colleagues face to face as opposed to via Zoom. I even miss the ride to and fro’ work, believe it or not, and listening to music via my car’s speakers. Certain songs are just meant to be played while on the road.

I also miss our weekend excursions to B&N, restaurants and, heaven knows, concerts. On the last point: On Thursday, I woke to a dream fragment – Diane and I walking out of a venue located on the third level of the Willow Grove Park Mall. (For those who know the mall, my imaginary club was located between the Bloomingdales and mall entrances.) We’d just seen a band called, I think, Reconsider Baby – after the Elvis song.

Earlier in the week, we listened to the Elvis channel on SiriusXM for a bit; it must have been one of the songs we heard, but I can’t say for sure.

That all leads to to this: The COVID-19 cluster at the White House is a metaphor for President Trump’s response to the pandemic. Even a lay person such as myself knows that rapid tests, while valuable tools, are flawed; that the White House apparently did not is incomprehensible. This Nature article from a few weeks back, for example, explains that, while a positive result is almost always accurate, a “negative” result doesn’t mean what it seems. A person in the earliest stages of infection is likely not to be detected; it’s why wearing masks, as annoying as they are, is important. When the White House relied on a rapid test to screen attendees for an overcrowded and mask-less event in the Rose Garden, the odds were good that an infected person would spread the coronavirus to others.

If Trump and his team remain in charge, my fear is that America won’t return to a semblance of normalcy anytime soon; instead, the odds are good they’ll bungle the rollout of a COVID vaccine. From where I sit, his response to the pandemic isn’t all that different than President Carter’s handling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, not to mention the economic and energy difficulties that accented life in America during his term. Incompetence breeds incompetence.

As my Fringe binge (hopefully) demonstrates, however, I go out of my way to focus on things beyond the pandemic and politics; I’d encourage everyone reading this to do the same, if only for reasons of mental health. For me, music also is important: During my workday, especially in the morning, I listen to new and old favorites. Today, a Sunday, was no different – I pressed play on the Stone Foundation’s latest album yet again…

…then flashed back to the ‘80s for a spell with the Singular Adventures of the Style Council.

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…

Traditionally speaking, August is the cruelest month, accented by heat, humidity and thunderstorms. This year, however, it’s likely to be no less cruel than the months that preceded it; the Trump virus, aka COVID-19, has seen to that. As way of explanation: I found myself watching a bit of the day’s news last night; the increasing number of COVID-related deaths in the USA – 156,000 and counting – was the headline; experts are expecting exponential growth come fall, with the prospects of a quarter million or more dead by November.

Neil Young’s recasting of the Living With War song “Lookin’ for a Leader” sums up my feelings quite well: “Lookin’ for somebody/with the strength to take it on/keep us safe together/and make this country strong/walkin’ among our people/there’s someone to lead us on/lead a rainbow of colors/in a broken world gone wrong…”

In any event, each day seems the same as the day before, and the day before that, and the day before that, as if Diane and I are trapped in a real-life Droste effect or, perhaps more apropos, Groundhog’s Day. Come 6am, for me, the same events play out in the same order: shower, make coffee, feed the cat, log into work, listen to music, play with the cat, log off of work, retrieve the mail, feed the cat, eat dinner, do the dishes, watch TV, placate the cat, fall into bed…and do it again tomorrow. Weekends aren’t that much different, except I work on the blog.

Yet, despite the sameness of daily existence, some good has percolated through the Internet and/or been delivered to my doorstep: the new Courtney Marie Andrews album, Old Flowers, is catharsis set to song and, as I wrote in my review, one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. Here she is on CBS This Morning performing one of its stellar tracks…

Emma Swift’s Blonde on the Tracks, another recent find, is a delight; Liane La Havas’ self-titled set is wonderful, too; and, released just yesterday, the new Natalie Duncan album, Free, is an old-fashioned stunner. I plan to write about it tomorrow, but for now here’s one of its standout tracks…

Also: The groove machine known as the Stone Foundation has a new album, Is Love Enough?, slated for a September release. The latest teaser track from it, “Deeper Love,” features Paul Weller and is the sonic equivalent to a warm bath. It’s guaranteed to take away the aches of the day…

Last: the surprise release of Folklore by you-know-who. Fans were apparently so upset that the Pitchfork review graded it an 8 out of 10 that they threatened the writer with all kinds of craziness; some even called her at home to express their displeasure. The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica also found the album a solid, not stellar, outing, setting off a similar firestorm. Me, I listened to it last Friday and thought that, like many albums of the modern age, its length was not a strength, but a hindrance. (Too much chaff, not enough wheat.) That said, the title tune is quite memorable…

(Oops… wrong “Folk Lore”!)

What else? I’m expecting the 50th anniversary edition of Roberta Flack’s First Take album any day now; here’s one of the previously unreleased songs included with it. Expect my thoughts on it next week.

It’s odd the way the mind’s turntable works. 

Earlier this week, singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews posted to her Instagram account that she “can’t wait to sing with humans in a room, that’s what I miss most.” For reasons only a mystic may know, that simple admission caused my inner turntable to queue up the “Someday We’ll Be Together” 45 by Diana Ross & the Supremes.

The song was written by Johnny Bristol, Jackey Beavers and Harvey Fuqua in 1961, and was first recorded and released that same year by Bristol and Beavers (as Johnny and Jackey) on the Tri-Phi label. That version, however, features little of the magic heard in Diana’s rendition…

… which, though billed as a “Diana Ross & the Supremes” song, was recorded with Merry Clayton, Patrice Holloway, Maxine Waters and Julia Waters on backing vocals, not Mary Wilson and Cindy Birdsong. Johnny Bristol, who joined the Motown fold in the mid-1960s, had worked up the track for Jr. Walker and the All-Stars, but Berry Gordy decided it was better suited for Diana; at that stage, he earmarked it as her solo debut. He changed his mind after it was completed, however, and issued it instead as the final single from Diana Ross & the Supremes in order to help promote Diana’s departure from the group. Bristol’s vocal contributions, by the way, came about by accident: In an early take, the engineer accidentally recorded him while he was positioned off-mic singing along and offering words of encouragement to Diana. They liked the result, so kept it.

Released on October 14, 1969, it peaked at No. 1 on the pop charts for the week of December 27th, so is technically both the final No. 1 of the 1960s and first No. 1 of the 1970s. 

What’s wild about the song: Although written 59 years ago about love and regret (“Long time ago my, my sweet thing, I made a big mistake, honey/I say, I said goodbye”), it remains as relevant as ever – no more so than today, given that the pandemic is keeping loved ones apart: “I wanna say, I wanna say, I wanna say some day we’ll be together/Yes we will, yes we will say some day we’ll be together/Some day, some sweet day, we will be together…” 

The first song released under the Diana Ross & the Supremes moniker, “Reflections,” is a Holland-Dozier-Holland gem that, though about love, is also applicable to these times: “Through the mirror of my mind/Time after time/I see reflections of you and me/Reflections of/The way life used to be…”

Released on July 24th, 1967 (aka the Summer of Love), it rose to No. 2 on the charts by September 9th – and sports a soft (and somewhat dated) psychedelic sound due to the use of a test oscillator as part of its sonic makeup. Yet, it remains a great song – one of my favorites by Diana & Company.

(Both have been added to my list of songs Courtney Marie should cover – though I doubt she ever will.)

A year later, Diana and the Supremes released the Diana Ross & the Supremes Sing and Perform “Funny Girl,” a sales misstep – it peaked at No. 150 – that, yet, is eminently enjoyable. One highlight – and another song that could have been written about life during the COVID-19 pandemic – is “People.”

If you listened, you heard Diana’s heartfelt plea, which could well be spoken today: “People, God’s children, were born to be free, to love/All the people have a dream/for peace, for security/let the world fall in love again/please, please, let our lives not be in vain…”

Another H-D-H classic, “My World Is Empty Without You,” released by the Supremes at the tail end of 1965, echoes modern life, as well:

Incidentally, its album home – I Hear a Symphony, which was released in early 1966 – is well worth many spins. The title cut is a classic, of course…

…and there’s also a touching cover of the Beatles’ “Yesterday.” Another highlight is their rendition of “Unchained Melody,” which had been a hit for the Righteous Brothers the year before:

Too often, songs of yesteryear are dismissed as relics from a bygone age – as if love, heartache and regret are modern conceits. Yeah, sure, the albums by the Supremes often include covers of then-popular hits, as well as Broadway favorites, but – to me, at least – that’s part of their charm. At their best, which is often, Diana Ross and the Supremes (both pre- and post-ampersand) simultaneously reflect and transcend their times, and remain as relevant and wonderful as ever.