Archive for the ‘Hazel English’ 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…

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.”

There’s not much I can say about John Prine’s passing that hasn’t been said better elsewhere. While his music and children are his main legacies, so too are the many up-and-coming singer-songwriters with whom he shared a stage. His embrace of those new artists speaks volumes of him as a person, just as the reverence those artists have for him says much about him.

Anyway, I discovered John Prine’s music in the mid ‘80s while deejaying a folk show on my college radio station. I picked up Bruised Orange and the 1976 best-of on vinyl, and – a few years later – The Missing Years on CD. I was never a huge fan, in other words, though he was someone whose music I liked and respected; I always intended (and still intend) to explore his oeuvre, but have yet to get there. In 1993, Diane and I saw him with Nanci Griffith when they played the Mann Music Center in Philly on a co-headlining tour. Most of my memories of the night have long been lost, though Diane and I both recall being surprised at the numerous Warlocks or Pagans (Philly’s versions of the Hell’s Angels) in attendance. They, like the rest of us, were spellbound during his set.

Here he is with Nanci in 1990 on the U.K. television show “Town and Country.”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. CIII, given that it’s the 103rd day of the year.

1) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Shut It Down.” After first listening to “Shut It Down” last year, I liked the music but found the lyrics somewhat simplistic. Now? I hear them as oddly prophetic. As the new music video for the song shows, we are, indeed, shutting the whole system down.   

2) Hazel English – “Five and Dime.” I featured one of Hazel’s other new songs a few weeks back. This one, the latest teaser track from her forthcoming long player, is as hypnotic.

3) Shelby Lynne – “I Got You.” If the songs released thus far are any indication, Shelby’s new album – which features some (remixed) tracks from the Here I Am soundtrack alongside new tunes –  is going to be great. 

4) Shelby Lynne – “Don’t Even Believe in Love.” To my ears, this sounds like a long-lost Dusty in Memphis track, which is about the highest compliment I can give. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, and then find yourself playing it ad infinitum.

5) The Petersens – “Gentle on My Mind.” I stumbled upon this track this morning. It represents everything wonderful about music.

And one bonus… 

6) 10,000 Maniacs – “Hello in There.” In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, it became a thing for acts to release CD “maxi-singles” that coupled their latest hoped-for hit with a few songs not available elsewhere. Such was the case with the You Happy Puppet CD from 10,000 Maniacs, which featured the Blind Man’s Zoo cut alongside an acoustic version of “Gun Shy,” the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower” and this cover of the John Prine classic – which, as it happens, is my favorite song by him (I’ve known many lonely older folks in my day).

From pandemics to politics, and the associated panics therein, there’s much going on in the world that I could comment on. By and large, however, they lead me to this line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “What’s past is prologue.” Everything that was has led to what is; and we, as a collective, are responsible. (As I wrote a few years back, “it’s never us vs. them, as much as we sometimes wish it so. It’s us vs. us.”) Yet, this morning I found myself instead dwelling on matters of art instead. In the celebrity-driven daze that is the Social Media age, it’s become commonplace to confuse artists, who are as flawed as the rest of us, for their fevered imaginings.

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said it best in “Ars Poetic”: “A poem should not mean/but be.” That is, its success rests on the words, rhythms and rhymes therein; it lives and breathes, figuratively speaking, on its own, divorced from its creator. The same is true, I think, for all art. What do we know of Thomas Pynchon? Must we know his life to enjoy and decipher the torrent that is Gravity’s Rainbow? Must we know of the inner demons that haunted Sandy Denny to find meaning in her songs? 

Of course not.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. MMXX (AKA “Ars Musica“).

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” CMA announced this week that she has a new album due on June 5th. (You can order it from her site.)

2) Hazel English – “Combat.” Hazel English is an Australian-American indie pop musician based in Oakland whose songs conjure the swaying psychedelia of the mid-‘60s as well as the Paisley Underground. 

3) Emma Langford – “Sowing Acorns.” The second single from the Irish singer-songwriter’s forthcoming sophomore album is, in a word, mesmerizing. (That’s her mom, at about 12 years of age, in the picture.)

4) Maria McKee – “Let Me Forget.” It’s Maria. Need I say more?

5) Jane Willow – “Give It Time.” The Dutch-Irish singer’s latest single is unadorned – just her gorgeous voice and piano. It’s sad and hopeful at the same time.