Archive for the ‘Stone Foundation’ Category

’Twas a strange, saddening and maddening year, 2020. The world writ large flitted like a moth above a flame, its wings increasingly singed and brittle and unable to provide the lift needed to escape a fiery end. Too many people fell ill. Too many perished. Too many lost jobs. In decades to come, historians will undoubtedly study the whys and wherefores of the pandemic, including how it impacted almost every aspect of daily life. One hopes they’ll focus on more than just the death toll, politics and economic fallout, however, and celebrate the stuck-at-home troubadours – many facing hardship themselves – who bucked our spirits.

The biggest change within my realm arrived in mid-March, when – like many others – I began working from home, which it looks like I’ll be doing through next spring. Prior, much of my music listening occurred in the car, stereo blasting while I rode the 15/501 between Chapel Hill and Durham. Now? Aside from once-a-week grocery runs and the occasional doctor visit, it’s here in the den. Early on, I often pulled up the SiriusXM app on my phone and listened to E Street Radio for hours on end – or just played favorite albums. Part of that nostalgic indulgence hailed from the pre-pandemic life, to be honest, as last winter found me musing on the days that used to be even more than usual. From January through June, for example, I penned 17 entries in my Essentials series…but only three in the months since.

Somewhere in the middle of the year, the flip switched.

I share that because music – as all art – is neither created nor experienced in a vacuum, though we sometimes tell ourselves different. The rush and crush of life colors our aspirations, perceptions and opinions, with – when it comes to us fans – tossed-off takes becoming gospel until, years later, we discover we were wrong. (Or not. Sometimes we were right all along.) Add to that this: I’m a 55-year-old, long-married white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it. (To borrow a lyric from Paul Simon, “I know what I know.”)

Such has been the case with my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year, at any rate. It’s an honorific I’ve bestowed on one album (sometimes two) every year since beginning my journey into music fandom in 1978, when I was 13, for no other reason than…well, why not? It’s a fun, if occasionally frustrating endeavor to rank one’s favorites for the year. The selection process, then and now, is the same. As I explained in a long-ago Facebook post that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” I amended that, ever-so-slightly, last year: “The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.” (That said, I still buy a lot.)

The only real difference between then and now: The lobbying campaigns. Since I revealed the 25 top contenders last week, for instance, I’ve been deluged with emails and phone calls from their courtiers explaining why they should receive the OGC plaque. (Diane nudged me to choose her No. 1 as my No. 1, in other words. Though she shouldn’t have worried.)

And, with that…drumroll, please…here’s my Top 5 Albums of 2020 (links to my original reviews can be had by clicking on the titles):

1) Bruce Springsteen – Letter to You. As I said above, Diane need not have worried. Springsteen’s studio reunion with the E Street Band is an album-long rumination on life, death and the ghosts that haunt the night – as well as the solace that only rock ’n’ roll can bring. As I summarized in my review, “It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.”

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Old Flowers. Simply put, this is a sterling treatise on heartache, heartbreak, forgiveness and moving on. From my review: “Often, such as with the hypnotic ‘Carnival Dream,’ the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating ‘Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in’ again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night.” I’d only add that Andrew Sarlo’s production is note-perfect.

3) Melody Gardot – Sunset in the Blue. As noted in my review, the album “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.” And: “[W]ords 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.”

4) Stone Foundation – Is Love Enough? From my review: “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.’” ‘Nuff said.  

5) Natalie Duncan – Free. Neo-soul, R&B and jazzy elements fuse together in hypnotic fashion in this delectable outing from the British singer-songwriter, who first turned my ears way back in 2012. As I noted upon its release, “With these 12 songs as part of one’s personal soundtrack…the downtimes will hurt a little less and the good times will rate with the best. It’s a great album.”

And, in alphabetical order, two honorable mentions:

Malin Pettersen – Wildhorse. I often feel instant kinship with an album or artist – it’s as if they’ve been with me forever and a day. Such is the case here. The atmospheric song cycle seamlessly blends the past, present and future of country music; and, when the album comes to an end, you’ll want to play it again – at least, that’s what I do.

Zach Phillips – The Wine of Youth. This album buoys my spirits every time I listen to it, which is quite often. From my review: “Stylistic shifts notwithstanding, the 13 tracks ebb and flow as one. At heart, it’s a literate singer-songwriter’s album that, to my ears, conjures the long-ago time when dollops of other genres were often mixed into tasty morsels. ‘It sounds like it’s from the 1970s,’ Diane said after hearing it earlier this week – and she meant it in the best way possible. To an extent, on this album at least, Phillips reminds me of another Illinois native who rose like a phoenix during that latter part of that decade and flew high during the early ’80s, Dan Fogelberg.”

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:

 

’Tis the season for making lists and checking them twice, and determining which album is the Old Grey Cat’s ballyhooed Album of the Year. The honor, which is celebrating its 40th year this year, came about late in 1978 due to my dream of becoming a rock critic (yeah, I know: crazy!), and continued through the decades because…well, why not? Over that span, it’s chronicled the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes.

It is a decidedly personal affair, in other words. In years past, and on the updated tally I post early each year, I explain the process thusly: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

But in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, “that statement is no longer operative.” In the age of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, no one needs to actually purchase an album to enjoy it. Just about every new release can be had for the price of one CD a month (aka the subscription fee) or the willingness to put up with commercials. (Yet, although I don’t purchase as much as I once did, I own all the albums that made their way onto my list. How could I not?)

Also, as I wrote last year, “The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.”

Some years, I revisit all the contenders. This year? There was no need. They are albums that I’ve turned to time and again since their releases, and have never grown tired of. That said, there were a few surprises: Although I thoroughly loved First Aid Kit’s Ruins and Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, as the year wore on I found myself listening to them less and less often. I’m sure it had more to do with me, and the headspace I found myself in, than the music. I deem them two of my three “honorable mentions” for the year. Mikaela Davis’ Delivery is my third.

And, with that… 

Juliana Hatfield’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is my Album of the Year. 

I got chills when she announced the project – as Hopelessly Devoted to Liv – during her concert with Wesley Stace at the Ardmore Music Hall in October 2017, and those chills were multiplying after she sang “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Physical.” (Just as an aside, Stace suggested that she call the album JH Sings ONJ, as the title conjures such cover sets from yesteryear as The Hollies Sing Dylan. It obviously stuck.) 

In my review, I noted that the set is, in some ways, an extension of the moving “Wonder Why” from her 2017 Pussycat LP, “in which she sought refuge from the madness of the present via the memories of her childhood. These songs, for her and us, are a similar escape into the past. They conjure another time and place, and also pay homage to a singer (and sometime songwriter) who, in that long-ago era, created a safe room where many of us dwelled on occasion.”

FYI: It’s the sixth time that Juliana has nabbed my year-end honors.

The first runner-up: the Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone. In my review, I said that the songs “feature taut rhythms and lyrics that strive for something more than the rudimentary reflections that make up much of today’s mainstream music. They’re metaphysical musings of the highest order.”

Paul Weller co-wrote that Stone Foundation track, “Next Time Around.” His own release this year, True Meanings, is the latest classic in his own oeuvre, and is my second runner-up. Due to offline events, this blog was placed into a holding pattern around the time of the album’s release, so I never reviewed it. But make no mistake: It’s one of his best. 

The third runner-up: Shelby Lynne’s Here I Am, which features her songs (and some poetic snippets of dialogue) from her movie of the same name. Originally available only on vinyl, it’s now out on CD (via Shelby’s online store). The songs are as mesmerizing as her performance in the film.

The fourth runner-up: Erin O’Dowd, whose debut album, Old Town, took up residence in my heart and head way back in May, and provided much-needed sustenance on a long road trip Diane and I took in September. In my First Impressions piece on it, I said that the songs sent “my spirits soaring higher than the beautiful May morn.”

The fifth and final runner-up: Becky Warren’s Undesirable, which is an album-long treatise on America’s unofficial caste system. As I wrote in this piece, it’s akin to a series of short stories set to song. It’ll draw you in, make you think, and make you tap your feet.

Echoes from another era reverberate through much of Everybody, Anyone, the latest offering from the Midlands-based Stone Foundation. The 11 songs conjure, at times, Traffic, Earth, Wind & Fire, Steely Dan, War and similar groove-heavy acts of yore, as well as the Chi-Lites, Marvin Gaye and Van Morrison, yet the influences never overwhelm the music, which sounds fresh and immediate.

Neil Jones (guitar/vocals) and Neil Sheasby (bass/backing vocals) cowrote the songs, with an assist from Paul Weller on “Next Time Around.” Weller also plays on several tracks. (Which makes sense, given that the set was recorded at his Black Barn Studio.) There are additional guests, too, including Weller’s former Style Council mates Mick Talbot and Steve White. Singer-songwriter Kathryn Williams provides a sweet counterbalance to Jones’ grainy timber on “Don’t Walk Away”; and Hamish Stuart, formerly of Average White Band and Paul McCartney’s Flowers in the Dirt-era band, lends his distinct vocals to “Only You Can.” 

Yet the guest spots matter not. The “stars” here are Jones’ expressive voice, the band, and – most importantly – the songs themselves. They feature taut rhythms and lyrics that strive for something more than the rudimentary reflections that make up much of today’s mainstream music. They’re metaphysical musings of the highest order.

Here’s one highlight: the aforementioned “Don’t Walk Away.”

And another: “Give the Man a Hand.”

And another: “Next Time Around.” 

And, finally: “Heavenly Father.”

In short, I’ll be playing Everybody, Anyone again and again for quite some time.

The set is available to stream and buy at all the usual outlets, as well as from the band’s website. (The package I picked up from them comes with a cool making-of documentary, as well as autographed LP and CD.)

The track list: