Category Archives: Tift Merritt

Remember December, Vol. IV: The Honorable Mentions

The annual Old Grey Cat Awards fete, in which the Album of the Year nominees gather in the great hall that is our living room while anxiously awaiting the word, was more crowded this year than most. Were the Las Vegas oddsmakers correct? Or would an underdog be crowned king or queen? (Canines are much loved by the admittedly feline-centric OGC Committee, so it’s always a possibility.) By the time the gala’s host finally scampered onto the mantel to bellow the mews, well, the tension could’ve been cut with a claw.

Except, as often happens with this, the most ballyhooed of music awards, the many contenders could and should have saved their Xanax for another night. Courtney Marie Andrews’ Honest Life was and is just one of those albums. And the runners-up…aside from the late entry from the sister collective known as the Staves, not surprising. (The winner and four runners-up can be seen here.)

But awards ceremonies never tell the full story of a year.

While sorting through the year’s top contenders for my Album of the Year honors, I was shocked – but not appalled – by the many great albums and EPs released in 2017. I thought I’d share my numbers 6 through 11 – aka, the Honorable Mentions – here. Some I reviewed during the course of the year; others, unsurprisingly, I didn’t. They’re all worth buying or, at the least, adding to one’s Apple Music or Spotify library.

6) Garland Jeffreys – 14 Steps to Harlem. “As a whole, 14 Steps to Harlem finds Garland looking back, surveying the present and contemplating the future – and doing it all to melodies that linger long after the music has ceased.” Here’s the title track:

7) Paul WellerA Kind Revolution. “Long Long Road” is such a tremendous song that, even if the rest of the album was just so-so, A Kind Revolution would be an honorable mention. But the album is among Weller’s best.

8) Tift MerrittStitch of the World. “While we listened to it earlier today, me for probably the 10th time this week, Diane noted that certain songs would’ve been at home on Linda Ronstadt’s Heart Like a Wheel – or, I’d add, Emmylou Harris’ Luxury Liner. I.e., there’s a timelessness about them.” Here’s one of its stellar tracks,  “Heartache Is an Uphill Climb.”

9) Kasey ChambersDragonfly. “Ain’t No Little Girl” is just tremendous, bluesy and – in concert, especially – jaw-dropping in its intensity. The remainder of the double album is damn good, too.

And, two ties at No. 10…

10) Paul McCartney – Flowers in the Dirt (deluxe edition). “The set features the original album; a second disc of 10 demos recorded with Elvis Costello; a third disc of 9 of the same demo songs recorded with the nascent Flowers in the Dirt band and produced by Elvis; a fourth disc of b-sides and remixes; and a DVD of videos and behind-the-scenes stuff. ”

10) Natalie Merchant – Butterfly (available as part of The Natalie Merchant Collection). Here’s “Frozen Charlotte” from it…

Today’s Top 5: Mixdisc 2010

I currently have not one, not two, but eight external hard drives on my desk, a network drive plugged into our router, plus my rarely used HP desktop. Most contain the result of the Great Undertaking of 2007, when I invested in a then-pricey external HD and began ripping our CDs. It was a six month-long endeavor born from frustration: We owned thousands upon thousands of discs, but had run out of space for them in our over-stuffed apartment. Stacks of jewel boxes took up residence here, there and everywhere.

After those six months, I bought a second external HD, copied everything over, and then plugged it into Diane’s computer. Presto, we had matching libraries – and more room in the apartment, as I boxed up the CDs. Whatever we wanted to listen to was, quite literally, a mouse click away, and because our library was so expansive…well, it was a bit like our own private Spotify or Apple Music. Then, in theory, if either of us bought an album, be it physical or digital, we’d copy it to the other’s drive.

But theories don’t always play out in real life the way they do on paper. Over time, our libraries took on slightly different hues. Sometimes Diane would procure a disc or download and not tell me. And vice versa. But, regardless, I routinely backed up my library. At one point, before I switched from the HP to a MacBook, I had two external desktop HDs plugged in at all times, and a third that I employed as a backup for the first two. Whenever I ripped a CD to the internal HD, I then copied it over to the externals. And, every month or so, I’d plug in the third external and do it again.

It’s just the way it was.

There’s more on those HDs, of course. One holds most of my high-res music. A few include now-ancient Super 8 home movies that I had digitalized, plus various versions of my own Long Medley – all those home movies edited into one long film and accented by a letter-perfect soundtrack. There’s also photos, photos, and more photos; my digital art, which wasn’t much in the way of art (as the example to the left demonstrates), that I played around with for more than a decade, and short animations that never came out as envisioned; the last iteration of the original Old Grey Cat website; umpteen versions of an unfinished novel; Word documents galore, including old TV GUIDE essays; and old mix-CD covers, such as the one below (and this one for a Juliana collection).

I may be wrong, but I believe it’s the last mix I made, as a Christmas gift (along with, I believe, a bottle of wine) for my brother and his wife in 2010. The cover art was an original, but something that I didn’t take much time with. I created it in an hour, rendered it, and was done.

Which leads to today’s Top 5: Mixdisc 2010…as in, songs from that very mix.

1) Tift Merritt – “Mixtape.” What better song to start a mix than this, a song about mixtapes? (And, too, it was from my Album of the Year for 2010.)

2) Mazzy Star – “Fade Into You.” If you listened to that Tift song, you’ll hear her mention Mazzy Star in the lyrics. So what better song to bat second?

3) Diane Birch – “Heavy Cross.” Yeah, I just featured this song in my Diane Birch roundup; and have featured it a few times before that, too. Back in 2010, however, it was relatively new – and totally unavailable anywhere but on YouTube. (That’s still true.) My sister-in-law liked Diane Birch, so it seemed a good idea to include it. (I used one of those crappy ad-heavy sites to strip away the video and save the audio as an MP3.) Also, on a more practical note, after the languid “Fade Into You,” the tempo needed a jolt, and “Heavy Cross” is like a double espresso…

4) Natalie Merchant – “maggie and milly and molly and mae.” Another hypnotic song, this time from one of my 2010 Album of the Year runners-up.

5) Rachel and Kurt (aka Lea Michele and Chris Colfer) – “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy.” Yeah, yeah, not everyone liked Glee. But I did, and always enjoyed the episodes that showcased Lea Michele, as her voice was (and is) magical. (I still wish they’d spun off Rachel into her own series. But c’est la vie.) It’s also a performance that, divorced from the TV, stands on its own. (And, yes, I’m aware it’s a knockoff of the Barbra Streisand-Judy Garland rendition. I still love it.)

And a few bonuses…

6) Kim Wilde – “Kids in America.” A classic new-wave entry from the dawn of MTV. Who doesn’t love this tune?

7) The Jam – “Stoned out of My Mind.” Paul Weller & Co. tackle the classic Chi-Lites tune. And it’s absolutely fantastic – one of my favorite Jam tunes, actually.

10) The Lemonheads – “It’s About Time.” Jumping down a few tracks to No. 10 brings us to this, my favorite song from the Lemonheads.

11) Juliana Hatfield – “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” This was a free download from the Daytrotter site back in 2009. It’s an absolutely brilliant, stripped-down rendition (and is a perfect followup to Evan Dando & Co.’s “It’s About Time” due to Juliana’s guest vocal on that tune).

Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year

Any year that I see Juliana Hatfield in concert is a good year. And a year when I see her twice? Logic, at least my logic, says it should be good times two – i.e., great. And to see Juliana cover not one but two Olivia Newton-John songs while backed by Wesley Stace & the English UK? The surreal sweetness of the moment just can’t be beat. For that alone, 2017 should be damn near the best year of them all.

But this has not been a normal year. It’s as if someone spiked the water supply with mescaline in January and the hallucinations have yet to end. I’ll sidestep diatribes about America’s answer to Hugo Chavez, the human Scrooge McDucks that call themselves Republicans, and the leches that call themselves men, and instead share this:

When the music starts, we just slip away – just like a river rollin’ down…

Live music often has a more visceral impact than via CD, LP or digital download. It’s an immediate connection. You feed off the performer, he or she feeds off you and … you’re there, wherever there is, not stoned but STONED, and not from drink or drugs but from the music itself. The worries of the world cease to be, albeit for a few hours, and when you leave the venue you feel spiritually renewed.

From Lights Out in January to Patterson Hood (of the Drive-by Truckers) this past Thursday, and including such stalwarts as Graham Parker, Garland Jeffreys and Shawn Colvin, we enjoyed more live music this year (21 shows by my count) than the past few years combined. Some shows were good, others great, and a handful absolutely sublime.

First, though, a caveat: As all things “best of” on this blog, I work from a deck stacked by my aging demographic, idiosyncratic tastes, and budget. I enjoy singer-songwriters with folk-rock and/or country overtones, and delight in discovering new artists within that realm, and generally rock out to the same artists I’ve rocked out to forever and a day, including (but not limited to) Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Seger, the Kinks, Joan Jett, Paul Weller and Juliana Hatfield, among others.

And, with that, here’s Remember December, Vol. I: Concerts of the Year. (Click through to read my original reviews.)

1) Paul Weller with Lucy Rose at the TLA, 10/4/17. This show fell in what was the awful week that included the mass shooting at a country-music festival in Las Vegas and the passing of Tom Petty. Perhaps that explains the jubilation I felt at being able to forget, if only for a few moments, and let go. And, too, it was just a killer concert.

2) Kasey Chambers at the World Cafe Live, 7/5/17. Breathtaking. That’s the only word for this show, which found the Aussie country-music maven weaving heartfelt odes from thin air. Even now, watching this video, I’m stunned at how good she is.

3) The Juliana Hatfield Three at the Boot & Saddle, 4/24/17; and Juliana Hatfield with Wesley Stace & the English UK at the Ardmore Theater, 10/12/17. When formulating this list, I found myself going back and forth as to which of these shows should be third or fourth on my list. At the Boot & Saddle, Juliana and the Three personified “brutal grace.” It was raw, raucous, loud and great, and – given than the bulk of the setlist was Pussycat-heavy, cathartic. The only strike against it were the muffled vocals.

The Ardmore show, both in her solo set and when backed by the English UK, was near the reverse, with an expansive set list that included such gems as “Slow Motion” and “Somebody’s Waiting for Me,” and way-cool covers of two Olivia Newton-John songs. Here’s one:

Watching that clip again, just now, I couldn’t help but to smile.

Anyway, both shows spoke to me in equal measure. Her songs, new, old, rocking, mid-tempo or ballad, are ingrained in my soul. So, why rank one above the other? For the purposes of this list, the two concerts are a tie…

4) Courtney Marie Andrews at the Boot & Saddle, 5/9/2017. As I wrote in my review, this was as magical and mesmerizing a concert that I’ve had the pleasure to witness in my concert-going career. Courtney reminds me of Shawn Colvin circa the early and mid-‘90s, who synthesized a wide swath of influences into a hypnotic whole.

5) The Staves at the World Cafe Live, 3/9/2017. What did I love about this show? Everything! Within moments of its start, it felt as if we’d stepped through a time portal to some point in the early ‘70s. About the only thing missing: bell-bottom jeans.

And, finally…honorable mentions: Bruce Springsteen on Broadway was the definition of compelling, but not a conventional concert due to the monologues. Thus, I’m not including it within my Top 5 (though, if I did, it wouldn’t knock Weller from the top spot). Also, Garland Jeffreys at the World Cafe Live Upstairs was grand; Lulu at the Sellersville Theater was wondrous; Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer at the World Cafe Live were sublime; and Tift Merritt at the World Cafe Live was utterly captivating.

As Tift sings, “Love Soldiers On.” And it does.