Archive for the ‘Top 5’ Category

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.

From what I gather, aside from Pandora’s all-algorithmic approach, the streaming platforms rely on a mix of machine learning and human touch to “curate” their playlists, which – to an extent – replicate the radio experience. Unlike radio, however, one can skip songs and essentially see into the future, as all picks are visible. There’s also, obviously, no deejay sharing tidbits about the artists or local happenings. If one likes a specific track, a click leads to the artist’s individual page, where individual songs, albums and “essential” playlists can be had.

That’s likely not news to anyone but me, mind you. Although I’ve subscribed to Apple Music for a few years now, and checked out Spotify from time to time before that, the notion of automated music discovery leaves me cold; and my few experiments with it haven’t changed my opinion. Last year, for instance, I played around with Pandora for a spell and found its output lacking. It didn’t ring my bell. Likewise, YouTube’s stack of related content based on the video being watched often misses the mark.

As a result, I generally listen to songs and albums that I’ve added to either my Apple Music library or, using the Vox app, the folder that holds my CD-quality and high-resolution files, which are a mix of CD rips and digital downloads. The music itself is discovered the old-fashioned way: from reviews, articles and fellow music fans. This morning, though, out of curiosity I clicked on Apple Music’s “For You” page for the first time and listened to my personalized “New Music Mix.”

The 25 songs ranged from the old school (David Gilmour, whose new song “Yes, I Have Ghosts” is quite compelling)…

…to a lot of Americana and folk. Some songs, such as “Some Do” by Deau Eyes and “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” by the Country Westerns, connected. Most did not.

Deau Eyes, as I soon discovered, is the stage name for Ali Thibodeau, a Richmond-based singer-songwriter who has apparently worked every odd job under the sun (and then some); her nine-song album, Let It Leave, features high-energy rockers, moody delights and an acoustic gem, “Parallel Time.”

The Country Westerns, on the other hand, echo the Long Ryders, Bottle Rockets and Replacements, among others. I cranked their self-titled debut album earlier this afternoon. It’s raw and ragged, a raucous cacophony. (Which is to say, as Diane chimed in, “they’re really good.”)

Listening to both albums back-to-back, however, made me yearn for the streaming services to up their game. In the not-so-distant past, after we brought home an album or CD, we dropped it onto the turntable or into the CD tray, and then drifted away on the melodies that spilled from the speakers. We’d glance at the album jacket a time or two, flip through the CD booklet, checking out the lyrics and production credits, and then look things over again and again…

As a result, we knew who wrote what, who played on what, etc. Why can’t the same be true today? Couldn’t there be a pop-up window that features the album jacket (front and back), and enables us to check out the inner sleeve or booklet? Although I (obviously) still buy albums on vinyl and CD, my hunch is that most – especially younger – folks do not. Why not give them a chance to experience, albeit in virtual form, what was, is and should always be a part of music discovery?

And speaking of discovery… here’s a track that wasn’t on my “New Music Mix” but should have been: “Can’t Fight” by Lianne La Havas. It’s the latest single from what’s sure to be one of the year’s top albums, which is due out July 17th. (Her last album, Blood, was one of the runners-up in 2015 for my much-ballyhooed – by me, at any rate – Album of the Year award.)

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.

I’m not sure when I first heard Natalie Duncan, though I know it came about from a review of her 2012 debut album, Devil in Me, that appeared in either Mojo or Uncut that July – which means it was likely sometime in August. For good and ill, those British magazines were the primary vessels of my music discovery at the time, but they always arrived in U.S. bookstores a month late due to the vagaries of the shipping process. Those were the days, I should explain, when Diane and I routinely took up residence in the cafe section of our local Barnes & Noble bookstore for most of a Saturday or Sunday afternoon, she reading a book in full over the course of a few weeks and I, when not doing the same, paging through magazines while downing a succession of high-octane coffee drinks.

At any rate, Devil in Me became an instant favorite. At their best, the songs conjure the ghosts of popular music past while remaining firmly rooted in the present; her evocative lyrics and intricate melodies paint scenes that resonate deep within the soul. At worst, some songs – while strong – sound overproduced to my ears; and the album, which clocks in at over an hour, is just too long. (That’s a common complaint I have with most CD-age albums, actually. More is not always better.)

That said, YouTube holds more proof of her prodigious talent, including renditions of some Devil in Me songs that gain strength by stripping off their veneers. “Uncomfortable Silence” is a good example; although it’s powerful on album, this rendition – just Natalie at the piano – is spellbinding.

Speaking of spellbinding, here she is performing three songs in early ’12 at the Real World Studios – Jimi Hendrix’s “Angel,” “Sky Is Falling” and the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter”; the latter sends shivers up my spine every time I play it.

Unfortunately, despite much positive press, popular success didn’t follow and she eventually parted ways with her record label, Verve. In 2015, however, she released the electronica-tinged Black & White EP, which is well worth many listens. The title track is a hypnotic trance set to song, just about…

…and that same year she released the minimalistic single “Lies,” another sterling track. This video captures her performing it at London’s Wet Fish Cafe:

Flash forward five years and Natalie has a new album in the offing, Free, which is slated for release at the end of July on DJ Goldie’s new label, Fallen Tree 1Hundred. Of the lead single, “Sirens,” she says in the release on Bandcamp, “I initially wrote the piano and I whistled the vocals because I wasn’t able to talk at the time. It was a very frustrating writing process, but it was so euphoric the first time I was able to sing the chorus line ‘Can you make me fly’ — it felt like my voice was finally free and flying again.”

 

In a better world, Natalie Duncan would already be at the top of the charts. When I first heard Devil in Me in 2012, my assumption was that her soulful sound would soon top the charts in both the U.S. and U.K. Although that’s yet to happen, I still believe it. Her talent is too large for it not to be syncopating through the sonic landscape that is popular music.

Anyway, I’ll close with this cool cover of Stevie Wonder’s “Overjoyed.” Although she’s considered a “neo-soul” artist, as the performance demonstrates, hers is an old soul. (When she shared it on her Facebook page a few months back, she wrote, “I can’t get over how Stevie Wonder never stops inspiring me. I heard a quote from Herbie Hancock yesterday – ‘Stevie Wonder is an example of the best a human can be’. Big tings.”)