Something Beautiful

Posted: March 21, 2020 in 2020, 2020s, Duffy
Tags: , , ,

Last night, as most nights, Tyler the Cat plopped onto the bed beside my head and sang me the song of his people; it’s often the last thing I hear before drifting to sleep. And when I open my eyes the next day, he’s there to greet me. Sometimes, in fact, my eyes open because of him – he tap-tap-taps me on the head with a paw. Most mornings, however, he’s simply happy I’m awake, doesn’t care if breakfast is late, and picks up his song where he left off.

We feared we were going to lose him last February, when we took him to an emergency veterinary clinic on a Sunday after a week of failing health. A battery of tests revealed that his BUN and creatine levels were off the charts. The vet explained that his kidneys were failing and hinted that it might be best to put him down.

Instead, we took him home. Our thoughts were quite simple: If it was his time, his time would be with us. We’d keep him comfortable and, in the meantime, pursue whatever reasonable measures we could. An ultrasound soon revealed one of his kidneys had shut down due to a blood clot that then either withered or burst, but that the other was fine. We introduced a new renal-friendly diet (easier said than done) buttressed by a potassium supplement and, as important, started a daily regimen of subcutaneous fluids.

The results were near-miraculous: Within six months, his levels were in the normal range. The fluids were reduced to every other day. Now, 13 months later, he cajoles me into playing with him – or, as he did yesterday afternoon, tricks me out of my seat. After a day of working from home, I shut down the work laptop and fired up my MacBook Pro, and signed onto the Neil Young Archives to watch the Fireside Session – Neil performing a half-dozen songs for those of us self-isolating at present. Tyler poked his head up, batted me on the leg and seemed to want to play. But as soon as I got up, he jumped into the chair.

We’re not out of the woods by any means, of course, but – for now – we’re on an even keel. He, and we, have adjusted to a new normal.

Which leads to this, totally unrelated item: the Welsh singer Duffy, whose Rockferry album is one of the new millennium’s great works, shared a new song with BBC2 Radio presenter Jo Whiley on Friday March 20th and posted the note she sent Whiley on Instagram. “It’s just something for you to play people on radio during these troubling times, if you like the song of course. If it lifts spirits. I don’t plan to release it, I just thought a little something might be nice for people if they are at home, on lockdown.”

(For those unaware, she recently revealed that she went through a harrowing ordeal that caused her to pull away from public life; that she’s chosen to share this song with us now speaks volumes about her soul.)

The dulcet tones of British singer-songwriter Harriet conjure the bygone era of mood rings, shag rugs and bell-bottom jeans, to say nothing of the adult contemporary songs that ruled the AM airwaves in the 1970s (in the U.S., at least) – think ONJ, the Carpenters, Carole King and Bread, among other MOR favorites. Her full-length debut from a few years back was an utter delight in that respect; about the only thing missing: wah-wah guitar effects.

One reason for the flashback sound is a factor beyond her control: her warm vocals, which echo Karen Carpenter’s not just in timbre, but inflections – the former a quirk of birth, with the latter probably learned through osmosis, as she was often rocked to sleep as a baby to the Carpenters’ music. Another reason: the songs. “Afterglow,” first heard on her full-length debut, is one example:

Released a few weeks back, Piano Sessions+ features nine songs stripped to their bare necessities: Harriet accompanied by pianist Scott Hayes. Some are covers, others – including “Afterglow” – reworked versions of her own tunes, and two are new. But that’s not all: Four unreleased demos are tacked on, too, including a cover of the Carpenters’ “Goodbye to Love.” Like many a great singer, she invests herself in the lyrics, and gives new life to well-worn songs. Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” is a great example:

The other chosen covers are likewise exquisite. I only wish she’d picked a Jackson Browne song, too – “Late for the Sky,” maybe, or “Love Needs a Heart.” 

Of the Carpenters cover, she explained on Facebook that it is “something I’ve always been nervous about doing and have avoided, despite the Carpenters being so important to me. However, when [producer] Steve [Anderson] presented me with a new arrangement idea for “Goodbye To Love,” I agreed that we try it and at the end of another session we had, I recorded a quick vocal. After we finished recording, we never really spoke about it again and it’s not something that was ever meant to be heard by anyone but us. But when I started looking through old demos to include on this CD and considered the nature of this release, I thought now was the right time to share it.”

Cowritten and performed with Mick Talbot, “Nothing Until” is an empathetic look at an issue as relevant today as it was in 2012, when they recorded it in her flat. On Facebook, she recalled that “we recorded a handful of song ideas on my 8-track digital recorder! [Mick] is the kindest man and the most incredible musician; wonderful to watch. It was such a privilege to work with him. A few days later, I put the vocal down on the track at about 2’o’clock in the morning and distinctly remember having to sing so quietly into the mic so as not to wake any of my flat mates! I decided never to re-record the vocal as these circumstances made the recording feel so rich and intimate. The song is about addiction and feeling alone with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.one with your suffering; a place I’m sure that we have all been at some point in our lives.”

As a whole, the album – which is only available as a CD via Harriet’s website – is a trip into the ethos of music long past. It’s just a singer and her songs, in other words, soothing despite the tinges of sadness and regret that bubble to the fore. It’s a perfect diversion to the crazy times in which we now live.

The track list:

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So, years long ago, I worked in the TV listings department of the digest-sized TV GUIDE. As with my Wingspan piece, this essay – about a classic 1978 Austin City Limits episode that was slated to repeat on December 23, 2000 – came about due to me being the backup writer for the weekly Music Guide. PBS provided us with a videocassette, which I watched on a portable TV in my cubicle. I then wrote a summary for the column, a second summary for the stand-alone Close-Up, and – the week before air – was tapped to write an in-depth piece about it for the TV GUIDE Web site.

What follows is my final draft, but not the final version. I emailed it to one of several editors, who then scoured it for errors and – depending on his or her mood – may have rewritten portions of it. 

 *******************

A horn wails softly in the background. Smoke stabs the air. “When I was a kid, my dad had a 1957 station wagon. A Chevrolet. And, man, did I love that car! I used to go to the garage at night and turn out all of the lights and rub up against it. I think that was against the law….” Queued to the rap, a man’s silhouette leans against a gas pump, a cigarette dangling from his lips. It’s singer-songwriter Tom Waits, circa December 1978, his weathered, raspy voice echoing the boozy rhythms of “Burma Shave,” a slow, mesmerizing ode to lowlife losers stuck in a town not far from Route 66.

Watching this classic edition of Austin City—one of the most requested episodes in the series’ history—should be mandatory for wanna-be rock poets everywhere. Spinning story-songs focused on seedy yet sympathetic characters, he paints word-pictures that draw listeners in: “Licorice tattoo turned a gun metal blue/scrawled across the shoulders of a dying town/Took the one-eyed jacks across the railroad tracks/and the scar on its belly pulled a stranger passing through.” Although they ride atop the melody, the beat-inflected lyrics take on a life of their own. You could read ‘em at home and get a feel for the music’s rhythm, for the way the music seemingly meanders beneath Waits’ guttural growls before detouring back to the main drag in time to take the audience home.

The 50-minute set is filled with one stunner after another, from the exquisite “Annie’s Back In Town” (a gem found on the soundtrack to the 1978 film Paradise Alley) to “On the Nickel.” The latter is an aching lullaby for “little boys/who never say their prayers” and was inspired, he says during the introduction, by a Ralph Waite (yes, the actor from The Waltons) film about L.A.’s skid row. With a gorgeous, piano-based melody underpinning the story, Waits spins a heart-breaking tale about life on the other side of hope: “To never know how rich you are/you haven’t got a prayer/it’s head you wins/and tails they lose/on the nickel over there.”

Another highlight is “A Sweet Little Bullet (from a Pretty Blue Gun),” a tale about young girls heading for Hollywood “with nothing in their jeans/but sweet little wishes/and pretty blue dreams.” Soon, that quest for stardom transforms into a quest for escape: “I hear the sirens in the street/all the dreams are made of chrome/I have no way to get back home/I’d rather die before I wake/like Marilyn Monroe.” With his hat tipped forward, Waits jabs the strings of his guitar, pushing the rhythm into the audience’s face and forcing it to stare down the stark realities of society’s underbelly. 

It’s a masterstroke of masterstrokes, as is “Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis,” which is framed by a weary rendition of “Silent Night.” Accompanying himself at the piano, Waits takes on the personae of an unmarried, pregnant woman talking to a past love. “And, hey, Charlie, I think about you/every time I pass a filling station/on account of all the grease/you used to wear in your hair.” It’s a humorous moment of several—but the laughs don’t last, as her bravado slowly breaks down and the sad truth spills out.

Suffice it to say, Waits is an acquired tasted, someone—due to his croaked vocals—whose songs have found greater chart success via cover versions; Rod Stewart’s rendition of “Downtown Train” and Bruce Springsteen’s cover of “Jersey Girl” are but two examples. Yet, as this classic episode of Austin City demonstrates, Waits’ gruff voice is indeed the perfect lead instrument in all of his songs, the audio equivalent of each of the sad characters he sings about.    

As I write, the world has been swept into a whirlwind of worry, fear and panic previously known only within dystopian novels, movies and TV shows. A simple trip to the supermarket turns into a bumper-car battle of grocery carts for most, while for others it graduates into a fistfight over something as mundane as toilet tissue. Yet, today, a sense of calm enveloped my being thanks to Maria McKee’s first studio album in 13 years, La Vita Nuova.

The 14-song, 65-minute set conjures the operatic stylings of Life Is Sweet and High Dive, though more the latter than the former, and taps into the collective unconscious in ways that belie articulation. In some ways, “Effigy of Salt,” echoes Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

I hate the things I know
I wish I could retrace my steps
Before I went down to the sea
Where I crept along the depths
And prodded underneath
All along and far too deep

…though there’s far more packed into its four minutes than that. As with Life Is Sweet, the lyrics may seem to be stream-of-consciousness admissions of the heart and soul, but – as with Life Is Sweet – they’re well-crafted odes to the Archetypes of Life Internal and External. The title tune, for instance, finds Maria musing on her long-ago youth…

Once heady in the Pentecost
With tongues unknown and full of praise
Then one day all of that was lost
Now I’m a drone bereft of faith

It’s not quite Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (All the mirrors in the world),” yet that’s the first thing that popped into my mind when I listened to it this morning. Looking away from what O’Hara calls the “overgrown bludgeons” of his youth eases the pain, just as eyeing the other reflections at the bar enables him to brush aside what he’s become. In Maria’s case, however, she’s facing her life’s journey head-on: “Now when I face what I’ve become/I laugh into the ashen gloom.”

(That said, after only a few listens, I’m sure my interpretation is daft.)

There’s far more to unpack with La Vita Nuova. For now, however, after a day of worry and supermarket waits, I’m content to let the music wash over me, Maria’s voice to course through my veins, and for the lyrics – about life, love, youth and more – to settle into my subconscious. As a whole, it’s operatic, dramatic, poetic and, always, always, heartfelt. “However Worn,” the closing song, is proof of that. (I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about it in the weeks to come.)

The track listing: