In today’s world, it’s easy to explore an artist’s oeuvre. Pre-Internet, not so much. In my slice of suburban America in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, one had few options for digging into rock ’n’ roll’s past beyond flipping through the racks of the local record stores and checking the song titles on the back of the LPs in hopes that they contained the older song or songs you heard Ed Sciaky play the previous afternoon. 

Top 40 radio only played current chart hits, while the AOR stations cherry-picked recent releases that adhered to the rock orthodoxy and programmed them alongside popular platters from the late 1960s onward; the same held true at mellower WIOQ, although its deejays – such as Sciaky – occasionally featured deep tracks from albums past and present. The same closed approach could be found on WPEN-AM, an oldies station I listened to on weekends; it only featured rock ’n’ pop hits from the mid-‘50s through the early ‘60s.

New releases were easy to find – even the mom-and-pop record store I frequented stocked them, as they were the bread and butter of the music industry – though singles and albums on smaller labels could be hit or miss. The music magazines helped fill the knowledge gap for new releases, of course, as there were far more than made it to the airwaves, and sometimes the old – but, by and large, their focus was on the present and future, not the past.

Which is where record guides proved handy. These days, if the various Facebook groups I belong to are representative of the wider world, many music fans decry reviews and such all-encompassing guides as the Rolling Stone Record Guide – especially when they’re critical of their favorites. But to this kid in the early ‘80s, they were necessary for navigating the canons of established artists and bands – as well as discovering older acts that the established history (aka rock radio) had bypassed.

In 1979 or ’80, I bought the red version of the Rolling Stone Record Guide; in 1983, I ponied up the cash for the second. They are among the most important books in my life, sharing space with such tomes as Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, John Irving’s Hotel New Hampshire and Jayne Anne Phillips’ Machine Dreams. Sure, sometimes they gave my favorites one- or two-stars (or, in the case of ONJ, none) – but so what? A good or bad review only reflects the writer’s opinion. Period. And, too, it forced me to think through what I liked about the albums and why. 

In fact, my main criticism of the tomes isn’t that they sometimes say mean or petty things about a few of my favorite artists, as that’s de rigueur for dorm-room debates (which, in a sense, the two editions represent), but is the same issue I have with much of music criticism (including, at times, my own in this blog). Making great music isn’t akin to making a model airplane – it’s about intangibles that, as often as not, have more to do with the listener(s): Who we are, where we are in our lives, and what’s going on in the wider world. There’s no right or wrong, per se, just right or wrong for us.

Such is the case for this year for me, at any rate. Much new music has passed me by not because of the merits (or demerits) therein, but that – due to the pandemic – my headspace is elsewhere. That said, there have been some new songs and albums have found their way into heavy rotation within my den…

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” From every indication, aka the new songs I’ve heard her play in her livestreams, Courtney’s forthcoming album, Old Flowers, is sure to be a five-star affair. Even if it’s not, this song just tugs at the heartstrings. 

2) Jess Williamson – “Infinite Scroll.” I just wrote about Williamson’s latest album, Sorceress, yesterday; to my ears, this disco-light number conjures Yvonne Elliman’s “If I Can’t Have You,” but maintains its independence all the same. “Time did unfold like an infinite scroll” – that sums up life when young, if you think about it. It’s just great.

3) Neil Young – “Try.” After 45 years, Neil’s legendary Homegrown album is finally slated for released in June. For those unaware of its history, Neil planned on releasing the album in 1975 only to decide at the last minute to put out Tonight’s the Night instead. Based on this track, it has the markings of an instant classic.

4) Lucy Rose – “Question It All.” Even if my Tyler the Cat wasn’t featured in the video at the 28-second mark, this single from the British singer-songwriter would be getting my attention. As I mentioned in my First Impressions piece on it, it’s essentially a Marie Bracquemond painting set to song.

5) Emma Swift – “I Contain Multitudes.” On Bob Dylan’s 79th birthday (May 24th), Emma announced her next project: a collection of Bob Dylan covers that she’s dubbed Blonde on the Tracks. That she’s including this, one of the bard’s latest releases, is way cool.

Some songs and albums swirl like wisps of smoke through the synapses only for a wrong chord or lyric, or some intangible element, to douse the combustion before it erupts into flames. Others, however, spark a fiery exchange between the presynaptic and postsynaptic portions of the neurons, with the heat rapidly intensifying with every passing second. The latter is the case for Jess Williamson’s recent Sorceress album.

After reading the Highway Queens review of it on Wednesday, I pulled up the 11-song set in Apple Music and hit play. Honestly, I was expecting whatever I heard to wash over my tired ears, as most new music from new-to-me artists has done this year. Instead, an array of colors flashed from my speakers as if from 1970s-era light boxes…

…with Williamson’s warm vocals front and center. (Yes, I hear colors. I also hear depth. And, in these songs, I also hear wistfulness, self-awareness and regret.) “As the Birds Are,” which conjures Bob Dylan’s “I Shall Be Released,” is a good example of what I mean: “Oh to be as the birds are/Unburdened by loneliness/Oh to be a shining star/So far away with no regret/Oh to live in some photograph/Smiling and in love/Far from where I said all that/Shit about freedom…”

As a whole, her songs blend country, folk, rock and gentle psychedelia – somewhat akin to Steve Earle’s Transcendental Blues, now that I think about it, though she splashes in some disco, too. Despite the disparate elements, or perhaps because of them, she soars high into the sky one moment, then parachutes back to Earth the next; it’s a compelling listen as a result. “Wind on Tin” is one example…

…and “Infinite Scroll,” a bittersweet ode about being invited to an ex-lover’s wedding, is another. 

I hear so much in those four minutes and 11 seconds – from Yvonne Elliman (circa “If I Can’t Have You”) to Jewel to…well, everything and everyone in between and beyond, including the Beatles, Dylan and Mazzy Star. It’s the past, present and future of popular music rolled into one, just about. No artist can live up to that hyperbole, of course, so I probably shouldn’t say that – but it’s where my mind goes when listening not just to “Infinite Scroll,” but the album as a whole.

Sorceress casts a spell like few others, in other words. Give it a go.

Since beginning this occasional series in 2017, I included this italicized explanation at the top of my picks until earlier this year: “As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.” What I hoped to convey with those words was this: “essential” does not necessarily equal “great.” Sometimes they are one and the same, of course, but as often they’re simply important, but flawed, chapters in the chosen artist’s development.

Such is the case with McCartney II, which was released on May 16, 1980. It was, is and likely will forever be a love-it-or-hate-it entry in Paul McCartney’s oeuvre. Some fans consider it an eccentric delight, as the 11 songs span the gamut from synth-pop to ambient electronica to new-fangled techno to old-fashioned blues to an acoustic ballad. Others, however, find the synthesizers, electronica flourishes and vocal distortions off-putting. I’m in the former camp, myself. While I don’t consider it a great album, per se, I do think it’s an important album that features glimmers of greatness.

Most fans know the backstory of the album, but for those few who don’t: Following the wrap-up of the Back to the Egg album, which was released in June 1979, the members of Wings – Paul and Linda, long-time compadre Denny Laine, and newcomers Laurence Juber and Steve Holley – went their separate ways for a spell. With a 19-date U.K. tour slated to begin in November, and the expectation that it would expand to the rest of the world the following year, everyone had things on their to-do list that they wanted to address first.

In Paul’s case, that meant goofing off – first in Sussex and then in Scotland. In a 1980 Club Sandwich interview with rock writer Paul Gambaccini, he says that “I hired a 16-track machine and got an engineer friend, Eddie, to fix me up a thing where I just took one microphone into the back of the machine direct, so we didn’t use a big console. It’s very difficult if you’re trying to work on your own with a big console, so we bypassed it and just went directly into the back of the machine.”

In some respects, McCartney was looking to cast out the cobwebs he’d gathered during the on-and-off Back to the Egg sessions, which began in late June 1978 and didn’t end until March 1979. While BTTE was and is a fun set, it’s also flawed and formulaic – and, though it includes a nod to new wave, extremely safe. Like many of the era’s old-guard rockers, in other words, he was treading water.

For II, he changed things up. As he explained to Gambaccini, “Well, the whole thing about all these tracks was to do something different. ‘Coming Up’ was done as all the tracks were. What I did was to just go into the studio each day and just start with a drum track. Then I built it up bit by bit without any idea of how the song was going to to turn out. It’s like a reverse way of working. After laying down the drum tracks I added guitars and bass, building up the backing track.” In the interview, he equates the process to sculpture: “It is very much like sitting down with a few lumps of clay and putting down one after another until it makes itself into a face or something.”

By the time he finished the working holiday, he had enough material for a double album – but shelved everything, as the Wings tour beckoned. 

And then Japan happened.

The plans to re-conquer the world were cancelled along with the sold-out 11-date Japanese tour; and McCartney found himself listening to his previous summer’s sonic adventures. From the same Club Sandwich interview with Gambaccini: “I wasn’t even thinking of it being an album until I got all the tracks together and played them on a cassette in my car; it started to sound like an album.” Then it became a matter of figuring out how to create a coherent set from the material. Paul, apparently, wanted to release everything as a double album, but then thought better – or, more likely, was reined by his record company. Some songs were edited for length, while others were left behind.

In a sense, McCartney II is a high-tech update on the 1970 McCartney album, which is also accented by oddball instrumentals alongside a few memorable tunes. In this case, the fun begins with the catchy “Coming Up,” which was also the album’s first single.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The flip side of the 45, I should mention, features a live rendition of the song by Wings along with the Venus & Mars castoff “Lunchbox/Odd Sox.” In the U.K., the song reached No. 2 on the pop charts, but in the U.S. the live rendition – which is what most radio listeners heard, as deejays rebelled against the sped-up vocals – went No. 1.

“Temporary Secretary” is, depending upon one’s mood, funny, maddening or the audio equivalent of a dentist’s drill. (When I saw Paul in 2015 at the Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia, there was – and it may have been mine – an audible groan when, early on, he announced it as the next song.) In September 1980, it was released as a limited-edition U.K. single, believe it or not, and has supposedly taken on a life of its own in techno cubs the world over. (As I don’t frequent techno clubs, I can’t say for sure.) Its b-side was the interminable “Secret Friend,” which was added as a bonus track when II was released on CD in 1987.

The third track, “On the Way,” is a bluesy delight that was influenced by Paul having watched Alexis Korner on a TV show about the blues.

Another highlight: “Waterfalls,” which was the only song on the record that Paul wrote prior to beginning the one-man-band sessions.

It was also the second single released from the album, sneaking into the U.K.’s Top 10 while failing to crack the Top 100 in the U.S. The b-side, “Check My Machine,” is what raised the hair on the back of my neck, however; it features sped-up vocals and an absolutely killer beat – a true overlooked gem. (Like “Secret Friend,” it’s now a bonus track on the McCartney II CD.) 

Aside from “Check My Machine,” however, the album tracks I’ve featured are anomalies from the overall feel of II, which veers more toward the ambient and eccentric as it continues. For instance, “Frozen Jap” is an oddball instrumental built around a cool motif that conjures Mount Fuji.

“Darkroom” is another favorite of mine. Be forewarned, though: It’s an ear worm. One listen and you’ll be hearing it for days onward… 

The closing “One of These Days” is another overlooked gem. 

Paul told Gambaccini that he was inspired to write it after “a Hare Krishna bloke care round to see me. He was a nice fellow, very sort of gentle. After he left, I went to the studio and the vibe carried through a bit – I started writing something a bit more gentle that particular day. The song seemed right as a very simple thing, and it basically says ‘one of these days I’ll do what I’ve been meaning to do with the rest of my life.’ I think it’s something a lot of people can identify with.”

Like many U.S. fans, when I brought home the “Coming Up” single in April 1980, at age 14, I first preferred the b-side with Wings. And when the album was released a month later, I found the mix of the expected and the eccentric more of a curiosity than anything. But as the listens accrued, I began to appreciate the eccentric more and more. And, in retrospect, the synth stuff, sped-up vocals and the like led the way for me to appreciate off-kilter releases from other favorite artists, such as Neil Young, in the years to come.

We fans sometimes pigeonhole our favorites, after all, and expect their every release to build upon, or borrow from, what came before. But just as I, as a fan, enjoy a wide array of sounds, why can’t or shouldn’t a music artist expand their sonic palate, as well? In some ways, the success of the album – and it went gold in both the U.S. and U.K. – freed McCartneTy from the straitjacket that Wings had become to him. Ask yourself this: Would The Fireman have happened without McCartney II? I doubt it.

Anyway, in 2011, McCartney II was released alongside the original McCartney as part of the Paul McCartney Archive Collection (and can be heard on Apple Music). The set includes the unedited versions of many of the tracks as well as a few previously unreleased curiosities, such as the ambient “Blue Sway” (with Richard Niles orchestration) – a very cool track, that is – and the “Mr. H Atom/You Know I’ll Get You Baby” and “All You Horse Riders/Blue Sway.” Not everything jells, but that’s okay. They’re cool to hear, nonetheless.

 

Here’s a flashback to some 22 years ago this summer, when my original Old Grey Cat website was running hot: a review of David Crosby’s band CPR at the Theater of Living Arts in Philadelphia.

The “tough, rough couple of weeks” I mention at the start was that the company I worked for, TVSM, was being purchased by the top TV listings magazine in the land, TV GUIDE. That meant the magazines I wrote for, The Cable Guide, See and Total TV, were likely to be axed and everyone would be laid off. And, sadly, most folks were let go – something that pains me, still. But as the fates would have it, by the time the dust settled (the following November), I signed on with TV GUIDE and joined their “pop and politics” team.

Anyway, one thing that I failed to mention in the Lucinda portion of the piece is that she arrived late to the show; while flying into Philly from parts unknown, her plane was detoured to New York because of thunderstorms. She was forced to take a train from the Big Apple to the City of Brotherly Love and then a taxi from 30th Street Station to the venue. As a result, opening act Jim Lauderdale, who was also part of her touring band, went on later and played longer than usual. She still rocked the house when she reached the stage, however. (I named her performance my Concert of the Year for 1998; CPR’s set was third.) 

Also, the quote from David Crosby hints at this: The TLA was a sea of empty chairs for the CPR gig; at most, and I’m likely being generous, 25 fans were there. The main reason, I think, wasn’t a dearth of interest in Crosby, but that all of the venue’s advertising billed the band simply as “CPR.” No one knew that the C stood for Crosby!

******************* 

It’s been a tough, rough couple of weeks for the Old Grey Cat, punctuated by a few moments of feverish glory.

Lucinda Williams in Philly 6/26 was one such moment. Backed by a crack band, she played just about every song from her brand-spanking new album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road (it’s great; buy it), as well as classics from her past. She hit the stage a little past 10 p.m. and played ’til 12:30. No breaks. Backed by a killer band, she played acoustic guitar for the first half, then switched to electric guitar. With Bo Ramsey on electric and slide guitar, Jim Lauderdale (who opened for her, too) on acoustic rhythm and Kenny Vaughn on lead guitar, it was – no joke – a massive, near-overwhelming sound.

Kenny Vaughn and Bo dueled during “Joy,” stretching that song to what must have been 10 minutes. Time stopped there, on the delta of the blues, what with Lucinda’s distinctive vocals wavering from orgasmic moans (“Right in Time”) to out-right bitterness (the aforementioned “Joy”) – and often in the same song.

I mention the above to let folks know: I’m not just into the David Crosby’s music. I step back often and listen to what might best be called “American music.” Not the generic rock ‘n’ roll you hear on the corporate-run stations that plague the nation, but music like Lucinda’s that caresses the soul.

And music like CPR’s.

After a very engaging opening set by Anastasia & John that sent the Cat scurrying to the lobby to purchase their lone CD, David Crosby, Jeff Pevar, James Raymond and company hit the stage. “Thank you for coming,” intoned  David. “Without you we’d be playing to an empty house.”

The magic I talked about in my reviews of their two CDs? It was present from the get-go, with a rendition of “Morrison” that actually improved upon the studio version. Hard to do? Maybe, maybe not. Live music is better, after all. Up next was a delicate, harmony-laden “In My Dreams.” “Three or four voices fading in and out of a radio station …” and guess what? Those “three or four” voices are right there, up on stage. With Pevar and Raymond, one does in fact forget about Crosby’s erstwhile partners Stills, Nash and Young – CPR is that good. A jazzy, uptempo version of the “perverted” “Triad” came next, and while I think I prefer the more genteel take from Four Way Street, I have no complaints about this arrangement.  It was rather exciting to hear Croz recast an old favorite. “Thousand Roads” was another gem recast into a heavier number. To be succinct: It rocked.

Another high point: “Delta.” One of the Old Grey Cat’s favorite Crosby tunes, here it was simply. . . hell, I’ll crib from myself. I’m not proud. In my review of the Neil Young bootleg Blue Notes, I wrote: “You feed off the performer, he 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.” That about sums up the entire night, but most specifically the performance of “Delta” – and, in this case, it wasn’t just “performer” but performers, as in Crosby, Pevar and Raymond.

Jeff Pevar, aka “The Peev,” is simply phenomenal. His solos during “Delta” brought the audience to its feet. The thing about him, too, is that he’s in sync with the songs. His solos never veer into flash for flash’s sake but, instead, echo and expound the melodies with grace and warmth. Likewise, James Raymond is a true find. Forget the fact that he plays the piano with a precision and passion missing from most folks who tickle the ivories. His contributions to the set, “One for Every Moment” and “Yesterday’s Child,” easily surpass  most of the music passed off as “meaningful” in today’s rock ‘n’ roll climate. Think of him as a mix between Jackson Browne, Bruce Hornsby and … who? I can’t think of who else at the moment, but maybe that’s the point. He’s talented. A real find. David has reason to be proud.

Of course, although CPR is a band, it is David who’s out front. He’s the one who the fans come to see and he’s the one who makes or breaks the show. Have no fear, folks. Aside from the fact that he’s in excellent voice, he’s singing some of the best material of his illustrious career. Check out the driving version of “That House,” which puts into song one of his old nightmares. Or what might be considered that song’s flip side, “At the Edge”:

And it’s life and it’s dying
It’s beginnings and ends
it’s what did you do
with the life they gave you?

It’s a memorable moment in the show, because you know: The song, the sentiments, are from his heart. This music, and the emotions behind it, aren’t fantasies fabricated for radio airplay. It’s the real deal, ego, anger, lust and love rolled into one.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the crowning moment to the show: “Ohio.” Yes, that “Ohio,” by the wayward Y of CSNY. This version was electric – and I don’t just mean “plugged in.” It was hot. “Tin soldiers and Nixon coming/we’re finally on our own/this summer I hear the drumming/four dead in Ohio.” Simple lines about a complex time, when for all intents and purposes American troops were patrolling American college campuses – and for what? To quash kids exercising their freedom of speech?!

We in the audience were singing along, stamping our feet, on our feet and clapping. Don’t – I mean, don’t – miss CPR…or Lucinda, for that matter. Support great music!

set list: Morrison, In my Dreams, Triad, One for Every Moment, That House, Little Blind Fish, Homeward Through the Haze, It’s All Coming Back to Me Now, At the Edge, Delta, Rusty & Blue, Somebody Else’s Town, Thousand Roads, Yvette in English, Ohio, Deja Vu encore: Eight Miles High