Posts Tagged ‘2008’

(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.)

This past week, I enjoyed just a little Shelby Lynne early in the morning; she beats a cup of coffee for starting off the day. And I’ve been enjoying her music early in the evening, too. It beats a glass of wine for winding down at night.

Let me explain: I leave for work right around 6:45am most weekdays. This time of year, that means the last vestiges of darkness give way to dawn while I drive. It’s a wondrous moment to listen to music, as – at its best – it makes you feel good things are coming your way. I should add that, unlike years past, mine is now an easy commute most morns. When I breeze through all or most of the traffic lights, which is the norm, I pull into the business campus’ parking garage in about 25 minutes. That’s not enough time for an album in full, obviously, so if I start an album in the morning, I finish it that night; and if I start one during the evening, I pick up where I left off the next day.

Now, “essential” means different things to different folks. Some apparently hear it as a synonym for “best.” I don’t. I wouldn’t rate many of my picks as the greatest works by the artists who made them, though they are all great works. They’re just records everyone should experience at least once, if not twice, if not many times.

Shelby Lynne’s 2008 collection of Dusty Springfield songs, Just a Little Lovin’, has been on repeat since Wednesday. It’s not her best album – I Am Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself or Revelation Road is that. But her voice and those old songs (and one new one) combine to create a sense of calm. Some songs are sweet, others sad, and others seductive. Some seem all three at once.

Over on her site/store, Shelby pens insightful essays about each of her records – combined, they make for something of a concise work memoir. One thing I learned from reading through them: Prior to recording Suit Yourself, her second album for Capitol, label executives recommended she record a collection of covers instead of an album of original material, as they were looking for a way to boost sales. She listened, but did her own thing (though she did include a hypnotic reading of “Rainy Night in Georgia” as a hidden/bonus track). A few years down the line, however, she decided to explore Dusty’s oeuvre.

The seed had been planted long before that label executive, apparently. At the time of its release in 1999 (U.K.) and 2000 (U.S.), critics compared her breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne to Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis; and, as a result, she sometimes received requests to sing something by the British chanteuse. Then, in 2005, she received an email from – of all people – Barry Manilow suggesting the same.

Flash forward to January 2007: Shelby set up shop with producer Phil Ramone at Capitol Studio A in the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, Cal., where she and a crack band laid down a few songs each day while accompanied by a solid cast of supporting players. Everything was recorded live. Everything was analogue.

The result is a sublime 10-song that was released the following January. The arrangements are sparser than Dusty’s, but no less emotive. This isn’t Shelby singing Dusty Karaoke, but Shelby living the lyrics. One of my favorite tracks is the Randy Newman-penned “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” (though I admit that I still hear the backup singers from Dusty’s version).

One of the 10 songs, as I noted above, is a Shelby original: “Pretend.” In some ways, it’s a bigger tribute to Dusty than the other tunes as it sounds like a Dusty original. (And speaking of sound: Just a Little Lovin’ is a true audiophile’s dream. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear you’re in the studio with Shelby and the band.)

Oh, and here’s some irony: Those Capitol executives didn’t get a chance to work this album due the Capitol-Virgin Media merger of 2007. Instead, Shelby took the project to Lost Highway. (Wikipedia has more on the album, for those interested.)

The track list:

 

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.)

There’s but three criteria that I use when selecting my “essential” recommendations. They have to be at least five years old; they have to be excellent from start to finish; and they have to be albums that I think everyone should hear, at least once. Why five years? Because, otherwise, many picks would be drawn from my current obsessions, a few of which – as the weeks morph into months – prove to be fleeting. But if it’s something I’ve returned to, time and again, over a period of years… that says something, right there, I think.

tiftmerritt_stitchoftheworldThat said, Tift Merritt’s new Stitch of the World is a tremendous effort that will more than likely be in the running for my 2017 Album(s) of the Year selections come December. 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. And if my hunch about Stitch of the World comes to pass, it won’t be the first time that the North Carolina songbird has flown to the top of my personal charts. In 2012, her heralded Traveling Alone was an honorable mention; and in 2010, thanks to a technical foul of sorts (Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul had yet to be released in the U.S.), she perched at the top with her sublime See You on the Moon, which features such wondrous tunes as “Mixtape,” “Engine to Turn” and “Feel of the World.”

I’ve returned to both albums many times in the years since their releases and, in fact, ranked See You on the Moon as her best work to date for quite some time. Yet, when I choose to listen to something by Tift now, it’s not my first pick – Another Country, my No. 2 for 2008, is that.

Following the release of her previous, Grammy Award-nominated album, Tambourine (2004), she embarked on a world tour that, from what she said in interviews promoting Another Country, left her worn-out. So she took a much-deserved break and relocated to Paris, where she rented an apartment that came with a piano. The result: an album for the ages.

As I wrote back in 2008, “It’s plaintive, yearning and hopeful, often in the same song, and reminds me of everything good from the third Flying Burrito Brothers album, the one when Rick Roberts joined the fold with the majestic ‘Colorado.’ ‘I think I will break/but I mend,’ she sings – like an Americana songbird, I should mention – on the meditative ‘Broken.’”

Another highlight: “Hopes Too High,” which sounds to my ears like an outtake from that Flying Burrito Brothers album…

The piece d’resistance, however, is what may well be the greatest epiphany-set-to-music yet written: “I Know What I’m Looking for Now.”

 

It’s that time of year: best of this, best of that, yadda, yadda, yadda. Depending on the subjects, and who writes them, such lists can be frightening, maddening or, worst of all, predictable and boring. Hopefully my contribution to the cacophony isn’t any of those.

First off, it’s not a list. It’s a top pick and a few runners-up. I lay no claim that they’re truly the “best” or perfect for everyone, as adjudicating music is – though some may be loathe to admit it – a wholly subjective process. Which new releases did I buy in the past year? Which ones did I play the most? Which one(s) could I not live without? That, in a nutshell, is the criteria I use. Highfalutin analysis, in other words, it ain’t. Breaking down meters and rhymes and obtuse lines about love, lust, war and more leaves me cold. What matters is whether the songs percolate through the heart and mind long after you’ve turned off the computer, MP3 player or stereo.

In short: “It takes you there, wherever there is.” At concerts, that means communal Raise Your Hand moments—the Boss and E-Street Band barreling into “Badlands” while you and 20,000 other fans jump to your feet, pump your fists in the air and shout the lyrics with him – and private entries to Heaven, such as the Little Diva (Maria McKee) levitating the soul with a mesmerizing “Breathe.” Recorded music, though, is a slightly different beast. Shorn of the physical presence of the artist, the music takes flight (or not) on its own accord. It’s an ethereal, magical experience, listening. You fall not for the singer, though you may be a fan, but for the songs themselves.

A case in point: my first runner-up, Duffy’s Rockferry. Its retro pop-soul sound initially caught my ear, but it stuck around due to the strength of the music. The title cut –

– has an utterly timeless feel, conjuring the likes of Procol Harum, Lulu and Petula Clark, and she sings from the heart throughout, most notably on the weepy “Warwick Avenue” and yearning “Distant Dreamer.”

Another artist whose music earns an honorable mention: jazz vocalist Melody Gardot, who slips her chanteuse soul into syllables, words and phrases with hypnotic precision on the sparse and stark Worrisome Heart. The songs are a mix of downbeat, bittersweet and romantic, and linger in the subconscious once the music’s stopped. Highlights include the ruminative title track, the sultry “Quiet Fire” and “Sweet Memory.” I hasten to add, however, that – as with each of my picks – it’s an album that should be heard in full.

On my Amazon “40 Albums That Demand Repeated Listens” list, I call the next runner-up, Rattlin’ Bones by Aussie twang queen Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson, “the best album that Gram and Emmy never made.” It recalls the Original Carter Family in spirit if not practice, and possesses a contagious hillbilly charm that’s feverish in its ferocity. (Or something like that.)

Tift Merritt’s Another Country, the final runner-up, is extraordinary. It’s plaintive, yearning and hopeful, often in the same song, and reminds me of everything good from the third Flying Burrito Brothers album, the one when Rick Roberts joined the fold with the majestic “Colorado.” “I think I will break/but I mend,” she sings – like an Americana songbird, I should mention – on the meditative “Broken.”

As with “I Know What I’m Looking for Now,” about achieving clarity of purpose, it’s one of those songs that finds you (or, at least, me) hitting repeat ad infinitum.

Juliana Hatfield’s wondrous How to Walk Away is my Album of the Year – the fourth time she’s topped my year-end charts (2005’s Made in China, 2004’s in exile deo and 2000’s Beautiful Creature being the other three). It’s a lush, hook-laden song cycle filled with melodies guaranteed to sweep away all but the hard-hearted and lyrics imbued with honesty, humor and pathos galore.

“This Lonely Love,” my Song of the Year, captures the very essence of loving an intangible – that is to say, music. That it borrows the guitar and piano riffs from in exile deo’s “It Should Have Been You” makes it all the more sweet: “I am only the song you sing,” indeed. The wistful yet poppy “Shining On,” “My Baby” (“where does love go when it goes?”) and “Now I’m Gone,” which has to be the peppiest breakup song this side of Greg Kihn’s, are additional delights. “Such a Beautiful Girl,” yet another favorite, articulates the flip side to “This Lonely Love,” honing in on a girl who “writes and dreams” in order to escape an ugly world. It’s masterful—as is the album as a whole.