Posts Tagged ‘2012’

(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.)

Last night, as is often the case, I worked late, not leaving the office until the sun was a mere hint on the horizon. Cars and trucks lumbered along the road, some with their headlamps on, others only illuminated by their running lights. The official end of summer has yet to come, but it’s done. Kids are back in school. Family vacations are done. Days are growing short.

On the ride home, I thought of days that used to be. I thought of tomorrow, and what the new day might bring. I also powered down the windows and cranked up one of my favorite albums to listen to when driving: the last thoroughly great Neil Young album, Psychedelic Pill, which I also deem to be one of the decade’s best albums. Recorded from January to March 2012, and released on October 30th of that year, it finds Neil backed by Crazy Horse, and features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.

In short, it’s nine-songs strong. (Eight, really.) Eighty-plus minutes. It burns, yearns, questions, looks back and ahead, and does so with an eye that’s at once cynical and naive.

“Driftin’ Back,” the lead-off track, clocks in at 27 minutes and change, and finds him musing about the sound quality of MP3s, meditation, religion, art, and the corrupting nature of Big Tech, among other things. (“I used to dig Picasso/Then a big tech company came along/and turned him into wallpaper.”) The stream-of-conscious nature of the lyrics is echoed by Neil’s swirling and twirling guitar, which slithers one way and then the next, all while rising and falling like the star we call the sun. It’s epic.

The concise title track follows, and echoes “Cinnamon Girl.” Lyrically, it’s about nothing less than looking for a good time – and, in a foreshadow of a song to come – getting lost in music. It’s followed by the near-17-minute “Ramada Inn,” a slice-of-life portrait of a longtime marriage in stasis. He drinks too much. She wants him to talk to old friends who gave it up. Yet they love each other. They do what they have to. Neil’s solos are both mournful and majestic, with his guitar flying out of the thick rhythms laid down by Crazy Horse only to return to the groove in time for the next verse. Rolling Stone hailed it as one of the year’s Top 5 songs.

“Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” both look back at the days that used to be. The former explores how one’s hometown stays with you wherever you may roam (“you don’t learn much/when you start to get old”); and the other digs into the joy that the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison gave him. 

“She’s Always Dancing” is the deliverance that “Psychedelic Pill” hinted at, painting a picture of a woman losing herself in the sweet cacophony of rock ’n’ roll: “She wants to dance with her body left unbound/She wants to spin, and she lives in her own world/She wants to dream like she was a little girl.” Although her age is never given, we know she’s no longer young – and yet the music, as it does for all of us, rejuvenates her. (That’s my take on it, at any rate.)

The gently haunting “For the Love of Man” hones in on a difficult question that has, no doubt, circled through the minds of many parents of differently abled children: “For the love of man/Who could understand what goes on/What is right and what is wrong/Why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh/When a child is born to live/But not like you or I.”

“Walk Like a Giant” is a thunderous, 16 1/2-minute summary of one of life’s cruelest lessons: The hopes, dreams and beliefs of youth are slowly crushed with every tick of the clock: “I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream.” That doesn’t stop us from attempting to color-correct our faded idealism, mind you. Giants lumber on. Sometimes they falter. Sometimes they don’t. But they don’t give up.

An alternate mix of the title tune closes things out in fine fashion. Who isn’t looking for a good time? Who doesn’t get lost in music?

The track list:

 

In early 2012, Juliana Hatfield was deep into her second PledgeMusic project, this one to raise funds for an all-covers album. As with her first Pledge project, she offered a variety of premiums – if you pledged a certain amount above the baseline, you could get original artwork, autographed memorabilia or even a cover song of your choice. The latter would have been the best, but she was asking $1000; a tad too much for my budget. I opted for the much more reasonable $20 premium, “20 Questions.” It was exactly what you think: you e-mailed 20 questions to her and she e-mailed you back with her answers.

It was so much fun that I did it again; the bulk of that Q&A fueled Juliana Hatfield’s Bed, Unmade.

These 20 are a mix from both sets (though mostly the first).

Is white chocolate your favorite drug?

Yes! (Often, when I say “you” in a song I mean “I,” like in much of “Sunshine,” and often, when I say “I” in a song, I mean “you.”) Although I have recently really cut down on the sugar, almost completely—I was/am kind of a sugar addict and I realized it was dragging me down.

What are your go-to albums, i.e. the ones you’ve returned to over and over again throughout your listening life?

Really, just all the classics that wouldn’t surprise you—stuff that stands the test of time and isn’t dated like a lot of other stuff: Neil Young, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, stuff like that.

What was the first 45 or LP you purchased with your own money?

It might have been Soap Opera by the Kinks. I don’t remember the details, but I remember loving that album and listening to it tons and singing along with my best friend, Robin.

Which of your albums/songs do you consider your best (and why)?

I think there are good moments on every record but i think that none of them is great all the way through. I feel I haven’t made my best album yet—it will be down the road.

You almost named “There’s Always Another Girl” after a phrase from John Irving’s “The World According to Garp,” “Speeches Delivered to Animals and Plants.” What are some of your favorite books/novels and have they (ever) influenced your songs?

Sometimes books get into songs—phrases, titles, ideas, characters—but I think more often it is films that work their way in. “Mabel” is all about the character of Mabel from “A Woman Under the Influence” and “Vagabond” from There’s Always Another Girl is named after the French film Vagabond—and the song is all about the film, about the girl in the film, a very haunting film.

When you’re on tour promoting a new album or just doing a one-off show, how do you decide on the set list?

Oh, God, the set list-writing is always a shambles. I have no system and no organizing principle and It’s always a stressful half-hour before the show when I sit down and think, “Shit, what the heck are we gonna play, and what first, and then what, and then what? How do I make it flow?? What do I do???” And it’s kind of a nightmare and I never get it right. I think that what I need to do is spend a long time, pre-tour, creating a perfectly conceived and constructed set list and then just do it every night—the same list—so I don’t have to waste all that time and energy worrying and stressing about it right before I go on, when I am already nervous about everything else anyway.

I remember reading on your (old) blog about your participation at a Bruce Springsteen tribute concert. Are you a fan of his?

I really haven’t ever heard an album of his from start to finish. I would say I’m really only familiar with the radio songs. Honestly, I never really connected with him on a deep level, but then again I might just be ignorant of a lot of his music, so i can’t really say I have a super-informed opinion. The tribute concert just seemed like such a fun thing that I couldn’t pass it up, and I chose to do one of his radio hits (“Cover Me”).

“Rats in the Attic” from “Made in China” has a very distinctive Neil Young & Crazy Horse vibe to my ears. Was that intentional or just a happy accident?

Just accident. Of course, I love Crazy Horse, but I never set about to do anything in particular or to take from anywhere specific—I try to do my own thing and not let influences be consciously manifested or contemplated.

My wife Diane and I saw you at the World Café Live in Philadelphia with Evan Dando in early 2011. Wonderful concert. Have you two given any thought to doing a duet album together? (If not, you really should.)

I think that would be really fun. If we can get our schedules together maybe it will happen. We haven’t had a lot of luck writing together so we might have to do an album of cover song duets.

julianawhenigrowupWhat led you to write When I Grow Up?

I always wanted to try and write a book, to see if it could be done, and I couldn’t think of a story idea, so I just wrote a tour diary, and then later I added the bits about things on the past, to give the tour diary some context.

In the book and on your old blog you wrote quite openly about some of the issues (depression, anorexia) you’ve faced in your life. Very brave thing to do. Did you have any doubts about doing so?

Naw, not really—I just went ahead and did it, like I always do. It is only later that I had doubts. Now I wonder why I did it and I am kind of embarrassed that I wrote about all that.

Why did you take down your old blog?

I don’t remember. I guess I like to have control of what goes out into the world. I had it up for a while and then I felt done with it, so I took it down so it wouldn’t keep being reprinted and redistributed after its time, after it felt relevant to me.

In your book you write about liking Olivia Newton-John as a kid. If you were to cover one of her songs, which would it be?

I don’t think I could do any of her songs. I thought about [it] for this covers album, but nothing feels authentic when I try to do it. She had such a sweet voice and a personality and could bring to life songs that I wouldn’t be able to bring to life. And some of her songs are really goofy.

My wife and I are huge animal lovers – though we’ve always had cats, not dogs. How have your animal companions improved your life?

My dogs keep me humble. And they get me out of the house. They live honesty and directness; they don’t play games—they let me know what they want and need, when they want and need it. And patience—they will wait and wait without complaining. And gratidude—they are grateful for everything. And they live in the moment, each moment, and they don’t ever hold any grudges. Plus, they keep me warm on cold winter nights when they sleep on my bed.

You opted out of the major-label world in the ‘90s. In retrospect, would you make the same decision again?

i don’t have any regrets, no

MP3s, CDs or vinyl?

CDs

How do you find new music?

People tell me about things and I read about things and I hear about things. Only a few weeks ago I was reading the Sunday New York Times and someone was talking about liking an album by the National. It made me curious about the National. I know—well, I know now—that they’ve been around for at least 10 years, but I’d never heard their music. But this little thing in the Times made me go and research the band (listening to snippets on iTunes) and now I am a fan.

Which up-and-coming singers do you like?

I am sort of out-of-the-loop. Nothing is coming to mind. Is that weird? I keep discovering old singers that are new to me.

I recently found myself in a conversation with someone who insisted that the illegal downloading of music only hurt the record companies. “The artists make most of their money from touring,” he argued. Please respond.

It’s not true in my case—I don’t draw big crowds. It’s actually really hard for me to make any money on tour unless I tour by myself, with no band and no more than a one-person crew (a guy who does sound and tour manages. I thank God I found someone who can do both important jobs really well at the same time (saves money not having to pay two separate people to do the two jobs). I have gone on the road with absolutely no crew (to maximize my earning potential) and I can tell you that it’s really not fun at all, or healthy having to do everything by myself—all the driving, moving/loading equipment in and out, trying to get paid at the end of the night, getting directions and planning to get to each venue on time, booking hotels in each city, counting and setting up T-shirts/CDs, doing interviews, patiently and gratefully talking to and signing multiple things for all the fans who want it (this takes up precious time which I could alternatively be using to take care of all the other multiple things that endlessly need taking care of when you are the talent, the tour manager, the roadie, etc. etc.), not to mention playing the gig without a band or anyone to back me up. etc. I’m not complaining, I’m just saying that your source is wrong/misinformed/ignorant/brainwashed. Some people (Madonna, Radiohead, and many more lesser-known artists who are not me but who draw better than I do) make tons on the road but I don’t make much playing live, when you take into account all the expenses of bringing a band on the road (renting van/bus, tolls, parking, gas, airplane tickets, paying everyone decently, hotels, per diems, etc. etc. etc.). Since i own most of my masters, post-Atlantic records, and I am paid directly for any purchases of my music, I think my job/life would be easier if everyone who downloaded any of my music paid for it. If they did, I could tour more—I would have more money with which to go on the road properly and slightly comfortably—and if I were a bit more comfortable on the road I would be happier and healthier and I would play better and I would play/go on the road more often. But I do have to say that it is impossible to calculate how many people have been turned on to my music for the first time via illegal/unpaid download. It is good to win new fans, but it does seem that not many new fans are coming out to my shows, so I don’t know how much all the unpaid music is benefiting me.

What advice would you give to an aspiring young rock musician?

Don’t be afraid to say no, often!

It’s the end of the year, a time reserved for revelry, reflection and projection. We count our blessings, damn our misfortunes and, regardless of our station in life, hope for better times ahead – encapsulated, in a sense, by Bruce Springsteen in “Badlands”: “Poor man wanna be rich/rich man want to be king/and a king ain’t satisfied/’til he rules everything.”

In the entertainment arena, of course, the highs and lows of the past 12 months are recapitulated in oft-thoughtful (and sometimes snide) essays by writers who assume their pontifications are the end-all, be-all, of whatever subjects are at hand. I’m not one of them. When it comes to music, there is too much to hear in any given year to anoint one singular sensation as the absolute “best.” Add to that this: my picks are based on what I’ve purchased, and those purchases are filtered by my age and prejudices. I’m closer to 50 than 40 – decidedly middle-aged. Modern country, heavy metal and hip hop are but a few of the genres that I ignore; I’m sure there are good/great acts in each of them, mind you, as Rolling Stone and Mojo both lavish acclaim on some. But they’re not for me. No, a new Neil Young album is guaranteed to get more play on my iPod than just about anything else.

Note how I calibrated that last sentence with the inclusion of “just about.” In almost any other year Psychedelic Pill, the second of two Neil and Crazy Horse releases this year, would easily top my “best of” list. It features everything I love most about rock music: dreamlike melodies pushed, pulled and mangled by thunderous rhythms and winding guitar solos. The opening salvo, the 27-minute “Driftin’ Back,” is utterly hypnotic. And the bittersweet, near 17-minute “Walk Like a Giant” is mesmerizing. Young may not be, technically speaking, the world’s greatest guitar player, but he wrenches more emotion from it than anyone else.

But it’s not my No. 1. Instead, my 2012 Album of the Year honors go to another of my long-term musical pals, Susanna Hoffs of the Bangles. Months after its release, her Someday album remains a sparkling gem. The single “Picture Me” is an utter joy – a perfect pop song. I won’t repeat everything I wrote when I reviewed the album in July, but instead will simply say that, a la Dusty in Memphis, it’s a timeless affair that will (or should) be discovered and re-discovered time and again by future generations.

Bruce Springsteen’s recession-minded Wrecking Ball comes in at No. 3, due primarily to a loving nudge from my wife Diane; Rumer’s sophomore set Boys Don’t Cry arrives at No. 4 (displaced from No. 3 as a result of said nudge); and my No. 5 represents one of my (few) regrets for the year – The Lion’s Roar by First Aid Kit, a Swedish sister duo whose harmonies are a wonder to behold. They played Philly the night after Bruce & the E Street Band’s two-show stint at the Wells Fargo Center in March and I decided it wouldn’t be the best time to see them – the memories of the nights before would overwhelm such sublime songs as “Emmylou,” “Blue” and “To a Poet.” That was my theory, at any rate, but I’ve been kicking myself ever since.

Honorable mentions abound: Bat for Lashes’ The Haunted Man, an atmospheric outing accented by the mesmerizing “Laura”; Jessie Baylin’s artful Little Spark, which I reviewed back upon its release; the Chromatics’ Kill for Love – check out their version of Neil’s “Into the Black”; First Aid Kit’s iTunes Session, which features a phenomenal version of Patti Smith’s “Dancing Barefoot” plus the way cool original “Wolf”; Alicia Keys’ Girl on Fire (docked several notches due to the inclusion of a Nicki Minaj rap on the title track); Tift Merrit’s Traveling Alone; and Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Americana.

On the local front, Josh Harris’ Places I’ve Been hits the sweet spot between pop and rock. Like that other Josh, Josh Rouse, he ably balances a retro-’70s vibe with a thoroughly modern, lyrical outlook on life.

“We’re not that old,” my wife Diane said to me. “We’re not!”

Thus was her first, most visceral reaction to the Jackson Browne concert we saw at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia last month. We’d arrived 20 minutes before show time, picked up our tickets from Will Call and navigated to our seats, two faces amongst a sea of middle-aged and – dare I say it? – old people. Many had gray hair, others sheer white. A few men wore the stereotypical jumpsuits of the shuffleboard-set. Even more sported canes.

Though the show was billed as a “solo acoustic” outing when I bought the tickets, it turned out to be Browne and a sparse band whose members included opening act Sara Watkins. (He explained that he made the change just prior to hitting the road.) Highlights of the 18-song set, for me at least, were the three songs he performed from his classic Late for the Sky album, including the title track, “Fountain of Sorrow” and “The Late Show”; “The Pretender”; “A Child in These Hills”; an impromptu rendition of the Temptations’ “My Girl” (!); a slowed-down “Running on Empty”; and the closing “Take It Easy,” the Eagles hit he co-wrote with Glenn Frey and recorded himself on his For Everyman album.

Of course, anyone who knows rock ‘n’ roll history – or listens to Classic Rock radio – is aware that those songs hail from the 1970s. Browne’s eponymous debut (often called Saturate Before Using) came out in 1972; For Everyman in 1973; Late for the Sky in 1974; The Pretender in 1976; and Running on Empty in 1977. So a 30-year-old fan in 1974 would be 68 now. And while my wife and I aren’t that old, the fact remains that we are – dare I admit it? – decidedly middle-aged.

Now, in the scheme of things, there are far heavier things to confront and contemplate. That goes without saying. But it’s still disconcerting to attend a show, look around and realize that, as at the Bob Seger show Diane and I saw last December, the only young people in attendance are in the company of their parents. Or that a new artist – like Rumer – whose music you’re enamored with is singing to a room full of people your age, not hers.

It seems like just last month that I was walking across the quad at PCS while Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes” wafted on the wind around me. That would have been 1974, a year before my family moved to Hatboro – we lived in Saudi Arabia at the time, and my brother and I attended a Western school, the Parents Cooperative School in Jeddah, with other expat children. (I plan to write about some of those experiences in future posts.) Music was a known entity to me by then, but I was 9 – a few years shy of my music-obsessiveness kicking in. Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” was my idea of a good time.

In 1978, when I began making my weekly pilgrimages to the Hatboro Music Shop, one of the first 45s I bought was a re-issue of “Doctor My Eyes” that had “Rock Me on the Water” on its flipside. And over the next few years, courtesy of both the Hatboro Music Shop and RCA Music Club, I picked up his first three albums and Running on Empty. I’d be lying if I said I loved them. Lyrically speaking, Browne deals with subjects – love, disillusionment and death among them – that were beyond me at that point in my life. Yet there was a song or two on each of those albums that led me to buy the next, regardless, and through the years – and decades – I came to treasure the heartfelt insight of the songs I once dismissed. Has there been a more elegiac song about loss than “For a Dancer”?

Which leads me back to the start, Diane and I amidst a sea of aging men and women who’ve lived the experiences Browne sings about. Perhaps that’s why a younger crowd didn’t turn out that evening. His songs don’t speak to them. Yet.

Or maybe I’m fooling myself.