Posts Tagged ‘2014’

Humans have lived, longed, loved, lost and loved again, forged wars and fought peace, and argued about politics familial, social and cultural, since the dawn of time. Such is the grist of poetry and song, of course, and while many lyrical laments litter the byways of history, forgotten, much has stuck around – thanks to the advent of, first, paper; second, recordings; and, last, the resonance of the works themselves. Whether they come from the pen of Wallace Stevens or piano of Carole King, or the hills of Appalachia, expressions of the heart, soul and psyche have remained constant through the ages. It’s why music, like all art, doesn’t come with an expiration date. We, as a people, live, long, love, lose and love again, and argue amongst ourselves, forever and ever. Amen.

I mentioned in my last post that I sent my niece CDs for her 21st birthday. (A few more than I intended, actually, but the prices on two were obscenely low.) Three harken back to the 1970s and the others hail from the past few years. The lines that lead from those of yore to the present are right there, to be heard.

One thing that I did, and I have no idea if it worked as intended, was to turn Amazon’s free gift cards into short notes about each album. So, for today’s Top 5: Classics, Old & New, here are the picks with my notes (and a bit extra) included.

1) Carole King – “So Far Away” from Tapestry, 1971. King, of course, is one of the all-time greats; and this album is, too. I wrote in the note, “Blue, Rickie Lee’s debut and Tapestry are stone-cold classics that have influenced many, including Diane Birch, FAK & the Staves.“ In retrospect, I should have singled out Tapestry specifically, as it was the top-selling album for 15 weeks in a row during the winter and spring of ’71. Rolling Stone rates it the No. 35 Album of All Time.

2) Joni Mitchell – “River” from Blue, 1971. I wrote: “This is rightfully considered one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time, and has influenced generations of artists. ‘River’ is amazing.” Rolling Stone rates it the No. 30 Album of All Time.

3) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love” from Rickie Lee Jones, 1979. I wrote: “Rickie Lee’s debut was and remains a stunner, building upon the blueprints laid down by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Patti Smith, among others.” I’d add: Rickie Lee radiates utter coolness on everything she does, which is why she’s the Duchess of Coolsville. (Her most recent album was one of my favorites from last year, too, for what that’s worth.)

4) Diane Birch – “Nothing but a Miracle” from Bible Belt, 2009. I wrote, borrowing an observation from my Diane: “This album, in many ways, is a modern-day Tapestry.” That’s a tad over-the-top, granted, but there’s no denying the charm of this modern-day wonder. I remember reading the review of it in Rolling Stone a month or so before its street date; it sounded like something I’d like, so I looked her up on Facebook, where she’d posted four of the songs from the album. Within a few minutes, Diane called in: “Who is that? I really like her!” We’ve been fans ever since.

5) First Aid Kit – “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold, 2014. I wrote: “This was my favorite album of 2014 – FAK are two sisters from Sweden who mine an Americana sound.” Notes, of course, can’t include hyperlinks, so I’ll include one here instead: my Albums of the Year, 2014 post.

6) The Staves – “Make It Holy” from If I Was. 2015. I wrote: “This album is a gem – my favorite from last year.” (Here’s that post.)

I wrote in a previous post that, of late, I’ve been immersed in a deep dive of the past year’s best music in order to anoint my “Album of the Year” – a highly coveted award, I hasten to add. Past winners have included Sid & Susie, Susanna Hoffs, Juliana Hatfield, Neil Young, Steve Earle, Natalie Merchant, Tift Merritt, Paul Simon and Rosanne Cash. The selection process itself is fairly straightforward: I review all that I’ve purchased; and re-listen to those I deem worthy. But now, with 2014 fading fast to black, and as I reflect yet again on all that has passed, I wonder why I bothered.

Sometimes you just know – call it love at first listen. The first notes of the first song seep from the speakers with the grace of an Audrey Hepburn or the grit of a Humphrey Bogart and, well, that’s that. Without listening to the rest, you know that this is it, the one, the set of music that will fill the soundtrack of your life not just for the foreseeable future, but for the rest of it. The way it works with me is quite simple: When the album comes to an end, I play it again. And, as Denny Laine once sang with Wings, again and again and again, after that.

I’m being a tad hyperbolic, of course. Inevitably, another album comes along – think of it as the seven-week itch. Yet, the best albums draw us back, time and again, for the rest of our lives. When I look over my Album of the Year selections, for instance, I’m amazed at how many I still play on a regular, or semi-regular, basis. Natalie Merchant’s Tigerlily, my No. 1 pick for 1995, has been in constant rotation since we saw her in concert in July. And I re-ripped my twin picks for 1985, Lone Justice’s self-titled debut and the Long Ryders’ rollicking State of Our Union, just last weekend and loaded the FLAC files onto my Pono player. They still sound remarkably fresh.

Anyway, any year that sees not one, but two Neil Young releases is a good year for music. The first, A Letter Home, was a very cool collection of covers that he recorded in Jack White’s old-time recording booth. It’s intimate, touching and slightly surreal, akin to a dispatch from the past to the present – or vice versa. The second, Storytone, features Neil, backed by an orchestra, singing from the heart. It was the lesser of the two, in my opinion, but still strong enough to be mentioned here. Call them the Fourth and Fifth Runners-up.

Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album is my No. 3 for the year. I reviewed it before, so shall not dwell on it here. However, the more I listen to it, the more I love it – and I’ve listened to it a lot. “Ladybird” is amazing.

The final runner-up: Rumer’s Into Colour, which was released in England in early November. It’s a heartfelt, at times sublime set that conjures the glorious adult pop of the ‘60s and ‘70s – think the Fifth Dimension, Dionne Warwick and the Carpenters, with a dash of Laura Nyro and TSOP tossed in for good measure. I plan to review it in-depth upon its U.S. release in February, but for now here’s “Reach Out,” one of the stand-out tracks:

And, finally, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year for 2014 should shock absolutely no one. From the moment I clicked on the YouTube video for “Cedar Lane,” which First Aid Kit posted a week or so before the release of Stay Gold, I knew. The song is familiar yet new, somewhat akin to a vintage coat purchased in a secondhand store. It’s comfortable. Stirring. Mesmerizing. The same holds true for Stay Gold as a whole.

I reviewed the album in July, so won’t do so again. But I will add this addendum to my initial thoughts: It’s grown stronger with each listen, and I’ve listened to it at least two hundred times over the past six months. In fact, my only knock against it is the same knock I have against much new music: The dynamic range is flattened out, so the highs and lows are neither high nor low. I’d love to hear them as nature intended – well, I did when I saw them at my Concert of the Year, but hopefully you know what I mean.

Other favorite concerts of 2014: the Bangles, Natalie, Neil and Jackson Browne. Stevie Wonder and Aretha Franklin were fun, too. And, with that… Happy New Year!

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These past few weeks I’ve immersed myself in alternate universes: Fringe, which I’m re-watching, and The Gilmore Girls, which is brand-new to me. One of the things that amuses me about the latter is Lorelei’s stream-of-consciousness/beat-like patter; another is Rory’s friend Lane’s music obsession. In between watching those shows, well, there’ve been the usual suspects: Covert Affairs, Homeland, The Big Bang Theory and Once Upon a Time, plus the occasional Law & Order rerun.

There’s also been plenty of music.

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Back in March, I signed on as a backer of Neil Young’s Pono Kickstarter campaign, pledging for one of the limited-edition Neil Young & Crazy Horse-branded players. “Pono,” for those who don’t know, is Hawaiian for righteous; and the player is definitely that. I wrote a rather long and convoluted post about it, but decided to nix it and start again, beginning with the description from the Pono page:

“The PonoPlayer transports you to a sublime musical experience, from the most delicate passages of a string quartet to the thunderous power of a heavy metal band. This portable audio player uses circuitry taken straight from Ayre’s own top-of-the-line products, costing tens of thousands of dollars, for unparalleled sound quality and unrivaled listening pleasure. Pono supports playback of high-fidelity audio of up to 192kHz/24 bit resolution.”

It’s an audiophile’s version of an iPod, essentially.

Now, some audiophiles will tell you that, long before the shift to MP3s and AACs, digital distilled the warmth out of music. I disagree. A well-mastered CD sounds as good to my ears as vinyl ever did. Natalie Merchant’s self-titled album from this year is a good example. The sound is warm and spacious – phenomenal, actually. But in the early days of CDs, an assortment of variables iced the sound – not all the time, mind you, but often enough. The use of production masters meant for vinyl, for one, resulted in what might best be called “mimeographed audio.” The music was faint, thin and flat, not full and well-rounded. Another variable: nth-generation masters, which – just like nth-generation cassette copies –  sported degraded sound. There are also stories (and they may well be urban legends) of record companies, in those early years, of using cassettes as the source for some CDs in their mad rush to get product out the door.

By the time that was sorted out, the early- to mid-1990s, another variable was introduced: loudness. The volume was pushed to the max in the mastering process, resulting in clipped highs and lows. Dynamic range went out the window, in other words. (See this excellent explanation on CDmasteringservices.com for more information.)

To shift gears for a second: Store-bought MP3s and AACs are generally encoded at 256kbps. That a CD is 1411kbps, consumers are told (often by one another), is beside the point. Compression algorithms ensure that we’ll hear a faithful representation of the source material. So an MP3 or AAC of a subpar track is going to sound equally lousy. Conversely, a great-sounding CD that’s been encoded into MP3s or AAC will, in many instances, sound “good enough.” Almost everyone multitasks these days, after all, and for many people the music is pushed to the background when doing so. I see it in my office, where many folks, including me, often have headphones on while focused on their work; and, at least with me, I’m often so focused that I don’t even hear the music.

But for serious listening “good enough” isn’t good enough. FLAC and the Apple lossless equivalent, ALAC, have always been the way to go. Until now.

In an A-B test pitting the PonoPlayer against my iPhone 5, using my mid-tier Logitech desktop computer speakers and standard-def FLAC and ALAC (Apple Lossless) files of Rumer’s “Dangerous,” “Sam” and “I Am Blessed” (from her new Into Colour album), Pono delivered a wider and deeper soundscape. The music is more visceral, immediate and – dare I say it? – warm; and her luscious vocals are whipped-cream rich. The same’s true when listening with my mid-tier Bose headphones. That’s due, no doubt, to the Pono’s singular focus on audio; unlike a smart phone, it need not be all things to all people.

A quick comparison to my MacBook Pro with the same files, however, reveals a negligible difference. If I wasn’t the one hitting stop and start, I likely wouldn’t have known which was which.

Where the Pono has the edge: Its ability to handle high-resolution audio. That means 24 bit and up to 192kHz vs. the iPhone’s CD-quality 16 bit/44.1kHz limitation and the MacBook’s native 24 bit/96kHz support. Theoretically speaking, the high-resolution files should be akin to the original studio masters, with no limits on the highs or lows, and no compression.

It’s been said (and proven) that humans can’t hear all the additional frequencies included in high-resolution tracks, and I am one who believes in science. But there is a difference. The deluxe Paul McCartney reissues, which I’ve religiously purchased since they began in 2010, come with 24 bit, 96kHz “unlimited” downloads in addition to the physical CDs. The opening tracks of the high-res Venus & Mars reveals a slightly richer, well-rounded sound – that’s evident via listening on my MacBook, but on the PonoPlayer they sound even better. And the same result is had when comparing the 24 bit, 192kHz version of Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Psychedelic Pill, which came with the player, to my Apple Lossless version.

Comparing the high-resolution tracks to MP3s of the same source material, however, is akin to comparing day to night. Joni Mitchell’s Blue is a sheer revelation; you hear the vibrato of the plucked guitar strings. It’s magical. And Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis conjures the smell of new vinyl.

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At present, the biggest issue I’ve had hasn’t been the player or its sound, but the PonoMusic ecosystem. The software is somewhat clunky, especially for one coming from iTunes or Windows Media Player; and the store, though well stocked of standard-resolution content, lacks much of the same high-resolution material that can be had elsewhere (HDTracks.com) – and is a tad overpriced. I expect both to change in the coming months, however, as more people sign on.

Oh, and one more thing: Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere rocks. It’s the best version of that classic (one of my Top 10 albums of all time) I’ve ever heard.

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Two nights, two concerts. One venue. On Thursday, Neil Young delivered a spellbinding acoustic show at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia. On Friday, Jackson Browne and a crack band gently rocked the same house.

On the surface, the differences couldn’t have been more stark. Neil, at 68 years of age, looks like a grizzled miner, albeit one for a heart of gold. He possesses a stage demeanor that is, in a word, gruff. He ignored the shouted requests (typical for a Philly crowd) for obscure and not-so-obscure songs from his decades-deep catalog and, at times, seemed visibly annoyed. “CSNY!” someone in the balcony yelled. “Never again,” Neil snapped. “Crazy Horse?” someone in the front row queried. “Always,” he replied.

Jackson, on the other hand, looked decades younger than his 66 years; and fended off the shouted requests with aplomb and humor, jokingly wondering if he’d selected the right songs for the setlist. At one point, as he prepared to play a song from his new album, the excellent Standing in the Breach, someone shouted out for an old song – and he swapped his guitar, huddled with the band members and then served up “Your Bright Baby Blues” from The Pretender.

Yet, appearance and stage patter aside, they share many similarities. They’re both singer-songwriters with long resumes who, at their best, craft songs that caress and/or express the heart and soul; they’re each comfortable on stage alone or with a band; and they’re passionate about defending the environment. Neil performed “Mother Earth” and the new “Who’s Gonna Stand Up (and Save the Earth)?”; and shared his disappointment with President Obama for signing off on deep-water fracking in the Gulf of Mexico. Jackson, for his part, discussed the need to save the oceans – every second breath we take is thanks to them – prior to performing the new “If I Could Be Anywhere,” a wonderful song from Standing in the Breach about a trip he made to the Galápagos Islands.

They also split their concerts into two sets.

Neil showcased a few songs from his recent, all-covers album A Letter Home and four from his forthcoming Storeytone. His setlist:

From Hank to Hendrix / On the Way Home / Only Love Can Break Your Heart / I’m Glad I Found You / Mellow My Mind / Reason to Believe / Someday / If You Could Read My Mind / Harvest / Old Man // Pocahontas / Heart of Gold / Plastic Flowers / A Man Needs a Maid / Ohio / Southern Man / Who’s Gonna Stand Up? / Mother Earth / When I Watch You Sleeping / Harvest Moon // After The Gold Rush // Thrasher

Jackson’s set featured a handful of new ones, though “The Birds of St. Marks” is actually very old – it dates to 1968. There was also, after his return from the break, a spontaneous rendition of “Happy Birthday” by the audience to him, as he’d celebrated his birthday the day before. His setlist:

The Barricades of Heaven / Looking Into You / The Long Way Around / Leaving Winslow / These Days / Shaky Town / I’m Alive / You Know the Night / Fountain of Sorrow // Rock Me on the Water / Your Bright Baby Blues / Standing in the Breach / Looking East / If I Could Be Anywhere / The Birds of St. Marks / For a Dancer / Doctor My Eyes / The Pretender / Running on Empty // Take It Easy / Our Lady of the Well

People who know me in the real world know that, when push comes to shove, Neil Young is my favorite musical artist – his music is ingrained in my DNA. Yet, as I’ve written elsewhere, the older I’ve become the more I’m drawn to the work of Jackson Browne – especially Late for the Sky, which now easily ranks in my Top 10 Albums of all time.

Since Friday night, I’ve been comparing and contrasting the two concerts in my head, and – beyond the superficial – coming up with blanks. Neil’s was, as I said at the outset, spellbinding. Jackson’s was a little less so, yet some of his songs (“Rock Me on the Water,” “Fountain of Sorrow” and “For a Dancer”) resonated deeper in my soul. Read into that what you will.