Posts Tagged ‘2020’

Years long ago, when newspapers were a thing, I routinely read the “Family Circus” comic strip, though it was, at least during the week, more of a one-panel oval. Created by Bill Keane in 1960, it focused on a family with four children – and a ghost called “Not Me.” Whenever a kid caused a catastrophe of some kind, the stern mom or dad would ask who was responsible. The kid, in turn, would shrug his or her shoulders while “Not Me” zoomed out of the room. 

I can’t help but think of it when listening to Courtney Marie Andrews’ “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault,” the latest teaser track from her forthcoming Old Flowers album. The song artfully puts into words a common response to life’s heartaches, heartbreaks and hardships – blaming everyone but ourselves for what’s come to pass:

Oh, but it must be someone else’s fault
Must be someone else’s heart who tainted mine
No, I cannot be to blame for the story of this pain
Oh, it must be someone else’s fault…

On Instagram, she explained that the song is “rooted in taking ownership of our own story and pain. I wrote this in Washington state one spring afternoon, and the message was something I’d tried to put to song for a long time.”

She also notes that “[t]he video embodies the power of sisterhood, and our ancestral trauma through the power of movement. Through these movements, I hope to embody the strength of our lineage, and overcome this old pain.” It may sound silly to dance the generational blues away, but the study of epigenetics demonstrates that trauma, while not ingrained into our DNA per se, is indeed passed down via familial lines. (See this BBC Future article for more.) There’s long been a debate about whether nature or nurture is the predominate influence on who we, as individuals, are; in truth, it’s a bit of both and, either/or, it matters less than self-awareness feeding self-actualization. To paraphrase one of my favorite soliloquies from Joan of Arcadia, we’re responsible for everything we touch and for everything that touches us.

All that science-minded philosophizing aside, “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” is a captivating country-inflected tune that features Courtney’s vocal prowess in full flower. Play it once and you’ll play it twice, then five more times. It’s a great song that, as Courtney’s songs often do, echoes the ages.

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.

British singer-songwriter Lucy Rose released two new songs, “Question It All” and “White Car,” today; they’re moody and impressionistic, akin to Marie Bracquemond paintings set to stirring melodies. They’re hypnotic, in other words. (They’re also the first two tracks she has released that she plays drums on.) Definitely check them out.

In the emailed announcement, she explains that she recorded them late last year and  planned to release them around the time of her London show at the Barbican in December. She explains: “But at the time something didn’t feel quite right about releasing them. I was still very much in the No Words Left mindset and I worried that because the songs lyrically didn’t spell out exactly how I was feeling; they were more ambiguous, almost disguising my feelings, that meant they weren’t good. I was in an intense period of time musically singing the songs from the last album that sort of punched me in the stomach when I heard and played them and these two songs didn’t make me feel the same.

“It was only while in lockdown that I revisited these two new songs and I heard them in a completely different way. The fact that they weren’t so on the nose lyrically, the abstract quality of the music really helped me escape my own thoughts and I enjoyed them as pieces of music. I felt connected to them musically and lyrically, it’s almost like a whole different meaning came to life.”

That’s not all, however. Lucy also decided to create a video for “Question It All”…and asked fans to submit videos of what they’ve been doing to pass the time during these stay-at-home days…and, thus, my Tyler the Cat makes his music video debut at the 28-second mark; and our friend Rhonda’s portrait of him is now available for the world to see.

How cool is that?

The b-side, “White Car,” is also worth checking out. Close your eyes while it plays and you’ll see an equally cool video, guaranteed.