Posts Tagged ‘2020’

After a long-term relationship came to an end, Courtney Marie Andrews did what many an artist before her has done: Turned her grief (though that may be the wrong word) into the grist of song. The resulting 10-track album explores the love lost not with bitterness, but kindness and grace, and an embrace of what she and her ex forged during their years together. In the plaintive “Guilty,” for example, she sings that “Painful, love is painful/but I am thankful for/the time we shared.” And in “Together or Alone,” she confesses that “Now I’m the kind of person/who acts how I feel/and for a moment in time/I know what we had was real.”

I wrote in-depth about “It Must Be Someone Else’s Fault” in June, so won’t delve deep into it here – beyond to say it’s a tremendous tune about taking responsibility for what befalls us.

Such recognition doesn’t alleviate the heartache and heartbreak, of course; in some respects, it just makes the pain radiate all the more. It’s far easier to blaze hate for the other, to blame him or her for everything that went wrong than to face the fact that, just like falling in love, falling out of love happens – sometimes for reasons that belie logic, other times not. In the title track, for instance, she confesses that “I don’t see you that way/not the way I did before,” while also asserting “I’m not your object to break” and “you can’t hurt me that way/not the way you did before.”

She also delves into the delicate dance that is moving on. In the aforementioned “Guilty,” she finds herself thinking of her ex while with another man; and in “If I Told,” she describes herself to a date with absolute clarity: “I am a loner, I am stubborn” before questioning whether he can handle the world she lives in.

Sonically speaking, Andrew Sarlo’s production is as uncluttered and intimate as the songs themselves, with the space left between notes essentially an additional instrument. In “Guilty,” for instance, when she arrives at the final lines, “I cannot give my love to you/when I’m guilty,” you all but hear a tear streaking down her cheek.

Often, such as with the hypnotic “Carnival Dream,” the songs build bit by bit, with the drums kicking in until they approximate a heart pounding louder with every beat. It’s mesmerizing, akin to a fever dream, and finds Courtney, by song’s end, repeating “Will I ever let love in?/I may never let love in” again and again like a mantra while the music – and intensity – swells high like the ocean tide at night. 

Even an old stoic such as myself finds himself submerged in the emotion of the song cycle. “How You Get Hurt” should stop even the most hard-hearted in their tracks.

In another era, Courtney Marie Andrews would already be name-checked alongside Jackson, Joni and the other stalwarts of the ‘70s singer-songwriter crowd. That said, Old Flowers is rightfully being heralded for its honesty in exploring – to borrow a phrase from Wallace Stevens – the “ghostlier demarcations” of life and love. It’s one of the best albums I’ve heard in years. To quote from the poet Denise Levertov’s “Another Spring,” which is about death literal and metaphoric, “I am speaking of living/of moving from one moment into/the next, and into the/one after, breathing/death in the spring air, knowing/air also means/music to sing to.” 

Five years is a lifetime in the music biz, especially for an artist who’s still in the process of becoming. From what I’ve read, Lianne La Havas was annoyed with label interference on her first two long players, so after doing the dutiful promotion chores – press and tour – for her 2015 album, Bloom, she planned to record a follow-up to right the wrongs. As she explained to Go London earlier this year, “I knew then that I wanted the title to be my own name. The last album, I love it, I’m very proud of it, but there were aspects of it that I would have done differently. That spurred me on.”

Unfortunately, life interfered. It took until last year for either the creative energies to reawaken or, more likely, for her to feel confident enough to share the songs with the world. She told The Line of Best Fit that the album was recorded in the last half of 2019 after inspiration struck, with an early-take approach in vogue. “A lot of what you hear on the album was the first day or the first take. I learnt that you lose something if you try and make it too neat.” 

The resulting songs are breezy and low-key on the surface, yet each possesses a strong undertow sure to draw you in. The lead-off track “Bittersweet,” about the end stage of a relationship, is a good example. Sonically speaking, the album reminds me of Neneh Cherry’s jazz-inflected sophomore set, Homebrew (1992), which followed the brash Raw Like Sushi (1989), plus Alicia KeysHere (2016), which was a break from her previous polished productions, not to mention many a Neil Young album, as “feel” triumphs again and again (and again).

“Paper Thin” is another example. The languid groove proves potent, while the lyrics delve into a life lesson that’s easy to say but difficult to live: “Love yourself/Or else you can’t love no one else/I know your pain is real/But you won’t let it heal…”

 The silky smooth “Read My Mind,” about the first blush of love (and lust), is another delight. (It’s reminiscent, in a good way, of Janet Jackson’s “Spending Time With You” from her criminally underrated Damita Jo album.)

On the Nonesuch page for the album, Lianne says that “[t]his is my first completely self-produced album with my own band. I got my own way with everything—all the decisions that you hear on this album were mine. I’m a woman now, so I’m less shy and timid about saying certain things. And there’s no right or wrong when it’s your record, so I was very much embracing that fact, as well.” She’s also quoted as saying, “I’ve tapped into the best and worst parts of me and while I didn’t expect this to be the direction of my new music, it’s my reality and it’s driven by emotion. I dare say that this is the closest I’ve gotten to a pure expression so far. If you’d never heard me before, I’d be happy to say,  ‘This is me. This is who I am.’”

If this is who Lianne La Havas is, well, wow. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another five years for her next set.

On July 12, 2014, aka six years ago today as I write, I launched this blog on wordpress.com with a review of a Natalie Merchant concert. It followed a two-post flirtation with another blog-hosting service; occasional missives on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch from February 2012 through June 2014; and, from 1997 to 2006, the original Old Grey Cat website. (I delve into those halcyon days here.)

Visitors and views have increased every year since 2014 and, no doubt due to the pandemic keeping folks home and bored, exploded these past few months. 

For those who have recently stumbled upon this blog: As the tagline up above indicates, it celebrates music, shares memories and digs into other stuff – such as TV shows, movies, history and even, on occasion, the spacetime and multiverse theories. I don’t subscribe to the notion that art exists in a vacuum; once it enters the world, it takes on a life of its own, with the viewer’s or listener’s own experiences adding to or subtracting from its power and beauty. That’s why I often expand the lens to include reflections on my life past and present.

I’m also not in the shut-up-and-sing camp; I sometimes share oblique (and not-so-oblique) commentaries on topics d’jour. However, since studies show that most folks confronted with facts that contradict their opinions tend to double down, I usually don’t see the point. (That said, the science is in: If you venture out, wear a mask.)

My most popular posts tend to be ones about Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Natalie Merchant and Juliana Hatfield, but I write about far more than just them. I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes, a product of my time but not a prisoner of it – especially when it comes to music. I like to look back and relive the glory days as much as the next old(er) guy or gal, but also thrive on digging into the new. In the weeks ahead, for example, I plan to write about new releases from Lianne La Havas, Courtney Marie Andrews and Natalie Duncan, celebrate the 50th anniversary re-issue of Roberta Flack’s First Take, relive John Mellencamp and Springsteen shows from 1992, and spotlight another Gladys Knight LP in my ongoing Essentials series.

I may or may not write about the new Margo Price album, That’s How Rumors Get Started. I’ve listened to it a few times since Friday, but don’t think I have anything unique to say about it beyond this: To my ears, it sounds more like a ‘70s-era singer-songwriter LP than a 2020 country set (and that’s not a knock). The powerful “Hey Child” would have fit on a Fleetwood Mac or Jackson Browne album, for instance, and the same holds true for the other songs.

From what I gather, aside from Pandora’s all-algorithmic approach, the streaming platforms rely on a mix of machine learning and human touch to “curate” their playlists, which – to an extent – replicate the radio experience. Unlike radio, however, one can skip songs and essentially see into the future, as all picks are visible. There’s also, obviously, no deejay sharing tidbits about the artists or local happenings. If one likes a specific track, a click leads to the artist’s individual page, where individual songs, albums and “essential” playlists can be had.

That’s likely not news to anyone but me, mind you. Although I’ve subscribed to Apple Music for a few years now, and checked out Spotify from time to time before that, the notion of automated music discovery leaves me cold; and my few experiments with it haven’t changed my opinion. Last year, for instance, I played around with Pandora for a spell and found its output lacking. It didn’t ring my bell. Likewise, YouTube’s stack of related content based on the video being watched often misses the mark.

As a result, I generally listen to songs and albums that I’ve added to either my Apple Music library or, using the Vox app, the folder that holds my CD-quality and high-resolution files, which are a mix of CD rips and digital downloads. The music itself is discovered the old-fashioned way: from reviews, articles and fellow music fans. This morning, though, out of curiosity I clicked on Apple Music’s “For You” page for the first time and listened to my personalized “New Music Mix.”

The 25 songs ranged from the old school (David Gilmour, whose new song “Yes, I Have Ghosts” is quite compelling)…

…to a lot of Americana and folk. Some songs, such as “Some Do” by Deau Eyes and “Two Characters in Search of a Country Song” by the Country Westerns, connected. Most did not.

Deau Eyes, as I soon discovered, is the stage name for Ali Thibodeau, a Richmond-based singer-songwriter who has apparently worked every odd job under the sun (and then some); her nine-song album, Let It Leave, features high-energy rockers, moody delights and an acoustic gem, “Parallel Time.”

The Country Westerns, on the other hand, echo the Long Ryders, Bottle Rockets and Replacements, among others. I cranked their self-titled debut album earlier this afternoon. It’s raw and ragged, a raucous cacophony. (Which is to say, as Diane chimed in, “they’re really good.”)

Listening to both albums back-to-back, however, made me yearn for the streaming services to up their game. In the not-so-distant past, after we brought home an album or CD, we dropped it onto the turntable or into the CD tray, and then drifted away on the melodies that spilled from the speakers. We’d glance at the album jacket a time or two, flip through the CD booklet, checking out the lyrics and production credits, and then look things over again and again…

As a result, we knew who wrote what, who played on what, etc. Why can’t the same be true today? Couldn’t there be a pop-up window that features the album jacket (front and back), and enables us to check out the inner sleeve or booklet? Although I (obviously) still buy albums on vinyl and CD, my hunch is that most – especially younger – folks do not. Why not give them a chance to experience, albeit in virtual form, what was, is and should always be a part of music discovery?

And speaking of discovery… here’s a track that wasn’t on my “New Music Mix” but should have been: “Can’t Fight” by Lianne La Havas. It’s the latest single from what’s sure to be one of the year’s top albums, which is due out July 17th. (Her last album, Blood, was one of the runners-up in 2015 for my much-ballyhooed – by me, at any rate – Album of the Year award.)