Posts Tagged ‘2020’

As I write, the world has been swept into a whirlwind of worry, fear and panic previously known only within dystopian novels, movies and TV shows. A simple trip to the supermarket turns into a bumper-car battle of grocery carts for most, while for others it graduates into a fistfight over something as mundane as toilet tissue. Yet, today, a sense of calm enveloped my being thanks to Maria McKee’s first studio album in 13 years, La Vita Nuova.

The 14-song, 65-minute set conjures the operatic stylings of Life Is Sweet and High Dive, though more the latter than the former, and taps into the collective unconscious in ways that belie articulation. In some ways, “Effigy of Salt,” echoes Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

I hate the things I know
I wish I could retrace my steps
Before I went down to the sea
Where I crept along the depths
And prodded underneath
All along and far too deep

…though there’s far more packed into its four minutes than that. As with Life Is Sweet, the lyrics may seem to be stream-of-consciousness admissions of the heart and soul, but – as with Life Is Sweet – they’re well-crafted odes to the Archetypes of Life Internal and External. The title tune, for instance, finds Maria musing on her long-ago youth…

Once heady in the Pentecost
With tongues unknown and full of praise
Then one day all of that was lost
Now I’m a drone bereft of faith

It’s not quite Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (All the mirrors in the world),” yet that’s the first thing that popped into my mind when I listened to it this morning. Looking away from what O’Hara calls the “overgrown bludgeons” of his youth eases the pain, just as eyeing the other reflections at the bar enables him to brush aside what he’s become. In Maria’s case, however, she’s facing her life’s journey head-on: “Now when I face what I’ve become/I laugh into the ashen gloom.”

(That said, after only a few listens, I’m sure my interpretation is daft.)

There’s far more to unpack with La Vita Nuova. For now, however, after a day of worry and supermarket waits, I’m content to let the music wash over me, Maria’s voice to course through my veins, and for the lyrics – about life, love, youth and more – to settle into my subconscious. As a whole, it’s operatic, dramatic, poetic and, always, always, heartfelt. “However Worn,” the closing song, is proof of that. (I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about it in the weeks to come.)

The track listing:

From pandemics to politics, and the associated panics therein, there’s much going on in the world that I could comment on. By and large, however, they lead me to this line from William Shakespeare’s The Tempest: “What’s past is prologue.” Everything that was has led to what is; and we, as a collective, are responsible. (As I wrote a few years back, “it’s never us vs. them, as much as we sometimes wish it so. It’s us vs. us.”) Yet, this morning I found myself instead dwelling on matters of art instead. In the celebrity-driven daze that is the Social Media age, it’s become commonplace to confuse artists, who are as flawed as the rest of us, for their fevered imaginings.

Archibald MacLeish (1892-1982) said it best in “Ars Poetic”: “A poem should not mean/but be.” That is, its success rests on the words, rhythms and rhymes therein; it lives and breathes, figuratively speaking, on its own, divorced from its creator. The same is true, I think, for all art. What do we know of Thomas Pynchon? Must we know his life to enjoy and decipher the torrent that is Gravity’s Rainbow? Must we know of the inner demons that haunted Sandy Denny to find meaning in her songs? 

Of course not.

And, with that, here are today’s Top 5: New Music, Vol. MMXX (AKA “Ars Musica).  

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – “If I Told.” CMA announced this week that she has a new album due on June 5th. (You can order it from her site.)

2) Hazel English – “Combat.” Hazel English is an Australian-American indie pop musician based in Oakland whose songs conjure the swaying psychedelia of the mid-‘60s as well as the Paisley Underground. 

3) Emma Langford – “Sowing Acorns.” The second single from the Irish singer-songwriter’s forthcoming sophomore album is, in a word, mesmerizing. (That’s her mom, at about 12 years of age, in the picture.)

4) Maria McKee – “Let Me Forget.” It’s Maria. Need I say more?

5) Jane Willow – “Give It Time.” The Dutch-Irish singer’s latest single is unadorned – just her gorgeous voice and piano. It’s sad and hopeful at the same time.

Singer-songwriter Allison Moorer wove a spellbinding acoustic set at the Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, last night, taming a semi-raucous audience primarily there to see her husband, master singer-storyteller Hayes Carll. 

She opened with the ominous “Bad Weather” from her recent Blood album. Stripped to its core, its plaintive power was even more pronounced than on album, with the metaphoric storm clouds gathering inside the ramshackle music hall’s main room, which – in many respects – is little more than Philadelphia’s Boot & Saddle on steroids. (Speaking of steroids, Allison mentioned that both she and Hayes came down with a bad flu while on the recent Cayamo music cruise and, although over it, were both taking some form of steroid to help bolster their throats.)

“The Rock and the Hill” was stunning. Her vocals inhabited the soul, just about, much as they do in this Paste performance:

Two songs from her 1998 debut followed: “Alabama Song” and “A Soft Place to Fall.” While introducing the latter, she recalled that she first played Cat’s Cradle not long after that album’s release, when she opened for Junior Brown. She then made a self-deprecating joke about the trajectory of her career, given that – this night, at any rate – she’s still opening for somebody else. 

“Nightlight,” a song from Blood, followed. During her Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross last fall, she talked of how – at that point in time – she couldn’t get through it without tearing up. It’s a moving number about how her sister comforted her during the frightful nights of their childhoods.

“Thunderstorm/Hurricane” (from her 2015 album Down to Believing) was next. Thematically speaking, though inspired by a different life storm, it’s in sync with the Blood material – the “Bad Weather” materialized, in a sense. “Let it pour over me/Holy water make me clean/Drive and drive and I disappear/Like I was never here/Everything is washed away/A thunderstorm, a hurricane…”

Her set concluded with the soul-salving “Heal.” As I’ve said before, in another era it would have been played on the radio alongside Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be.” It’s that tremendous a song. While introducing it, Allison talked about how she thought she’d finished writing the Blood album when, a month before the sessions to record it, the song’s title came to her. She called Mary Gauthier and cajoled her into coming over to help write it and, not long thereafter, a classic song was born.  

(Obvious from my use of the Paste footage, my videos didn’t come out all that well. Allison looks like a floating fluorescent light.) 

Later, she joined husband Hayes Carll for three songs, including a very funny “None’ya” in which he “over explained” some of the lyrics. (Hayes, who we’ve seen twice before, was laugh-out-loud funny with his introductions and intra-song monologues; and his songs are flat-out brilliant. Always worth seeing with or without Allison.)

During a meet-and-greet with Hayes prior to the show, she mentioned that she’s halfway through another memoir, this one about raising her son, and that she spends about an hour writing the posts for her blog. (Given that it took me three hours to write this little review, that fact astounds me.)

Depending on how one calculates such things, I‘ve seen either 33 or 42 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees in concert. The higher of the two numbers adds members of Hall of Fame groups, such as Jerry Butler of the Impressions, plus the “Tribute to the Byrds” band fronted by Gene Clark that featured original drummer Michael Clarke and second bassist John York (I’ve also seen Roger McGuinn, Chris Hillman’s Desert Rose Band and David Crosby); I’m hesitant to include them in my official tally as it’s somewhat akin to counting chads – but, in the immortal words of Grace Slick (via “Hey Fredrick”), “Either go away or go all the way in.” So I’ll count them if only for this post.

Mind you, I never set out to see that many (or few). It just happened.

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first induction ceremony took place in early 1986 at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York. Although the evening was filmed for the HoF’s archives, HoF spokesman Robert Altshuler is quoted in this report by New York Times scribe Robert Palmer as saying, “We intentionally avoided selling film or video rights for the evening, because we are and will remain a not-for-profit endeavor.”

In its first decade, the Hall of Fame was the culmination of many a baby boomer’s dream: The counterculture was finally leaping from the pages of Rolling Stone into the mainstream. The inductees were obvious, as all hailed – due to the rule that artists only become eligible 25 years after the release of their first record – from the baby boom generation’s collective youth, teens and early twenties: Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, not to mention Ray Charles, Buddy Holly, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Byrds and Supremes. Were some major names left out? No doubt. But there’s no arguing the importance and influence of the selected icons (though I’m sure in today’s age of social-media outrage some ignorant folks would decry the “R&B” artists therein.)

In its 10th year, the ceremonies moved to TV; and, now, in its 34th year, that’s pretty much all it is – TV fodder. Some years it’s fun to watch. Some years it’s not. Nominees are decided by a select committee and the public is encouraged to vote, though that vote barely factors into the outcome, which is actually decided by about 1000 music experts. Looking at each year’s line-up, however, I’d wager that the results are tweaked more often than not. Worthy artists are honored, true, but worthy artists are also ignored. And, often, journeymen are feted as heroes simply because they’ve hung around. Nostalgia has come to count as much as importance or influence.

Who’s in and who’s not is simultaneously meaningful and meaningless, in other words. Which is why, when I hear (or read) criticisms of certain artists being included, I can’t help but roll my eyes. Does Whitney Houston belong? Biggie Smalls? Why not? From its earliest years onward, “rock and roll” has had a wide berth. Born from a jambalaya of R&B, country and jazz, rock is far more than what passes as “rock music” in today’s world. It’s been vocal groups like the Platters and rock rebels like Elvis, industrial noise like Nine Inch Nails and grunge rock like Nirvana. It’s never been a specific sound. It’s an aesthetic, an attitude. In that sense, they all pass that test. 

Are there groups I think should be in that aren’t? Of course. A slew of acts from the late ‘70s and ‘80s have been overlooked, including the Jam, Go-Go’s, Bangles, Sonic Youth and Ciccone Youth (that’s a joke, folks), as well as Hüsker Dü, Suzanne Vega, 10,000 Maniacs and [fill in the blank]. Whether any of them get in, who knows? I doubt it, myself. The cultural mantle has been passed from the baby boomers – who decried Generation X as “slackers” – to the millennials. And many millennials were weaned not on music, but video games. 

But at the end of the day, from where I sit, I don’t think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame matters all that much. It’s akin to looking to any awards show – from the Grammys to the Oscars to whatever – or record reviews to validate your tastes. It’s silly. To me, the most important Rock and Roll Hall of Fame isn’t located in Cleveland. It’s my music library – and yours.