Posts Tagged ‘2020s’

I boarded a time machine this morning: Richard Haswell’s With the Changing Light, which was released on January 4th. It’s an album that conjures the 1980s like few other new works I’ve heard in recent years. In a blink, I found myself transported from my den to a near-empty commuter train, circa February 1983, jostling its way from Philadelphia to my suburban home. I’d spent the day in town, as I sometimes did, meandering around South Street for a few hours before heading to the Ritz III to catch Piaf: The Early Years. Dusk descended into night during that ride home, the darkness punctuated by dim streetlights and TVs pulsating like multicolored stars through the windows of the passing houses and apartment buildings. Roxy Music provided the soundtrack, courtesy of my Walkman clone. I’d just discovered them.

Such is the power of the album, which – for me, at least – conjures Tangerine Dream, Simple Minds and Avalon-era Roxy Music, with a little Echo & the Bunnymen and Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure. It’s one part electronica and one part cool, with the music sure to push listeners of a certain age down the proverbial staircase of their minds to their youths. Lyrically, however, the concerns are not those of the teenager he sings about in “Dun Laoghaire 4am” (“I am 17 again/adrift in a time lapse”), but an adult taking stock of his present and past – as we all do, on occasion. The title track, for instance, delves into the doubts that plague many of us, especially at night. “The Promise,” on the other hand, is a parent’s lament, while “Lost and Found” is about an unexpected death. “Earth Citizen” is…well, you can guess that one.

All in all, it’s well worth a few listens. I recommend it.

Haswell, I should add, is an Edinburgh-based artist with 24 studio albums to his credit; prior to 2010, he went by the noms de plume of Rhubarb, G For Gnome and White Noise. With the Changing Light was primarily recorded between March and December 2020, when the world was locked down. He played most of the instruments, though saxophonist Pete Reilly, guitarist Lewis Kippen, bassist Thomas Urch and harmonica player Dave Smith provided remote assistance. 

 

The track list:

Dirty guitars grind on a bed of propulsive rhythms while operatic vocals swoop in and out, somewhat akin to Ann Wilson fronting Guns N’ Roses instead of Heart. That’s my first thought, at any rate, upon listening to Kim Logan’s tantalizing sophomore set, Shadow Work. Released in February 2020, it went the way of much new music in the early days of the pandemic, due in large part to the dearth of live shows. It’s difficult enough for artists to promote their works in the best of times, but when they can’t hit the road?

As a whole, the songs swagger, sway and skirt the clouds, but never get away from Logan and her Parisian band, the Silhouettes. A classically trained opera singer who’s performed with the Nashville Opera and Sarasota Opera, her vocals are a thing of wonder – plush when low yet razor-sharp when high. On her Facebook page, she describes her sound as “psychedelic swamp blues rock + roll soul music”; I hear it more as polished hard rock with hooks aplenty. As one example, check out “Hitch Your Wagon”:

The moody “Ghost,” another stirring track, develops much like a figure in one’s peripheral vision. Lyrically, it’s a metaphor – though I’m not sure for what. That’s not a complaint, either; you’re drawn in, all the same.

As with a few of the other songs, including “Hitch Your Wagon,” “Better Way” is an older song that Logan re-recorded with the Silhouettes. Unlike the original version, which is on YouTube, the sound is crisp, her vocals upfront and the guitars heavier. “In the sapphire blue light/violets and violence, the difference is slight/if you catch my new vibe/I’ll make you in my image and I’ll save you tonight…”

“Oedipus Wrecks” is another poetic metaphor and another standout track. Rather than share a clip of the song, however, there’s this: a behind-the-scenes look at its creation.

Logan reminds me to an extent of such operatic-minded singers as Maria McKee and Anna Calvi, but shorn of their excesses (though not eccentricities). Although hard rock is, by and large, outside of my wheelhouse, Shadow Play did roll me away from the mundane for a spell. So if you have a hankering for something new that’s best played loud, give this a whirl. (It’s available on the usual streaming sites, plus Bandcamp.)

The track list:

 

Every year about this time, we look back at the past 12 months – in the parlance of The Old Grey Cat, that’s called “Remember December.” But as the New Year nears, the past begins to fade from the rearview mirror and we focus on what matters most: the road ahead. We often vow to do this or that to improve ourselves in some fashion. In my case, for example, one goal is to shed the 10 pounds I’ve put on since the work-from-home life began in March. (Sad to say, but playing with my cat doesn’t burn as many calories as I thought.)

I also have a few resolutions as it pertains to this blog:

  1. More First Impressions. 
  2. More Essentials.
  3. More Other Stuff – aka free-standing essays about matters du-jour and long ago, generally music-related but occasionally not. In years past, I generally coupled these with my Top 5s, but… 
  4. No more Top 5s – unless they’re focused on a single artist or band, that is. The scattershot entries, while fun to create, are – historically speaking – the least popular thing I do. (In other words, sayonara to my oblique homage to High Fidelity!)
  5. Better organization. I’ve already made progress on this: Over the past few days, I’ve streamlined my many categories into ones that make sense. Now, if someone wants to use the categories to look up a specific artist or band, they’ll find relevant entries and not cursory mentions in any of my 234 (yes, you read right) Top 5 posts. (One exception: My much-ballyhooed Album of the Year Awards.) I contemplated doing the same with the individual years and just relying on decades, but…they remain for now.

I also have a few other cards up my sleeve for the New Year. Until then…

I listened to Jackson Browne’s Hold Out yesterday and again today. It’s an album I rediscovered earlier this year after a four-decade break and, in the months since, have played a fair bit. It takes me back to the summer I turned 15, when life’s complications seemed simpler than the simplicities of life today. Granted, the Iranian hostage crisis was ongoing, the economy was anemic and NHL linesman Leon Stickle’s non-call on an obvious offsides had just cost the Philadelphia Flyers their Stanley Cup dream for the season, but I was a teenager. The promise of tomorrow loomed large.

Back then, I often slipped headphones over my ears, laid on my bedroom floor and escaped into in the music emanating from my Realistic stereo system’s turntable. (The advertisement below is for the model I had, which was a Christmas gift from my parents in 1976.) The diamond/sapphire stylus danced along the record’s grooves and discerned my mood as if by magic, never failing to lift me up when sad and/or making good times better.

In 2020, however, the promise of tomorrow often seemed non-existent. Matters of life and death, and tinpot despots, turned the year into a series of vile vignettes that played on a never-ending loop. The incessant drone made writing a challenge, especially in the early going. Many posts read not as the insightful essays I intended but wordy YouTube adverts. C’est la vie. (I’m reminded of the Wallace Stevens poem “Bouquet of Roses in Sunlight,” essentially about the limits of language: “It is like a flow of meanings with no speech/And of as many meanings as of men.”) Yet, even in the bleakest of times, I delved into matters tempo, timbre and the heart with regularity: This has been the first year in which I didn’t take a weekend off.

All of which leads to this: My favorite posts of the year not about Bruce Springsteen and Neil Young. (Those are always among my best.) They’re arranged chronologically, not by preference.

1) The Essentials: Indigo Girls – Self-Titled (1/5/20). Extrapolating insights about life writ large, especially as it relates to a generational sea change, is near impossible, but this piece about the Indigo Girls does it well. As I joke in the lede, “for those of us who came of age during them, the 1980s were akin to the 1960s with the 6 closed off.” (I.e., a lot of freedom had been lost.)

2) The Essentials: Jackson Browne’s Hold Out (3/28/20). Although it suffers from a few too many embedded videos, this is a good example of what I aim for with my Essentials entries, but don’t always achieve. (Plus, it features an oblique allusion to one of my favorite works of fiction, Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms.)

3) Roberta Flack’s First Take: The 50th Anniversary Deluxe Edition – The Review (8/8/20). The much-delayed reissue, which was pushed back from its original April release date due to the pandemic, is a listening experience well worth undertaking; and I delve deep not just into the music, but its backstory.

4) First Impressions: The Wine of Youth by Zach Phillips (8/29/2020). It’s easy to lose one’s self in despair, especially during this pandemic, but Zach’s album helped me rise like a phoenix from the embers of a deep depression. Perhaps because of that, this review was – hands down – the best thing I wrote all year. 

5) Today’s Top 5: Albums AWOL from Rolling Stone’s Top 500 Albums (9/27/2020). As Paul Simon sings in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “…every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.” Every generation also recasts the past, but rarely without controversy. One example: Rolling Stone’s 2020 all-time album countdown. It ruffled some feathers, especially amongst older music fans, but – as I write in my post – “These lists are not of ‘all time,’ but of their time; they reflect the zeitgeist of the moment, and that moment is generally set by those younger than me.”

And, with that, the annual “Remember December” navel-gazing exercise, circa 2020, has come to a close. On Wednesday, I’ll share my blog-related resolutions for the coming year and then begin implementing them on January 1st.