Posts Tagged ‘2020s’

It’s a damp and dreary day in the Triangle, cool but not cold, with the lousy weather stretching up the east coast to our old stomping grounds outside of Philadelphia. The main difference: It’s chillier there.

I’m listening to Melody Gardot’s Sunset in the Blue for the third time today, after playing it over and over again on Friday and Saturday; that it distracted me from Bruce Springsteen’s Letter to You speaks volumes. Simply put, it’s a sumptuous set that possesses a narcotic-like effect, providing needed relief from the craziness that’s inhabited the U.S. this past month. (Most presidential election cycles are tense times, but toss in a pandemic and this one has been nuts.) Her smoky alto massages the soul like a kneading cat, just about; and when her vocals lighten a few shades, they’re akin to a rainbow cresting the sky. To say that Sunset in the Blue is already in the running for my much-ballyhooed Album of the Year honors would be stating the obvious, I suppose.

As I mentioned long ago, I discovered Ms. Gardot while investigating Peggy Lee CDs on Amazon; Worrisome Heart appeared at the bottom of one of the pages in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” section. (I’d seen her name prior, in Philly-area concert listings, as she’s a Philly/South Jersey girl and had been playing local clubs, including the Tin Angel, for a few years. In retrospect, I wish I’d checked her out then.) Thanks to my Amazon order history, I actually know the specific date I ordered the CD: July 15th, 2008.

At its best, as the title track demonstrates, it’s a smoldering, hypnotic set in the mode of Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee; at its worst, it’s still very good.

My One and Only Thrill, released the following April, follows the same basic approach, but expands upon it, incorporating orchestral flourishes. We saw her in concert shortly thereafter and, wow. Just wow. As I wrote in my concert summary, it was like stepping into a film noir. (There used to be a video from that show on YouTube, but it’s disappeared.)

Her 2012 set, The Absence, explores the space between notes, allowing the music to breathe in a way that’s rare in today’s world. My favorite track from that sterling album, however, hails from the deluxe edition: her rendition of Edith Piaf’s “La Vie en Rose,” which she recorded for a French TV commercial. To say that it’s “tres bon” is an understatement.

Currency of Man, released in 2015, is an excellent album through and through – one of my favorites of that year, in fact. It’s also a stylistic departure, sporting a taut R&B groove that’s best exemplified by the lead single, “Preacherman.”

Live, the songs still took on a different flavor, punchier than on album and, when appropriate, expanding into propulsive jazz workouts that incorporated elements of The Absence and My One and Only Thrill. She shared the stage with her band, as opposed to fronting it, exploring riffs and leading the audience to rapture again and again. “Morning Sun” was stunning.

Watching that “Morning Sun” clip, however, is somewhat bittersweet. In the pre-pandemic age, one would expect Melody to hit the road to promote Sunset in the Blue, with the songs essentially morphing into new entities on stage. Now? At least in the U.S., I don’t see that happening for at least a year, if not two. (And when it does happen, the issue will be whether she comes to my neck of the woods….)

Melody Gardot’s Sunset in the Blue finds the soft hues of the chanteuse’s heart lilting like a leaf lifted from the ground by a gentle breeze on an autumn afternoon. In many respects, it conjures her 2009 breakthrough, the classic My One and Only Thrill, in sound and style, with deft orchestral touches underscoring her emotive vocals. The main reason for the similarity: she’s again working with that set’s production team – Grammy Award-winning producer Larry Klein, arranger/composer Vince Mendoza and engineer Al Schmitt. Yet Sunset in the Blue is no mere retread; the album incorporates the life and musical lessons she’s learned in the years since.

As evidenced by “If You Love Me,” the leadoff track, the space between notes is on full display throughout; she never rushes a phrase, preferring to hang back and, a la that leaf I mentioned above, ride the wind. Actually, now that I think about it, that metaphor is off: Her vocals are akin to a hawk gliding high in the sky until it spots prey, when it swoops low, talons out. She plucks us from the ground again and again, in other words, though we’re never left bloody. (Maybe that’s not the best metaphor, either.) Anyway, “C’est Magnifique,” which features Portuguese singer António Zambujo, is another example of what I mean.

The languid pace of the album is accented by similar, sumptuous melodies and rhythms; it’s like listening to a lush dreamscape, just about, and one you won’t want to wake from. Nine of the 13 tracks are originals co-written by Melody, though one of those – the duet with Sting, “Little Something” – is only available on the physical release, though it can be streamed from YouTube. (Which means, since my vinyl isn’t slated to be delivered until January, I’m stuck without it for the time being.)

Of the four covers: “Love Song,” written by Lesley Duncan, hails from Elton John’s 1970 Tumbleweed Connection LP, “You Won’t Forget Me,” by Richard Spielman and Kermit Goell, was first performed by Helen Merrill in 1956 (though it’s probably best known, these days, for Carly Simon’s rendition from her underrated 1997 Film Noir album); “Moon River” is, of course, the classic Henry Mancini/Johnny Mercer song from Breakfast at Tiffany’s; and “I Fall in Love Too Easily,” by Sammy Cahn and Julie Styne, was first sung by Frank Sinatra in the 1945 musical Anchors Aweigh. Each, as one might expect, is luscious and wondrous in Melody’s hands. 

I’ll sidestep everything else I planned to write, as – honestly – words alone can’t quantify the beauty inherent in Sunset in the Blue. My wife says she hears hints of Billie Holiday within some songs; that may be so, but most of all I hear Melody, her heart and her soul. The music stops time for me in a way few other releases have this year.

The track list:

 

Death has been much on the mind of near everyone these past seven months. How could it not? As a result, although recorded pre-pandemic, the new album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Letters to You, is in sync with the zeitgeist of the moment. The ghosts of lost friends haunt some of the 12 tracks, while Springsteen contemplates his mortality on others. He also rejoices in the days that used to be via three cast-off songs of yore. As a whole, the album explores the same basic themes that accented last year’s Western Stars LP and Western Stars movie, but trades the pop gloss for the glorious cacophony that is rock ’n’ roll.

“One Minute You’re Here,” the first song, is not raucous, however, but a stark rumination about the dark clouds gathered in his soul: “I thought I knew just who I was/And what I’d do, but I was wrong/One minute you’re here/Next minute you’re gone.” It’s not a sentiment unique to him, of course, yet those of us who long ago grabbed our tickets and suitcases and boarded his train to the land of hope and dreams may well hear ourselves in the lyrics.

The first single, “Letter to You,” ups the tempo, with electric guitars and an organ rising, falling and rising again like waves in rough water. Bruce has said the song is directed to us, his fans, but it matters not, really. It’s just a great song. His oft-used locomotive and religious metaphors continue with “Burnin’ Train,” with the band barreling down the long twin silver line.

“Janey Needs a Shooter,” one of the cast-off songs mentioned above, is next; like the other two, “If I Was the Priest” and “Song for Orphans”, it dates to the early 1970s and sports a tangible Bob Dylan vibe. (It was reworked as “Jeannie Needs a Shooter” by Warren Zevon and Bruce for Zevon’s 1979 Bad Luck Streak at a Dancing School album.)

There are other sonic ghosts, too. “Last Man Standing” finds Bruce recalling his first band, the Castiles. The initial song written for what became this album, it was influenced by the passing of former Castiles bandmate George Theiss and the realization that he was the last group member alive. (Though, best I can tell, there are a few short-term members still walking.) In spots, at least to my ears, it conjures the Drifters’ “On Broadway” – especially when Jake Clemons takes a sax solo.

In similar fashion, the piano intro to “House of a Thousand Guitars” conjures another song: “Arthur’s Theme (Best That You Can Do).” (Listen to both back to back for proof.) That said, it’s a great song about the salvation inherent in rock ’n’ roll: “So wake and shake off your troubles my friend/We’ll go where the music never ends/From the stadiums to the small town bars/We’ll light up the house of a thousand guitars…”

“Ghosts,” the second single, is yet another killer track from the album, this one also inspired by the passing of Theiss: “I hear the sound of your guitar/Comin’ from the mystic far/Stone and the gravel in your voice/Come in my dreams and I rejoice….” Another ghost rises from the grooves by song’s end: the late Michael Been, as the outro conjures the Call’s “When the Walls Came Down.”

Sonically speaking, the E Street Band sounds huge; to borrow Bruce’s penchant for train metaphors, they’re often like a mammoth locomotive rolling faster and faster down the tracks, except that when they need to stop, they stop on a dime. There’s also something of a Neil Young and Crazy Horse ethos throughout, as it was primarily recorded live in the studio with minimal (if any) overdubs. As a result, the result marries Born to Run’s Wall of Sound (in this case, a tsunami of guitars) with Darkness on the Edge of Town’s straight-ahead attack. It’s real, it’s raw, it’s rock ’n’ roll. It cleanses the soul.

I’ve been enjoying a slow-mo Fringe binge over the past few weeks, indulging the sensory perceptions with one or two episodes most afternoons. For those who’ve never experienced the inventive sci-fi thriller, which first aired on Fox from 2008 to 2013, it integrated such things as spacetime, parallel universes and odd phenomena into its storylines. In the largest sense, a small FBI unit is tasked with investigating so-called “fringe” events, but as Season 1 progresses the puzzle begins to reveal a very complex picture.

I discovered it during the summer of 2010, not long after Season 2 had concluded. Back then, OnDemand and online resources weren’t what they are now, but I managed to work my way through the first 43 episodes before Season 3 premiered. Nowadays, however, the entire series can be found on IMDb TV – with commercials, unfortunately. (While it’s a standalone streaming service, IMDb TV is also available via Amazon.)

Of course, one reason I have time to indulge in my Fringe binge is that my evening “commute” consists of about 10 steps from here, my desk in the den, to the living room. Diane and I have played it extremely safe since the pandemic began, venturing out only to get the mail, to visit a doctor or dentist, to pick up groceries via curbside pickup, or – now that fall’s upon us – a walk around the neighborhood. Occasionally, a friend of Diane’s will stop by, but masks and social distancing are mandatory. On a nice day, they sit on our balcony; on a lousy day, they sit inside, but with the windows open.

I miss going into the office, of interacting with colleagues face to face as opposed to via Zoom. I even miss the ride to and fro’ work, believe it or not, and listening to music via my car’s speakers. Certain songs are just meant to be played while on the road.

I also miss our weekend excursions to B&N, restaurants and, heaven knows, concerts. On the last point: On Thursday, I woke to a dream fragment – Diane and I walking out of a venue located on the third level of the Willow Grove Park Mall. (For those who know the mall, my imaginary club was located between the Bloomingdales and mall entrances.) We’d just seen a band called, I think, Reconsider Baby – after the Elvis song.

Earlier in the week, we listened to the Elvis channel on SiriusXM for a bit; it must have been one of the songs we heard, but I can’t say for sure.

That all leads to to this: The COVID-19 cluster at the White House is a metaphor for President Trump’s response to the pandemic. Even a lay person such as myself knows that rapid tests, while valuable tools, are flawed; that the White House apparently did not is incomprehensible. This Nature article from a few weeks back, for example, explains that, while a positive result is almost always accurate, a “negative” result doesn’t mean what it seems. A person in the earliest stages of infection is likely not to be detected; it’s why wearing masks, as annoying as they are, is important. When the White House relied on a rapid test to screen attendees for an overcrowded and mask-less event in the Rose Garden, the odds were good that an infected person would spread the coronavirus to others.

If Trump and his team remain in charge, my fear is that America won’t return to a semblance of normalcy anytime soon; instead, the odds are good they’ll bungle the rollout of a COVID vaccine. From where I sit, his response to the pandemic isn’t all that different than President Carter’s handling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, not to mention the economic and energy difficulties that accented life in America during his term. Incompetence breeds incompetence.

As my Fringe binge (hopefully) demonstrates, however, I go out of my way to focus on things beyond the pandemic and politics; I’d encourage everyone reading this to do the same, if only for reasons of mental health. For me, music also is important: During my workday, especially in the morning, I listen to new and old favorites. Today, a Sunday, was no different – I pressed play on the Stone Foundation’s latest album yet again…

…then flashed back to the ‘80s for a spell with the Singular Adventures of the Style Council.