Posts Tagged ‘Allison Moorer’

The best music reflects the audience as much as the artist; we hear and feel our own life’s highs and lows in the lyrics and melodies. Hardship and happiness are singular yet communal experiences, in other words. Everyone encounters each along the way, though the where and when may differ. Life unfolds like a maze, after all. Though no two journeys are the same, at some point everyone treads down a rocky path that turns into a dead end – just as everyone eventually, at least for a time, finds their way. We do it again and again, over and over, until, at last, the maze comes to an end.

Years end, too. 

Which leads to this: On New Year’s Eve of 1978, the year when the music bug bit me, I scrawled “Wings – London Town” on a piece of looseleaf paper I titled “Best Album of the Year” (or words to that effect) that I then slipped into one of the drawers of my desk – the same desk, in fact, that I’m writing on now. With every passing year, another album or albums were added to said paper. In time, I transferred the burgeoning list to typing paper, then entered it into our first computer, then saved it to a floppy disc and, in the late 2000s, moved it lock, stock and barrel to an external hard drive. I now have it stored in the Cloud. 

(Heirs beware: There’s a lot of digital junk in my digital drawers.) 

The selection process, then and now, remains the same. As I explained in a Facebook post way back in 2010 that I’ve since moved to this blog: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.” (I’d amend that ever-so-slightly now. The explosion of streaming music has caused the need to spend money moot, but time is the new currency. And few of us have a lot of that to spend.)

Bruce Springsteen’s Western Stars bowled me over upon its June release. It marries an art form I adore – the “adult pop” sound of the 1960s – with Bruce’s well-honed songcraft, which this time out features a slew of recognizable characters finding their way through life. As I wrote in my review, it “spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (‘There but for the grace of God go I,’ in other words.)”

It’s such a tremendous album that, honestly, I’ve assumed it would be my Album of the Year since I first heard it.

But it’s not. It’s my No. 2.

No, my top album of the year is Allison Moorer’s Blood, the companion album to her poetic (and highly recommended) memoir of the same name. As I concluded in my review, it’s “a soulful treatise that resonates like few albums I’ve heard this year, let alone this decade. It’s a personal journey through pain and darkness that shares universal truths about life, love and forgiveness. Don’t miss experiencing it.”

Not all of the year was given over to darkness, however. The 3×4 compilation, which found the Bangles, Three O’Clock, Rain Parade and Dream Syndicate tripping back to the mid-‘80s and the Paisley Underground via vibrant renditions of each other’s songs, was and is pure joy set to vinyl. As I said in my review, “the music was utterly of its time – and, I’d argue, timeless.” It’s my No. 3.

Coming in at No. 4: Kelsey Waldon’s White Noise/White Lines. To cop a few lines from my review, it “mines the earthen strains of country music that mainstream Nashville, too often these days, ignores. It’s not the country-pop played on the radio, but the country-punk once played in the honky-tonks. It’s raw and ragged, real. Black soot courses through its veins.”

And, finally, my fifth favorite album of the year is Leslie Stevens’ Sinner, a set that both conjures and transcends the Cosmic American Music of Gram Parsons. To borrow from my review, “[i]t’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.”

(There were many other albums that caught my ear throughout the year and, I’m sure, in the weeks and months to come I’ll regret not singling a few out here. Feel free to peruse my First Impressions of them.)

Tonight, the streets outside our home will be littered with limousines and Town Cars as nominees, presenters and industry bigwigs arrive at the Old Grey Cat’s annual, and much ballyhooed, Album of the Year shindig. Select music artists and assorted others will walk the red carpet (and UNC Tar Heels welcome mat), pose for photographers, and field questions from reporters covering the event.

As is customary, after weeks of spirited deliberations, each member of the awards committee submitted their top pick for the past year via a web form, with the tabulated results printed out, folded over and placed sight unseen into an envelope that was then hermetically sealed and dropped in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch. No one, and I mean no one, knows the contents of said envelope. No one, that is, except for the evening’s host, the great seer, soothsayer, and sage, Catnac the Magnificent.

But before that Big Reveal, there’s this: Song of the Year. 

It is not a new addition to the fete, but an occasional one, and generally relegated to a single mention during the main awards summary. This year, however, due to the strength of several songs, the committee has deigned to break it out into a separate “teaser” post.

The “committee,” of course, is me, JGG. As I’ve said before, and will likely say again in tomorrow’s Album of the Year post, I am who I am: a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes and a whimsical sense of humor that, some days, only my wife and cat appreciate. In my estimation, and to switch to serious mode, music lifts us when sad, calms us when mad, makes bad times manageable and good times even better. My picks come from what I’ve either purchased or added to my Apple Music library, which is packed with longtime favorites and albums discovered through reviews.

And with that out of the way, here’s today’s Top 5: Remember November – Songs of the Year, 2019.

1) In another era, Allison Moorer’s hymn-like “Heal” (from her Blood album) would have sat atop the charts for weeks on end, been played on the radio alongside Simon & Garfunkel’s “Bridge Over Troubled Water” and the Beatles’ “Let It Be,” and – as those two songs – covered by Aretha Franklin. It’s that powerful. It’s that perfect. Soul-salving set to song, it’s a soaring – yet restrained – prayer for inner peace. It’s my Song of the Year.

2) In some respects, Bruce Springsteen’s “Hello Sunshine” follows a similar thematic blueprint. As I wrote upon its release back in May, “it’s a masterful treatise on melancholia and depression” that describes Bruce’s “desire to step from the shadows and stand in the sunshine.” 

3) Kelsey Waldon’s “Kentucky, 1988” (from her White Noise/White Lines album), on the other hand, is less a treatise and more a celebration of roots. Kelsey may have been born of “two imperfect people” and weathered tough times as a kid, but that doesn’t stop her from looking back with wonder.   

4) The Three O’Clock – “Tell Me When It’s Over.” Not to tip my hand, but the 3×4 project was one of my favorite albums of the year – and how could it not be? The Three O’Clock’s rendition of this Dream Syndicate song tosses me through spacetime like few other tunes… as does the album as a whole. (That said, the unofficial video itself is best listened to, not watched.)

5) Juliana Hatfield – “Lost Ship.” Released way back in January, Juliana’s Weird album was a damn good outing and this moody track, with its mercurial guitar break, remains – for me, at least – its piece de resistance. It takes me places.

It’s easy to look back in anger, but long-held acrimony plumbs the depths of the soul only to rise into view like a wave from the seemingly calm sea. It’s unexpected and sometimes all-consuming, and sometimes grows into a tsunami that endangers everything and everyone in its path, including ourselves. And when or if it recedes, we tend to sidestep blame, pointing elsewhere to explain away our actions.

We take that anger from long ago, in other words, and unconsciously direct it elsewhere.

Learning to accept that which we cannot change, of embracing empathy and forgiveness not just for those who transgressed against us but for how we processed it, that’s not so easy. Yet it’s necessary in order to move on.

To that end, Allison Moorer’s latest album, Blood, is a compelling companion piece to her just-released memoir of the same name. In both, she delves into the tragedy that shaped her and her sister Shelby Lynne’s lives. Their parents had a volatile marriage due to their father’s heavy drinking and violent rages, which culminated one August morning in 1986 when he murdered their mother, from whom he was estranged, before taking his own life.

The 10 songs that make up the album explore the family dynamics that led to the tragedy, as well as its lingering impact. “Bad Weather,” the opening track, portends what’s to come in the song cycle, with long-ago storm clouds hovering over her in the present. “Cold Cold Earth” – which she first recorded years ago – then offers a journalistic account of the storm in question. As she summarizes in the last line, “such a sad, sad story, such a sad, sad world.” 

“Nightlight” revisits a memory that defines the madness from a child’s perspective, engendering sadness while simultaneously explaining her bond with her sister, who provided comfort in dark times; in a way, it’s the flip side to Shelby’s “I’ll Hold Your Head” on Revelation Road: “Lying here together in the dark/You might not think I feel your heart/I promise you I do, it’ll always be us two/you’re my nightlight/you’re my nightlight.”

The taut “The Rock and the Hill” then slides behind her mother’s eyes:

The two songs that follow, “I’m the One to Blame,” and “Set My Soul Free,” are set from the perspective of her father, an aspiring songwriter whose talent didn’t match his dreams. The former features lyrics he wrote long before his demons got the best of him (Shelby added the music after his death), yet in some ways they foreshadow the tragedy to come: “Only time will tell/How we’ll get along/Love is not the same/once the trust is gone.” The latter returns to the August morning in question, when bitterness from a lifetime’s disappointments led him to do the unthinkable: “I can’t stand to see the sun shine one more time/without her, without her.”

From that point on, the song cycle veers to Allison coming to grips with the psychic scars that incident left her with. In “The Ties That Bind,” she asks of her father’s legacy, “Why do I carry what isn’t mine? Can I take the good and leave the rest behind? Can I let go and watch it all unwind/Can I untie the ties that bind?” “All I Wanted (Thanks Anyway)” moves past those rhetorical questions and faces the one thing she wanted that he never gave, his love, and the things he gave (“your phrases and your fists”) that no one would want. 

The touching title track tackles her adult bond with Shelby – “you don’t have to explain/I’ve got your blood running through my veins” – before closing with a snippet of “Side by Side,” the same American Songbook tune that Shelby closed “I’ll Hold Your Head” with.  

“Heal,” the final song, is both an epiphany and a plea set to song. Co-written with Mary Gauthier, it recognizes that to step from the darkness one needs to consciously choose to walk into the light. “Help me lay my weapons down/Help me give the love I feel/Help me hold myself with kindness/And help me heal.”

In short, Blood is a soulful treatise that resonates like few albums I’ve heard this year, let alone this decade. It’s a personal journey through pain and darkness that shares universal truths about life, love and forgiveness. Don’t miss experiencing it.

 

It’s early Sunday morn as I write, and Roberta Flack is killing me softly with her songs. My trusty Tribit headphones cover my ears, and – though Bluetooth capable – are plugged into my Macbook Pro via an M-Audio Micro DAC. It’s a plug-in sound card that, as the picture shows, is just a tad larger than a thumb drive, and enables me to listen to 24-bit, 192-kHz music files in all their glory without first copying said files to my Pono player. 

A MacBook Pro can output 24/96 through its headphone jack, of course, by switching the settings in the MIDI utility, and the sound quality is quite good for both high-res files and the Neil Young Archives, which streams up to 24/192. But this $100 Micro DAC improves the sound, be it through my headphones or solid Logitech Z623 THX-certified 2.1 computer speakers.

I should mention that, a few summers back, I stopped using the Pono player on a regular basis. It overheated once, then twice, and then a few more times during the summers of ’16 and ’17 while I was out and about, and then, while listening in our den one hot-and-humid afternoon, it didn’t just overheat, but fried the 128g micro-SD card inside. (I made the “mistake” of listening while charging.) By that point, however, I’d already grown tired not just of adding and subtracting files from my micro-SD cards, but of toting two gadgets around.

Around the same time, I decided to give Apple Music a go. While there was a drop-off in quality, there wasn’t a drop-off in what – to me, at least – is the most important factor when it comes to music: emotional quotient. And, truthfully, what I hear via my iPhone or MacBook Pro is better than what I enjoyed via the Realistic stereo system my parents gifted me with for Christmas ’77  and the Realistic cassette deck I installed in my little brown Chevette in ‘85, to say nothing of staticky AM radio. All things are relative, in other words. Sometimes “good enough” is enough.

Yet, when at my desk and in the mood, I often fire up the Vox app and play some of the high-res files I collected from 2014 through early ’17 – or just stream from the NYA site. How to enjoy that music to its fullest? While there are many options, some of which are rather pricey, for me right now it’s the M-Audio Micro DAC. It gets the job done.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Sunday, 9/1/19. 

1) Roberta Flack – “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” A few years back, Diane and I watched Killing Me Softly: The Roberta Flack Story, a one-hour documentary about Roberta’s ascent to stardom, on (I think) Amazon Prime. For me, it was something of a revelation – I picked up a few of her albums from the Pono Store in the weeks that followed. This, her rendition of the Simon & Garfunkel classic (found on her 1971 Quiet Fire album), is just mesmerizing. 

2) Simon & Garfunkel – “American Tune.” One of Paul Simon’s greatest songs, from his 1973 There Goes Rhymin’ Simon album, was given the Simon & Garfunkel treatment during their now-legendary 1981 Central Park concert. The lyrics are as appropriate now as they were in ‘73: “And I don’t know a soul who’s not been battered/I don’t have a friend who feels at ease/I don’t know a dream that’s not been shattered/or driven to its knees/But it’s all right, it’s all right/We’ve lived so well so long/Still, when I think of the road/we’re traveling on/I wonder what went wrong/I can’t help it, I wonder what went wrong.”

3) Courtney Marie Andrews & Deer Tick – “You’re the One That I Want.” Speaking of duets… and to lighten the mood… there’s this clip of a Grease cover, which I just discovered last night. Trust me when I say, “It’s electrifying!”

4) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Downtown Train.” Speaking of Courtney, she’s part of the forthcoming collection of Tom Waits songs, Come on Up to the House, which also includes Shelby Lynne and Allison Moorer, Rosanne Cash, Iris DeMent, Phoebe Bridgers and Patty Griffin, among others.

5) Allison Moorer – “The Rock and the Hill.” One album I’m anticipating is Allison Moorer’s Blood, which will be released alongside her memoir of the same name in late October. If this tasty track is any indication, it’s going to be flat-out great. (If you’re so inclined, head over to Allison’s website and pre-order both it and the book. And then check out her online journal, which is always an interesting read.)

And one bonus…

6) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – “Milky Way.” Another album I’m looking forward to is Colorado, which is also due out in October. It features Neil backed by a reconstituted Crazy Horse (with Nils Lofgren on guitar in place of Frank “Poncho” Sampredo). This, the first single, is both stirring and subdued at once.