Posts Tagged ‘Becky Warren’

’Tis the season for making lists and checking them twice, and determining which album is the Old Grey Cat’s ballyhooed Album of the Year. The honor, which is celebrating its 40th year this year, came about late in 1978 due to my dream of becoming a rock critic (yeah, I know: crazy!), and continued through the decades because…well, why not? Over that span, it’s chronicled the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes.

It is a decidedly personal affair, in other words. In years past, and on the updated tally I post early each year, I explain the process thusly: “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.”

But in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, “that statement is no longer operative.” In the age of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, no one needs to actually purchase an album to enjoy it. Just about every new release can be had for the price of one CD a month (aka the subscription fee) or the willingness to put up with commercials. (Yet, although I don’t purchase as much as I once did, I own all the albums that made their way onto my list. How could I not?)

Also, as I wrote last year, “The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.”

Some years, I revisit all the contenders. This year? There was no need. They are albums that I’ve turned to time and again since their releases, and have never grown tired of. That said, there were a few surprises: Although I thoroughly loved First Aid Kit’s Ruins and Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, as the year wore on I found myself listening to them less and less often. I’m sure it had more to do with me, and the headspace I found myself in, than the music. I deem them two of my three “honorable mentions” for the year. Mikaela Davis’ Delivery is my third.

And, with that… 

Juliana Hatfield’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is my Album of the Year. 

I got chills when she announced the project – as Hopelessly Devoted to Liv – during her concert with Wesley Stace at the Ardmore Music Hall in October 2017, and those chills were multiplying after she sang “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Physical.” (Just as an aside, Stace suggested that she call the album JH Sings ONJ, as the title conjures such cover sets from yesteryear as The Hollies Sing Dylan. It obviously stuck.) 

In my review, I noted that the set is, in some ways, an extension of the moving “Wonder Why” from her 2017 Pussycat LP, “in which she sought refuge from the madness of the present via the memories of her childhood. These songs, for her and us, are a similar escape into the past. They conjure another time and place, and also pay homage to a singer (and sometime songwriter) who, in that long-ago era, created a safe room where many of us dwelled on occasion.”

FYI: It’s the sixth time that Juliana has nabbed my year-end honors.

The first runner-up: the Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone. In my review, I said that the songs “feature taut rhythms and lyrics that strive for something more than the rudimentary reflections that make up much of today’s mainstream music. They’re metaphysical musings of the highest order.”

Paul Weller co-wrote that Stone Foundation track, “Next Time Around.” His own release this year, True Meanings, is the latest classic in his own oeuvre, and is my second runner-up. Due to offline events, this blog was placed into a holding pattern around the time of the album’s release, so I never reviewed it. But make no mistake: It’s one of his best. 

The third runner-up: Shelby Lynne’s Here I Am, which features her songs (and some poetic snippets of dialogue) from her movie of the same name. Originally available only on vinyl, it’s now out on CD (via Shelby’s online store). The songs are as mesmerizing as her performance in the film.  

The fourth runner-up: Erin O’Dowd, whose debut album, Old Town, took up residence in my heart and head way back in May, and provided much-needed sustenance on a long road trip Diane and I took in September. In my First Impressions piece on it, I said that the songs sent “my spirits soaring higher than the beautiful May morn.”

The fifth and final runner-up: Becky Warren’s Undesirable, which is an album-long treatise on America’s unofficial caste system. As I wrote in this piece, it’s akin to a series of short stories set to song. It’ll draw you in, make you think, and make you tap your feet.

How I never heard of singer-songwriter Becky Warren before Sunday, well, I can only wonder. But, thanks to a tweet from No Depression promoting a review of her second album, Undesirable, here I am.

It’s a little too soon for me weigh in on the album itself, as I mull over music, contemplating, cogitating and ruminating about it before committing my thoughts to print. That said, don’t wait for my take: Buy the CD, download the files, add the tracks to your Apple Music or Spotify libraries, or play it via YouTube – which is a review in and of itself, I suppose.  

I will say that the only disagreement I have with that No Depression critique is when writer David McPherson describes Warren by saying “[p]icture the love child of Neil Young and Lucinda Williams.” I’d have referenced Bruce Springsteen and Shelby Lynne instead, and left out the love child reference, as – for me, at least – the phrase conjures Diana Ross and the Supremes. (And, too, it seems a tad unfair to her actual parents.)

So, instead of delving into the notes and words of Undesirable, I thought I’d share a few videos alongside what I’ve learned of Warren’s story, primarily from summaries in No Depression (2012) and the Bluegrass Situation (2017): The Atlanta native’s musical journey began in 1991 when, likely as a tween or young teen, she acquired a guitar; the first songs she learned were by her musical heroes, the Indigo Girls; and, 13 years later, no less than the Indigo Girls’ Amy Ray liked the debut album by the Great Unknowns, her band, enough to release it on her Daemon Records label. 

By that point, unfortunately, the band members were drifting apart (while remaining friends) due to life’s demands. Also, in 2005, Warren married her boyfriend, a soldier who deployed to Iraq not long after their wedding. Like too many of that generation, he returned home with PTSD; every war injury impacts more than the soldier him- or herself, of course, and such was the case in this instance. The marriage didn’t last, but did inform the songs she wrote for the Great Unknowns’ second album, Homefront, which was released in early 2012.

Fast-forward a few years and, inspired by a 2012 stint with a Johnny Mercer Foundation Songwriting Project workshop, she turned her and her ex-husband’s story (and the stories of others in similar situations) into the subject of her 2016 solo debut, War Surplus.

Undesirable, which was released earlier this month, is another thematic effort, this time tackling the stories of those on the fringes of society. After a few listens, I can say this with authority: It is as well-written as anything I’ve heard all year. In some ways, it’s a collection of short stories set to song.

And, finally, here’s Becky’s appearance on “Dust of Daylight’s Nashville Front Porch Sessions,” which features her singing three songs: