Posts Tagged ‘Depression Descent’

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.)

I saw the light on Friday night when, a little past 9pm, country singer Leslie Stevens took to the stage at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room. Before a sparse audience, she laid down an hour-long set that swayed from salvation (sans soup and soap) to silliness and back again, earning rapturous applause and, without question, winning over a few converts.

She opened with “Sinner,” the title cut to her recent LP in which she admits, “I’m not the saint you’ve been hoping for/I’m not the blessing at your door.” On album, it’s an atmospheric tour de force that conjures, to my ears, both Emmylou Harris circa Wrecking Ball and Jessie Baylin circa Little Spark. Live, with just her electric guitar and the always great Eric Heywood on steel guitar, it was as sublime. (We last saw Eric in 2017 with Tift Merritt.) “My Tears Are Wasted on You,” a lament that dates to her days with the Badgers (the band, not the squat omnivores), followed. It’s everything a great country song should be, and more.

Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” was up next – an unlikely pick, perhaps, but most welcome. “12 Feet High,” another Sinner tune, picked up the pace. On the surface, it’s an ode to certain intoxicants, but its sly humor (“Spent all night staring up at shooting stars/Didn’t even notice they were only cars”) sets up something more somber (“Oh, and darling, I’ve been frowning/Oh, and darling, I’ve been drowning/Drowning all of my sorrows/In our lost tomorrows.”) Another of the album’s highlights, “Fallin’,” lost none of its luster. Although I dislike the metaphor, her vocals are indeed like honey – they flow from light to dark, often within the same song, and more often than not set up shop somewhere in the gradients in between.

One of the sillier moments came on the kazoo-accented sing-along of “It’s Okay to Trip,” a song from the Leslie Stevens & the Badgers’ 2010 album, Roomful of Smoke. (And, yes, I said “kazoo.”) She cajoled everyone to sing, and everyone did, “it’s okay to trip, but don’t fall/it’s okay to fall, but don’t hurt yourself/it’s alright to hurt yourself, but don’t hurt nobody else/it’s okay to hurt somebody else/just say you’re sorry…” It was funny and charming – much like Leslie herself.

“Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven,” from her 2012 Donkey and the Rose album, was similarly amusing. (She noted before hand that heaven is the only place where that’s permissible because everyone’s already dead.) As someone who, going into the show, was only familiar with Sinner, the non-Sinner songs were a revelation – as was her humor. For example, also from Roomful of Smoke, “Old-Timers” is a deft portrait of love felled by a tree – literally. 

On a serious note, she prefaced “Depression, Descent” with a discussion of suicide, as she explained the song was spurred by a friend who took his life, and noted that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s a powerful, powerful song. And while the quality of my video isn’t the best, it ably captures the emotion of the performance:

The night ended with Leslie’s stirring cover of Buffy St. Marie’s version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” (She went out of her way to explain it that way.)

In short, she provided salvation through song, allowing us to momentarily escape the madness that is life in the Trump Age. The only downside to the night was the set’s brevity; it would have been nice to hear a few additional Sinner tunes, such as “Storybook,” “Sylvie” and “Teen Bride.” Here’s the non-set setlist, which veered off course somewhere along the way…

Afterwards, we had a chance to briefly meet Leslie, who was as effervescent off-stage as she is on. If you have the opportunity to see her live, do. And if you don’t, check her out on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube – and then go buy something from her website.

The end of the decade is nigh. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it until this week, but the clock’s hands are tick-tick-ticking closer to midnight. Before this annus horribilis gives way to the Year of Visual Acuity, however, listen to this:

That’s the opener to Leslie Stevens’ new album, Sinner, which as a whole conjures a century’s worth of country music in its 10 tracks, echoing everyone from Glen Campbell to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and her Spyboy band. It’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.

It’s traditional. Alternative. Unique. Her voice trembles, rises and falls, dynamic and dramatic, in sync not just with the lyrics but the soul. Some are story-songs. Others are from the heart.

Here’s a live rendition of another of the album’s highlights:

Leslie Stevens is currently on tour in the States, and thankfully isn’t bypassing my neck of the woods. You can see where she’s playing, and buy Sinner, at her website. (It’s also available via the normal streaming sites.)