Posts Tagged ‘Diane Birch’

So, at some point in the 1990s, a well-lit Barnes & Noble bookstore opened its doors not more than 10 minutes from our domicile. There were copious magazine racks, shelves upon shelves upon shelves of books, wonderful books, and – perhaps most importantly to me – a cafe where one could browse possible purchases while sipping Starbucks-branded coffee, lattes and macchiatos. Most weekends, Diane and I could be found there, she making like a power reader while I leafed through magazines and downed various double-shot concoctions.

I’m not sure if we subscribed to the New Yorker at that point in time, though I know we did for a few years that decade. It matters not whether this part of the story occurred at home, while standing at the B&N magazine racks or in the cafe, however: I spotted (in the Sept. 11th, 1995 issue) Rob Nixon’s upbeat critique of British scribe Nick Hornby’s debut novel, High Fidelity, about a music obsessive’s journey into maturity. In part, the review read (and I’m lifting this direct from Hornby’s own website), “It is rare that a book so hilarious is also so sharp about sex and manliness, memory and music. Many men and, certainly, all addictive personalities will find in these pages shadows of themselves. And most of us will hear, in Hornby’s acoustic prose, the obsessive chords of the past that more often lock up than liberate our hearts.”

It seemed like something I might like, in other words. I located the book, flipped through it and decided to buy it. In the cafe, or perhaps in the main thoroughfare to the cafe, I shared my find with Diane. On the way home, we made a quick stop at the supermarket; while I ran in to get what we needed, she stayed in the car…and began to read the book.

I didn’t get it back from her until she finished.

High Fidelity was, is and will always be one of my favorite novels. The protagonist, Rob Fleming, owns a record shop staffed by music-crazed obsessives who, like him, use music as both a defense mechanism and escape hatch from life. He sorts through the frayed ephemera of past relationships to figure out why his present is filled with far too many pops, clicks and crackles; and, along the way, comes to an unsettling realization: A person’s taste in music doesn’t reflect anything but their taste in music.

In any event, I recognized the characters from a lifetime spent in musty-and-dusty record shops as well as, for a few years, managing the CD departments at two video-rental (and much cleaner) stores. They were my people, essentially; I traded tapes with customers, debated trivial matters with others, and – like Rob and his pals/employees – made tons of lists. On these shores, or at least in my circle, they were Top 10s as opposed to the book’s use of Top 5s, but that was it. Diane, a fellow music obsessive, was the same. A few years later, when I launched the original Old Grey Cat website, we even created a page that honored High Fidelity’s Top 5 concept (and I still honor it with my too-frequent Top 5 posts).

Five years later, the book was turned into a movie and Americanized, with John Cusack shepherding and protecting his emotions through music while figuring out how and why he’d made a mess of his life. We saw it in the theaters and, though we had our quibbles, liked it. A lot.

All of which leads to this: Earlier this year, I discovered that a High Fidelity TV series was set to premiere on Hulu. The dearth of originality in Hollywood has resulted in more trash than gems, so my initial reaction was to shrug it off. Why remake a semi-classic film? Then I read that the creative team had changed Rob from a guy to Zoë Kravitz and London/Chicago to Brooklyn. That the daughter of Lisa Bonet, who appeared in the film, stars in it made me feel old, but also clued me that the TV series was aiming for something more than a straight remake.

In the short term, it didn’t much matter: We were re-watching one of Diane’s favorite shows, The West Wing, anyway, and then we re-watched Homicide: Life on the Street, following it with Sex, Chips & Rock ’n’ Roll and other assorted older shows and movies. As we do. The High Fidelity TV series fell off my radar, in other words, and remained so until I read, just a few weeks back, that it had been cancelled.

We gave it a go that same week.

Like the movie, the TV series has Rob (short for Robyn) break the fourth wall – and, in one episode, allows her friend/employee Simon (David H. Holmes) to do the same. Kravitz is terrific, as is the supporting cast – Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Cherise, especially. 

One of the biggest misconceptions about the book is that it is specific to the male experience, but its overarching themes – fear of commitment, self-sabotage and qualms about adulthood and adult responsibility – are near-universal conceits. (The truth is, men aren’t from Mars and women aren’t from Venus; we both hail from Earth – and share 99.9 percent of the same DNA.) Certain aspects of the story differ because of the gender-flip, of course, but it remains true to Hornby’s core vision. At root, the new Rob – like the old Rob – is damaged. It’s not until she begins to make the necessary repairs that she has a shot at happiness.

Now, I wish we’d watched it right off the bat – if only to add one more viewer to whatever metric Hulu uses to decide what to renew or what to cancel. (Quality certainly isn’t among the reasons they rely upon; if they did, High Fidelity would be a no-brainer to bring back,)

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Songs About Music.

1) Diane Birch – “Jukebox Johnny.” Just yesterday, the Church of Birch pastor released this addictive tune about late-night salvation found in songs.   

2) Dobie Gray – “Drift Away.” A much-covered tune about losing one’s self in a melody, this rendition – a big hit in 1973 – was itself a cover version. Written by Mentor Williams (the brother of actor/singer-songwriter Paul Williams), it was first recorded by Clarence Carter in 1970 and then John Henry Kurtz in 1972.

3) The Kinks – “Rock & Roll Fantasy.” A classic Ray Davies ode to folks who turn to music for solace – and the price they pay. “There’s a guy in my block, he lives for rock/He plays records day and night/And when he feels down, he puts some rock ‘n’ roll on/And it makes him feel alright/And when he feels the world is closing in/He turns his stereo way up high…”

3) Simon & Garfunkel – “Late in the Evening.” A Paul Simon song from his 1980 One Trick Pony album/movie, this version from S&G’s legendary 1981 Concert in Central Park is equally evocative, conveying the utter magic and mystery of music and how it colors life for the better.

5) Patti Smith – “Land/Gloria.” Turn this up loud. In 2012, Patti toured as the opening act for Neil Young and Crazy Horse – and, as this fan-shot video shows, damn near blew those warhorses off the stage. (Note I say “damn near.”) Diane and I were at this show in Philly, and totally blown away by her performance – this song, especially. (Patti has said that “Land” is a metaphor for the birth of rock ’n’ roll, but all I know is it’s great.)

It’s been a wild and wacky few weeks for me and mine, so much so that my never-ending quest for new sonic adventures has taken a backseat to comfort music – aka old favorites. That’s not to say a few new releases haven’t turned my ear, though they’re actually from old “new favorite artists” as well as a few longtime musical companions.

1) Diane Birch – “Boys on Canvas.” Dub this one the “Love Art Blues.” On Valentine’s Day, the Church of Birch’s charismatic prelate shared this messianic message, which is sure to leave listeners floating in the clouds. She noted in a Facebook post that she and producer Paul “Strangeboy” Stacey placed performance ahead of perfection – aka the Neil Young approach. Diane’s piano and vocal were recorded in one take, while Paul and his twin brother Jeremy handled bass and drums. 

2) Shelby Lynne – “Here I Am.” This song, which Shelby released a few weeks back, isn’t “new” to anyone who purchased the Here I Am soundtrack and/or DVD from Shelby’s merchandise table a few years back, but it has finally been given a wide release. The movie, too, has been re-edited and retitled When We Kill the Creators, and is playing festivals to rightful acclaim, and the songs themselves were re-mixed for a new album that’s due April 17th. The original soundtrack, for those who have it can attest, features between-song spoken interludes lifted from the film that are riveting in and of themselves; we’ll have to wait and see whether they remain on the new album. (I’ve become so accustomed to hearing them that I can’t imagine not hearing “six feet under is six feet under.”)

3) Rumer – “Bristlecone Pine.” A few weeks back, singer-songwriter Rumer released “Bristlecone Pine” from her forthcoming album, Nashville Tears, which finds her performing the songs of legendary country songwriter Hugh Prestwood. It’s like listening in on heaven, just about.

4) Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band – “Stayin’ Alive.” Bruce Springsteen released the digital-only Songs Under Cover compilation on Valentine’s Day. It features an eclectic collection of in-concert cover songs from 1975 through 2017, including this bon mot from Brisbane in 2017.

5) Nichole Wagner – “Life During Wartime.” The Texas-based singer-songwriter previews her forthcoming Dance Songs for the Apocalypse EP, which is slated to include Neil Young’s classic “Ambulance Blues,” with this tasty cover of the Talking Heads.

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

The transition to fall means that, weekday mornings, I’m on my way to work when the first glimmers of daylight seemingly push the darkness from the sky. 

“First glimmers” – that, I see now, is what I should have dubbed my “first impressions” posts. But as Diane Birch reminds us in her new single, “Wind Machine,” “Epiphanies knock around like loose change in your pocket.” They don’t mean much if one doesn’t act on them, in other words. The four-minute tune is an autumnal song, aka a slice of melancholic wonder that uses the transitional months between summer and winter as a metaphor for an end:

“November is comin’ on and the nights are getting longer/summer always deceives/little promises like the orange leaves/blowin’ in a wind machine…”

To borrow from what I wrote a few years back about the Church of Birch pastor’s Nous album, “Wind Machine” is – in many ways – Denise Levertov set to song; and if it’s a harbinger of things to come, let’s move the clock hands ahead ourselves so that DB’s new album – which was delayed due to the PledgeMusic collapse – comes out next week instead of next year. 

(The single is available via all the usual suspects, including Apple Music and Spotify.)