Posts Tagged ‘Essentials’

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Released on April 1st, 1987, Suzanne Vega’s second album, Solitude Standing, is a near-perfect gem that time has yet to – and will likely never – tarnish. Its poetic power is matched by mesmerizing melodies with perfect arrangements. 

The opener, “Tom’s Diner,” is one highlight.

The first time I heard the song wasn’t on the album, however, but via a Fast Folk LP a year or two earlier while deejaying the Folk Show on WPSU. It’s a different recording, but still a cappella, and still a richly detailed portrait of an everyday occurrence – catching coffee inside a diner before heading to work. “There’s a woman/on the outside/looking inside/does she see me?/No she does not/really see me/cause she sees her own refection.” It captures humanity at its essence.

The song became an unlikely hit a few years later after two British deejays added a Soul II Soul beat to an unauthorized remix that Vega’s record company then embraced and officially released.

The remix isn’t on the original album, however. Instead, the LP continues in the vein of the original “Tom’s Diner,” featuring a succession of vivid pictures of life internal and external. One of the most memorable is “Luka,” which reached No. 3 on the pop charts – a true surprise given its subject matter. She based it, she’s said, on a real little boy she knew, though she doubts he was abused. (And here’s some trivia: Shawn Colvin provides backing vocals on the song.)

The title tune is another brilliant turn, with Vega’s poetic lyrics equaled by the deft backing of her band, who – as with many of the album’s other songs – are credited as co-writers. (Side note: I never knew there was a video for the song until this morning. It’s quite cool.)

Along with offerings by Tracy Chapman and 10,000 Maniacs, the album helped spur the folk-rock/urban folk/singer-songwriter resurgence of the late ‘80s and early ’90s.

“Night Vision” is another favorite:

The track listing:

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

Heaven knows, she ain’t no Margaret Mitchell – and thank God for that. For the past two weeks, I’ve been in something of a Shelby Lynne frame of mind – in the run-up to her concert in “almost Philly” last week, I explored her canon; and in the afterglow of said show, I’ve continued on. There are many flat-out fantastic platters in her catalog. I Am Shelby Lynne, her breakthrough, is one. Suit Yourself, from 2005, is another, And Just a Little Lovin’, her 2008 collection of Dusty Springfield songs, is yet another. 

Revelation Road is one more. Released in 2011, the 11-song-strong set (12 on vinyl; and more on the deluxe edition released a year later) was written, performed and produced by Shelby, but it’s far from a stripped-down affair. She plays guitar, bass, percussion, and keyboards, and provides all the backing vocals. The one-woman-band approach wouldn’t mean much without quality songs, of course. And she has them. (As the picture shows, my LP – which I bought at last week’s show – is autographed.)

In the liner notes, before dedicating the album to her Mama, Daddy, and Sissy, she explains that “writing these songs put me on the back roads of my past. I remembered my childhood in Alabama as I wrote this album and I looked back with love.” But processing that past also means, as evidenced by some of the songs, that she processed (at least in part) the pain. Her nostalgia is forever tinged bittersweet.

Also included are the yearning lyrics to a song called “Travelin’ Fever” that was written by her father, who – from what I’ve read – took off from time to time. Among the lines: “Every time I settle down and vow to roam no more/Something like a restless wind calls me to my door.” Remembering the best of him must be hard.

Shelby’s 11 (or 12, or more) songs explore the vagaries of her life. To crib from myself from earlier this year, “The mark of much, though certainly not all, great art is that it’s simultaneously personal and universal, restrictive yet expansive.” I.e., we identify with the lyrics, and hear ourselves in them. Such is the case here.

One highlight: “I’ll Hold Your Head,” in which she recalls trying to shield her younger sister from the “blues and the beer and the bourbon” that accented their childhoods. 

Another: “Even Angels.”

Another: “I Want to Go Back,” about accepting, confronting and escaping one’s past. In some respects, it delves into the same gauzy territory as Goffin-King’s “Goin’ Back,” but with much clearer eyes: “I want to go back so I can run away again.”

One song singled out in many of the reviews I’ve read is “Heaven’s Only Days Down the Road,” which made Rolling Stone’s list of “40 Saddest Country Songs of All Time” in 2014. It revisits what must be the ghostliest demarcation in Shelby’s life: The morning her father shot and killed her mother and then turned the gun on himself. What’s remarkable about it: She tells the story from the perspective of her dad: “Lost all the faith a man can own/My hopes are empty and so is my soul.”

“I Won’t Leave You,” which is also featured in the making-of documentary included with the deluxe version, is yet another gem.

The track list:

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

The 1980s are given short shrift in the annals of pop music for many reasons, few of which have to do with the sounds that actually bounded from the speakers in one’s car or home, or boombox, or via the headphones of one’s WalkMan or WalkMan clone. There’s good, bad and mediocre music released every decade, after all, but as most folks who came of age during the decade will tell you, we had the hooks. The look? Aside from Sheena Easton, perhaps not – though, as the cool RetroWaste website details, the stereotypical shoulder pads and feathered hair didn’t really come into play until the middle part of the decade.

Fashion fads come and go, of course. Think of the bouffant and beehive hairstyles favored by many women from the ‘50s through the ‘60s, the collarless suits that bedecked the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, or the Day-Glo threads worn by the hippies at Monterey Pop and Woodstock just a few years later. They look out of place in today’s world, just as the flapper fashions of the 1920s did by the time the boys came marching home from World War II. Some may roll their eyes and snicker, if not laugh, but that’s the way of the world.

Likewise, music styles come and go, with some songs, albums and artists forever relegated to the eras in which they first made their mark. But unlike skinny ties and overblown locks, or A Flock of Seagulls, great songs, albums and artists both reflect and transcend their time. We may sometimes turn to the music to reminisce, but as often we turn to it to accent the present. Love, lust, and life’s ups and downs, even silly dance crazes, aren’t the domain of any one generation, but all generations.

I thought of that Wednesday evening, when I stumbled upon a YouTube video of the Bangles on the May 10th, 1986, edition of American Bandstand. Here, in two performances split by an interview with Dick Clark, they convey not just the spirit of ‘80s music, but of good music of every era.

They’re songs most folks of a certain age, whether or not they were fans, know like the back of their hands, of course. “Manic Monday” topped out at No. 2, kept from No. 1 only by the legend who penned it, Prince, whose “Kiss” proved infectious. “If She Knew What She Wants” didn’t do quite as well – it peaked at No. 29 – but has gone onto become one of their signature tunes. You can’t listen to either without being put into an instant good mood.

I hasten to add that they’re on Bandstand not just promoting the two singles, but their second album, Different Light, which was released on January 2, 1986. I bought it that same week from a Listening Booth in the Willow Grove Mall, though it could well have been City Lights Records in State College, depending on when winter break ended. (How’s that for narrowing it down?) I was a college junior attending the Penn State mothership, and either home – and working, working, working as much as I could at one of the mall’s department stores – or already back at University Park. I’ve written about that time before, and even chronicled my top albums of the year here – but to save you the click, here it is in a nutshell: I was (and still am) a fan of new wave, old rock, heady pop, country, bluegrass and urban folk, and plenty of additional genres, including R&B, soul and what would come to be known as Americana. I thought nothing of playing the Three O’Clock and Hank Jr. back-to-back, though I’m sure fans of each would have objected to the other’s presence on my turntable or cassette deck.

At school, I didn’t watch MTV. Hell, I didn’t watch much TV, period, and the only time I generally heard Top 40 radio was when I was selling my plasma for pocket money. And when not with a needle in my arm, or out having a good time with that pocket money, I was in my dorm room doing school work – and since my pre-law roommate preferred studying at the library, I listened to what I wanted – and, as now, often listened to things again and again and again. The result: By semester’s end, my Different Light cassette became so worn that the songs from the flip side bled through whenever I played it. (Yes, I bought it again.)

To be precise: Different Light glimmers and glistens. The production is polished, but not too polished. The melodies captivate; the beats are sure and precise; the guitars echo those of the British Invasion, and are always in service to the song; and the harmonies flow through the soul like few others.

One highlight: The album’s third single, the delightfully goofy “Walk Like an Egyptian,” which closed out 1986 at No. 1.

Another: “Return Post,” which ruminates about a long-distance relationship. One thing I love about it: The harmonies pay homage to Revolver-era Beatles. Another thing I love: whether intentional or not, the nod toward Them’s “Gloria” in the coda. 

And another highlight: “Following,” a tale of obsessive love, which was penned by bassist Michael Steele.

And, finally, what turned to be the final U.S. single from the album: “Walking Down Your Street,” which reached No. 11 on the pop charts in April 1987. As I mentioned above, I rarely watched MTV in those days – so it was news to me when, a year or two ago, I discovered the video. It’s cute.

Anyway, some fans aren’t keen on Different Light, and usually cite All Over the Place as the band’s definitive work. I think the world of both, myself, and hear Different Light as an evolution of their sound. As Vicki Peterson says to Dick Clark of their music, “I think it’s always changing. It’s always growing and changing, and we’re happy with what we’re doing.” 

I’ll conclude with this: At the end of ’86, I jotted down my top picks for the year. Paul Simon’s Graceland was my No. 1; Different Light was my No. 2. But through the decades that have followed, the album I’ve listened to more often isn’t Graceland, but Different Light. It makes me think. Makes me smile. And puts me into a good mood.

It’s be in my theoretical Top 10 Albums of All Time list (sharing space with about 99 other entries), easy.

Side 1:

  1. Manic Monday
  2. In a Different Light
  3. Walking Down Your Street
  4. Walk Like an Egyptian
  5. Standing in the Hallway
  6. Return Post

Side 2:

  1. If She Knew What She Wants
  2. Let It Go
  3. September Gurls
  4. Angels Don’t Fall in Love
  5. Following
  6. Not Like You

 

(As noted in my first Essentials entry, this is an occasional series in which I spotlight albums that, in my estimation, everyone should experience at least once.)

It’s easy to dismiss Hank Williams Jr. as a reactionary clown due to the conservative canards he long ago embraced, and a wide swath of America has done just that. At best, in their eyes, he’s the cartoonish buffoon who sings the Monday Night Football theme. At worst, they don’t think of him at all. Hank Who?

Which is a shame. From the landmark Hank Williams Jr. & Friends LP in 1975, when he embraced the outlaw ethos, through his last truly great album, Lone Wolf in 1990, he released a string of solid-to-stellar studio albums along with a truly stupendous live set, 1987’s Hank Live, and not one, not two, but three best-of collections. He was, as he brags in the live version of “My Name Is Bocephus,” the “platinum boy that does the rock ’n’ roll-country-blues.”

Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound, released in November 1979, rates among his greatest works. Remember that the Iranian Revolution early in the year caused the price of oil to soar, which upended the economy as a whole. Auto sales plummeted, and inflation – which had been a scourge on working people for most of the decade – ratcheted past 10 percent. It was, for many, a bleak time.

As a result, as a whole, the album’s mostly downbeat. The title tune, for instance, tells of a life on the road, and the guilt that comes from a booze-fueled attempt to remedy loneliness. Like many a country song, in other words, it’s about cheating. The woozy rhythm accentuates the lyrics, which find the narrator begging for certain jukebox standards – including one by Hank Sr. – not to be played, lest he be reminded of his failing.

“Tired of Being Johnny B. Good,” the second track, reflects the era’s anger to a T. (In some ways, to share an observation from my wife, it’s a Tea Party anthem from a pre-Tea Party time. I’d only say that the lyrics are actually democratic – note the lower-case “d.”)

“Outlaw Women”…well, what can be said about this other than it’s a classic? Here’s a great version from 2004, with Hank joined by Gretchen Wilson.

Another high point: Hank’s bluesy take on the Allman Brothers’ “Come and Go Blues.”

The album ends with Hank Jr. and Waylon Jennings joining forces for “The Conversation,” in which they trade stories about Hank’s famous dad. Here’s the two of them from sometimes in the early ‘80s…

Say what you will about Hank’s politics (which are pretty much diametrically opposite of mine), but don’t let his outspoken stances get in the way of what is a damn good set of songs. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound is one of the touchstone albums in my life, in fact. It’s outlaw country at its best.

Side One:

  1. Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound
  2. Tired of Being Johnny B. Good
  3. Outlaw Women
  4. (I Don’t Have) Anymore Love Songs
  5. White Lightnin’

Side Two:

  1. Women I’ve Never Had
  2. O.D.’d in Denver
  3. Come and Go Blues
  4. Old Nashville Cowboy
  5. The Conversation