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.)

This past week, I enjoyed just a little Shelby Lynne early in the morning; she beats a cup of coffee for starting off the day. And I’ve been enjoying her music early in the evening, too. It beats a glass of wine for winding down at night.

Let me explain: I leave for work right around 6:45am most weekdays. This time of year, that means the last vestiges of darkness give way to dawn while I drive. It’s a wondrous moment to listen to music, as – at its best – it makes you feel good things are coming your way. I should add that, unlike years past, mine is now an easy commute most morns. When I breeze through all or most of the traffic lights, which is the norm, I pull into the business campus’ parking garage in about 25 minutes. That’s not enough time for an album in full, obviously, so if I start an album in the morning, I finish it that night; and if I start one during the evening, I pick up where I left off the next day.

Now, “essential” means different things to different folks. Some apparently hear it as a synonym for “best.” I don’t. I wouldn’t rate many of my picks as the greatest works by the artists who made them, though they are all great works. They’re just great records.

Shelby Lynne’s 2008 collection of Dusty Springfield songs, Just a Little Lovin’, has been on repeat since Wednesday. It’s not her best album – I Am Shelby Lynne, Suit Yourself or Revelation Road is that. But her voice and those old songs (and one new one) combine to create a sense of calm. Some songs are sweet, others sad, and others seductive. Some seem all three at once.

Over on her site/store, Shelby pens insightful essays about each of her records – combined, they make for something of a concise work memoir. One thing I learned from reading through them: Prior to recording Suit Yourself, her second album for Capitol, label executives recommended she record a collection of covers instead of an album of original material, as they were looking for a way to boost sales. She listened, but did her own thing (though she did include her hypnotic reading of “Rainy Night in Georgia” as a hidden/bonus track). A few years down the line, however, she decided to explore Dusty’s oeuvre.

The seed had been planted long before that label executive, apparently. At the time of its release in 1999 (U.K.) and 2000 (U.S.), critics compared her breakthrough album I Am Shelby Lynne to Dusty Springfield’s classic Dusty in Memphis; and, as a result, she sometimes received requests to sing something by the British chanteuse. Then, in 2005, she received an email from – of all people – Barry Manilow suggesting the same.

Flash forward to January 2007: Shelby set up shop with producer Phil Ramone at Capitol Studio A in the Capitol Records Tower in Hollywood, Cal., where she and a crack band laid down a few songs each day while accompanied by a solid cast of supporting players. Everything was recorded live. Everything was analogue.

The result is a sublime 10-song that was released the following January. The arrangements are sparser than Dusty’s, but no less emotive. This isn’t Shelby singing Dusty Karaoke, but Shelby living the lyrics. One of my favorite tracks is the Randy Newman-penned “I Don’t Want to Hear It Anymore” (though I admit that I still hear the backup singers from Dusty’s version).

One of the 10 songs, as I noted above, is a Shelby original: “Pretend.” In some ways, it’s a bigger tribute to Dusty than the other tunes as it sounds like a Dusty original. (And speaking of sound: Just a Little Lovin’ is a true audiophile’s dream. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear you’re in the studio with Shelby and the band.)

Oh, and here’s some irony: Those Capitol executives didn’t get a chance to work this album due the Capitol-Virgin Media merger of 2007. Instead, Shelby took the project to Lost Highway. (Wikipedia has more on the album, for those interested.)

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.)

There was a harvest moon last night. For those who don’t know what that is, the Oxford Dictionary definition describes it as thus: “the full moon that is nearest to the time of the autumnal equinox.” An equinox occurs when Earth’s equator aligns with the center of the sun, which happens twice a year. One marks the start of spring and the second marks the beginning of fall. For those of us in the northern hemisphere, the autumnal equinox almost always occurs on September 22nd or 23rd; and this year it’s early morning of the 23rd. 

The term “harvest moon” itself dates to the early 1700s, if not before, in England, and Oxford credits it to the “country people.” With days growing short, farmers made use of the moonlight while harvesting their summer crops.

Anyway, last night, by the time I left work, cascading clouds in the night sky blocked my view of the moon, yet I felt its power and heard its vibrations thanks to Neil Young’s Harvest Moon album, which he released on November 2, 1992. The lore behind it is well-known, at least among Neil fans: Recording Ragged Glory with Crazy Horse in 1990 and reaching for electric nirvana on their subsequent tour left him with tinnitus. Rather than risk permanent damage to his hearing, he downshifted to a softer sound – and delivered one of his best albums.

He saw it as a sequel in style, mood and personnel to Harvest, his much-loved 1972 album, although the same could also be said, to varying extents, of Comes a Time, Hawks & Doves and Old Ways, among other outings. It did well, too, peaking at No. 16 on the Billboard charts, going double-platinum, and winning plaudits from critics and fans alike.

Accented by acoustic guitars, harmonica, and backup vocals supplied by fellow travelers Nicolette Larson, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and (half-sister) Astrid Young, the 10-song set is a contemplative affair that mixes brushstrokes of reality with hues of the heart. “Unknown Legend,” the opener, was written for the Comes a Time album, and tells the story of a woman in a diner who once lived free but is now dealing with the responsibilities of adulthood. 

“From Hank to Hendrix” tells the story of a couple’s relationship that may or may not last despite the years (“from Marilyn to Madonna”) they’ve put into it. (“The same thing that makes you live/can kill you in the end.”) Many folks like to read what inspired specific songs, but to me inspiration matters less than the result. And the result here is memorable.

The title track, on the other hand, is a celebration of a long-lasting, loving relationship – maybe even the same one. “But now it’s getting late/And the moon is climbin’ high/I want to celebrate/See it shinin’ in your eye/Because I’m still in love with you/I want to see you dance again/Because I’m still in love with you/On this harvest moon…” 

“War of Man” is another stirring track:

Another favorite track of mine is “Dreamin’ Man,” which sports a lilting melody and lyrics that spin a disturbing tale about a stalker: “I park my Aerostar/Dreamin’ man/With a loaded gun/And sweet dreams of you/I’ll always be a dreamin’ man/I don’t have to understand/I know it’s alright…”  

As Nicolette and Astrid sing behind Neil at the end, “He’s got a problem.”

One possible inspiration (though it’s just a hunch on my part): Robert John Bardo, the stalker who killed My Sister Sam actress Rebecca Schaeffer on July 18, 1989. Neil would have been exposed to stories in the newspapers and on TV, I’m sure. But, again, it matters not. The juxtaposition of the dreamy with the sordid is meant to jar, and make us think.

What else? Neil flipped the normal routine of albums for Harvest Moon, touring the songs first and then releasing them. We saw him in March of ’92 at the Tower Theater in Upper Darby, Pa., from the back of the balcony. Everyone roared for the opener, “Long May You Run,” but murmurs began soon after he launched into the second of eight unfamiliar songs in a row (seven from the future Harvest Moon and “Silver and Gold”). It was a great night.

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.)

Last night, as is often the case, I worked late, not leaving the office until the sun was a mere hint on the horizon. Cars and trucks lumbered along the road, some with their headlamps on, others only illuminated by their running lights. The official end of summer has yet to come, but it’s done. Kids are back in school. Family vacations are done. Days are growing short.

On the ride home, I thought of days that used to be. I thought of tomorrow, and what the new day might bring. I also powered down the windows and cranked up one of my favorite albums to listen to when driving: the last thoroughly great Neil Young album, Psychedelic Pill, which I also deem to be one of the decade’s best albums. Recorded from January to March 2012, and released on October 30th of that year, it finds Neil backed by Crazy Horse, and features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.

In short, it’s nine-songs strong. (Eight, really.) Eighty-plus minutes. It burns, yearns, questions, looks back and ahead, and does so with an eye that’s at once cynical and naive.

“Driftin’ Back,” the lead-off track, clocks in at 27 minutes and change, and finds him musing about the sound quality of MP3s, meditation, religion, art, and the corrupting nature of Big Tech, among other things. (“I used to dig Picasso/Then a big tech company came along/and turned him into wallpaper.”) The stream-of-conscious nature of the lyrics is echoed by Neil’s swirling and twirling guitar, which slithers one way and then the next, all while rising and falling like the star we call the sun. It’s epic.

The concise title track follows, and echoes “Cinnamon Girl.” Lyrically, it’s about nothing less than looking for a good time – and, in a foreshadow of a song to come – getting lost in music. It’s followed by the near-17-minute “Ramada Inn,” a slice-of-life portrait of a longtime marriage in stasis. He drinks too much. She wants him to talk to old friends who gave it up. Yet they love each other. They do what they have to. Neil’s solos are both mournful and majestic, with his guitar flying out of the thick rhythms laid down by Crazy Horse only to return to the groove in time for the next verse. Rolling Stone hailed it as one of the year’s Top 5 songs.

“Born in Ontario” and “Twisted Road” both look back at the days that used to be. The former explores how one’s hometown stays with you wherever you may roam (“you don’t learn much/when you start to get old”); and the other digs into the joy that the music of Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and Roy Orbison gave him. 

“She’s Always Dancing” is the deliverance that “Psychedelic Pill” hinted at, painting a picture of a woman losing herself in the sweet cacophony of rock ’n’ roll: “She wants to dance with her body left unbound/She wants to spin, and she lives in her own world/She wants to dream like she was a little girl.” Although her age is never given, we know she’s no longer young – and yet the music, as it does for all of us, rejuvenates her. (That’s my take on it, at any rate.)

The gently haunting “For the Love of Man” hones in on a difficult question that has, no doubt, circled through the minds of many parents of differently abled children: “For the love of man/Who could understand what goes on/What is right and what is wrong/Why the angels cry, and the heavens sigh/When a child is born to live/But not like you or I.”

“Walk Like a Giant” is a thunderous, 16 1/2-minute summary of one of life’s cruelest lessons: The hopes, dreams and beliefs of youth are slowly crushed with every tick of the clock: “I used to walk like a giant on the land/Now I feel like a leaf floating in a stream.” That doesn’t stop us from attempting to color-correct our faded idealism, mind you. Giants lumber on. Sometimes they falter. Sometimes they don’t. But they don’t give up.

An alternate mix of the title tune closes things out in fine fashion. Who isn’t looking for a good time? Who doesn’t get lost in music?

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.)

By now, every fan should know the story behind Tonight’s the Night, but since some may not, here it is: Following the tragic deaths of Crazy Horse guitarist Danny Whitten and roadie Bruce Berry, who both overdosed on heroin, Neil gathered a group of like-minded souls (Ben Keith, Nils Lofgren, and Crazy Horse’s Billy Talbot and Ralph Molina) he dubbed the Santa Monica Flyers at Studio Instrument Rentals in Santa Monica, and set out to eulogize his late friends.

As Neil explained in a recent post to the Neil Young Archives, “We played starting at midnight, through the night, and drove home just before dawn to our hotel every night for a month. Visitors came by late at night. One of these nights we practically nailed the whole album, and that is what we wanted to do…keep it real. We drank tequila and smoked weed. Teenagers, don’t do what we did. We didn’t fix the mistakes. The whole album and why we made it and I wrote those songs was all a mistake. It won’t be repeated again. Some say it’s the best thing we ever did.”

In my estimation, Neil and band tapped into and channeled the collective unconscious, crafting a set that is guaranteed, no matter how often one hears it, to send shivers up the spine. Decades ago, for my old website, I wrote: Neil’s eulogy to fallen comrades Danny Whitten and Bruce Berry, this album is his most intense—and one of his best, too. In addition to the harrowing title song, it includes the equally haunting “Borrowed Tune,” a song with a stolen melody that best sums Neil’s strengths even as it wallows in admitted “weaknesses” [i.e., drugs and booze]. (A+)

This is how much I treasure it: Through the years, I’ve purchased it on vinyl, cassette, CD, high-resolution FLAC, and the 2016 vinyl reissue. (Truth be told, however, nowadays I usually stream it – and all other Neil stuff – via his Archives site.) 

Here are a few highlights:

Although recorded in 1973, the album was held back until 1975. Reprise apparently didn’t think it would make a great followup to Time Fades Away. As I’ve noted in other posts, great art doesn’t necessarily equate with great sales, and this would be a good example of just that – although a critically acclaimed album, it never rose higher than No. 25 on the Billboard charts.

A purported acetate of the original Tonight’s the Night did surface years ago, but – honestly – this is the version to crank up. Play it if you got it. (And if you don’t have it, get it!)

Side I:

Side II: