Posts Tagged ‘First Impressions’

Recorded over the summer during lockdown, the EP We, Myself, I finds Irish singer-songwriter Laura Elizabeth Hughes serving as her own engineer and producer. It’s a tantalizing, if too brief, taste of a true talent on the ascent. Her captivating vocals couple with elegiac lyrics to deliver a trio of tunes sure to take up many repeated plays on the player of your choice. 

The acoustic “Days,” the lead single and first track, sets the mood with a mournful ode to the blurred days and nights of the stay-at-home life, when yesterday and tomorrow are no different than today. It builds slowly, with layered vocals serving as echoes of the mind: “Scrolling through the deep end in my silence/lying through my teeth that/that I’m not bored/with the way that the days/the days lose their standing…”

“Two,” the second track, finds the gradients of her voice colored by piano instead of acoustic guitar. She explained to Hot Press that it was inspired by the stasis she faced during the early days of the pandemic, when it seemed as if many of her peers were quick to adapt to the changing reality. “I was looking at social media and everybody putting out content and doing live streams and being productive and I felt I was failing at getting on with things.” That’s a sentiment pretty much everyone shares, I think, with the feeling spurred by the faux reality presented by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

The EP’s title track is another moody wonder spurred by the self-doubts that come with the distance the pandemic has placed between significant others. “I’m singing out to cleanse the air while wondering if you still do/if you still do care for my face, my taste, the way I move…” 

My only criticism: the set’s brevity. I’ve come to play it alongside her 2020 “Pandemonium” and 2019 “For You (Home)” singles and 2018 EP Ceremony to create a way-cool album of sorts. (Like We, Myself, I, they’re all available on the usual streaming sites and Bandcamp.) As I noted a few weeks ago, she’s a singer-songwriter to keep an eye on.

Although my CDs are still dancin’ across the proverbial waters, sans galleons and guns, I’ve been enjoying the archival Way Down in the Rust Bucket live set from Neil Young and Crazy Horse thanks to the high-resolution files that come with the purchase via the Greedy Hand store. Long-time fans who planted trees and/or were branches and leaves on the Human Highway and/or Rust List email groups should be familiar with the Nov. 13, 1990, show from the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, Cal., as fans were in attendance and audience recordings were made. Bootleg aficionados will know it, too, as it soon appeared in specialty shops under such titles as Don’t Spook the Horse, Feedback Is Back and Homegrown, not to mention the mammoth four-disc set Warpath, which coupled it with an audience recording that captured the first night of the 1991 “Smell the Horse” tour. 

I trawled my long-archived original Old Grey Cat site (1997-2006) and came away with reviews of two of those bootlegs. Here’s my original take on Feedback on Back, which – allegedly sourced from an audience tape – excised “Cowgirl in the Sand” in order to fit the show onto two discs; I’ve edited it ever-so-slightly…

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In the wake of Ragged Glory, in early 1991 Neil saddled up Crazy Horse for a tour that was eventually documented on the live double-CD Weld. If you’re familiar with that album (and you should be), then you know Neil and the Horse delivered more than just a rudimentary greatest hits set. They created a cacophony of feedback, laying down the musical equivalent of the bombs then blowing up Iraq. It was an intense affair with plenty of standards, true, but they were attacked in such a way that they came out new. One listen to the apocalyptic version of “Like a Hurricane” present on Weld is proof enough, but if need be crank up the version of “F+!#kin’ Up,” too. Maybe it’s me, but I hear it as ominous and threatening, sans the goofy spirit of the Ragged Glory rendition. It works on several levels – as does “Crime in the City,” another relatively new song that just plain kicks ass. The music accents the climate of the times even as it goes beyond them.

Feedback Is Back doesn’t do that. Taken from a warm-up date in November ’90 at the Catalyst in Santa Cruz, it reflects and extends the mood of Ragged Glory: Loud, goofy and fun, with plenty of jammin’ just for the sake of jammin’ – and, no doubt, jammin’ in the name of the Lord, too. What else explains the inclusion on “T-Bone”? Yeah, that’s right. “T-Bone,” the guitar workout from re*ac*tor that features the “incisive” lyrics of “ain’t go no t-bone/got mashed potatoes.” Like the set in total, it’s not earth-shattering – but it is fun to hear Neil recast the lyrics time and again. The inclusion of more than a few infrequently played songs – “Surfer Joe & Moe the Sleaze,” “Bite the Bullet,” “Dangerbird,” “Don’t Cry No Tears” (complete with “a Las Vegas ending,” to quote Neil), the aforementioned “T-Bone” and “Homegrown” – in a set that features eight tracks from Ragged Glory amongst a handful of standards (“Cinnamon Girl,” “Sedan Delivery,” “Roll Another Number,” “Like a Hurricane” and “Cortez the Killer”) gives a different spin to what the Smell the Horse tour may have been like if not for Saddam Hussein, George Bush and CNN: A lot looser. The sound itself, while not great, is solid throughout. Of note, however, this is not the entire show. (For that, one should seek out Doberman’s Warpath.) That said, Feedback Is Back ain’t bad. Please take my advice: Play it LOUD!

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Of Warpath, which was sourced from a different audience tape, contributor Lookout Joe “Shaky” Deal penned the main review, noting that “[t]he Santa Cruz set is a delight because of the relaxed feel of Young and his cohorts. They had not played together in public since the Fall of 1987 (okay, okay, there was the Bridge in October 1990 and the night before this) and they are obviously enjoying themselves. They play nearly all of their then-new album, Ragged Glory, as well as such rarities as ‘Surfer Joe and Moe The Sleaze,’ ‘T-Bone’ and ‘Dangerbird’ (it was a rarity then). They also dip deep down in ‘the old rust bucket’ for a storming rendition of ‘Cowgirl in the Sand.’ It is ragged. It is glorious. It is so right.”

I then chimed in with a sentiment I’d now use to describe Way Down in the Rust Bucket: “It’s an electric, goofy set – what else can be said about a show that includes ’T-Bone’?”

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The main difference between it, Feedback Is Back, the other bootlegs and treed cassettes/CDs: the pristine sound. Listening to the high-resolution (192/24) files via my USB DAC and headphones is akin to being in the sonic sweet spot of the 800-seat Catalyst. Thick chords, winding guitars and sweeping melodies roll like sonic waves from the stage and leave you drenched with bliss. It’s not Neil’s greatest live album by any means, mind you, but is a welcome addition all the same. (One note: Like Feedback Is Back, “Cowgirl in the Sand” is AWOL due to an apparent recording malfunction, but was captured by the film crew so is on the DVD.) It’s available to stream on the Neil Young Archives – and membership is only $19.99/year, so if you don’t belong, join. Also, as I inferred up top, CDs and LPs bought from the slow-as-molasses Greedy Hand store come with a download code for the high-res files.

The track list:

Early Sunday morning, I strapped on my headphones so as not to disturb Diane, the cat or neighbors and clicked play on Australian singer-songwriter Indigo Sparke’s debut album, Echo. I noticed its release listed in Apple Music’s “indie folk” genre on Friday and decided to give it a go today – as background music while waking up, essentially. At first blush, it’s lo-fi, hushed and intimate, the kind of music that – in theory, at least – blends into the background while the coffee kicks in. But the nine songs don’t hang back; they circulate and percolate their way to the foreground, demand attention. They are, in a sense, fever dreams set to song, intense.

“Colourblind,” which opens the set, is a perfect example. It floats in from the horizon as if on a gentle breeze, but sidesteps gauzy sentiments while relating the stark realities of a failing relationship: “There’s a distance in our words/there’s a distance and it hurts and/all the king’s horses/all the king’s men, well, couldn’t/no, they couldn’t put it all back together again…” 

Sparke co-produced the album alongside Big Thief’s Adrianne Lenker and Andrew Sarlo, who – among other credits – helmed Courtney Marie Andrew’s Old Flowers album; she’d been slated to open for Big Thief on their planned Australia-New Zealand trek in 2020 prior to the pandemic putting everything on hold. Framed by sparse instrumentation, including herself on acoustic guitar, she whispers, speaks and sings the lyrics, a self-professed “orchestra of truth” whose word symphonies alternate between social realism and abstract expressionism.

Pretty much every review or article I’ve read about her borrows from a press release the Brooklyn-based Sacred Bones label issued in January, when it announced they’d signed her, so I thought I’d do the same, but quote it verbatim: “Indigo Sparke brings her deeply personal lived experiences to her music, highlighting the spaces between the polarity of softness and grit. Pulling from her experiences of addiction, of healing, of queerness, of heartbreak, of joy, of connection, of the softness and of the grit alchemising it all into tenderness through her music, she conjures up a myriad of feelings that is undeniably potent.”

That’s true, but verbose. I’d have phrased it differently: These are murmurs from the heart and soul, one part poetry and one part prose. It’s the powerful “Carnival” culminating in the unlikely admission that “I feel like I can’t feel…” 

…and the haunting “Everything Everything,” in which she shares an unlikely epiphany: Everything, everyone, is dying. The young, the healthy, the old, the infirm – we all, every day, are one step closer to death. The past gave way to the present and the present will soon fold into the future; what we do will not, cannot, stop us from falling into the universe’s big black void. 

In the release announcing the album, she’s quoted as saying that “[w]hen writing and recording the record, I wondered how it would all come together. I felt like I was standing back in the desert, looking up at the blue night sky, wondering how all the stars would connect. I think sometimes it’s the dark matter or void space between them, that holds it all together. This record is an ode to death and decay. And the restlessness I feel to belong to something greater.” Whether she achieved all of that, I don’t know – it’s too early to say. But I can proclaim that Echo is one of those albums you’ll play a second time if you play it once, and play it a third, fourth and fifth time after that. It’s highly recommended.

The track list:

Wow. I’m not sure what I expected from Jillette Johnson’s third album, It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You, so…yeah. Wow. When or if the day comes that live, in-person music is again a thing, seeing her in concert will be a no-brainer.

Early Friday morn, when I first clicked play, I assumed the singer-songwriter of All I Ever See in You Is Me, her 2017 album that sported a Carly Simon sheen, would continue in the same vein. Instead, I was greeted by an atmospheric rock record with occasional country overtones, plus some David Bowie, Stones, Sheryl Crow and Oasis flourishes thrown in for good measure. It’s not as drastic a departure as, say, Maria McKee’s glam-infested Life Is Sweet was back in the day; if anything, it’s a logical extension of several All I Ever See in You Is Me tracks, including the title cut and “Not Tonight.”

Perhaps the best way to describe IaBDaILY: It’s less a singer-songwriter album and more a singer and her band – an important distinction. “Many Moons,” the lead-off track, is a perfect example. It’s a moody rumination on the invincibility we feel when young. “Oh to be 18 again….” (Who among us doesn’t look back with astonishment at some of the stupid situations we placed ourselves in?) If played solo at the piano or fleshed out with a tasteful arrangement, a la All I Ever See in You Is Me, it would work well – a good song is a good song, after all (and, as evidenced by my blog, I’m a sucker for singer-songwriters and tasteful arrangements, so I’d be happy). But in the hands of a crack band, the music goes from boozy to woozy to reflective, mirroring the lyrics each step along the way. That added dimension adds depth to “Many Moons” and the songs that follow, turning what would have been a good album into a great one.

The second track, “Angelo,” which finds Johnson and her compatriots channeling “Heroes”-era Bowie and prime Oasis, tackles the tragic passing of an acquaintance and the reality that there was little she could do to save him. “I didn’t know him well/But deep down I could tell what it cost/He was lost/Wings broken, arms open/Slumped over the seat/If anyone could help, it wasn’t me/It wasn’t me…” I never noticed it until her excellent cover of “Champagne Supernova” for the OurVinyl Sessions, but at times her voice possesses a Liam Gallagher-like quality – and it’s in full effect here, with the band giving her the perfect runway for her vocal flight. 

The title track is another thing of wonder, opening with a stereotypical 1950s R&B/ballad riff that expands, bit by bit, into a message of unadulterated love: “It’s a beautiful day and I love you, I want you to know/I was just calling to tell you so/I was just walking around in the sun/Thinking about you, yes, you are the one for me, baby…”

There’s far more to the album than those three songs, of course. “I Shouldn’t Go Anywhere” finds Johnson alternating between self-pity and anger while drowning her sorrows at a bar; and “Jealous” – which conjures Globe Sessions-era Sheryl Crow – features lyrics about envy: “It’s a zero sum game, I know that’s insane/Someone else’s gain isn’t my loss/Someone else’s shine doesn’t darken mine/But I feel sometimes quite jealous.” 

From what I’ve read, Johnson mined her own life experiences for the songs – and, in so doing, forged 10 mirrors that reflect ourselves back at us. Run, don’t walk, to the retailer of your choice – or just hit up any of the streaming services. It’s a Beautiful Day and I Love You is a tremendous set that grows stronger with every listen.

The track list: