Posts Tagged ‘First Impressions’

This week, I watched a famous singer-actress slip into a new-old role, a hair-rock moll, and transform an ethereal wonder into power-ballad dreck. Her name isn’t important, but the song is: “Fade Into You.” Folks of a certain vintage and/or mindset will recognize it as a classic work by Mazzy Star, who painted melancholic dreamscapes like few others. As a result, in the years since it ruled modern-rock radio in 1994, pretty much every band that mines a similar sound winds up compared to them.

Widowspeak, aka Molly Hamilton and Robert Earl Thomas, is one such example. The first time I heard them, in 2013 with their second album Almanac, my mind’s ear made the Mazzy leap despite their songs being less dreamscape and more CinemaScope-lensed. It was hard not to, given the languid pacing and Hamilton’s phrasing. That same year, however, she explained to Guitar Girl Magazine that “Mazzy Star is an amazing band, but I didn’t really listen to them at all until our band had formed, and I had heard the comparison. It’s not really like a historic presence in our music. What actually influences us in our music are places, not that we’re a super-cinematic band, but we kind of try to convey a sense of place or sense of nostalgia for something; not necessarily musical nostalgia but nostalgia for a time or place. I think that for us it’s about like ‘I want the song to feel like this,’ and we kind of write the song that way. Like with Almanac, a lot of it was kind of like pastoral settings, not necessarily that it’s Americana, but the idea of the vastness of the American West; like spaghetti westerns meets ’70s films like Days of Heaven.”

Fast forward seven years to August 2020, when Widowspeak released their fifth LP, Plum. It’s another anamorphic shot of mostly laconic pop, with its lens focused on what Pitchfork’s Julia Gray dubs “modern anxieties.” It’s a good, not great, outing – and one that I admittedly missed at the time of its release. Pandemic life narrowed my own scope for a spell. 

Honeychurch, an EP released on Jan. 22nd, includes a different spin on “Money” from Plum, two cover songs, a Plum cast-off (“Sanguine”) plus the short ambient title track. On their Bandcamp page, they explain that “Its title, a nod to E.M. Forster’s A Room With A View, was originally a working title for Plum – it felt in line with the album’s thematic considerations of class, relationships, and generational ties, but was ultimately set aside.”

It’s well worth a few dozen listens, if not more. “Money” has been rechristened “Money (Hymn),” with its jaunty two-step rhythm replaced by a dense fog. The lyrics are somewhat slight (“money doesn’t grow on trees/tune out platitudes like these”), true, but sometimes a song’s lyrics are less important than the mood they impart. “Sanguine” expands upon that mood, trading matters of the purse for matters of the soul.

The two cover versions are utter delights, blending Widowspeak’s unique esprit with the color schemes of the originals. R.E.M.’s “The One I Love,” for example, flashes back to the ‘80s much as a movie might, blurring at first before becoming clear. Their take on Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” is even better, with Hamilton’s phrasing conjuring Rickie Lee Jones. It’s quite cool.

The track list:

In addition to being available on the usual streaming services, the EP can be purchased over at Bandcamp.

Like many a rock nerd, I became infatuated with Matthew Sweet’s Girlfriend in late 1991. Shimmering electric guitars and hooks a-plenty mixed together like morsels in a magical power-pop elixir that simmered atop the dying flames of ‘60s idealism. That unsung guitar heroes Richard Lloyd and Robert Quine (the former of Television, the latter of Lou Reed’s early ‘80s band) were whipping the white noise made the concoction even more tasty. Sweet’s fatalism, fueled by a failed marriage, rang as loud as the guitars. It was and remains a great album.

Altered Beast (1993) – his next album – sharpened the cynicism while trading the Beatlesque overtones of Girlfriend for a more overt Neil Young vibe – and the Son of Altered Beast EP (1994), which featured a handful of live tracks, upped the Neil quotient by including a cover of “Don’t Cry No Tears.” I played both a fair bit at the time and included tracks from each on various mixtapes.

My memories of 100% Fun (1995), however, are far more hazy; for whatever reason, the music simply didn’t connect with me – no doubt because of me, not it. Maybe if he’d released another album the following year, it wouldn’t have been a big deal, but by the time he put out his next set, in 1997, I had moved on. As one does. The next times he popped up on my radar, and the only albums of his I’ve since purchased, are the three Under the Covers albums (2006, 2009 and 2013) he made with Susanna Hoffs.

I share that because I am not now, nor have I ever been, an omniscient music critic (though I did, for a short spell, sell reviews) who knows every artist’s oeuvre inside and out. I like what I like and write about what I like. So when I say that Catspaw, Sweet’s 15th solo set, is a damn good outing, believe it. Like Girlfriend, it contains high-octane guitars and hooks galore. And like Altered Beast, it occasionally veers into the darkness.

Another thing that old music geeks like me may appreciate: Playing “Name That Influence” with some songs. “Give a Little,” for instance, conjures Mott the Hoople. 

He recorded the album in his home studio in Nebraska, playing all the instruments except for the drums, which were handled by Velvet Crush’s Ric Menck. The guitars are upfront and in your face, which is always a plus, but what I enjoy even more are the little things. “Drifting,” for example, contains a guitar pattern (more noticeable via headphones) that conjures the Youngbloods’ “Get Together,” while the ending channels the Beatles. It’s quite cool. 

I went for a brief drive earlier today, cranking Catspaw. In a flash, I was in my mid-20s and behind the wheel of my old car, simultaneously optimistic and cynical about the future. While all tomorrow’s parties have not come to pass (though some days it may seem that way), there are fewer of them left. if, like me, you drifted away from Sweet at some point in the recent or even distant past, give his latest a go. It’s a 40-minute trip well worth taking.

The track list:

I boarded a time machine this morning: Richard Haswell’s With the Changing Light, which was released on January 4th. It’s an album that conjures the 1980s like few other new works I’ve heard in recent years. In a blink, I found myself transported from my den to a near-empty commuter train, circa February 1983, jostling its way from Philadelphia to my suburban home. I’d spent the day in town, as I sometimes did, meandering around South Street for a few hours before heading to the Ritz III to catch Piaf: The Early Years. Dusk descended into night during that ride home, the darkness punctuated by dim streetlights and TVs pulsating like multicolored stars through the windows of the passing houses and apartment buildings. Roxy Music provided the soundtrack, courtesy of my Walkman clone. I’d just discovered them.

Such is the power of the album, which – for me, at least – conjures Tangerine Dream, Simple Minds and Avalon-era Roxy Music, with a little Echo & the Bunnymen and Pink Floyd thrown in for good measure. It’s one part electronica and one part cool, with the music sure to push listeners of a certain age down the proverbial staircase of their minds to their youths. Lyrically, however, the concerns are not those of the teenager he sings about in “Dun Laoghaire 4am” (“I am 17 again/adrift in a time lapse”), but an adult taking stock of his present and past – as we all do, on occasion. The title track, for instance, delves into the doubts that plague many of us, especially at night. “The Promise,” on the other hand, is a parent’s lament, while “Lost and Found” is about an unexpected death. “Earth Citizen” is…well, you can guess that one.

All in all, it’s well worth a few listens. I recommend it.

Haswell, I should add, is an Edinburgh-based artist with 24 studio albums to his credit; prior to 2010, he went by the noms de plume of Rhubarb, G For Gnome and White Noise. With the Changing Light was primarily recorded between March and December 2020, when the world was locked down. He played most of the instruments, though saxophonist Pete Reilly, guitarist Lewis Kippen, bassist Thomas Urch and harmonica player Dave Smith provided remote assistance. 


The track list:

Dirty guitars grind on a bed of propulsive rhythms while operatic vocals swoop in and out, somewhat akin to Ann Wilson fronting Guns N’ Roses instead of Heart. That’s my first thought, at any rate, upon listening to Kim Logan’s tantalizing sophomore set, Shadow Work. Released in February 2020, it went the way of much new music in the early days of the pandemic, due in large part to the dearth of live shows. It’s difficult enough for artists to promote their works in the best of times, but when they can’t hit the road?

As a whole, the songs swagger, sway and skirt the clouds, but never get away from Logan and her Parisian band, the Silhouettes. A classically trained opera singer who’s performed with the Nashville Opera and Sarasota Opera, her vocals are a thing of wonder – plush when low yet razor-sharp when high. On her Facebook page, she describes her sound as “psychedelic swamp blues rock + roll soul music”; I hear it more as polished hard rock with hooks aplenty. As one example, check out “Hitch Your Wagon”:

The moody “Ghost,” another stirring track, develops much like a figure in one’s peripheral vision. Lyrically, it’s a metaphor – though I’m not sure for what. That’s not a complaint, either; you’re drawn in, all the same.

As with a few of the other songs, including “Hitch Your Wagon,” “Better Way” is an older song that Logan re-recorded with the Silhouettes. Unlike the original version, which is on YouTube, the sound is crisp, her vocals upfront and the guitars heavier. “In the sapphire blue light/violets and violence, the difference is slight/if you catch my new vibe/I’ll make you in my image and I’ll save you tonight…”

“Oedipus Wrecks” is another poetic metaphor and another standout track. Rather than share a clip of the song, however, there’s this: a behind-the-scenes look at its creation.

Logan reminds me to an extent of such operatic-minded singers as Maria McKee and Anna Calvi, but shorn of their excesses (though not eccentricities). Although hard rock is, by and large, outside of my wheelhouse, Shadow Work did roll me away from the mundane for a spell. So if you have a hankering for something new that’s best played loud, give this a whirl. (It’s available on the usual streaming sites, plus Bandcamp.)

The track list: