Posts Tagged ‘If I Was’

I think that maybe I was dreaming. I smelled cinnamon and spices. I heard music everywhere. All around was a kaleidoscope of color. I stood beside Diane at the edge of the stage in the sold-out downstairs room at the World Cafe Live in West Philadelphia, the two of us somewhat out of place amongst the 20-somethings milling about, awaiting the arrival of the Staves.

For those unfamiliar with sisters Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staverly-Taylor, whose ages range from the early 30s to mid-20s: They hail from Eau Claire, Wis., by way of Watford, Hertfordshire, England, which I gather is a suburban London enclave, and were raised on the hippie songs and harmonies of the Beatles, Simon & Garfunkel and CSNY, among others. In fact, the first song they ever properly worked out harmonies for was “Helplessly Hoping.”

The pre-show music was a blast, and included the Beatles, Waterboys and, as the sisters and drummer Dave Power filed onto the stage, Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer.” Everyone in the audience sang along to that classic track – a foreshadow of a surreal moment yet to come.

The Staves opened with the mesmerizing “Blood I Bled” from their acclaimed 2015 album If I Was.  

Another highlight: “Steady.”

The piece d’resistance, at least for me, came midway through the 75-minute set: the wondrous “Make It Holy,” which features a strong CSN vibe.

There was also some diversions: Everyone sang happy birthday to Dave Power – whose martial beats, I gotta say, boomed throughout the night.

And, in the surreal moment I mentioned above, Emily, Jessica and Camilla were joined by many in the audience when, in an off-the-cuff moment, they sang the theme to Fresh Prince of Bel-Air! (A truly scary moment, that.) Here’s a brief clip:

The set also featured their new single, “Tired as Fuck”…

… and ended with “Teeth White.”

In the last call from lands I’ve never been too, they closed the night with the CSN-flavored “Mexico.”

So, anyway, I thought that maybe I was dreaming. I smelled cinnamon and spice. I heard music everywhere. All around was a kaleidoscope of color. It was a great concert, in other words, akin to walking through a Renaissance Fair on a late-spring day, only better. Much better. All one really need know is this: on the ride home, Diane said “They may have been your artists before, but they’re our artists now!”

About the only complaint that I can come up with: the length of the show. But, in fairness, I’d likely have left thinking the same even if they’d played twice as long.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the opening act Mikaela Davis, who’s a harp-playing wonder with a luscious voice. When I first saw the harp on stage, I braced for a set of elevator music. Far from it. She was, in a word, hypnotic. Here she is from last week in Dallas:

Humans have lived, longed, loved, lost and loved again, forged wars and fought peace, and argued about politics familial, social and cultural, since the dawn of time. Such is the grist of poetry and song, of course, and while many lyrical laments litter the byways of history, forgotten, much has stuck around – thanks to the advent of, first, paper; second, recordings; and, last, the resonance of the works themselves. Whether they come from the pen of Wallace Stevens or piano of Carole King, or the hills of Appalachia, expressions of the heart, soul and psyche have remained constant through the ages. It’s why music, like all art, doesn’t come with an expiration date. We, as a people, live, long, love, lose and love again, and argue amongst ourselves, forever and ever. Amen.

I mentioned in my last post that I sent my niece CDs for her 21st birthday. (A few more than I intended, actually, but the prices on two were obscenely low.) Three harken back to the 1970s and the others hail from the past few years. The lines that lead from those of yore to the present are right there, to be heard.

One thing that I did, and I have no idea if it worked as intended, was to turn Amazon’s free gift cards into short notes about each album. So, for today’s Top 5: Classics, Old & New, here are the picks with my notes (and a bit extra) included.

1) Carole King – “So Far Away” from Tapestry, 1971. King, of course, is one of the all-time greats; and this album is, too. I wrote in the note, “Blue, Rickie Lee’s debut and Tapestry are stone-cold classics that have influenced many, including Diane Birch, FAK & the Staves.“ In retrospect, I should have singled out Tapestry specifically, as it was the top-selling album for 15 weeks in a row during the winter and spring of ’71. Rolling Stone rates it the No. 35 Album of All Time.

2) Joni Mitchell – “River” from Blue, 1971. I wrote: “This is rightfully considered one of the greatest singer-songwriter albums of all time, and has influenced generations of artists. ‘River’ is amazing.” Rolling Stone rates it the No. 30 Album of All Time.

3) Rickie Lee Jones – “Chuck E.’s in Love” from Rickie Lee Jones, 1979. I wrote: “Rickie Lee’s debut was and remains a stunner, building upon the blueprints laid down by Joni Mitchell, Laura Nyro and Patti Smith, among others.” I’d add: Rickie Lee radiates utter coolness on everything she does, which is why she’s the Duchess of Coolsville. (Her most recent album was one of my favorites from last year, too, for what that’s worth.)

4) Diane Birch – “Nothing but a Miracle” from Bible Belt, 2009. I wrote, borrowing an observation from my Diane: “This album, in many ways, is a modern-day Tapestry.” That’s a tad over-the-top, granted, but there’s no denying the charm of this modern-day wonder. I remember reading the review of it in Rolling Stone a month or so before its street date; it sounded like something I’d like, so I looked her up on Facebook, where she’d posted four of the songs from the album. Within a few minutes, Diane called in: “Who is that? I really like her!” We’ve been fans ever since.

5) First Aid Kit – “Cedar Lane” from Stay Gold, 2014. I wrote: “This was my favorite album of 2014 – FAK are two sisters from Sweden who mine an Americana sound.” Notes, of course, can’t include hyperlinks, so I’ll include one here instead: my Albums of the Year, 2014 post.

6) The Staves – “Make It Holy” from If I Was. 2015. I wrote: “This album is a gem – my favorite from last year.” (Here’s that post.)

staves_ifIwas

What a long, strange year it’s been – a wealth of music released and unheard by me, primarily due to the greying demographic I find myself in and the continued cloistering of my catholic tastes. Variety is the spice of life, it’s said, and I enjoy a wide range of styles and genres – everything from adult contemporary, pop, rock, R&B and soul to Americana, old-school country, folk and jazz. Yet, I find myself feasting less often on a sonic stew sautéed by up-and-coming chefs and, instead, savoring the sounds of the tried-and-true, with the chief stewards including such stalwarts as (small surprise) Paul McCartney, Linda Ronstadt and Neil Young.

That’s what I told myself going into this annual exercise, at any rate, but the results – as you’ll soon read – tell a slightly different story.

The British singer-songwriter Rumer, for instance, is still relatively new, given that her debut album, the classic Seasons of My Soul, dates to 2010. Theoretically, Into Colour, her third long-player, could be among this year’s picks, given that it was released in the U.S. in February. It’s not, though, because it was initially released in the U.K. in October 2014, made my Top 5 for that year, and I don’t go for double-dipping. She also put out – on her own label – the odds-and-sods B Sides & Rarities collection in late 2014, which was given wider release (and received many nice reviews) this year. It, too, is worth tracking down – as is my first Honorable Mention “album” of the year, her (very) recent Love Is the Answer.

IMG_0072“Album” is in quotes because Love Is the Answer is an extended play that features the Todd Rundgren/Utopia title tune and re-recordings of three songs that didn’t make the B Sides set due to (I believe) licensing issues – the Hall & Oates classic “I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do),” which she first sang with Hall on Live from Daryl’s House; Carole King’s “Being at War With Each Other,” which she first covered with the Brit R&B singer Lemar at a BBC Radio 2 event in 2011; and a silky-smooth spin of William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You Got,” which she also sang with Daryl Hall on his TV show.

My second Honorable Mention is another E.P. – Greta Isaac’s Oh Babe. My only criticism: its brevity. I reviewed it (and her 2014 E.P., Down by the Water) earlier this year, so won’t repeat myself other than to say: They’re magical songs that resonate long after the final note fades to silence.

liannelahavasI discovered my No. 5 album during one of our regular B&N jaunts. While sitting in the cafe flipping through a Mojo or Uncut magazine, and sipping a vente white chocolate mocha with an extra shot of espresso and a dash of raspberry (a delicious confection, I hasten to add), an uptempo melody whirled and swirled around us like an age-old friend, yet it was one I’d never before heard. Diane liked the music, too, and before you know it I was headed to the music department to learn who, exactly, was singing. Lianne La Havas, an up-and-coming Brit jazz-R&B singer, was her name.

Blood, the album in question, is an intoxicating ride of melodies that move and groove like the soul classics of yesteryear, with Prince and Janet Jackson influences, too – most notably on “What You Don’t Do.”

rickielee_desireMy pick for No. 4: Rickie Lee Jones’ The Other Side of Desire. As I wrote in my Nothing to Do But Today: Top 5 post in July, the album “possesses a vibe that radiates instant familiarity.” Part of that, I’m sure, is due to me being a longtime fan of the hipster songstress, but I’d like to think the larger reason is because of the music itself. “Feet on the Ground,” which I highlighted then, remains one favorite (and my overall favorite track from the set). “Jimmy Choos” is another –

– and “Christmas in New Orleans” yet another. Here’s a stripped-down version of it:

neil_monsantoMy pick for No. 3: The Monsanto Years by Neil Young & Promise of the Real. Oh, I can hear the groans from some folks, most of whom either haven’t heard it or, if they have, didn’t actually listen to it. (That’s a distinction not everyone will get, I’m sure.) It’s an anti-GMO, anti-corporate, anti-greed broadside with much heart and (black) humor strewn throughout – which explains why the songs resonated with audiences when he played them live with Promise of the Real over the summer. They possess a glorious Ragged Glory vibe, with thick chords, even thicker rhythms, and melodies that linger long after the morning fog has burned off. “Big Box,” which conjures “Crime in the City” and “Ordinary People,” is one highlight; and the opening “A New Day for Love” is another.

Melody Gardot’s Currency of ManIMG_4459, my No. 2 for the year, is a riveting, R&B-infused collection of songs, possessing fat chords, sinewy melodies and incisive lyrics that delve deep into the state of the world. Homelessness and racism are among the themes  – as are matters of the psyche and soul. In concert, as is often the case, the music took off into a deeper dimension, but the recorded effort is just plain great. “Bad News,” as I wrote here, sounds like an out-take from Peggy Lee’s Black Coffee. Above all, though, there’s that voice…

…and “Preacherman,” the lead single, is a haunting, powerful and propulsive ode.

In fact, in almost any other year, that likely would’ve been my No. 1 (and, for a time, it was). This year, however, the honor goes to… (drumroll, please!)… If I Was by the Staves, three sisters (Emily, Jessica and Camilla Staveley-Taylor) from England whose harmony-rich folk-rock songs echo those of Crosby, Stills & Nash. In my initial take on the Greta Isaac E.P.s, I opined that when she and her sisters blend their voices together it’s akin to listening in on heaven. The same is true here. Whether one is singing alone, their voices are joining together or their vocals are swooping in and out like doves from above, it’s a sonic marvel.

The martial drums in “Make It Holy,” for instance, are a perfect touch, as is the addition of Justin Vernon’s voice to the mix. (Vernon, who’s the force behind Bon Iver, produced the album.)

As is common when creating my year-end lists, I listen to all the contenders, some of which have been collecting digital dust for months. I didn’t have to with this, which was released in March, simply because I’ve never stopped playing it for too long. (About the only time I did: in the initial weeks after the Currency of Man‘s release.) Many nights, after climbing into my car for my commute home from work, I plug my Pono Player into the aux jack, select If I Was and crank it up. (Listening to it loud is a requirement.) That it’s grown stronger with repeated listens speaks volumes.

One song that strikes me is “Sadness Don’t Own Me.”

Another: “Let Me Down.”

And another:

And that’s that.

I often hear (and read) other music fans about my (middle) age say that good music isn’t being made anymore. That’s not the case, of course, and in past posts I’ve spotlighted a few (relatively) new acts that point out the fallacy of such statements. Here’s another example.

The Staves are three sisters from Britain who sound like they stepped out of the late ’60s or early ’70s. I discovered them, as I often do new (and new-to-me) acts, via a review in my favorite music magazine, Mojo. It’s a Brit magazine available in Barnes & Noble bookstores in the U.S. – usually delayed by a month. I skim the reviews, look for anything that may appeal to my sensibilities. In the case of If I Was, the phrases “acoustic folk,” “bold melodic flourishes” and “harmonies and heartbreak” leapt off the page.

The Staves Review

I looked ‘em up on YouTube the same day, liked what I heard and ordered the album; and I’ve been enjoying it since. If I Was is, primarily, a mellow, harmony-laden affair, though “mellow” doesn’t mean the music doesn’t pack a punch. It’s mesmerizing. Here’s a taste:

And another:

And one more:

Emily, Jessica and Camilla blend their voices as if, as I said in my previous post, a distaff Crosby, Stills & Nash. They also trade lead vocals in such a way that the result is an intertwining slice of heaven – “Make It Holy” is aptly named, in that regard.