Posts Tagged ‘Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John’

’Tis the season for making lists and checking them twice, and determining which album is the Old Grey Cat’s ballyhooed Album of the Year. The honor, which is celebrating its 40th year this year, came about late in 1978 due to my dream of becoming a rock critic (yeah, I know: crazy!), and continued through the decades because…well, why not? Over that span, it’s chronicled the evolution (or lack thereof) of my musical tastes.

It is a decidedly personal affair, in other words. In years past, and on the updated tally I post early each year, I explain the process thusly: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

But in the immortal words of Ron Ziegler, “that statement is no longer operative.” In the age of Spotify, Apple Music and YouTube, no one needs to actually purchase an album to enjoy it. Just about every new release can be had for the price of one CD a month (aka the subscription fee) or the willingness to put up with commercials. (Yet, although I don’t purchase as much as I once did, I own all the albums that made their way onto my list. How could I not?)

Also, as I wrote last year, “The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.”

Some years, I revisit all the contenders. This year? There was no need. They are albums that I’ve turned to time and again since their releases, and have never grown tired of. That said, there were a few surprises: Although I thoroughly loved First Aid Kit’s Ruins and Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, as the year wore on I found myself listening to them less and less often. I’m sure it had more to do with me, and the headspace I found myself in, than the music. I deem them two of my three “honorable mentions” for the year. Mikaela Davis’ Delivery is my third.

And, with that… 

Juliana Hatfield’s Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John is my Album of the Year. 

I got chills when she announced the project – as Hopelessly Devoted to Liv – during her concert with Wesley Stace at the Ardmore Music Hall in October 2017, and those chills were multiplying after she sang “Have You Never Been Mellow?” and “Physical.” (Just as an aside, Stace suggested that she call the album JH Sings ONJ, as the title conjures such cover sets from yesteryear as The Hollies Sing Dylan. It obviously stuck.) 

In my review, I noted that the set is, in some ways, an extension of the moving “Wonder Why” from her 2017 Pussycat LP, “in which she sought refuge from the madness of the present via the memories of her childhood. These songs, for her and us, are a similar escape into the past. They conjure another time and place, and also pay homage to a singer (and sometime songwriter) who, in that long-ago era, created a safe room where many of us dwelled on occasion.”

FYI: It’s the sixth time that Juliana has nabbed my year-end honors.

The first runner-up: the Stone Foundation’s Everybody, Anyone. In my review, I said that the songs “feature taut rhythms and lyrics that strive for something more than the rudimentary reflections that make up much of today’s mainstream music. They’re metaphysical musings of the highest order.”

Paul Weller co-wrote that Stone Foundation track, “Next Time Around.” His own release this year, True Meanings, is the latest classic in his own oeuvre, and is my second runner-up. Due to offline events, this blog was placed into a holding pattern around the time of the album’s release, so I never reviewed it. But make no mistake: It’s one of his best. 

The third runner-up: Shelby Lynne’s Here I Am, which features her songs (and some poetic snippets of dialogue) from her movie of the same name. Originally available only on vinyl, it’s now out on CD (via Shelby’s online store). The songs are as mesmerizing as her performance in the film.  

The fourth runner-up: Erin O’Dowd, whose debut album, Old Town, took up residence in my heart and head way back in May, and provided much-needed sustenance on a long road trip Diane and I took in September. In my First Impressions piece on it, I said that the songs sent “my spirits soaring higher than the beautiful May morn.”

The fifth and final runner-up: Becky Warren’s Undesirable, which is an album-long treatise on America’s unofficial caste system. As I wrote in this piece, it’s akin to a series of short stories set to song. It’ll draw you in, make you think, and make you tap your feet.

Most folks are familiar with the cliche “where all the bodies are buried,” and understand that it’s a metaphor about knowing secrets. In my case, though, it’s more like I know where all the pot holes are – and I’m speaking literally. From sunken manhole covers to tire-killing craters, I know when and where to slide to the side to avoid a slew of unpleasant bumps regardless of how fast or slow traffic is going, and whether or not I can actually see beneath the car in front of me. Like others in countless communities across the country, I’ve been driving the same set of streets for the bulk of my life. Some take me to work, some to family and friends, and some to stores. No matter where I’m going, the odds are good that I’ve driven the same roads before.

Which leads to this: Just as my life’s trek was grooving along with minimal bumps, I’ve hit a stretch of ripped-up road: In the coming months, the OGC’s HQ will be transitioning from the Philly ‘burbs to North Carolina’s Durham region.

Yeah, I know. Talk about your major moves.

But the thing about a ripped-up road is this: It’s rarely ripped up for long. In this neck of the woods, the cause is usually due to PennDOT milling old asphalt before laying down a new batch. It’s temporary, in other words, and in time the ride will be better than before.

On Thursday, Diane and I drove down to explore the area. The small slice of Durham that we saw, the American Tobacco Historic District, reminded me of Philadelphia’s brick-laden Old City neighborhood, while the outlying communities of Cary and Chapel Hill conjured such Philly suburbs as Horsham, Warminster and Warrington. Carrboro – home to the legendary Cat’s Cradle – had a funkier, New Hope/South Street vibe. Each looked like a good place to call home.

Anyway, on the ride down and again on the ride north on Saturday, we listened to – what else? – music. But unlike years long ago, when one was at the mercy of the radio, or the tapes and CDs one remembered to bring, we simply clicked on Apple Music, picked a title, and hit play.

Our first agreed-upon choice: Diane Birch’s Bible Belt. The album (my top pick for 2009) has retained its original luster, and rightly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Carole King’s Tapestry – not that anyone but my Diane and I would say so, I suppose. It has a timeless vibe.

I should add that the Church of Birch pastor has a new single slated for release in the next week. Look for it. Buy it. She has a knack for writing songs that take up residence in the soul like few others.

My second choice: Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John, which – thus far – rates as my favorite album of 2018. “Suspended in Time” is simply sublime, as is the album as a whole.

My third choice: Another of my favorites of this year, Erin O’Dowd’s Old Town. To quote my wife, “It’s excellent.” (There’s magic to be found in the album’s grooves.)

My last choice: the new Stone Foundation album, Everybody, Anyone, which I plan to review in full next week. It mixes a wide variety of influences into a very cool, original whole.

A mere two weeks after our last snow event, summer visited the Delaware Valley yesterday and Friday. Temperatures hit 84 degrees Fahrenheit both days, and then skipped out the backdoor last night. It’s a chilly and damp 50 degrees as I type, 9:02am Sunday morn, and the weather forecast for the week all but guarantees that the comforter will return to the bed tonight, and that the cat will be back beneath it, between my feet, for at least part of the evening.

Anyway, enough of the preamble. For yesterday’s Top 5, I looked back 40 years. For today’s Top 5: Suspended in Time. Just ‘cause.

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Suspended in Time.” Way back in February, I wrote of the announced track listing for the Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John album that “[t]he only change I would make: swapping out ‘Suspended in Time’ for ‘Come on Over.’” So it stands to reason that, now that I’ve lived with the album for a week and a half, it’s become one of my favorite songs from the set. It just floors me.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Warning Sign.” I’ve shared this song before, but not this specific performance from the Schubas Tavern in Chicago on March 31st. On it, Courtney lets loose her inner Aretha…

3) First Aid Kit – “Fireworks.” To be honest, I’d just about forgotten that Ruins was released this year – seems like a lifetime ago. But here they are, on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week, performing my favorite track from the album….(update 6/4/18 – the clip was removed at some point in the past month. So here they are on KCRW from earlier in the year.)

4) The Staves & yMusic – “The Way Is Read.” Uploaded just last month, this performance is spellbinding. The song, of course, is from the Staves’ collaboration with yMusic, The Way Is Read.

5) Lone Justice – “East of Eden.” I mined this YouTube gem on Friday night: Maria McKee and Lone Justice circa 1985. The song is still a shotgun blast of sonic newness to my ears, as is their self-titled debut as a whole. (And I didn’t realize until just now that I bought it 33 years ago this week.)

And because one LJ song or clip is never enough, at least for me this morning, here are a few more… 

And, finally, “You Are the Light.”

An epiphany came to me Wednesday night, right around 6:20pm, while stuck in traffic on the turnpike. By that point in the crawl home, Juliana Hatfield’s rendition of Olivia Newton-John’s “Magic” – which topped the charts in August 1980, not long after I turned 15 – popped from the car’s speakers at near-max volume. When Olivia sings it, she embodies the muse Terpsichore (aka Kira, the character she played in the movie Xanadu). Her vocal is seductive and coy, basically honey marmalade for the soul. When Juliana sings it, however, the alluring enticement turns into an earnest vow. It’s still sweet, but in a different way.

A similar tonal trade occurs on the album’s other 12 tracks, as well as on the two tunes found on a separate 45 (that, hopefully, will be made available to the masses via digital download). Aside from a sped-up “Dancin’ ‘Round and ‘Round,” the arrangements hew close to the originals, though the pop and pop-country overtones are replaced with the punky pop-rock embellishments that have long accented Juliana’s work. Electric guitars are often at the fore – even on the opener, “I Honestly Love You,” which is raw and real.

The epiphany: These songs are as much a reflection of Juliana’s soul as her own compositions. It’s “This Lonely Love” brought into the open for all to see and share.

“Suspended in Time,” also from Xanadu, is another highlight. Sonically speaking, it echoes Juliana’s polished in exile deo or How to Walk Away albums, and features equally lush vocals. “Have You Never Been Mellow” is even more evocative on album than it was when Diane and I saw her perform it last October; like the other songs here, it captures the spirit of the original while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart. It’s essentially about slowing down and finding peace from within – an essential message for this, or any, time.

The four Totally Hot covers are great. That was the album, of course, where Liv transitioned to a crunchier pop-rock sound, and scored top 10 hits with “A Little More Love” and “Deeper Than the Night.” A video for the former has been out for some time now…

…and hopefully a video for the latter, which is the A side of the bonus single, is on its way. The flip side, “Heart Attack,” is absolutely killer, I should mention. So, too, are the two Physical-era tracks, which date from Liv’s more “adult” era in the early ‘80s. Here, “Physical” lives up to its title – it’s a muscular workout.

Part of the set’s charm is that Juliana has an obvious affection for the material. In some respects, I think of the ONJ album as an extension of “Wonder Why” (from last year’s Pussycat), in which she sought refuge from the madness of the present via the memories of her childhood. These songs, for her and us, are a similar escape into the past. They conjure another time and place, and also pay homage to a singer (and sometime songwriter) who, in that long-ago era, created a safe room where many of us dwelled on occasion.

Anyway, Diane tells me that most things I review on this blog are, in my word, “wondrous.” She’s not being critical, just observant. It’s true: I tend to spotlight (old and new) artists, albums, songs and concerts that speak to and/or for me. And this set does just that.

The album has a release date of April 13th, but those of us who pre-ordered received our copies early. If you haven’t already, head over to the American Laundromat site and order it and the 7-inch single, which features cool original artwork by Paul Westerberg. (And if you don’t have a turntable, don’t fret: It comes with a download card, so you still get the music.)

The track list: