Posts Tagged ‘May Your Kindness Remain’

Last week, Diane and I began re-watching Season 1 of Joan of Arcadia, about a teen (Amber Tamblyn) who speaks to God – and by “speaks,” I mean has actual conversations and debates with Him. He – and She, as God changes bodies and genders episode to episode and often within episodes – often has what seems to Joan to be a mundane, silly or overwhelming task for her to perform, such as joining the chess club or debate team, or throwing a party. Inevitably, however, it leads to a larger, positive event occurring within Joan’s world.

Interwoven throughout are the stories of Joan’s family – her father (Joe Mantegna), a cop in a big (but not too big) Maryland city; her mother (Mary Steenburgen), who works at her school; older brother Kevin (Jason Ritter), who’s still coming to terms with being a paraplegic following a car accident a year-and-a-half earlier; and younger brother Luke (Michael Welch), a brainiac who should never, ever, drink caffeine.

That summary doesn’t do the series, which lasted a scant two seasons (2003-2005) justice, I should add. 

All in all, it’s good with glimmers of greatness. The cast is excellent. The stories are a mix of sweet and bittersweet, with some surprising grittiness thrown into the mix – and not just when focused on the father, who faces evil – and politics – on the job. The give-and-takes between Joan and God are adroit, funny, smart, and even philosophically deep. And the growing concern of Joan’s folks over her eccentric behavior rings true. (They don’t know about her pipeline to the above, after all.)

Anyway, it’s a series I wanted to watch when it first aired, but in those days we were often out on Friday nights, and OnDemand didn’t include much network fare. We’d unhooked our VHS recorder in favor of a DVD player by then, too, so recording it was out. I did keep an eye on the DVD sets when they became available (and when I remembered to look), but was unwilling to fork over the $45-60 per season retailers originally wanted to charge. I was also shocked by its lack of availability on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime. But, finally, God heard my prayers: Two years back, I stumbled across a sweet deal on Amazon. ($16 per season. Woo hoo!) 

We watched it in about a month, filed the DVDs away, and moved on. As one does.

But, as I said at the outset, we’re watching it again. I love the philosophy behind it. The notion that a good deed, no matter how small, can cause a domino-like run of goodness in the wider world that eventually circles back to you is the essence of karma, which I’ve subscribed to since I first heard “The End” by the Beatles a long, long time ago: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” What we put out is what we take in. Good begets good.

And Joan of Arcadia begets a smile. It’s a perfect escape from the insanity that has befallen the world, where kindness is too often seen as a vice.

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: God, Faith & Joan…of Arcadia.

1) Joan Osborne – “One of Us.” The theme song to Joan of Arcadia is this song, written by Eric Brazilian of the Hooters. It reached No. 4 on the pop charts.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – “May Your Kindness Remain.” Kindness, goodness, sympathy and empathy all go hand in hand. This clip is from Courtney’s appearance in the Paste Studios earlier this week…

3) The Stone Foundation with Paul Weller – “Your Balloon Is Rising.” The Stone Foundation has a new album in the works, but this one – from their last studio set, Street Rituals – says it all. “May your words go on forever/May your kindness show no measure/Keep on breathing your life into every little thing…”

4) Paul Weller – “Above the Clouds.” And speaking of Weller and clouds…

5) Rumer – “Love Is the Answer.” The British singer-songwriter’s cover of the Todd Rundgren song was a match made in heaven when she recorded it in 2015, and remains so three years later. Love is the answer, indeed.

And in the end… the Beatles – “The End.”

This morning, during a rather hellacious commute, I whiled away the time listening to Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain, which is an early contender for my esteemed Album of the Year honors, and then listened to it again. I listened to it on the way home yesterday, and the day before that, and almost every day since its release.

It’s everything good about music. As I said in my First Impressions piece, “it’s the sound not of a generation, but of the generations.”

I told Diane as we were leaving her Boot & Saddle show last month that it’s likely the last time she’ll play there. The next time she’s in Philly (XPoNential Festival aside), she’ll be headlining the World Cafe Live’s downstairs room, which holds 300 to 600 (depending on whether tables are present; let’s hope for tables, as us old folks can only go so long on our feet), and instead of 100 fans in the room, it’ll be sold out. (Of course, I predicted that after we learned from Dillon Warnek that they were slated to appear on NPR’s World Cafe radio show two days later.) I hope I’m right.

Anyway, one of the thoughts that crossed my mind this morning: Songs that Courtney could and should cover – and not just any songs. Timeless songs, like hers.

And with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Timeless Songs.

1) Iris DeMent – “Livin’ in the Wasteland of the Free.” This is one of Iris’ most passionate and political songs, and even now – 20-plus years later – it resonates because, truth be told, not much has changed in the intervening years. And twang accent aside, it’s a perfect fit for Courtney. 

2) Merle Haggard – “If We Make It Through December.” One of the greatest songs about hard times ever written or performed.

3) Kris Kristofferson – “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Another stone-cold classic, though one that’s been covered many, many times by many artists through the years.

4) Steve Earle – “Someday.” Another gem about working-class realities, and dreams of escape. (From Steve’s essential Guitar Town album.) Courtney would kill it. 

5) June Carter – “Juke Box Blues.” Long before she became Mrs. Cash, June was Nashville royalty – for good reason, of course. That said, she was often cast into comedy numbers due to the fact that she often shared the stage with sister Anita, whose voice is beauty set to song. “Juke Box Blues” was the B side to “No Swallerin’ Place,” a 1953 single. Unlike the A side, which is a joke set to a melody, the song is comedic primarily due to June’s delivery; the lyrics themselves are a testament to the power of music. (It was written by June’s mother Maybelle and sister Helen, for what that’s worth.) It’s long overdue for a revival – plus, Dillon could have a field day on guitar.)  

And one bonus…

6) Nanci Griffith – “If Wishes Were Changes.” What can be said about this gem? In short, to use one of my many overused words, it’s wondrous.

I witnessed the past, present and future of American music in South Philly last night, at a club called the Boot & Saddle. There, on a small stage that doesn’t have a proper exit, Arizona-born singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews and her crack band integrated country, rock, folk, R&B and gospel into a sonic whole that echoed both the ages and the soul. It’s the sound not of a generation, but of the generations.

If that sounds hyperbolic, so be it. But consider this: Just as A.P. Carter disappeared into the Appalachian Mountains to mine (and write) songs that provided sustenance to a hungry nation during the Great Depression, and he did, in the decades since every artist of note has learned from, and been inspired by, the music that came before, and provided an intangible that made bad times less bad and good times even better. It’s a never-ending chain, in a sense. Courtney Marie, to my ears, is the latest link.

It’s more than just her, however: It’s also us, the fans and listeners. Just as a Bruce Springsteen concert reinvigorated a dispirited Jon Landau in 1974, and inspired the famed (and oft-misinterpreted) line, “I saw rock and roll future and its name is Bruce Springsteen,” so, too, did last night’s show for me. It was everything good not just about music, but about life.

When we saw Courtney Marie at the same venue last year, the crowd was sparse. Last night wasn’t sold out, but looked to be at least double – about 100, give or take. (The venue holds 150, I think.) Which is to say, word is getting out. A guy next to us discovered her last week by way of NPR’s First Listen, for example, and then heard her on WXPN. He compared her vocal prowess to Linda Ronstadt’s.

The set opened with “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo,” in which Courtney Marie turns a snow-enforced stay in the Nickel City into a sharp-eyed ode about the gentrification of American life. Our cities and towns are gradually becoming cookie-cutter replicas of one another, trading their unique charms for the same (or similar) chain stores and restaurants, cafes and overpriced housing. The mom-and-pop stores of yore are fading away.

Another highlight came early: “Near You,” a hypnotic song Courtney wrote seven or eight years ago, but only pressed to vinyl last year. Dillon Warnek was simply phenomenal on guitar; he reminded me of Gurf Morlix and/or Kenny Vaughan.

“Rough Around the Edges,” one of my favorites from May Your Kindness Remain, simply ached. At one point or another, everyone says something they wish they could take back, wants to escape by sleeping late, and feels cursed by questions we can’t answer.

“Border” was beyond powerful. It reminded me, in a weird way, of when we saw Lucinda Williams and band jam out on “Joy” in the ’90s. (Very different lyrically, yes, but similar in the muscular arrangement.)

The title cut to Courtney’s May Your Kindness Remain album was akin to attending a revival meeting (which I say without having been to one).

The main set ended on a Stax-like note with a song that will be released as a b-side in the near future. Think Carla Thomas’ “B-A-B-Y” as sung by Aretha, only grittier and funkier. (Both Courtney and Dillon told us the title during the meet-and-greet, but our ever-advancing age guaranteed that it slipped our mind by the time we reached the car.) I wish I’d recorded it, but didn’t simply because…

When Courtney Marie and band went to leave the stage after said Stax-Like Song, they realized they couldn’t without walking through the audience. (The stage door at the Boot & Saddle is literally next to the stage, not on the stage.) So they played the encore without actually forcing us to play the suspense game.

Courtney Marie then met with fans at the merchandise table (Diane got a nice T-shirt; I got the vinyl for “Near You.”) We ran into Dillon in the bar itself, and had a great conversation with him about music past and present. He’s a great guy in addition to being a great guitarist.

Anyway, there was no setlist to steal (or take a picture of), so the set is based on what I recorded, snippets of songs from my iPhone’s “live” pictures and memory. I may be missing a song or two, and likely misplaced “Kindness of Strangers” in the set order.

  1. Two Cold Nights in Buffalo
  2. I’ve Hurt Worse
  3. Table for One
  4. Near You
  5. How Quickly Your Heart Mends
  6. Long Road Back to You
  7. Rough Around the Edges
  8. Honest Life
  9. This House
  10. Kindness of Strangers
  11. Border
  12. May Your Kindness Remain
  13. Stax-Like Song
  14. Irene (encore)

For decades, just about, I usually rolled out of bed in the predawn, gulped coffee while browsing the news (and newsfeed) or working on my website/blog, and departed for the office some two hours later, right around 7:30am. I maintained that early-to-rise routine on weekends, too – even if we were out late the night before. It was just the way of my life. These days, however? Most weekdays, I wake late, don’t turn on the computer until the night, and barely glance at my iPhone until I arrive at the office around 8:30am. So it was somewhat serendipitous that I fired up the MacBook this past Thursday morning – albeit for just 10 minutes – and discovered, by way of Facebook, that NPR’s First Listen was none other than Courtney Marie Andrews’ May Your Kindness Remain album, which is due out on March 23rd.

I streamed it during the commute that followed, and found myself – for the first time ever, I think – cursing what was an atypical easy ride. The lack of slowdowns, accidents, or debris on the highway made it appear that I’d arrive at work before the album ended. (Thankfully, my fear was for naught: a jam at the Valley Forge exit, where some 10 lanes narrow into two, caused me to pull into my company’s parking lot about five minutes after the 43-minute listen had ended.)

I played it again that evening. And again this morning – times four. Not enough listens for a proper review, but enough to share my first impressions. Which are:

Unlike Honest Life, which was – by and large – a fairly stripped-down affair, the 10 songs here are fleshed out with organ, electric guitar, and Sweet Inspirations-esque backing vocals. A gritty guitar often reverberates, sawing through songs – such as the title track or “Took You Up” – like a serrated blade through softwood lumber. (Wood houses, for those unaware, are framed with what’s known as softwood.)

Now that I think about it, however, that’s an imperfect metaphor, as the song structures are beyond solid. The guitar does no damage, in other words; rather, it acts more like an accent or umlaut, fleshing out the sound and emotions. So, shifting to a more apt analogy, the sonic stew conjure the likes of Dylan (both Bob and Thomas), Joni, Lucinda, and the Band, plus – especially on “Two Cold Nights in Buffalo” – Iris DeMent. (“Livin’ in the Wasteland of the Free” is calling out to be covered in concert, Courtney. Just sayin’.)

But, mostly, the echoes are just that – echoes. Courtney synthesizes those (real or imagined) influences into a tasty gumbo of her own.

Lyrically, she makes the universal personal and the personal universal. Whether or not she lived the experiences, “Lift the Lonely From My Heart,” “Rough Around the Edges” and “Took It Up” sound like the confessions of a battered soul. (From “Took It Up”: “Is it the journey or the destination/is this love or is this addiction/circumstances are meant to be/what does that say about you and me?”) The piano intro in “Rough Around the Edges” – which is just a stellar song – is akin to a soft wind carrying the melody of a long-ago tune, though which one I can’t yet identify. On the flip side, she sounds contented in “This House,” which – though it’s not much of a house – she considers a home.

I’ll have more on it in the coming weeks. But this much I can say now: Once the album drops next week, I’ll be playing it over and over, and over, again.

(It’s available for purchase here, by the way.)