Posts Tagged ‘Nous’

Making music is not akin to building a model, though sometimes it may seem that way. Prefabricated pieces aren’t stamped out at a factory in some far-off foreign land. Picture-laden directions aren’t included. There’s no inserting of staccato guitar solo A into steady rhythm B, and no slathering on glue and waiting for it to dry. Otherwise, the world would be awash in indistinguishable songs.

Oh wait. We are.

But such has been the case since the dawn of the entertainment industry. Hits beget blurry copies that smell of mimeograph ink – and if you don’t appreciate that reference, don’t worry. It only serves to point out my age and say, slyly, that much of modern pop music isn’t being made for me. (Nor should it be.) As Paul Simon summarized in “The Boy in the Bubble,” “every generation sends a hero up the pop charts.”

Anyway, although my much-ballyhooed “Album of the Year” is an honorific I’ve doled out every year since 1978, when I was 13, putting forth an “Album of the Decade” never occurred to me until a month ago, when the notion was mentioned in someone’s tweet; and then, this month, magazines, newspapers and online outlets began posting their lengthy and semi-lengthy lists. The ones I’ve seen basically weigh artistry and commercial impact, and inevitably mix in a handful of niche records while ignoring select popular hits.

Most are little more than clickbait exercises designed to boost ad impressions.

You’ll find no advertisements on this page. To borrow/adapt the lyrics from Neil Young’s “This Note’s for You,” I don’t write for Pepsi/I don’t write for Coke/I don’t write for nobody/Makes me look like a joke. Also, very few of those lists achieve what I love most about reading about music: a sense of the author. From where I sit, the best music reflects the listener(s) as much as it does the artist. It intertwines with our DNA. (And “best” in that sentence construct is a subjective thing.) 

With all that said, the reality of the past decade – which saw good times, bad times, and plenty of in-betweens for me and mine – is that a handful of albums turned my ear every year, and quite a few became constants. And of those, a select some have pretty much become one with my soul; they mean as much to me as the music of my youth.

One caveat: Your mileage may vary. One more caveat: It’s too early for my favorite albums of this year to be included here, as one never knows just how long they’ll stick with you (though I can’t imagine Allison Moorer’s Blood fading away). And one last caveat: I’m a middle-aged white guy with catholic tastes. (To quote Paul Simon again, “I know what I know.”) While I enjoy many different musical avenues, I generally find myself circling the same blocks of rock, pop and Americana/country.

And with that out of the way, here are my top seven albums for the 2010s.

1) Rumer – Seasons of My Soul (2010). In my first blog post on the Hatboro-Horsham Patch (which I’ve since moved to this site) in February 2012, I called it “an atmospheric song cycle that’s teeming with soulful, knowing lyrics and melodies that wrap themselves around the heart.” It spoke to me then and speaks to me now. It’s the definition of “essential.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life (2016). I cannot properly put into words the many ways this album affected me, other than to say this: From the moment I first heard it, it felt like it had been with me all my life. “Honest Life” is a song I want played at my funeral, whenever that may be. “Some things take a lifetime to fully understand.” (For my initial review of it, click here.)

3) Neil Young & Crazy Horse – Psychedelic Pill (2012). This may be a controversial pick for some, as not even all Neil fans appreciate its grandeur. Such is life. But as I wrote in this “essentials” essay, “it features sprawling songs that capture the messy essence of this thing called life.”

4) First Aid Kit – Stay Gold (2014). So, long about 2012, I had pretty much given up hope for the youth of the world. And then I heard “Emmylou” by the Swedish sister act known as First Aid Kit and realized that, indeed, I was wrong. As good as The Lion’s Den album was, however, nothing prepared me for this gem. The psychedelic folk of “Cedar Lane” remains as hypnotic to me now as it did then.

5) Juliana Hatfield – Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John (2018). I can hear some guffaws echoing through the interconnected tubes that make up this thing we call the “internet.” Whatever. This album saw two of my favorite worlds collide, and made a rough last half of the decade much sweeter. To rework a line from my initial review, it captures the spirit of the originals while adding a touch of Juliana’s heart.

6) Bruce Springsteen – Wrecking Ball (2012). From my original review (another first posted to the Patch but since relocated here): “[W]hat makes a song great isn’t that it conjures spirits from our youthful nights, but that it speaks to the present. Maybe the first blush of melody hurtles us into the past, but the bridge jerks us as fast into the here and now. And the lyrics ring true no matter the age – or our age, for that matter. The runaway American dream that drives Born to Run, for example, represents today as much as 1975, just as the bitter realities and resignation of Darkness reflect working-class life of every era. As Springsteen sings on the title track of Wrecking Ball, his new album, “hard times come and hard times go/yeah, just to come again.” Some things, for good and bad, never change.”

7) Diane Birch – Nous (2016). This EP is a true work of art anchored by what, to me, is one of the decade’s greatest songs: “Stand Under My Love.” To borrow from my review, Nous “documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things.”

And so the year comes to a close not with a bang or whimper, but a melody that’s older than my time on Earth: “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

Jackie DeShannon’s rendition of that Bacharach-David classic, Wikipedia tells us, was released as a single on April 15, 1965; and, according to Weekly Top 40, it entered the Top 10 on July 3rd and peaked at No. 7 three weeks later. It’s a song that’s been sung by hundreds of singers since, including Rumer on her new This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook album. Somewhere there’s war, somewhere there’s heartache and somewhere some people hate while others fear. It’s not fair. It’s never fair. But it’s why the song resonates when it’s sung. It’s always true. The world needs love. Sweet love. Not for some. For everyone.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Old Grey Cat’s “Album of the Year” award is not an honorific doled out lightly. The selection process – which I began in 1978 at age 13 – is quite simple: I deep-dive into the music that riveted me during the previous 12 months, whittle down the choices to a few candidates and pick my Album of the Year from them. But this year? There was no need. To quote myself from 2014:

“Sometimes you just know – call it love at first listen. The first notes of the first song seep from the speakers with the grace of an Audrey Hepburn or the grit of a Humphrey Bogart and, well, that’s that. Without listening to the rest, you know that this is it, the one, the set of music that will fill the soundtrack of your life not just for the foreseeable future, but for the rest of it.”

Except, in this instance, I knew long before the first notes sauntered from the speakers. But, again, I’m getting ahead of myself. (Let’s call it “building suspense.” Ha!)

ryliebourneFirst, a caveat: Rylie Bourne’s self-titled debut album was and remains among my favorite discoveries of 2016; it would easily make my Top 5 for the year save for the fact that it wasn’t released in 2016, but late 2015. As I explained in this post, “It’s country music the way country music should be, of the soul and heart. It conjures the Carter Family, Merle Haggard and the outlaw sound. At times, it’s light; more often, however, it’s dark and cathartic – think Hank Jr.’s Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound (minus the orneriness).” If you haven’t sought it out, you should. Here’s a taste:

And one more caveat: Neil Young’s Peace Trail is due out on Dec. 9th, five days from now. It could, conceivably, eke its way into a top spot, given that “Indian Givers” – released a few months back – is damn good.

There’s little chance that the album will eke its way into my Top 3, however; those have been set in stone since Thanksgiving night. Because of Peace Trail, however, I’m not going to breakdown what falls where within Numbers 10 to 4, as they’re all (fairly) equal to my ears and could get bumped down a notch (and/or out of the Top 10): Alicia Keys’ Here; Bat for Lashes’ The Bride; Blake Babies’ Earwig Demos; Emily Jane White’s They Moved in Shadow All Together; Neil Young’s Earth; Norah Jones’ Day Breaks; and, at my wife’s urging, Van Morrison’s Keep Me Singing.

And, with all that acknowledged, onward to the year’s Top 3:

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3) Sarah Jarosz – Undercurrent. What an amazing album. The singer-songwriter’s guitar playing reminds me of Stephen Stills – magic is made with every pluck and strum. Her vocals, though a different shade and texture, conjure Shawn Colvin’s; and the songs…as I’m apt to say, “Wow. Just wow.” Here’s a 10-minute Attics Sessions video of the Texas native:

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2) Diane Birch – Nous + “Nite Time Talking.” The Church of Birch pastor began the year with the intoxicating Nous. In my review, I wrote that the set is “atmospheric, restrained and moody, accented by muted vocals and figurative wisps of smoke swirling from speakers. The music smolders, in other words, and conjures an assortment of current and classic recordings – from Anna Calvi and Bat for Lashes to David Bowie and Pink Floyd – while retaining its own unique sound.”

“Nite Time Talking,” a one-off single released on Bandcamp at the end of November, is equally seductive and dreamlike.

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1) Rumer – This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach and David Songbook. Was there any doubt? As I said above, sometimes you just know; and I knew in August of 2015, when Rumer announced her plan to record an album of Bacharach-David songs. That voice with those songs?! It’s a match made in heaven. However, the end result is even better than anticipated. To tweak what I wrote a few weeks back, it’s a lilting and lush set that possesses the grace of Audrey Hepburn, soul of Dusty Springfield and finesse of the 5th Dimension.

In other words, it blows my mind every time I listen to it (and I’ve listened to little else since its release). Here’s another highlight – with a vocal cameo by none other than Burt Bacharach, who also plays piano on the track:

 

As It write, it’s been 17 days and 12 hours (give or take 20 minutes) since my last cigarette. On the morning of the 13th, instead of stepping onto the back porch while my K-cup machine powered on and lighting my first smoke of the day, I tapped a mini nicotine lozenge from its tiny pack and dropped it on my tongue. It’s far from the same rush; it almost satiates the need. (The key word there is almost.) Yet, the first few days were easier than I anticipated – much easier, in fact, than when I tried the full-sized lozenges a few years back, or the patch a few years before that. It wasn’t until I returned to work, after a week off, that I found myself (almost) pounding my desk.

rumer_this_girlAnd so it (still) goes. This past Tuesday, in fact, was one of those days. And then, during a quick Facebook break that afternoon, I saw a post from Rumer about her forthcoming album, This Girl’s in Love: A Bacharach & David Songbook. In fact, the post wasn’t just about the set, but shared the song, “(They Long to Be) Close to You,” that is the lead single. To say that it soothed my stressed-out soul is an understatement.

The album, which is due out October 21st, has all the earmarks of a perfect autumn release; and, in addition to “Close to You,” features “The Look of Love,” “Balance of Nature,” “One Less Bell to Answer,” “Are You There (With Another Girl),” “You’ll Never Get to Heaven (If You Break My Heart),” “Land of Make Believe,” “A House Is Not a Home,” “Walk on By,” “The Last One to Be Loved,” “This Girl’s in Love” and “What the World Needs Now Is Love.”

Anyway, onward to today’s Top 5:

1) Rumer – “(They Long to Be) Close to You.” Rumer’s slowed-down spin of the classic song, which was a hit in 1970 for the Carpenters, is mesmerizing. Those who only know the version by siblings Karen and Richard may be surprised to learn that they weren’t the first to record it – that honor belongs to Richard Chamberlain in 1963. Other artists who recorded it before the Carpenters include Dionne Warwick (1964), Dusty Springfield (1967) and Bacharach himself (1968).

2) Bat for Lashes – “We’ve Only Just Begun.” The Bride, the latest release from Bat for Lashes (aka Natasha Khan), tells the story of a young woman whose life is changed forever when her husband-to-be dies in a car accident while on his way to the chapel. It’s a remarkable, stirring set. This stark cover of the Carpenters’ hit (written by Paul Williams and Roger Nichols) is only available on her official YouTube channel; it’s taken from a concert to promote the album.

3) Emily Jane White – “Pallid Eyes.” I picked up the Brit music magazine Uncut last week for the cover story on Neil Young and came across White’s latest effort, They Moved in Shadow All Together, while flipping through the reviews. It’s an atmospheric set with vocals that wash over you; and is well worth the download.

4) Amber Arcades – “Fading Lines.” Another find from the pages of Uncut, though the issue with the Prince tribute. A Dutch singer-songwriter (real name: Annelotte de Graaf), she’s backed by members of Quilt and Real Estate; and her debut album, of which this is the title cut, is a joy. Harkens back to the music of the early ‘90s (Belly, Breeders, Julianna Hatfield). Also, the video – of a skydiving excursion – is breathtaking.

5) Diane Birch – “Walk on Water.” I’ve written about Nous, the latest release from Birch, here and here. This moody track is one of its best.

dianebirch_nousEschatology is a word I learned from a poem by Denise Levertov (1923-97); it is, she explains in “Seeing for a Moment,” “the study of Last Things.” The piece features neither florid imagery nor artful rhymes, just stark ideas, exploring in a mere 83 words the dichotomies of life – expectation vs. disappointment, fear vs. faith – and how, at a certain stage (and age), the Last Things evolve into the First Things. We no longer focus on the end and, instead, contemplate the beginning—our beginnings. Thus, when facing her older self in the mirror, “word after word/floats through the glass./Towards me.”

The First Things, in this context, include the poem’s opening lines:

“I thought I was growing wings—
it was a cocoon.”

We expect life, when young, to unfold much like school: first grade leads to second leads to third, and on down the line until, one late-spring day, we’re tossing our caps in the air at high-school graduation. But life – for most, at any rate – doesn’t unfurl like the step-by-step directions proffered by Google or Apple maps. Detours and wrong turns are inevitable. We stride forward, stumble, tumble backwards and regroup, and head out yet again.

It’s the grist of life, of art and song. Everything doesn’t snap into place like the DIY furniture purchased from Ikea, though the idea that it should, well, that lingers in the back of one’s mind, always.

Diane Birch’s new EP, Nous, documents dreams, disappointments, disillusionment, faith and acceptance, and an awareness not spoken that, indeed, the Last Things are the First Things. My brief review on Monday captures the set’s overall feel, I think. It’s atmospheric, restrained and moody, accented by muted vocals and figurative wisps of smoke swirling from speakers. The music smolders, in other words, and conjures an assortment of current and classic recordings – from Anna Calvi and Bat for Lashes to David Bowie and Pink Floyd – while retaining its own unique sound.

I mention those references for a reason: Sonically speaking, Nous is light years away from the retro-pop and R&B of Bible Belt, her delightful 2009 debut, and Speak a Little Louder, her adventurous 2013 followup, though it explores many of the same basic themes.

The opening “Hymn for Hypatia,” as I said Monday, conjures the pews and stained glass of church. It feeds into the evocative “How Long,” which is ostensibly about yearning for commitment from a would-be partner but, following the opening hymn, also doubles as a question to a Higher Power. “King of Queens,” the next song, is about the New York Mets, who last won the World Series in 1986, but is, I think, about something deeper, as well. It, too, yearns – but for the glory days of yore, not love.

“Interlude” – a short piano piece that revisits and foreshadows the album’s melodic themes – follows; and then the spellbinding “Stand Under My Love” kicks in: “Hand on my heart/when the future falls apart/and the fire won’t burn/and the wheels won’t turn/when there’s not another road/we will bear the heavy load together.” I posted this same video on Monday, but it’s well worth a second (and third) look:

“Walk on Water” muses on love and faith (“Take a step out/love’s an ocean/we can walk on water”), and is accented by the musings of Diane’s boyfriend’s father, whose insights sound like those of a (Brooklyn) preacher recorded from a staticky radio sometime during the Depression. It’s a surreal, swirling song that features a soulful saxophone blowing in from the distance like a long-suppressed memory bubbling up from the subconscious.

That soulful saxophone (played by Stuart Matthewman of Sade’s band) returns on the set’s closing song, “Woman,” which Diane said on Twitter is “an ode to the divine feminine.” It may be that, but it’s also the atmospheric summation of the EP as a whole. If Denise Levertov had made music, it would have sounded like this.

(The EP is available via Diane Birch’s Bandcamp page.)