Posts Tagged ‘Review’

Austin-based singer-songwriter Nichole Wagner delves into matters of the heart, the daily grind, and a little baseball via 10 melodic dispatches on And the Sky Caught Fire, her full-length debut. Her lyrical acumen is deft; she displays a poet’s knack for illuminating the soul. “The Winner Takes All,” which opens the set, is a good example.

With just a few well-placed brushstrokes, she paints a scene that reflects the fading embers of a relationship, or at least the last wisps of an unsettled night. “Too late now, can’t take back what’s been said/And the sky caught fire as the smoke curled around your head.”

“Dynamite,” the second song, is about life in a factory town after the factory’s been shut down: “I can’t see living in a dying town/It’s like I left my soul in the lost and found/Every night I say that tomorrow’s the day/Initiate, detonate, blow it up and walk away.”

Another highlight: “Yellow Butterfly,” about a brief encounter with a winged insect of the nice kind… 

“This Kind of Love,” which I’ve shared before, is another gem. Like many of the other songs, it’s about moving on from a failed relationship: “There was a time I was certain you were what I wanted/Then the feeling faded, it left me haunted.”

Her rendition of Warren Zevon’s “Reconsider Me” is another highlight.

“Sparks & Gasoline,” the closing track, may well be my favorite. It’s about a gal and guy who are “more like Stevie and Lindsey than Johnny and June” yet their love is true. “You and me babe, we’ll continue to sing/Our songs are different but they mean the same thing.” (If you listen, you’ll also hear a funny line about designated hitters in baseball.)

If you enjoy country-flavored folk, such as Tift Merritt, Nanci Griffith or Mary Chapin Carpenter, And the Sky Caught Fire is well worth picking up. It’s a keeper. 

The track listing: 

  1. Winner Takes All
  2. Dynamite
  3. Yellow Butterfly
  4. Rules of Baseball
  5. The Last Time
  6. This Kind of Love
  7. Let Me Know
  8. Fires of Pompeii
  9. Reconsider Me
  10. Sparks & Gasoline

(The album is available from the usual suspects, including Bandcamp, and can be streamed via Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube.)

Who doesn’t want to review records?

Growing up, I certainly did. I devoured Rolling Stone, Record, Creem, Musician and other music periodicals less for the articles and more for the reviews, which I usually read first. Due to the lag between a record’s release and the review, on occasion I already owned an LP (or cassette) before I read the critic’s take. One thing that fascinated me: Why I sometimes liked something the reviewer didn’t. Another thing that fascinated me: the reverse. 

The former irked me, the latter made me feel smug. But neither changed my opinion on the necessity of reviews. I was always on the lookout for something new (or new-to-me), and the magazines covered things that never made the playlists of my local radio stations, MTV or VH1. As a result, I often bought things based on a review, with new releases discovered via the magazines and catalog items from the Dave Marsh-edited Rolling Stone Record Guide. Few were four- or five-star reviews.

Over time, I came to recognize the names of said reviewers. Some found folk sanctimonious and others thought prog-rock priggish, and even more treated pop like a dirty word. (I generally subscribe to the second myself.) But the only bad reviews were those that didn’t delve beyond the rudimentary yea or nay to explain or defend the assessment, and also didn’t detail the artist’s journey. Everyone has their own criteria for what is and isn’t good music, after all, and it’s easy to be dismissive of what one dislikes. (I’ve been that in the past, though not often in these pages.) Some fans want technical precision. Others seek emotional resonance, a melody they can hum along to, and/or lyrics that shed light on the human condition. And yet others are happy with just about anything that has a good beat that they can dance to…

As I’ve matured, I’ve come to the realization that there is no right or wrong. Not really. There’s preference and personal peccadilloes – aka so-called “guilty pleasures.” That’s about it.

Anyway, I still lean on reviews – both online and in print. Whenever my wife and I visit a B&N, I pick up the British music magazines Uncut and Mojo, buy a high-octane coffee drink in the cafe, and read the reviews of the new releases and archival reissues. What I look for is tailor-made to my tastes: Is it dreamy, upbeat, reflective, melody-centric, reminiscent of the Beatles, Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers or the Velvet Underground? Joni, Linda or Neil?

Unlike yesteryear, of course, it doesn’t cost me more than my Apple Music subscription to check out whatever I’ve just read about. (Though, since I rarely use headphones, I have to wait ’til we’re in the car going home.) That happened last week with Melody’s Echo Chamber’s latest release, Bon Voyage. It’s the brainchild of Melody Prochet, who’s akin to a French Hope Sandoval with an airier vibe.

(Sometimes, of course, I stumble upon cool artists through other means – Erin O’Dowd, who I discovered on Kickstarter, springs to mind. Nichole Wagner, who I found via a Nanci Griffith fan group on Facebook, is another. Both are worth checking out.)

All of which leads to this, one of my first reviews to make it to print – on September 18, 1984, in the Ogontz Campus News, the newspaper for what’s now known as Penn State Abington. I doubt if anyone beyond the newspaper staff and contributors read it. (And I was just a contributor; I’d pop into the office, find the editor of the entertainment section, and turn something in. On spec. Sometimes it made it into the paper; sometimes not.) Reading it now makes me laugh and cringe at the same time – but it was the first step in the journey to me launching the original Old Grey Cat website and, then, this blog. (I post-corrected a few glaring errors that slipped through the newspaper’s crack proofreading squad…)

A laconic four-track dispatch from far across the time-space continuum: That, in a nutshell, is Still. Three of the four songs are “new,” though two date to years long ago – i.e., 2000, when the band debuted seven new songs while on tour. For reasons known only to them, they failed to follow-up the live sets with a studio offering.

The opener, “Quiet, The Winter Harbor,” is one of those older songs. It features a melancholic piano motif and (typically) mesmerizing Hope Sandoval vocal, with the lyrics seemingly about being lost in the ocean of life: “Save me/‘cause I’m still sinking/and you got a harbor close to shore.” A guitar eventually wafts in, and the melody pushes forth and pulls back like the tide at dusk.

The second track, “That Way Again,” also dates to 2000. It’s primarily an acoustic-driven number, and is another hypnotic gem. The title track, then, is the only truly new song. It’s short, essentially a tone poem about love slipping away: “Your eyes are warm still/but inside you’ve just escaped.”

The final track is another older tune, this time a reworking of the title song of Mazzy Star’s classic 1993 opus So Tonight That I Might See. It hews close to the original with its spacey vibe, pulsating like a variable star…or a lost Velvet Underground track. Either way, it’s a guaranteed contact high. It, like the EP as a whole, is potent stuff.

Freakin’ phenomenal. That, in a nutshell, sums up the latest single from Rylie Bourne. It conjures the outlaw country ethos of yore, with a taut rhythm, stinging guitar, and confessional lyrics that are equal parts self-reflection and self-recrimination. “You think you know who I am/but I know who I’ve been/and I don’t see that changing anyhow/I haven’t walked the line/not the way I’m supposed to/I’ve been so unkind/to ones that I am close to…”

And, of course, there’s that voice. It engulfs the soul.

In an interview with Music Central Update, Rylie explains that the song’s inspiration was a past relationship. “I was in a situation in which I could feel myself changing as a person, and not for the good. We were both unhappy and I was doing and saying things that I wouldn’t normally. I no longer felt true to myself.” (It’s an interview well worth reading, so check it out.)

To my ears, the song sounds like a lost track from Hank Williams Jr.’s Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound or The Pressure Is On. In fact, and perhaps it’s due to me listening to the tune on repeat during my morning commutes this week, but “Untrue” brought me back to a specific sonic odyssey from my own bygone outlaw days, aka the mid-‘80s. When heading home from the Penn State mothership in Happy Valley, I often ferried passengers, who paid for gas and the tolls. On this day in question, it was myself, my roommate, and two freshmen. As we pulled out of the dorm’s parking lot, I asked them, “so what kind of music do y’all like?” 

“Anything but country,” came the reply from one. The other agreed.

My roommate chuckled. He knew what was coming, if only from the glint in my eye. And, with that, I pushed a cassette into the tape deck, and the woozy title track to Hank Jr.’s Whiskey Bent staggered from the speakers. Some tapes were albums in full, but at least one was a mix – not all outlaw, but it was all country and country-flavored – Lone Justice, Flying Burrito Brothers, Jason & the Scorchers, possibly Dwight Yoakam.

“Untrue” would have fit right in. It’s traditional, rebellious, country and rock. It smokes.