Posts Tagged ‘Review’

As I write, the world has been swept into a whirlwind of worry, fear and panic previously known only within dystopian novels, movies and TV shows. A simple trip to the supermarket turns into a bumper-car battle of grocery carts for most, while for others it graduates into a fistfight over something as mundane as toilet tissue. Yet, today, a sense of calm enveloped my being thanks to Maria McKee’s first studio album in 13 years, La Vita Nuova.

The 14-song, 65-minute set conjures the operatic stylings of Life Is Sweet and High Dive, though more the latter than the former, and taps into the collective unconscious in ways that belie articulation. In some ways, “Effigy of Salt,” echoes Kate Chopin’s The Awakening

I hate the things I know
I wish I could retrace my steps
Before I went down to the sea
Where I crept along the depths
And prodded underneath
All along and far too deep

…though there’s far more packed into its four minutes than that. As with Life Is Sweet, the lyrics may seem to be stream-of-consciousness admissions of the heart and soul, but – as with Life Is Sweet – they’re well-crafted odes to the Archetypes of Life Internal and External. The title tune, for instance, finds Maria musing on her long-ago youth…

Once heady in the Pentecost
With tongues unknown and full of praise
Then one day all of that was lost
Now I’m a drone bereft of faith

It’s not quite Frank O’Hara’s “Poem (All the mirrors in the world),” yet that’s the first thing that popped into my mind when I listened to it this morning. Looking away from what O’Hara calls the “overgrown bludgeons” of his youth eases the pain, just as eyeing the other reflections at the bar enables him to brush aside what he’s become. In Maria’s case, however, she’s facing her life’s journey head-on: “Now when I face what I’ve become/I laugh into the ashen gloom.”

(That said, after only a few listens, I’m sure my interpretation is daft.)

There’s far more to unpack with La Vita Nuova. For now, however, after a day of worry and supermarket waits, I’m content to let the music wash over me, Maria’s voice to course through my veins, and for the lyrics – about life, love, youth and more – to settle into my subconscious. As a whole, it’s operatic, dramatic, poetic and, always, always, heartfelt. “However Worn,” the closing song, is proof of that. (I’ll undoubtedly have more to say about it in the weeks to come.)

The track listing:

Beneath my desk is a box that, for the past 14 months, I’ve used as a footstool. Inside it are some hundred-plus bootleg CDs, including quite a few Springsteen sets that have become moot due to his ongoing archival releases, as well as some Neil Young concerts and assorted other oddities, such as this one on the TMOQ bootleg label. It’s a pristine soundboard recording of the early and late shows at McCabe’s Record Shop in Santa Monica, Cal., on May 24, 1987.

Unlike what the CD cover claims, the night’s participants were L.A.-area bands Downy Mildew and Love Tacos (of whom I can find no information); the Dream Syndicate’s Steve Wynn; Opal; Peter Case; Natalie Merchant; and “Mystery Twins” Michael Stipe and Peter Buck. The single CD doesn’t present either show in its entirety, however. Substantial sections are edited out to fit the proceedings onto one disc. As a result, it’s something akin to a best-of.

Due to that, the participants featured on the CD aren’t one and the same with the night’s acts. Steve Wynn, Natalie Merchant, Downy Mildew’s Jenny Homer (misidentified as Jenny Holmer) and Charlie Baldonado are on it, as are Michael Stipe and Peter Buck, and Opal’s Kendra Smith. Wynn is afforded a large portion of the spotlight, but Natalie Merchant and the Twins get their due, too.

Cross-collaboration occurs quite often. For instance, Natalie is joined by Homer and Stipe for a cool rendition of “Hello Stranger” – you can hear the intro to it at the end of the “Don’t Talk” clip above; and Stipe and Buck are joined by Natalie, Homer and others for a fun mashup of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Sunday Morning.” 

Kendra Smith and Natalie Merchant join forces on Opal’s “Hear the Wind Blow”…

And here’s Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant on the “Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song,” which I often ended compilation tapes with back in the day:

Unfortunately, those are the only clips I can find on YouTube from the night’s two sets.

For those curious, here’s the night’s lineup in full:

Early Show:
Downy Mildew: The Big Surprise; Floorboard; Your Blue Eye; Hollow Girl
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White; Torn Away; Pleasure
Steve Wynn: Merritville; Drinking Problem; One More Cup of Coffee (with Bob Forres)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man
Opal: Rocket Machine; She Moves Ahead; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: Don’t Talk (with Downy Mildew’s Charlie Baldonado); Hello Stranger (with Michael Stipe, Jenny Homer and Baldonado); The Wind, the Wind (a cappella); Verdi Cries
Michael Stipe and Geoff Gans: The One I Love
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Welcome to the Occupation; Disturbance at the Heron House; Finest Worksong; Maps and Legends
Michael Stipe: Harpers; Damaged Goods (with Buck and Merchant)
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Leaving on a Jet Plane-Sunday Morning (with Wynn, Merchant, Homer and others)

Late Show:
Downey Mildew: The Kitchen; Floorboard; The Big Surprise; Hollow Girl; Your Blue Eye
Love Tacos: Border Patrol; Torn Away; Pleasure; Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White (with Peter Buck)
Peter Case and Peter Buck: Walk, Don’t Run; Baby Please Don’t Go; A Million Miles Away; Blue Eyes
Steve Wynn: 50 in a 25 Zone; How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?; Killing Time; See That My Grave Is Kept Clean (with Buck)
Steve Wynn and Russ Tolman: Galveston Mud; Solitary Man; Stage Fright; Too Little, Too Late (with Kendra Smith)
Opal: A Falling Star; Rocket Machine; Supernova; Magick Power
Natalie Merchant: The Fat Lady of Limbourg (a cappella); Don’t Talk (with Charlie Baldonado); More Than a Paycheck (with Homer and Smith); Hear the Wind Blow (with Baldonado and Smith); Hello Stranger (with Stipe, Baldonado and Homer); Verdi Cries
Natalie Merchant & Michael Stipe: A Campfire Song; Wheel of Fortune/The Counting Song
Michael Stipe and Peter Buck: Stretch My Hand; The One I Love
Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills: Spooky; Disturbance at the Heron House; King of Birds/Finest Worksong; Fever; So. Central Rain (I’m Sorry); Red Rain

I should add that the shows have been bootlegged beyond my early TMOQ release, which is stamped No. 189; as evidenced by the artwork, the clips above come from bootlegs of the original bootleg. (From what I’ve read, the complete shows made their way into the collector’s world in 2006 – long past my bootleg-collecting days.)

Be that as it may, the single disc – regardless of how or where you find it – is a delight. The sound is perfect; and the performances are a lot of fun. Fans of any of the featured performers are sure to enjoy it. 

The track list:

Here’s an odd way to begin a review: Halfway through my first listen of the opening track of Aoife Nessa Frances’ Land of No Junction, “Geranium,” I switched to another album by another artist. It was early morning – aka still dark outside – and I was on my way to work, yet to be fully caffeinated, and I found the track too languid. Frances’ vocals were thick and omnipresent, akin to fog draped across a misty field.

I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it wasn’t that.

The next afternoon, however, the staccato rhythm from “Geranium” began bouncing around my head. Her vocals clogged my inner-ear. On my way home, I clicked play on the album again and let the music flow. In the words of the bard Bob Dylan circa the Byrds on Younger Than Yesterday, “Crimson flames tied through my ears, rollin’ high and mighty traps pounced with fire on flaming roads using ideas as my maps.”

In other words, as the wafting rhythms and cloudy vocals of the second and third tracks – “Blow Up” and “Here in the Dark” – drifted from the speakers during my commute home, the music began to make sense – as did my initial reaction. I’d noticed a four-star review for the album in Mojo, but hadn’t read said review; all I knew was that Frances was (Northern) Irish. I expected something more celestial and traditional, singer-songwriterish…

…and traditional the music is, actually, just not traditional Irish. Instead, it conjures the Byrds and textured, psychedelia-tinged pop of the mid-1960s, as well as the Paisley Underground of the ‘80s. Check out “Libra,” the most upbeat song on the album, which would be at home on the Notorious Byrd Brothers or aforementioned Younger Than Yesterday:

The title track is another highlight:

Now that I’ve listened to it numerous times, I find Land of No Junction quite compelling and hypnotic. It possesses a strong undertow that pulls you under its seemingly calm surface. It’s more of a late-night album than an early-morning affair, more Opal than Mazzy Star, but regardless of when you listen, you’ll be glad you did.

When I was a teen in the early ‘80s, I often rode my 10-speed bike from Hatboro to Memory Lane Records in neighboring Horsham, a 50-minute round trip, as it traded in used (aka less expensive) vinyl, and left balancing a small stack of LPs and 45s on the handlebars. Around the same time, for a spell, I belonged to the RCA Music Club, which featured insane deals a-plenty. It wasn’t uncommon for me to receive two, three, four or more cassettes in the same shipment. 

Some titles were new; others were new-to-me. Either-or, it didn’t matter. I played them and played them again, winnowing the wheat from the chaff, and then, in a few weeks, rode my bike back to Memory Lane and started anew with another batch of LPs and 45s. Or maybe, instead, I stopped at the Hatboro Music Shop or Sam Goody’s in the Village Mall, which stocked imports – though the prices at both were such that I rarely left with more than one LP. The summer before my senior year, I made the hour-long train trip from my suburban enclave into Philly every so often just to explore the esoteric stores on South Street.

By the end of the ‘80s, when I managed the CD departments at two video stores, it wasn’t uncommon for me to leave work with several CDs I’d sold to myself – and then head to the (relatively) new Tower Records on South Street or down to Jeremiah’s Record Exchange in Delaware to splurge some more. (In between, I was trading tapes with customers. Found lots of great music that way. To the left is one I made around that time. I was obviously in a bit of a country state of mind.)

I’m sure the same basic process played out for many folks reading this: We jumped feet-first into music fandom and obsessiveness, forever compelled to seek out new and new-to-us sounds. Sometimes we (or, at least, me) obsess over one artist or album for weeks or months on end. And then we move on. While there were and are many upsides to the process, there was (and is) one major downside: Some great music got (and gets) lost in the shuffle.

But given that most budgets bust from time to time, and spending must be reined in, you eventually re-acquainted yourself with the one-spin wonders and realized you were too quick in your initial assessment. In the age of streaming media, however, one’s budget is no longer an issue. Whether you subscribe to a streaming service or make do with ads, there’s never a reason to give something a second listen if it didn’t hook you on the first. 

Which, in a roundabout way, leads to this: Paul Weller released Other Aspects, Live at the Royal Albert Hall on March 8th, 2019. It came to be thanks to Weller’s sublime 2018 release, True Meanings, which is a laidback acoustic set accented by orchestral backing. Taking an orchestra out on the road is a tad expensive, however, so he booked a couple nights at the iconic Royal Albert Hall, hired an orchestra, and plotted out a 25-song set that matched the new tunes with past classics, and…voila! A live album was born.

I remember listening to it on the way to work shortly after its release and then on my way home that same night…and returning to the Day-Glo sounds of the Paisley Underground, which had been swirling in and around my head since the release of the 3×4 compilation earlier in the year, the next day. Part of that was due to nostalgia, another part due to escape. And, soon, Lucy Rose’s remarkable No Words Left caught my ear. And then another new release. And then an Oasis jag. And then something else…

I forgot about Other Aspects, in other words, until late December, when I pulled up my Apple Music library in order to listen to Weller’s solo debut for this Essentials piece. I saw Other Aspects listed with the other titles and clicked play…

…and was instantly hooked. How could I have not returned to it sooner?! It’s contemplative, which is where my head’s at right now. Taking life in. Pondering my present and future.

If you listened to “One Bright Star,” you’ll hear the initial strains of an orchestra, applause, and then Weller and his band kick off with the 22 Dreams track. It’s mid-tempo, lush, and anchored by Weller’s weathered, soulful vocals. That sums up the album in full, actually, which features 11 (of 14) songs from True Meanings, a handful of Jam and Style Council tunes, and gems from his solo years. Here’s “Strange Museum” from his solo debut, for example:

Another highlight: “The Soul Searchers” from True Meanings. It’s a tremendous song in the mode of his classic “Wild Wood.”

And speaking of “Wild Wood”… yep, that’s here, too.

As is (obvious from the album’s title) “Aspects,” another stellar True Meanings tune.

Another favorite: “Private Hell,” the Jam song from Setting Sons, which swaps its fiery and frenzied foundation for an orchestral underpinning. The picture Weller paints with his pointed poetry stings, still. (In some respects, life in the 21st century isn’t all that different than the pre-Internet age.)

In short, one’s headspace can make or break an album as much as the music itself. Such was the case here for me, upon first listen. But upon the second, third and fourth listens, which occurred nine months later? If I knew then what I know now, it would’ve been in my Top 5 albums of the year. It’s a wondrous, magical set. Check it out now… or when you’re ready to receive it.