Posts Tagged ‘Review’

“Woke up this morning, thought it was a dream/I can’t watch the news for the life of me/Seems the seeds that we’re sowin’ are gettin’ heavy to bear/Less than a dream, more like a nightmare.” So opens “Lived and Let Go,” one highlight from Kentucky country/roots singer-songwriter Kelsey Waldon’s new White Noise/White Lines album.

Who doesn’t feel that way, these days? But what lifts the song above a broadside about the ugliness that permeates life circa 2019 is what comes next: “And the voices, they call, and they promise, they swear/They’re talkin’ so loud, but don’t get anywhere/And I’m not one to claim more than I know/But we live here and die here, take heart ‘fore you go.”  

White Noise/White Lines, as a whole, mines the earthen strains of country music that mainstream Nashville, too often these days, ignores. It’s not the country-pop played on the radio, but the country-punk once played in the honky-tonks. It’s raw and ragged, real. Black soot courses through its veins.

One of my favorite songs is “Kentucky, 1988,” about growing up in the oddly named community of Monkey’s Eyebrow, Ky. It’s neither a gauzy nostalgia fest nor a bitter reminiscence, I hasten to add, just an honest remembrance of life as it was, and how she carries those years with her, still. “This is my DNA/No matter how far I get away/There’s just some things that will never change/Kentucky, 1988.” 

Here she and her band are on The Burl Sessions performing it:

In short, Kelsey’s Kentucky twang is as strong as her talent, and her talent is on full display in these 11 tunes. I hear echoes of everyone from Loretta Lynn to Townes Van Zandt to Dwight Yoakam in the grooves, but most of all I hear her heart beating strong. White Noise/White Lines is highly recommended.

(For more on Kelsey’s backstory, and insights into the album, be sure to read this No Depressions article and this NPR piece.)

I saw the light on Friday night when, a little past 9pm, country singer Leslie Stevens took to the stage at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room. Before a sparse audience, she laid down an hour-long set that swayed from salvation (sans soup and soap) to silliness and back again, earning rapturous applause and, without question, winning over a few converts.

She opened with “Sinner,” the title cut to her recent LP in which she admits, “I’m not the saint you’ve been hoping for/I’m not the blessing at your door.” On album, it’s an atmospheric tour de force that conjures, to my ears, both Emmylou Harris circa Wrecking Ball and Jessie Baylin circa Little Spark. Live, with just her electric guitar and the always great Eric Heywood on steel guitar, it was as sublime. (We last saw Eric in 2017 with Tift Merritt.) “My Tears Are Wasted on You,” a lament that dates to her days with the Badgers (the band, not the squat omnivores), followed. It’s everything a great country song should be, and more.

Tom Petty’s “Southern Accents” was up next – an unlikely pick, perhaps, but most welcome. “12 Feet High,” another Sinner tune, picked up the pace. On the surface, it’s an ode to certain intoxicants, but its sly humor (“Spent all night staring up at shooting stars/Didn’t even notice they were only cars”) sets up something more somber (“Oh, and darling, I’ve been frowning/Oh, and darling, I’ve been drowning/Drowning all of my sorrows/In our lost tomorrows.”) Another of the album’s highlights, “Fallin’,” lost none of its luster. Although I dislike the metaphor, her vocals are indeed like honey – they flow from light to dark, often within the same song, and more often than not set up shop somewhere in the gradients in between.

One of the sillier moments came on the kazoo-accented sing-along of “It’s Okay to Trip,” a song from the Leslie Stevens & the Badgers’ 2010 album, Roomful of Smoke. (And, yes, I said “kazoo.”) She cajoled everyone to sing, and everyone did, “it’s okay to trip, but don’t fall/it’s okay to fall, but don’t hurt yourself/it’s alright to hurt yourself, but don’t hurt nobody else/it’s okay to hurt somebody else/just say you’re sorry…” It was funny and charming – much like Leslie herself.

“Everybody Drinks and Drives in Heaven,” from her 2012 Donkey and the Rose album, was similarly amusing. (She noted before hand that heaven is the only place where that’s permissible because everyone’s already dead.) As someone who, going into the show, was only familiar with Sinner, the non-Sinner songs were a revelation – as was her humor. For example, also from Roomful of Smoke, “Old-Timers” is a deft portrait of love felled by a tree – literally. 

On a serious note, she prefaced “Depression, Descent” with a discussion of suicide, as she explained the song was spurred by a friend who took his life, and noted that it’s okay to not be okay. It’s a powerful, powerful song. And while the quality of my video isn’t the best, it ably captures the emotion of the performance:

The night ended with Leslie’s stirring cover of Buffy St. Marie’s version of Neil Young’s “Helpless.” (She went out of her way to explain it that way.)

In short, she provided salvation through song, allowing us to momentarily escape the madness that is life in the Trump Age. The only downside to the night was the set’s brevity; it would have been nice to hear a few additional Sinner tunes, such as “Storybook,” “Sylvie” and “Teen Bride.” Here’s the non-set setlist, which veered off course somewhere along the way…

Afterwards, we had a chance to briefly meet Leslie, who was as effervescent off-stage as she is on. If you have the opportunity to see her live, do. And if you don’t, check her out on Apple Music, Spotify or YouTube – and then go buy something from her website.

The end of the decade is nigh. I’m not sure why I didn’t realize it until this week, but the clock’s hands are tick-tick-ticking closer to midnight. Before this annus horribilis gives way to the Year of Visual Acuity, however, listen to this:

That’s the opener to Leslie Stevens’ new album, Sinner, which as a whole conjures a century’s worth of country music in its 10 tracks, echoing everyone from Glen Campbell to Dolly Parton to Gram Parsons to Emmylou Harris and her Spyboy band. It’s the kind of album you play once, and wind up playing again and again, each time hearing something new. Her vocals are a thing of ever-shifting beauty, soulful and sweet and pure, and the songs are strong and sure.

It’s traditional. Alternative. Unique. Her voice trembles, rises and falls, dynamic and dramatic, in sync not just with the lyrics but the soul. Some are story-songs. Others are from the heart.

Here’s a live rendition of another of the album’s highlights:

Leslie Stevens is currently on tour in the States, and thankfully isn’t bypassing my neck of the woods. You can see where she’s playing, and buy Sinner, at her website. (It’s also available via the normal streaming sites.)

The whys and wherefores of music fandom are such that it’s near impossible to convey them on screen. They’re simultaneously elusive and illusive, mythical Bigfoots found only in the deepest reaches of the synaptic thicket called the brain. A series of interlinked sounds kicks off a chain reaction within our neurotransmitters – that is, physically speaking, what happens. But why one melody, guitar riff and soaring chorus instead of another? 

Among music-centric films, it’s rare that a fan is front and center – and rarer still that we see how the fan is born. I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Diner, The In Crowd, High Fidelity and Almost Famous are all good to great films, for example, but only Almost Famous shows what fueled the fandom. And the scene when 11-year-old William Miller flips through the LPs his sister left for him, lights a candle and places the Who’s Tommy on his turntable is wondrous – but then we jump a few years into the future to find William’s fandom in full swing.

“Blinded by the Light” – which the Washington Post posits “may be the feel-good movie of the summer” – fills in the gap. Set in 1987 Luton, England, the movie follows Javed Khan (Viveik Kalra), a British teen of Pakistani descent who dreams of being a writer. But life, he fears, is passing him by due to his overly strict father. At the same time, he deals with the realities of racism and the era’s economic tumult (1987 was the seventh year in a row of 10+% unemployment in the U.K.). His only escape comes from the Walkman hitched to his belt, and the feather-light headphones he slips over his ears whenever he can.

At the movie’s start, he listens to such Britpop acts as Madness and Pet Shop Boys, but the music’s a deflection from his life, not a reflection of it. Until, that is, when during a moment of personal crisis he inserts Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the USA into the Walkman and hears “Dancing in the Dark” for the first time. Roops (Aaron Phagura), a new friend at school, had lent him the cassettes for it and Darkness on the Edge of Town, and the music is a revelation, articulating everything he’s been unable to put into words about his life. As seen in the trailer below, the lyrics swirl around his head…

…and, before you know it, the music and lyrics inspire him for the better.

Directed by Gurinder Chadha, Blinded by the Light was inspired by Sarfraz Manzoor’s memoir Greetings from Bury Park, and written by Manzoor, Chadha, and Chadha’s husband Paul Mayeda Berges. In some respects, it follows the formula laid down by Chadha’s Bend It Like a Beckham, but substitutes Springsteen fandom for soccer. There are several scenes of racism-related ugliness; moments of utter sweetness, such as when Javed serenades a girl he fancies; and moments of pure giddiness, such as when Javed and Roops take control of the school’s music station and blast the Boss for all to hear.

I found it a fun, feel-good film that explains how the best music can and does transcend its origins, and reflects the listener’s reality as much as the artist’s. As I’ve noted before, the mark of much (though not all) great art is that it’s both personal and universal, restrictive yet expansive. That, in the late ‘80s, a British kid of Pakistani descent can fall under the sway of a New Jersey born-and-bred, working-class rock star shouldn’t come as a surprise. Life is life, after all, no matter where one lives or what one’s background is.