Posts Tagged ‘Review’

The romanticism of youth doesn’t necessarily give way to regret and self-recrimination as we age, but Bruce Springsteen depicts life’s arc as just that in his CinemaScope-lensed Western Stars, which is essentially a John Ford western set in the modern age. The sonic anthology opens with a drifter on the side of a road, his thumb out in hopes of a flagging down a ride. “Maps don’t do much for me, friend/I follow the weather and the wind,” he sings. “Got what I can carry and my song/I’m a rolling stone just rolling on.”

As “Hitch Hikin’” evolves, the album’s tone is set: Symphonic flourishes accent the songs, the bulk of which simmer with a fraught tension. “The Wayfarer,” the second cut, conjures Dion’s “The Wanderer,” the classic oldie that’s deeper and darker than, at first listen, it seems; and “Tucson Train” continues down the same thematic stretch of tracks; one has no doubt that the narrator waiting for his baby on the five-fifteen will, at some point, be hitting the road alone again. He’s compelled to move on, to escape.

The music often echoes the mainstream pop of the 1960s – everything from the cosmopolitan country sounds of Glen Campbell (think “Wichita Lineman”) to Burt Bacharach’s collaborations with Dionne Warwick, where strings and orchestral flourishes welled and jelled with the emotive melodies. Harry Nilsson’s rendition of Fred Neil’s “Everybody’s Talkin’ at Me” is another point of reference, as is “Ballad of Easy Rider” by the Byrds. (For more on the latter, see Ann Powers’ excellent review over at NPR.org.) As I wrote in this piece, I hear it as Springsteen framing adult stories via the adult sounds he heard as a youth and young man.

As the Bacharach mention infers, Western Stars is not a “country” album, per se, though it is western-themed. From the New Jersey turnpike to the “rattlesnake speedway in the Utah desert,” open expanses have often played central roles in Bruce’s songs. Early on, the wide berths of land usually equated with freedom; now, not so much. 

In addition to the hitch hiker, characters include an aging actor, a stuntman, a ranch hand, a failed songwriter, and other men damaged by life. They’re invisible to many, and a source of derision to others – but they ache all the same. (In Time magazine, Andrew R. Chow posits that these folks are veterans still coming to terms with their service, but I think Springsteen cast his net wider than that.)

In Springsteen’s worldview, work is an escape, too (as his unwillingness to leave a concert stage shows). In “Tucson Train,” the narrator’s a crane operator: “Hard work’ll clear your mind and body/the hard sun will burn out the pain.” Likewise, in “Chasin’ Wild Horses,” the narrator admits that, “I make sure I work till I’m so damn tired/way too tired to think.”

The hitch hiker surfaces again in “Somewhere North of Nashville,” a potent and powerful song despite its brevity: “I lie awake in the middle of the night/makin’ a list of things that I didn’t do right.”

The album concludes with “Moonlight Motel,” a song that echoes the haunting “My Father’s House” from Nebraska. Instead of returning to his childhood home, however, this time he finds himself revisiting a motel where he and a lover once enjoyed carefree afternoons. Instead of mourning the un-atoned sins of his youth, he mourns a love that tumbled away like leaves in the breeze.  

In short, Western Stars spins tales of life’s casualties who invariably take two steps back for every one step up. Springsteen’s sympathy and empathy for them ring clear, perhaps because he sees himself in them – as should we all. (“There but for the grace of God go I,” in other words.)

The track list:

 

Live music is better. At its best, in concert, time trips over itself and lands you smack dab in that sweet spot of spacetime where the earth doesn’t whirl, clocks don’t tick, and nothing much matters beyond the rhythms and melodies rolling like the sonic waves they are from stage to shore.

Such was the case, at any rate, when Caroline Spence and her band headlined the Cat’s Cradle back room in Carrboro, N.C., on June 5th – our first time at the legendary club. For those unaware of her, which I suspect is many, she’s a country-tinged singer-songwriter whose music conjures, among others, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Sheryl Crow, Patty Griffin, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams.

“The Long Haul,” about what Merle Haggard dubbed “White Line Fever” (aka life on the road), opened her 80-minute (give or take) set in perfect fashion, given that she and her band drove straight from Nashville for the gig (a 7 1/2-hour journey according to Apple Maps): “Town after town and it’s all the same/They say expecting something different’s the definition of insane/But here I go, I follow those highway stripes leading the way/Down that fine line between making a living and digging your grave.” Here’s the studio track:

One highlight was “Wait on the Wine.” Here she is, a few nights earlier, performing it at Atwood’s Tavern in Cambridge, Mass.:

Another highlight: “Sit Here and Love Me”:

The bulk of the set, which was split by a solo-acoustic turn in its center, was drawn from her stellar 2019 release on Rounder Records, Mint Condition, though she worked in quite a few older tunes, too. My favorite moment came with “Who Are You,” which floated through the ether like a long-lost Emmylou Harris & Spyboy track:

Although you can’t see them in the clip, her backing band – Charlie Whitten on guitar, Luke Preston on bass, and drummer Aaron Shafer-Haiss – was phenomenal. Another moment when they shined was  “Slow Dancer,” a track from her 2017 Spades & Roses album. Here’s the studio version:

The night ended with her rendition of Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses,” which she first heard via Mary Chapin Carpenter when she was 6. It quickly became, and still remains, one of her favorite songs.

In short, good times never seemed so good. If Caroline comes to your town, be sure to catch her. You won’t be disappointed.

 

The terrain of life is such that, at some point, everyone travels across rocky ground. We all grapple with the loss of loved ones, with broken-down cars, illness and unexpected bills, relationship tumult, and unwanted demands on our time. On the flip side, we all speed down similar, happier stretches of life’s highway. As Rhode Island-based country singer-songwriter Charlie Marie, who made her bones at Belmont University in Nashville, puts it in “Countryside,” “We’re all stars in a different show, singing along with the radio, all the same different shades of gray just trying to enjoy the ride.”

Last Sunday, my plan for this morn – yes, I sometimes think ahead – was to expound on “Hello Sunshine,” the new Bruce Springsteen track released from his forthcoming Western Stars album, and E Street Radio, the Bruce Springsteen channel on SiriusXM. But, that night, I read this review on Highway Queens about Charlie Marie’s eponymous EP, and then gave it a listen on my way to work the next day. 

The opener, “Rhinestone,” is built off an iconic quote from Dolly Parton – “it’s hard to be a diamond in a rhinestone world” – and is a wry and sly parable about being true to one’s self. As with the songs that follow, it’s accented by Charlie Marie’s Northeastern twang; the quivers and quavers of her vocals sink into the soul like the warmth of the sun. At times, she conjures a young Emmylou. Here’s “Rodeo”…

She has one of those voices, in other words. Listening this morning to her first two releases – another self-titled EP from 2015 and Chucktown Takes, a stripped-down live set from 2018 that was recorded at a South Carolina AirBnB – one can hear her evolution as an artist. The one constant: Her vocals.

Here’s a cool track-by-track breakdown of the EP that she made with her grandmother, who introduced her to Patsy Cline.

(Just as an aside, her accent reminds me of Midge Maisel’s – a good thing!)

The song she references as her favorite on the EP, “Shot in the Dark,” is a gem. Here she is is in an NYC subway station singing it – check out the glorious echo.

There’s an age-old show-biz quote that it’s always best to leave the audience wanting more. Whether true or not, it’s safe to say that’s how you’ll feel once the EP comes to an end – 18 (or so) minutes just isn’t enough. Here’s looking forward to Charlie Marie’s next release…

(You can buy the EP, along with Charlie Marie’s previous two offerings, from her BandCamp page.)

Courtney Marie Andrews’ recent May Your Kindness Remain (Acoustic) EP features acoustic renditions of four songs from last year’s May Your Kindness Remain album. That LP showcased an expansive sound that conjured the Band and Little Feat, among others, and was a dramatic – though not unwelcome – departure from the country-folk flavorings that accented her 2016 set, Honest Life.

Stripped to their essence, the songs – the title track, “Took You Up,” “Rough Around the Edges” and “Border” – lose none of their power. They aren’t revelatory performances, per se, but are revelations all the same. Minus the wheezing organ and gospel flourishes, for example, “May Your Kindness Remain” crests and recedes on Courtney’s crystalline vocal alone.

It’s a close approximation to how she sounded when I first saw her live, in May 2017, backed only by guitarist/consigliere Dillon Warnek. Her voice was clear and strong that night, a thing of true aural beauty – and yet her vocals were no match for the songs themselves. To my ears, they were imbued with the past, present and future of American music.

That’s still the case. “Is it the journey or the destination?” opens “Took You Up,” conjuring a line from a long-ago Stephen Stills song, “Thoroughfare Gap”: “It’s no matter. No distance. It’s the ride.” On album, Dillon’s electric guitar amplifies the emotional underpinning of the lyrics to perfection. Sans those accents and umlauts, however, Courtney’s acoustic delivery is no less wondrous. Likewise “Rough Around the Edges.” On album, piano buttresses the self-aware confessional; on EP, it’s not missed (though, in a sense, it is). “Border,” about measuring those who’ve been down the deepest well, swaps its sinewy rhythm for a “Hollis Brown”-like guitar motif.

Up top, I said these aren’t revelatory performances, per se, but are revelations all the same. That’s because, to slightly tweak that Stephen Stills line, “It’s no matter. No distance. It’s the song.” With songs this strong, delivery matters not; they simply resonate.