Posts Tagged ‘The Staves’

(The Staves, circa 2017)

Friday morn, just as I began my workday, I clicked play on the latest offering from the sisters Staveley-Taylor, aka Jess, Milly and Emily, aka the Staves. Titled Good Woman, the album features 12 courses of heavenly harmonies and crunchy sundries deep fried with help from fast-order chef (and co-producer) John Congleton, perhaps best known for the sonic stews he’s brewed with Sharon Van Etten and St. Vincent. A Zoom meeting interrupted. Then Tyler the Cat needed attention. Then he needed some more. Diane entered our shared den as the final song, “Waiting on Me to Change,” wafted from the speakers. “Is this the Staves?” she asked. “I’d recognize them anywhere.” 

I’ve listened to it a few more times since, thankfully with less Zoom and cat distractions. In short, it’s the Staves. Good songs. Great harmonies. Its genesis, I should mention, followed several years of emotional tumult: In 2018, their mother and grandmother passed away within weeks of each other; not long thereafter, Milly ended a serious relationship and moved back to her native England from Minneapolis, where she had been living; and, the following year, Emily gave birth to her first child. And then, of course, there was 2020 – what more needs to be said than that? At the same time, they wanted to push their sound beyond the harmony-laden folk stylings they’re known for.

In an interview with Stereogum that’s well worth the read, as Jess and Milly offer a track-by-track teardown of the album, Jess explains that they began the experimentation long before Congleton entered the picture. “It was actually driven a lot by Milly’s ideas to use ambient recordings. From the beginning I think she was really into that as a thing for the record. So to be able to have the studio recordings with a proper mic, but to incorporate, I guess, a different perspective from a different sonic space. So we had recordings from our iPhones, recordings on field recorders, being outside or just being in a much bigger room that echoed, and we just kind of kept recording anything we found interesting.”

To my ears, one of the more radical songs is “Careful, Kid,” which features a grungy feel and slightly askew vocals. To an extent, it conjures early Pretenders with both its sound and lyrics: “If you know, you know/Well, I never really know/When you’re coming in strong/But you waited too long/All the kicks in ribs/But they can really make you weak/And I’m coming back ‘round/From a five-year rebound.”

Yet, even with such sonic deviations, their phonics give them away. Vocals swoop in and out, join together and drift apart, lingering one below the next. It’s a cool sound. Of course, not all are comfortable with such changes – and for those who long for the old-fogey ways of If I Was, there’s plenty of that here, too. “Satisfied,” for example, would have fit in with the set we saw back in 2017, when they played the World Cafe Live. (That’s where the concert picture comes from.) The other songs would have, too.

Likewise, the acoustic splendor of “Waiting on Me to Change,” which closes the album, is exquisite. In that Stereogum piece, Jess says that “It’s not a defiant, big drumroll ending. It’s like by that point I think we’ve exhausted all our options in a way. We’ve said so much that it’s kind of going back to those themes of working on yourself, of failure, of trying – embracing imperfections that you have and acknowledging them and saying, ‘I’m not going to change for anyone else other than myself.’ But kind of checking yourself and saying, ‘I know I probably should, but I’m only gonna do it when I’m ready.’”

As a whole, as I said above, it’s the Staves. Good songs. Great harmonies. I’d add that the ambient additions accent each track’s mood and never distract. It’s also not as drastic a stylistic departure as, say, Trans was for Neil Young. If anything, it’s a furtherance. Give it a listen and you’ll listen to it again, guaranteed.

The track list:

A mere two weeks after our last snow event, summer visited the Delaware Valley yesterday and Friday. Temperatures hit 84 degrees Fahrenheit both days, and then skipped out the backdoor last night. It’s a chilly and damp 50 degrees as I type, 9:02am Sunday morn, and the weather forecast for the week all but guarantees that the comforter will return to the bed tonight, and that the cat will be back beneath it, between my feet, for at least part of the evening.

Anyway, enough of the preamble. For yesterday’s Top 5, I looked back 40 years. For today’s Top 5: Suspended in Time. Just ‘cause.

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Suspended in Time.” Way back in February, I wrote of the announced track listing for the Juliana Hatfield Sings Olivia Newton-John album that “[t]he only change I would make: swapping out ‘Suspended in Time’ for ‘Come on Over.’” So it stands to reason that, now that I’ve lived with the album for a week and a half, it’s become one of my favorite songs from the set. It just floors me.

2) Courtney Marie Andrews – “Warning Sign.” I’ve shared this song before, but not this specific performance from the Schubas Tavern in Chicago on March 31st. On it, Courtney lets loose her inner Aretha…

3) First Aid Kit – “Fireworks.” To be honest, I’d just about forgotten that Ruins was released this year – seems like a lifetime ago. But here they are, on Jimmy Kimmel Live last week, performing my favorite track from the album….(update 6/4/18 – the clip was removed at some point in the past month. So here they are on KCRW from earlier in the year.)

4) The Staves & yMusic – “The Way Is Read.” Uploaded just last month, this performance is spellbinding. The song, of course, is from the Staves’ collaboration with yMusic, The Way Is Read.

5) Lone Justice – “East of Eden.” I mined this YouTube gem on Friday night: Maria McKee and Lone Justice circa 1985. The song is still a shotgun blast of sonic newness to my ears, as is their self-titled debut as a whole. (And I didn’t realize until just now that I bought it 33 years ago this week.)

And because one LJ song or clip is never enough, at least for me this morning, here’s two more… 

 

Earlier this week, I planned to use this morning to write a grand essay about audience expectations, artistic inclinations and one of my favorite poems by Wallace Stevens, “The Man With the Blue Guitar,” which was partially inspired by Pablo Picasso’s “The Old Guitarist.”

It begins:

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green.

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play, you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

There’s more, of course, and – as with “The Idea of Order at Key West” – much of the poem is referential and deferential to the power and source of poetry (and art as a whole) – it’s a perfect subject for a thought piece, right?

But a funny thing happened between then and this afternoon:

A nor’easter blew through the Philly region (and the Northeastern U.S.) yesterday. Among its other misdeeds: heavy rain, strong winds and blinding snow. It was the first two that caused me to work from home; the snow was something of a surprise, as the last weather map I saw showed my hometown on the borderline between receiving none and two-or-so inches. (And if the latter, said the same report, accumulations would mainly be on the grass.) So imagine my surprise when I opened the front door at 12:30pm and saw what appeared like a white blanket draped across the neighborhood.

Still, that shock aside, it wasn’t much different than all of my workdays: busy, busy, busy. As 5 o’clock neared, I began calculating just how much longer I could vs. should work. Fridays are Fridays, after all, and tired eyes are tired eyes, but deadlines and commitments must be met. Before I could map out my end time, however, the lamp beside the desk flickered – and, just like that, we lost power. “Don’t worry,” I told Diane. “It’ll be back soon.”

But, as the minutes turned into an hour, and that hour into hours, it became obvious that it wasn’t to be soon.

To make a bad thing worse: the storm also killed cell coverage for us. I.e., no Internet. No Facebook. No Twitter. No YouTube, Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Video. No iCloud. Even making a phone call proved problematic: It took two hours before I was able to call our electric company to report the outage and learn what the ETA for power to return was. (The initial estimate: the 4th at 5pm.) The only good: my Morphie battery pack for my iPhone kept it at 100 percent for the next 20 hours; Diane’s iPads were more or less fully charged; and, though her iPhone wasn’t, my MacBook was – and we used that to bring her phone back to life. (Not that she could do anything with it beyond read.)

I have several portable hard drives filled with music, but we wanted to be transported into another world – a good movie or TV show. Without access to the Cloud, or my powered hard drives (where I store things I’ve downloaded through the years, options were severely limited – some episodes of Pretty Little Liars, which Diane never got into, and the pilots for Veronica Mars and Once Upon a Time, which were both free downloads at some point from iTunes. So we watched both on my MacBook while lying beneath a small stack of blankets in bed.

The Veronica Mars pilot remains a thing of genius. It took us away from a chilly, dreary night to sunny Neptune, Cal., where a seemingly hardened teen detective shows herself to be, in reality, a marshmallow. I still miss that series. Once Upon a Time was less genius and more fluff, but fun fluff. (It’s still on the air, actually, though we stopped watching ‘round about Season 4.)

This morning, cell reception was back though the electricity wasn’t – but it wasn’t a super-cold night, so in that sense we were blessed. The downstairs was 52 degrees (Fahrenheit), as the picture shows; it could have been much, much worse.

After a run to Dunkin’ Donuts, where the Girl Scouts-branded Coconut Caramel coffee truly hit the spot, we gathered our various gadgets and hightailed it to my mother’s to charge everything that needed charging. It was there, round about noon, that we learned from Facebook that our power had likely been restored, as a nearby business was back online. And, sure enough, when we swung home, it was – the upstairs TV was blaring like a banshee.

We headed out to celebrate at our favorite restaurant – only to discover that it was closed due to a power outage of its own. In the immortal word of the eminent philosopher Homer, “D’oh!”

And, with that, here’s today’s Top 5: Of Marshmallows, Music & Nor’easters.

1) Juliana Hatfield – “Physical.” The latest song from Juliana’s forthcoming ONJ tribute is an absolute stunner. In a Stereogum article, she says “Olivia Newton-John’s lusty ‘Physical’ is a groovy, bouncy song, but my take on it is darker, more aggro, because I don’t think of lust as fun or funny; I think it’s dangerous and disruptive and mostly unwelcome. So that is my interpretation of “Physical”: the human condition is a bummer, and desire a frustrating impediment to serenity.”

2) Maryanne Window & Mary Lou Lord – “Long May You Run.” So I just discovered this sweet rendition of the Neil Young classic, which is from early 2014, this past week. Maryanne Window is an Australian musician and producer, and collaborated with Mary Lou on her 2015 Backstreet Angels album (an overlooked treasure). Here, she takes the lead while Mary Lou sings backup.

3) The Staves – “Sadness Don’t Own Me.” I’ve been playing the Pine Hollow EP over and over (and over) on my commutes of late. It’s stress-reduction set to song. And this song… as Diane just said, “It’s just so beautiful.”

4) Lucy Rose – “All That Fear.” Hearing the Staves always leads me to Lucy Rose due to “Floral Dresses.” Earlier this week, she shared the video for this Something’s Changing out-take and said this about it on her Facebook page: “My husband Will and I filmed this on our first night in Australia. I was jet-lagged, unwashed hair and had nothing to hide. I wanted to show a side of me that for so long I wouldn’t have shown anyone and a side of me I’ve grown to love.”

5) Laura Marling – “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall.” The British folksinger recorded this spellbinding cover of the Bob Dylan classic for the Peaky Blinders finale.

And one bonus…

Courtney Marie Andrews – “Kindness of Strangers.” I shared this last week, and the audio before that. It’s another song I can’t get enough of. (Her forthcoming album, May Your Kindness Remain, is going to be grand.)

The Staves unveiled a welcome surprise yesterday, February 23rd: Pine Hollow (Live), a six-track EP. According to their Facebook announcement, they recorded the songs over three nights at the Pine Hollow Studios in Eau Claire, Wis.

The set features three cover songs and three of their own now-classic compositions (from their If I Was and The Way Is Read albums). The first cover is Sufjan Stevens’ “Chicago”; the second is Ray LaMontagne’s “Jolene”; and the third is the Dino Valenti-penned Karen Dalton song “Something’s on Your Mind”:

(Speaking of Valenti, one day I’d love to hear the Sisters Staveley-Taylor share their spin on his “Let’s Get Together.”)

Another Pine Hollow highlight is their rendition of “Sadness Don’t Own Me” from If I Was:

“Trouble on My Mind,” originally released on their semi-recent yMusic collaboration, The Way Is Read, is as stunning with a piano as it is with strings.

What’s amazing about the EP: Everything. Their vocals swoop in and out, blend together, intertwine like strands of triple-helix DNA, and cushion a wearied soul like few others. My only criticism, and it’s not really a criticism: six songs just aren’t enough.

(In addition to the usual download outlets, the EP is available on Apple Music, Spotify and YouTube.)