Posts Tagged ‘Wonder Why’

The Delaware Valley faces a variety of weather-related advisories and warnings this morning. The same historic storm that brought snow to Texas, Louisiana and the Deep South is brushing the Delaware and Jersey coasts, and is large enough that those of us inland are facing slushy and slippery roads if we dare to leave the comforts of our homes.

It’s a reminder that the year is coming to a close.

‘Tis the season for merriment, of course, with office parties, family gatherings and auld lang syne, and our annual screening of It’s a Wonderful Life (one of the greatest movies ever made), but it’s also a time for reflection. In the case of this blog, that means contemplating the music that stirred my soul over the past 12 months and selecting my Album of the Year. I gather the contenders, listen to them from start to finish, listen to them again and again, and cogitate long into the night. What’s No. 1? What’s No. 5? Should I list honorable mentions?

First, though, the caveat that I first penned in a Facebook post back in 2010: “The candidates are drawn from what I’ve purchased, so the pool is decidedly limited in comparison to, say, what the writers at Rolling Stone or Allmusic.com are exposed to. Some years I buy a lot and some years not, primarily due to my listening habits – I play albums I love over and over and over until they become one with my subconscious (obsession, not variety, is my spice of life). So the more I like certain albums, the less overall I hear.”

Second: The candidates are also winnowed by my age, race, gender and idiosyncrasies. I’m a middle-aged white guy, in other words, with catholic tastes.

Third: I’m not prone to highfalutin analysis, per se, and only think about meters and rhymes if they teeter or grind a song to a halt. On American Bandstand’s “Rate-a-Record” segment, the cliched “it’s got a good beat and you can dance to it” critique became a thing of jokey scorn, though it had much merit. Likewise, my pet phrases of “it takes you there, wherever there is” and “wow, just wow,” though overused, have merit. Great music takes us away from the immediate – it makes good times better and bad times manageable.

With that in mind, here are the Old Grey Cat’s Albums of the Year…

5) Neil Young – Hitchhiker. Neil released two albums in 2017: the archival Hitchhiker, which he recorded in one night in 1976, and the Promise of the Real-backed The Visitor. Hitchhiker, which was released in September, is a gem that shines brighter with each play while The Visitor…I like what I’ve heard, but – given that it was released on December 1st – haven’t heard it enough to weigh in, as of yet. But Hitchhiker…as I said in my review, “it’s a magical, mystical set.”

4) The Staves & yMusic – The Way Is Read. The Staves, of course, are sisters Jessica, Camilla and Emily Staveley-Taylor, whose luscious harmonies are a thing of utter wonder. yMusic is a chamber ensemble that, honestly, I know little about, but their musical flourishes on the album are reminiscent (to me, at least) of the instrumental passages in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story. In short, The Way Is Read is unlike any other album I’ve heard this year – or decade, for that matter. It’s bright, dark, brave and hypnotic, with swirling strings and intertwining vocals.

It’s also why I’ve barely listened to The Visitor, as it was released a week earlier. There’s a strong undertow to the music that just pulls me in.

3) Lucy Rose – Something’s Changing. Before this year began, I’m sure I saw Lucy Rose’s name in one of the British music magazines I flip through (and sometimes buy) at Barnes & Noble. But it took the Staves for me to hear her. They sing on “Floral Dresses,” which was one of the lead singles from this five-star delight, and mentioned that fact on their Facebook page in March. That led me to discover this video…

As I wrote in my review of Something’s Changing, “The folk-flavored album is chock-full of tuneful musings on life and love, at turns retro and utterly modern.” I’ve turned to it many times throughout the year. Lucy recently tweeted out a picture of her day’s listening – Joni and Neil albums, all. Those influences are in the grooves, just beneath the surface; anyone who enjoys either of those greats would do well to snap up this set.

Oh, and if I named a Single of the Year? “No Good at All” would be near or at the top.

2) Juliana Hatfield – Pussycat. The Boston-based singer-songwriter-guitarist extraordinaire took out her anger over the Chump election with this cathartic set. As I wrote in my review, “Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane. There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.”

Oh, and for what it’s worth, she played all the instruments except drums.

I mentioned in my original review that Pussycat likely won’t age well – 25 years from now, when Chump’s but a bad memory (akin to Nixon now), this set will take a backseat to such classics as Become What You Are, in exile deo, Made in China and How to Walk Away. And that’s okay. But for right here, right now? It hits the spot. It’s my second-most played album of the year.

It’s also home to one of Juliana’s greatest songs of all time (says I, of course), the nostalgic – and decidedly nonpolitical – “Wonder Why.”

1) Courtney Marie Andrews – Honest Life. Yes, Honest Life was released in the U.S. in late 2016 and, as a result, shouldn’t qualify for this list, let alone for the year’s most ballyhooed music honorific, the Old Grey Cat’s Album of the Year. And, yet, here we are.

My contorted logic is thus: It was released in the U.K. in January; I read reviews of it in Mojo and Uncut the following month; so, ergo, it qualifies.

It’s my most played album of the year. As I wrote in my review, “In a sense, it’s a simple singer-songwriter album that, due to the age we live in, has been categorized as country because of the country-flavored overtones on some of the songs. In another era, though, ‘Table for One’ or ‘Put the Fire Out’ would have been played by radio stations that also programmed Jackson Browne and Joni Mitchell.”

“There is nothing revolutionary in the grooves, in other words. And, yet, there is everything revolutionary in them. That conundrum-powered clarity, carried forth by Andrews’ evocative vocals and lyrics, echoes everything from Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky to Joni Mitchell’s Blue, Steve Earle’s Guitar Town to the Jayhawks’ Hollywood Town Hall, to say nothing of Rumer’s Seasons of My Soul and First Aid Kit’s Stay Gold. Each of those LPs, after all, chronicle the human experience in ways that are unique yet familiar.”

I not only stand by that assessment, but – after a year’s worth of repeated plays – would argue that Honest Life stands shoulder-to-shoulder with each of those albums. It speaks to the heart and mind. It’s soulful, country and folk. The songs are plaintive and pretty, mesmerizing and wondrous, and dozens of additional superlatives rolled into one.

Like any great art, Honest Life takes you there, wherever there is. In other words, wow. Just wow.

Three weeks back, trumpets blared, timpani rumbled, clouds parted, and an angel came forth to announce that Philadelphia’s favorite Brit wordsmith (or, at least, one of them), Wesley Stace – aka the artist formerly known as John Wesley Harding – and his band, the English UK, were to play the Ardmore Music Hall…on the same night as a Philadelphia Eagles matchup against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday Night Football. With him: Juliana Hatfield.

Was he opening? Was she? The social-media advertisements, as well as the poster outside the venue, never quite made it clear. Their names were in equal-sized type; and hers was preceded by a plus sign. Was she solo or with the Three, as at the Boot & Saddle earlier this year? (The brutal grace of that night will stay with me forever.) The Juliana Hatfield Three Facebook page was advertising the show, after all. Those questions of a thousand dreams haunted my nights and days – well, not really. We had our tickets and, either/or, it was a guaranteed good time.

But in football-crazed Philadelphia, unless one is Springsteen, Joel or similar stadium-name headliner, scheduling a last-minute show against the Eagles – especially when they’re doing well, which they are – is asking for a sparse turnout.

Which, this night, it was.

Stace and the English UK started the night with a taut 45-minute set that mixed new and old songs, including “Making Love to Bob Dylan,” the wondrous “Canterbury Kiss” and selections from his recent Jayhawks-backed Wesley Stace’s John Wesley Harding album. He also offered humorous anecdotes and explained (as had the bartender when we arrived) that he and the band would join Juliana after her solo set. The show came about, he said, a few weeks earlier while he was walking in the Philly neighborhood of Fishtown. It dawned on him that, with a day off between two of his Cabinet of Wonders shows, they might as well make use of it. He texted the Ardmore booker, who texted back, and voila! A gig was born.

Juliana took to the stage at about 9:15 and, once her electric guitar was plugged in, began her solo set with “Butterflies” and “If I Wanted Troubles.” She hit a speed bump in “Parking Lots,” first messing up the lyrics and then being out of tune. After one more attempt, she cut it short and moved on. “Slow Motion,” the song I most hoped to hear, was absolutely sublime:

After that song, she switched to acoustic and…in what’s fast becoming my favorite overused phrase, “wow. Just wow.” On electric, especially at first, she seemed a little off – almost as if she was waiting for a band to kick in. And, too, there were moments near the end of songs when she’d stop, applause would start, and then she’d strum a few more bars. On acoustic, there was none of that. “Choose Drugs” was, in a word, mesmerizing, and “I Want to Be Your Disease” simply venomous.

And then the English UK joined her for “Shining On” and then Stace returned…can I say “wow” again? The band ably accented Juliana’s material. “Somebody Is Waiting for Me” was beyond any and all superlatives I can think of.

And “Wonder Why,” one of the stellar tracks from this year’s Pussycat, just rocked.

At that stage, I would’ve been happy if Juliana and Stace said their farewells – it was a great show, already. But what followed put it in the stratosphere: Juliana played two songs from her forthcoming album…an Olivia Newton-John tribute album (!) tentatively titled Hopelessly Devoted to Liv.

While I’m sure that Wesley Stace never once imagined himself singing the immortal lyrics of “let me hear your body talk” prior to this night, hey, all I can say is this: shivers reverberated up and down my spine. I found the performances phenomenal and fun.

Diane, on the other hand, says they were “interesting”; and, tongue hopefully in cheek, blames me for the turn of events. Way back in 2012, in a “20 Questions” for the covers album, I posed a wordy question to Juliana that (for brevity’s sake) I trimmed for the published Q&A. The full exchange read:

Me: In your book, you write about liking ONJ as a kid. If you were to cover one of her songs, which would it be? (I can hear you singing – and having a hit with –  “A Little More Love” or “Deeper Than the Night.” Not that that should influence the song selection for your current covers project).

Juliana: I don’t think I could do any of her songs. I thought about [it] for this covers album but nothing feels authentic when I try to do it. She had such a sweet voice and a personality and could bring to life songs that I wouldn’t be able to bring to life. And some of her songs are really goofy.

Aside from the hard-hearted, anyone who came of age in the late ‘70s and/or early ‘80s can likely attest to the powerful charm of Olivia’s songs and albums (one of which is a future Essentials pick) of that era. True, those tunes primarily dealt with matters of the heart. Sometimes they were sweet, sometimes goofy, but they were rarely saccharine. And when I hear them today? They take me back – in a good way.

That Juliana is paying tribute to ONJ and those songs – it’s cool.

Here’s the set in full:

Solo Electric:

  1. Butterflies
  2. If I Wanted Troubles
  3. Parking Lots (cut short)
  4. June 6th
  5. Everybody Loves Me But You
  6. I Picked you Up
  7. Slow Motion

Solo Acoustic:

  1. Christmas Cactus
  2. Choose Drugs
  3. I Want to Be Your Disease
  4. Evan

Juliana & English UK:

  1. Shining On
  2. Somebody Is Waiting for Me
  3. Wonder Why
  4. Have You Never Been Mellow
  5. Physical
  6. My Sister

Most fans likely already know the backstory about this, Juliana Hatfield’s umpteenth album: the Chump election left her, like many of us, bewildered, dismayed and angry. But while some folks took their outrage to the streets, or Facebook, she took hers to the recording studio.

To quote from the press release:

“All of these songs just started pouring out of me. And I felt an urgency to record them, to get them down, and get them out there.” She booked some time at Q Division studios in Somerville, Massachusetts near her home in Cambridge and went in with a drummer (Pete Caldes), an engineer (Pat DiCenso) and fourteen brand-new songs. Hatfield produced and played every instrument other than drums—bass, keyboards, guitars, vocals. From start to finish—recording through mixing—the whole thing took a total of just twelve and a half days to complete.

The result reminds me of Neil Young’s 2006 Living With War, which (for those unaware) was an album-long protest against President George W. Bush and his nonsensical Iraq War. It made a pointed statement, made it well, divided fans (some supported Bush), and faded from public consciousness by the time the presidential primary season kicked into gear a year-and-change later. Its shelf life was relatively short, in other words, due to the directness of many of the lyrics. (That said, “Flags of Freedom” and “Families” sound as fresh to my ears as ever.)

I could go on and on (and on) with my thoughts about Pussycat, but instead I’ll say that I haven’t wavered from the sentiment I shared in my review of Juliana’s Philly concert: It’s excellent. Fans (new and old) who share her outlook on politics and life will thoroughly enjoy it, though some may be put off by the blunt imagery in some songs. It’s a claws-out affair that draws blood and trades, at times, in the profane (as this Paste Magazine review details). There’s an energy and drive to the performances that’s as palpable as the passion dripping from her vocals; and the lyrics, with a few exceptions, are soaked with anger, indignation and bitterness.

I don’t think many of the songs will age well, but that’s beside the point. They’re about today, this moment, and processing the un-processable. (Is that even a word?) They fill the need for catharsis now.

My favorite song, as I also mentioned in that concert review, isn’t one of the political numbers, but “Wonder Why.” In an interview with Consequence of Sound, she talks about how she sometimes seeks refuge in the memories of her youth. While that escape may be partially fueled by the tumultuous times we find ourselves in, it’s also something that comes with growing old(er). It’s normal to look back.

For those interested in checking out the album as a whole:

To buy it on CD, vinyl or cassette: head over to the American Laundromat page.

And, finally, head over to Paste Magazine to see Juliana’s acoustic takes on two of the new songs, plus one from her Minor Alps project, and taking a few questions.

The Juliana Hatfield Three delivered a loud, sweaty and raucous show at the Boot & Saddle in South Philly last night. In fact, you could say it was a night of true grrrl rock (it is the Pussycat tour, after all). The 20-song set opened with a ferocious “Got No Idols” from Become What You Are. As evidenced by the video, Todd Phillips was a monster on drums, Dean Fisher equally brutal on bass and Juliana – well, Juliana was Juliana, full of grace, grit and growls on guitar and vocals.

Diane thought she was a bit in her head at the evening’s start, but I thought she was hitting all cylinders from the get-go. The only negative, which was likely due to our location at the foot of the stage: the vocals were muffled.

In all, the set (which, another fan told me, has been changing every night) featured seven numbers from the new LP, which is due out this Friday, and selections from throughout her career, including “My Sister.”

Here’s the set in full:

Got No Idols
Taxicab
You Are the Camera
Push Pin
Vagabond
Short-Fingered Man
Touch You Again
Wonder Why
When You’re a Star
What Do I Care?
My Pet Lion
Going Blonde
Kellyanne
There’s Always Another Girl
Bad Moon Rising
My Sister
Rhinoceros
Nirvana
Choose Drugs
Impossible Song

Afterwards, while packing up her stuff, Juliana was kind enough to pose for pictures with some fans, including me. She thanked me for my support but, really, she had it backwards – her music has supported me through the decades. I’m grateful to have been able to thank her for that in person.

Of the Pussycat album: Although not due out until Friday, our copy (actually, copies – CD, LP and cassette) arrived yesterday afternoon, so we listened to it on the way to the show. At first blush, it’s excellent through and through; I’ll be reviewing it in full this weekend, so be sure to check back. (If you haven’t already, order it from American Laundromat. You won’t regret it. Which I guess is a review and of itself.) Anyway, the new songs were leaner, rougher and blunter in the live setting; and the claws were definitely out on both “Short-Fingered Man” and “Kellyanne.” (The latter made for a perfect thematic fit with Made in China‘s “Going Blonde,” which preceded it in the set.) My favorite track, so far, is “Wonder Why” –

– though “Short-Fingered Man” remains a venomously funny delight. I’d post the clip I recorded, but the sound is even more muffled than on the ones I shared above; and rather to not give it the justice it deserves… here’s Juliana’s video: