Tuesday, January 20, 2015

My Favorite Albums of 2014

Vanishing Act /
Edward O'Connell

I've been a fan of this guy's work ever since I happened across his 2010 album Our Little Secret. What a pleasure to find this new installment of his trademark wordsmithery and power-pop songcraft. Here's a taste:

I've always been a sucker for laid-back rock waltzes, a particularly apt choice for this regret-soaked song about a relationship that can't live up to its promise. O'Connell can work a metaphor like nobody's business, and he masterfully threads imagery of a magician act throughout -- the blindfold, the smoke and mirrors, a "trick to amaze and astound."  He wraps it all up in the chorus:

The years disappear
But is love hiding near
In a heart where it needs to be found
Let nobody see that we're bound
To burn the ropes, 
Break the chains and then kill the magician 
There's no point in wishing 
For a curtain to pull back 
If our love's a vanishing act.

Let's call the whole thing off, in other words, but he uses his own verbal prestidigitation to soften the blow. 

The thing is, it isn't just clever word play, it's intimately tied to hard-won wisdom about how love can slowly veer off the rails, racking up disappointment after disappointment, souring and curdling until there's nothing left. Yes, O'Connell's voice and singing style bear an eerie resemblance to Elvis Costello, and you know in my book that's a huge plus.  But whereas Costello's early deft word play was sometimes empty cleverness, O'Connell's always reflect some psychological acuity.  Music for Grown-Ups, to the nth degree.

Early Elvis was bitter and sometimes downright mean;  O'Connell instead has a gently weary persona of the sympathetic loser, the good guy who's been unlucky at love.  It's a bit of a magic trick to combine that wittiness with true-hearted yearning, but he masterfully pulls it off, track after track -- and it's immensely satisfying.  Engaging head and heart -- that's not so easy to do.  Kudos, Mr. O'C.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

My 2014 Album Buying Guide



Well, uh, erm. . . .

Okay, so, for the past couple of years I've been happy to provide you all with a "best of" buying guide to the past year's best releases.  It was an exercise I enjoyed.  Helping discriminating music lovers to dig up pearls in a market full of pig sh** seemed a worthy endeavor.

Trouble is, this year I just couldn't find enough.

I am perfectly willing to blame my own wretched state of mind. It was a hard year. [A novel's worth of heartbreak and sorrow and life changing experiences here.]  I give myself a hall pass and am willing to call time out.  And no question that I let myself be distracted by my Musical Advent Calendar project just because I couldn't face the paucity of interesting new music.

But on the other hand, a lot of my old faithfuls let me down. John Hiatt, Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock -- I just couldn't get excited about their 2014 releases. Good in spots, of course, because they are wonderful artists, and I will go to my grave loving all three of them. But I just couldn't warm up to their stuff this year.  (Could be me, I'm always willing to admit.)

Still, there were a few.  Not enough to flesh out a Top Ten, but still, you should know about the ones that made the cut, regardless.  And a couple of them arrived as Christmas presents and I haven't had time yet to do them justice.

So stay tuned, my music loving friends.  It'll be off-the-radar stuff, I'm warning you right now. But then, that's what we need our friends for, isn't it?

And if you've got something burning your ears that you're afraid I haven't dug up*, please let me know -- I'm hungry for Stuff That Works.**

* Nick, I already have the Corb Lund, don't worry.
** Kinks fans, take note: I have listened to the Dave Davies new release.  Stop holding your breath.  When Ray releases something new, then maybe I'll stop filing my nails while they're dragging the lake. [Just to prove that I'll love Declan MacManus till the day I die.]

Thursday, December 25, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Christmas Must Be Tonight" /
My Morning Jacket

And then on Christmas Eve itself you get so busy doing all the rituals -- wrapping the presents, filling the stockings, watching A Christmas Story on cable -- that you completely forget to open the last door on your advent calendar.

But when you do -- probably after dinner on Christmas Day -- there's a baby Jesus in a manger and the whole nativity scene, which is after all the point of the advent countdown.

So here's my nativity scene, courtesy of My Morning Jacket -- a faithfully Americana cover of this 1977 modern carol song by The Band. 

And because it's a holiday, I'll let the song speak for itself -- except to add, Merry Christmas to all!

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Mary's Boy Child" /
The Springfields

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

So who are the Springfields?  I could say they were England's answer to Peter, Paul and Mary, except they didn't stay together long enough to become that much of a folk institution.  But listen when the female singer takes off in the second verse -- sound familiar?

Yes, that's Dusty Springfield herself (born Mary Isobel Catherine Bernadette O'Brien), singing with her brother Tom (born Dionysius O'Brien), who would later write the hit song "Georgy Girl" for the Seekers. The Springfields only played together from 1961 to 1963, but they did have one big hit -- "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" in 1962 -- before Dusty split off to launch her blockbuster solo career.

This is from their 1962 Christmas EP Christmas with the Springfields.  Listeners at the time would have recognized it as a 1957 Harry Belafonte #1 hit single. The Springfields slightly tone down the calypso rhythm, but it still dances along. And while it tells the traditional Christmas story, shepherds and angels and star and all, it's filtered through a bit of an island sensibility ("so the Holy Bible say..." "by and by they find a little nook . . . "). The humble birth is more important than the glory here, though Dusty's powerful contralto throws in an entire heavenly host for good measure.

Poking around the internet, I was delighted to find this rare track -- and amazed to find a YouTube video of it as well.  I felt so certain that Dusty Springfield, with her Roman Catholic convent school upbringing, must have a Christmas song around somewhere, and here it is.  I love that it's not a holiday romance pop song, not a jokey Santa cartoon, but something celebrating the actual Nativity.  That refrain -- "Now man will live forever more / Because of Christmas Day" -- well, that's the most important thing about Christmas.  God bless you, Dusty.

Monday, December 22, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"In the Bleak Midwinter" /
Cyndi Lauper

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

All these modern pop holiday songs are fine as far as they go, but with two days left until Christmas Eve, I'm feeling the need for some honest-to-goodness Christmas carols.  Who'd have thought that the Girls Just Want to Have Fun fun girl would deliver such a thing?

Turns out that Cyndi's got a candy-cane-striped streak of Christmas love in her heart -- in fact, she released an entire holiday album (Merry Christmas . . . Have a Nice Life) in 1993, which mixes party numbers like "Christmas Conga" with a handful of deliciously sincere traditional carols.  And since this is one of my favorite carols . . .

There she is, plucking her autoharp, with an Irish tin whistle counterpoint (this well before Lords of the Dance made the pennywhistle such a pop cliché). Cyndi sings it straight, reminding us that in fact she has a pretty fine voice. After all, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

It's a song with a great pedigree. The lyrics were written by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti in 1872;  they were set to music in 1906 by English composer Gustav Holst (he also wrote the trippy orchestral suite "The Planets").  Holst deliberately went for an English folk tune sound for this song, underscoring the Thomas Hardy vibe of the thing. 

Only a real poet could pack her images so concisely into those simple, elemental words -- "frosty wind made moan / Earth stood hard as iron / Water like a stone."  With just four words, she creates a blizzard -- "Snow had fallen / Snow on snow on snow" -- to which Cyndi adds an icy ripple of melisma. That's scene setting for you.

She sketches every actor in the traditional nativity scene -- angels and archangels in verse two, Mary "in her maiden bliss" kissing the baby. We see the shepherd and wise men too, in verse three, as she wistfully asks "What can I give him / Poor as I am?" (love that Victorian tug on the social conscience). But the answer's there all along, as she hushes tenderly, humbly: "What I can I give him? / Give my heart." Which was what the baby Jesus wanted all along -- what he came to earth for.

Our choir sings this every year for the children's Christmas pageant, and I can just about never get through that third verse without weeping. (Luckily I get lost in the alto section and no one in the audience notices.) Like I said, if you can't drop the cynical pose at Christmas, when can you?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Maybe This Christmas" /
Ron Sexsmith

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Canadian troubadour Ron Sexsmith does earnest very well, probably because it's genuine. (At least that's what I want to believe, based on meeting him once for five minutes after a show. If you know different, don't spoil it for me.)  Christmas songs are a natural fit for him.  I also dig his jazzy "Hooves on The Roof," sung by Nick Lowe on his 2013 Quality Street.  But with the holiday fast approaching, I have to vote instead for this folky gem, the title track of the 2002 Maybe This Christmas charity album for Toys for Tots.

With just a little jangle laid down behind his acoustic guitar, Ron tentatively proposes "Maybe this Christmas will mean something more / Maybe this year / Love will appear / Deeper than ever before."  He's asking gently -- wishing rather -- in hopeful, upward skipping intervals. 

And no, he's not just talking about the falling-in-love kind of love. There are plenty of other cheesy pop songs out there asking for that. What Ron's after is something rarer: "And maybe forgiveness will ask us to call /  Someone we love, / Someone we've lost / For reasons we can't quite recall."  Those dim urgings of human kindness -- that's what he's holding out for, and the steady thrumming beat tells us he's not giving up until he gets it.

Not that he isn't a realist. Wistful "maybes" pile up in the bridge:  "Maybe there'll be an open door / Maybe the star that shined before /  Will shine once more, oh."  But miracles can happen, and while he's not hammering too hard on that reference to the open stable door in Bethlehem and its star shining above, it's clearly there.

In the last verse he draws the religious message even closer: "And maybe this Christmas will find us at last / In Heavenly peace, / Grateful at least  / For the love we've been shown in the past." It's gentle theology -- take it or leave it -- but so sweetly done.

Even if you don't believe in Jesus, you have to admit, our world would be a better place if this kind of love could get some traction. Isn't Christmas as good a time as any for a reboot? 

Saturday, December 20, 2014

My Musical Advent Calendar

"Thank God It's Christmas" /

Instead of a glitter-spangled scene with doors for every day of December, how about a daily treat from my iTunes holiday playlist?

Amid all the tacky extravagant sentiment of holiday pop music, count on Freddie Mercury to pull out all the stops.

"Oh, my love," he emotes mournfully, "We've had our share of tears."  Not the most upbeat opening, and he follows it up with a wistful, "Oh, my friends / We've had our hopes and fears." Key shift up, volume raised, he adds, "Oh, my friends / It's been a long hard year."  Amen to that, brother.

And then, in anthemic Queen fashion (you knew this was coming), he belts out, "Thank God it's Christmas / Yes it's Christmas / Thank. God. It's. CH-RRISTMAS."  Clinging to it like a man on a sinking ship.

He trots out all the pop song tinsel -- the stars, the snow, the synths, the background chorus -- but I love the way he goes for broke here. Why not throw all your hopes on this one day?  (Or even -- as he suggests in the bridge -- make it be Christmas every day?)  Like all great divas, he knew that passion can in fact go hand in hand with over-the-top production -- if you truly believe.

In the third verse, he laments, "Oh my love / We live in troubled days / Oh my friends / We have the strangest ways."  This song was written in 1984, but here we are, thirty years later, and we're still living in troubled time with strange ways. You'd think mankind would have wised up by now. But apparently not -- which is why we still need Christmas.