Archive for the 'Folk' Category

14
Aug
19

Sharon Van Etten “Tramp”

The black and white photo of presumably Sharon Van Etten on the cover of the LP is blown up so much you realize it’s almost abstract, maybe only makes sense with a little distance. Her head is about twice as big a normal person—in effect, you’d never see her this close up, even if you were making out with her. It’s a very beautiful photo, and album cover, but it really accentuates the quality of her eyes—it’s hard for me to describe—it’s more of a feeling, but for some reason I never feel like I can trust someone with eyes like that. My feelings like that are usually wrong, which becomes evident within one minute of meeting a person, and longer meetings further prove that, but since I’m not meeting SVE anytime soon, I’m just going to make the assumption that I’m wrong and chalk it up to the powerful—and often totally misleading—quality of photographs. There’s a lot of musicians and collaboration going on, but especially with a guy named Aaron Dessner (I’ll have to look him up), and there’s a picture of SVE and a guy (might be him?) on the inside cover, sitting on a bench, presumably outdoors, neither winter nor summer, pleasantly blurry and smiling, slightly disheveled, wearing every tasteful shade of blue known to man, their white hands looking like alien beings. In tiny white letters at the bottom it says, “for John Cale.” That could lead me to many, many more words, or I could just let it go.

The initial sound of these songs is, to me, entirely unfairly, off-putting, even though I like the sparse, subtle, and tasteful instrumentation. Maybe too tasteful. And sometimes blatantly eclectic, some with annoying arcane sounding instruments that only exist in Civil War museums and recording studios in Brooklyn. Sharon Van Etten’s voice has this liquid quality, both thick and thin, that just pours between the edges, and fills all cracks, sounding like it’s desperate to cauterize not only her wounds but those of everyone she comes in contact with. It’s a bit much, and I can’t say I’m enjoying it, but I know from experience that that’s a hasty, first-impression opinion, and I really need to listen to each song more closely, and listen to the lyrics, as well, before I make any judgment. So I’ll do that, and also, it seems at first glance that a lot of these might be love songs, and sad songs—and that’s something I’ve been kind of into lately. That’s a joke—for those people who know me.

The first song is a love song, a sad song, addressed to “you”—unless it’s a metaphor for a political situation, but I’ll leave it be. The next song, also addressed to “you,” has a tragic tone to it, along with this kind of devastating lyric that we can all relate to: “You’re the reason why I’ll movie to the city or why I’ll need to leave.” Another song addressed to “you,” called “Serpents,” even more fraught, and this time she hopes “he” changes. Don’t hold your breath, SVE. Next is “Kevin’s”—which is the only use of a possessive version of a name without an object as a song title I can think of. No mention of Kevin’s what?—in the song—or Kevin—unless he’s “you” (in which case maybe means that she belongs to Kevin—in which case I hate him). Anyway, it’s a beautiful sad song, with some nice “ooohhhs”—long, drawn out—that sound like “yous.” Next is one about “Leonard” who eventually becomes “you” by the end of the song. I may be wrong, but it sounds like this Leonard was a pretty okay guy, but she fucked it up this time. So it goes. Finally, “In Line” is quite a haunting song, and I don’t just say that because the word “ghosts” is in it. I have no idea what it’s about, but it’s not about domestic bliss and talking about your future while in line at the Court Street Trader Joe’s.

New paragraph, second side, this is vinyl. I didn’t mean to go on this long with this, but once I committed to it, I was kind of sunk. That’s commitment for you—when you don’t have it, you’re sunk, and you’re sunk when you do. The first song is killer, one that probably sold me on this record (as if I needed to be sold, or anyone cares). It starts out quiet and slow, and then just builds in volume and intensity, with the line “we all make mistakes” running through it like veins of gold through the darkness. “We Are Fine” is an interesting title to a song, especially where the sentiment is “I’m alright”—another pretty and harrowing one, which could be about hypochondria, or hypochondria as love metaphor, or the other way around. “Magic Chords” just confuses me—it sounds like a funeral march, with the repeated lines: “You got to lose sometime” and then “Nothing to lose.” That’s too general—I mean, we’re all going to die, but I need to focus on something else, occasionally. “Ask” makes my stomach hurt, and I mean that as a compliment, as in, SVE can land a punch. Addressed to “friend” and “man” and, it feels like, me, the line, “It hurts too much to laugh about it” hurts too much to laugh about it. “I’m Wrong” asks to “tell me I’m wrong.” I don’t think you’re wrong. With a line like, “tell me all the miles that you put on your car,” I’d have to say you’re probably right, as sad as that is. The last song is slow and haunting, and I guess I want it to leave me with a positive note, at this point, sucker that I am, soft in my old age, wanting things to work out between her and one of these “you’s.” I think: “I could do better, couldn’t I?” In the romance department. Men are little boys, with tantrums, and egos, that want everything, but are just destined, you know, to either be kicked under a shed, or else allowed to be a monster. Anyway, it ends on a grim note, but it feels like truth, at least, and the light dims.

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20
Jul
19

Eagles “One of These Nights”

There are worse album covers, though right now I can’t think of one. I mean, it’s okay, like if you bought an 8×10 framed version of that image at Wall Drug for $2.99, to put in the sleeping cabin of your truck, or a rec-room back home, nothing could be more appropriate. Who would name their band “The Eagles” or “Eagles” anyway? I mean, if you’re like ten years old, and/or it’s your first band, that would be cool. My first band was called The Chinese Electrical Band, and we made what could have been some hit music, but we just couldn’t get past that name, mostly because half of the potential fans thought we were communists, and half thought we were racist, and half thought we were Chinese, and half thought we were goofballs. Do the math. The song, “One of These Nights,” when not in conjunction with some heinous commercial or movie (I don’t actually know if it is; I don’t want to know) actually sounds pretty good. The song, “Take It to the Limit,” however, I hate with a passion, and I’m never going to come around to that one, even though I think it was sung by Randy Meisner, and I like him if for no other reason than he’s named Randy, and I’m somewhat partial to that name. This is a fairly early version of the Eagles, from 1975, when Bernie Leadon, who I like, was in the band. But this was the last album for him, I guess. Then Joe Walsh joined, and I like him, too. I guess on paper, I should really like the Eagles. But this is vinyl, of course, not paper, and some of the sound this particular vinyl makes rubs me the wrong way. I kind of had a theory that I like their more country tinged stuff, and don’t like their more metal tinged stuff, but there are exceptions. So many exceptions, in fact, that I realize that was a dumb thing to even say. I’d just delete that whole thought, but I get paid by the word for writing this crap. Somewhere I seem to remember the Eagles are considered “soft rock”—but that can’t really be a thing, can it? Maybe it was back when they kept trying to categorize different types of rock music with different dumb names. I hope to God that trend is long over. Oh, then there is this “I Wish You Peace” song on the end of the record, which is really pretty nice, a lovely song. Way to put the best song last, Eagles, and make me feel like an asshole for my negative review. But anyway, it really is nice to go out on a positive note, so there you have it.

25
May
19

Mickey Newbury “Heaven Help the Child”

This is a particularly intriguing album cover—it’s a rustic, matte surface, suggesting something real, with a larger than life, full face photo of Mickey Newbury on back, which, while artfully partially obscured in shadows, also exposes pores, divots, blemishes, and misplaced hairs—and remember, this is far before the days of hi-def, when many careers were ended voluntarily, while others just had to say, what the hell, here’s my zits. It immediately says that Mickey is going to open his heart for us. The front cover is trickier—it’s a 7 ½ x 5 ½ inch glossy photo of Mickey sitting on an old chair next to an old lamp in a room that could be a study, or could be a bedroom. This is essentially a cropped photograph, though, because as we remove the inner sleeve, we discover that this is actually a 12 x 12 inch photo that has been framed by the smaller, die-cut opening in the external cover. Now we see the larger room —which still could be a study, a bedroom, a living room, or a rec-room—or is it now too big for a bedroom? Now you can see the expanse of the old carpet, a stained glass window behind him, a couple of large photo albums on the floor, and that he’s wearing cowboy boots. When you remove the inner sleeve, which has lyrics on the other side, there is a smaller, more atmospheric, blurred version of the cover photograph behind—printed on the inside of album cover! You don’t see that too often. What does it all mean?

Mickey Newbury was a respected Nashville songwriter and recording artist who put out a couple dozen records. Even though his music is somber and his lyrics are dark, he’s good-looking in a way that probably appeals to in-laws and pets, as well as people his own age, and you feel like you could leave your kids with him, or would be comfortable in a car he’s driving. This record, from 1973, is not his first, and a company like Elektra doesn’t spring for the die-cut nonsense if they don’t think you’ll sell a few. There are only eight songs—two are three and half minutes, but the rest are long, quiet, pretty, and melancholy. I like them all, and pretty much everything I’ve heard by him, but I don’t know how passionate I’m going to get about the songs on this record—there is an overall flavor of the mainstream—even if it’s not what I’d imagine as “popular.” The other weird thing is there is a dedication scrawled on the large space at the bottom of the album cover in a red pen that matches the red frame around the die-cut hole, leading me to believe that this is part of the cover—yet when I look up images of this cover on the internet, it’s not there. It seems to say, “To a friend”—though I’m not entirely sure—and then a name—it could be Joe, or José, or Lori, or Josie, or even “you.” If you were giving this record as a present, that is not where you’d write a greeting—it’s so front and center—which leads me to believe this was written by the artist, himself. Mickey Newbury passed away, far too young, in 2002. You can find his records. I wonder what happened to the “friend” to whom he presented this record—which will likely outlive me, and find its way into another haunted record shop.

19
Apr
19

Allan Sherman “My Son, the Folk Singer”

I never heard of Allan Sherman before playing this 1962 record, but apparently he went through a period of widespread success and popularity, which is why this record exists and I was able to pick up a copy for nothing. According to the internet, his popularity declined after the JFK assassination 1963—is that true? Did the masses lose their taste for frivolous humor after that time, and if so, does that partly explain why I grew up only occasionally cracking a smile—I wonder. Anyway this is essentially a comedy record comprised of goofy folk songs with lyrics that are sometimes pretty obvious and sometimes rather obscure. Kind of typical of me, I find myself annoyed by the stuff I understand, and intrigued by the stuff I don’t. I supposed if I understood the stuff I don’t understand I’d be annoyed by that too. The overall tone is that kind of humor that says “this is humor”—but I actually really like the singing style of Allan Sherman, I guess because he sounds like an urban Jewish guy to me, like the kind of co-worker who cracks you up daily. Let’s see, where is he from? Chicago, moved around a lot. I guess a lot of these songs are parodies, where you have to know the thing it’s parodying to make sense—but again, I’m wondering if I personally like stuff that doesn’t make sense to me. Anyway, it’s a live album, and the audience is finding it all hilarious—from the individual, tittering laugh, to bursts of uncontrolled laughter, to the full on roar. For me it’s pretty much torture to hear people laugh like that. Now that I think of it, I don’t much care for live recordings, in general, but live comedy is the worst. I mean, if you’re there, then it’s live, and when it’s a recording of something live, it’s not live anymore, is it—it’s just annoying. I don’t like recordings of live “specials” either, or podcasts that are recorded in front of a live audience—I can’t listen to them. The audience on this album is recorded really loudly, too, it’s just unbearable—I mean, just torture me, okay? The cover, though, is great—well, not that great, but there is a woman in a black dress holding a dead chicken, and a bagel lying on the floor, it’s goofy, and, yeah, it’s almost a good album cover.

25
Feb
19

Alec Templeton “Alec Templeton and his Music Boxes”

“If I were king, it would be a must that everybody have a hobby…” starts Alec Templeton’s intro, the first track of this record. And I agree, though I’d add, “but drinking and looking at pornography don’t count.” He then goes on to talk about his love for, and obsession with, collecting music boxes. I kind of like this thing of the first track being a spoken intro—kind of like an audio version of liner notes. Though you might get powerful tired of it if it’s a record you have “on repeat” (as the kids say). Though, maybe there is little danger of that here, as the remainder of this record consists of recordings of various music boxes—there are 45 tunes from 24 different ones, some of them quite grand, of course, and large, elaborate, ornate, and expensive. They all sound like music boxes. There are a few faded black and white photos of some of the boxes, but they don’t really do them justice. And some informative (written) liner notes that start out: “For the next 44 minutes, Mr. Templeton would like to take you away from the cares and tensions of today and transport you back to the gay, quiet era of not so long ago—the era of the music box…” There’s a signpost up ahead!

I could imagine (actually, I couldn’t) having a roommate who, this was his favorite record, and played it every day right after dinner. I’m afraid you’d have to kill him. I mean, this is an enjoyable record to listen to once or twice. I guess you could try to see how many tunes you can name. I have to say, that song, “A Bicycle Built for Two,” has just been forever altered for me after hearing HAL sing it while perishing in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968). (Kubrick did that to a lot of music, actually—thanks, Stanley!) Talking about movies, if you are a filmmaker, this record might work really well into your resources—there could very likely be some scene in anyone’s movie where one of these music box songs is just the thing. The sound, the feeling of them, is far from neutral. I wonder why it is that we associate this music box music with some kind of ironic vision of the underlying tragedy inherent in our existence? Is it something leftover from past lives? Or just from other movies?

04
Feb
19

Gale Garnett “Variety Is the Spice of Gale Garnett”

I had never heard of Gale Garnett even though she apparently had a hit in the Sixties—so I probably heard her on the AM radio in the kitchen before school, which never enamored me to anyone. The only garnet I know is the gemstone, which I’m partial to since it’s my birth month stone; also, it’s most famously ruby red, but the color theme on this album cover is green (green print on a green background)—so I think my nutty brain immediately made this weird association with The Wizard of Oz (1939), because I’m always getting Dorothy’s ruby slippers mixed up with the Emerald City—like, for the longest time I thought she had emerald slippers! Also, Dorothy’s last name is Gale. So can you blame me for my confusion? The other thing is, I would have guessed this record was from at least the late Seventies, if not the Eighties—by the cover—I can’t say why exactly—but it doesn’t look like 1966, to me, that’s for sure. And then there’s the photo of Gale Garnett on the cover, wearing one of those hats that’s always tilted, but her head is tilted at such an extreme angle, the hat is almost straight. It’s a little disturbing, but not as much as her eyeliner, which is so severe it would make Robert Smith jealous. And her eyes look so much like they’re popping out of the cover I had to touch them to make sure. This is some album cover photo—it’s almost life-size, and it could give you nightmares—or maybe happy dreams—depending.

An apter title was never conceived, and the detailed liner notes by Gale Garnett go on to explain how important it is to her to perform in so many different styles. While I agree with her in theory, it’s a little hard on the listener when there are some songs you want to put on repeat (to use that weird notion of the digital age), while other songs make you want to throw a shoe at the turntable. I’m not going to go through the songs song by song—and neither am I going to mark up my record with notes. I suppose I don’t mind the idea of having the same experience every time I put this record on (if I keep it) where I’ll think, “Why did I keep this record?” and then, “Oh, yeah, because that song is great.” The internet tells us Gale Garnett was born in New Zealand and then moved to Canada when she was young—I think that’s about all the biographical material I can handle right now. She writes lovingly about these songs (many of which she wrote)—I might like her writing more than her singing. The best part, though, is her story about the song Carrick Fergus—she said it was taught to her by Richard Harris, who said he learned it at his mother’s knee. But later, Peter O’Toole told her that he wrote it with Domenick Behan—and at press time, no resolution had/has been landed upon. If I ever have the pleasure of meeting Gale Garnett, I’m going to tell her I wrote that song and see if she gets the joke.

28
Dec
18

Bruce Springsteen “The Wild, the Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle”

I was one of those Springsteen fans who, before I was a fan, was turned off by all the Born to Run hoopla in 1975 but finally bought the Darkness LP in 1978, loved it, became a fan then, then went back to the first three records. I listened to his first six records to death, but after that I wouldn’t give him the time of day (and that’s more about me than him)—so I’m guessing there’s some great music from 1984 on that I missed, but, oh well. Currently he’s “On Broadway”—I know nothing about that, but I’ll guess two things: It’s really good, and I can’t afford it. I rarely look him up on the internet, but I’ve noticed that he uncannily resembles Jello Biafra—maybe they are friends. One thing I feel certain about, even never having met the man, I feel like he possesses a genuineness of spirit that even sainthood can’t diminish. That is based on a couple of live shows I saw in the late Seventies at the Richfield Coliseum (now a ghost) that I attended even after swearing off large venue shows. His concerts are legendary, and for once, legendary got that right. Anyway, I lost all my Springsteen LPs while movin’ around, so I made a point of picking up a copy of this one after I decided it’s the best. Someday I’m going to make a list of all the recording artists whose best record was their second one—there’s a lot! Also, this was from 1973 (as was his first record), further making my point that that was a pretty good year. There are more than a few of us out there, actually, that think this record is Springsteen’s best. We meet once a month in the VFW basement over hardshell tacos and Old Milwaukee Light and Skype with the national chapter, which mostly consists of mini-memorials for our recently passed and dwindling membership.

One reason I wanted a vinyl copy of this record is that I love the album cover (not so much the front, gigantic portrait—though if you isolate his thumb and stare at it, it will make you feel weird) because of the band picture on back—one of my favorite band photos ever. I’m not sure if they were yet called “The E Street Band”—but I liked this lineup even better than the later ones—which is saying something, because they were all good—but I just like the overall playing, production, and sound on this record. And this band photo, it’s the best. (In my opinion, there should only be two things in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: this photo, and a closed/out of business sign.) First of all, it looks like a really hot day, and they were able to maybe move down half a block from the Taste-E-Freeze to take a photo in front of the pawn shop. They all look “bad” (as we used to say), and not surprisingly, Clarence Clemons, the baddest. Garry Tallent looks like he has a leg cramp. Danny Federici looks like he was the only one who knew they were taking a photo that day. And if you didn’t know better, you’d think it was David Sancious’ band. My favorite, though, is Vini “Mad Dog” Lopez, wearing cut-offs and an open Hawaiian shirt—for years I’ve used this photo as my summer fashion icon ideal—I just want to copy his look outright (though at this point, sadly, unless I’m able to trade in my stomach for some hair, it’s not ever going to happen).

Really, this sounds more like someone’s 20th record rather than their second—I mean in that it doesn’t sound like it’s trying too hard to please anyone as much as the people making it, and maybe that’s why I like it so much. There are only seven songs, but the three on side two are like 7, 8, and 10 minutes long! I like the production so much better than the later records, too—I guess it accentuates the songwriting. There’s no grandstanding, it sounds egoless, and it’s not too guitar heavy. On some songs the most prominent instrument is accordion—one of those being “4th of July, Asbury Park (Sandy)”—just that title!—which is one of my favorite Springsteen songs ever. Some of these songs—you presume before the record deals that these guys were playing in bars—but in what kind of bars could you play “Wild Billy’s Circus Story?” “Incident on 57th Street” might be prettiest Springsteen song ever, and just listening to it now makes me think about all the hearts he must have broken before getting his picture on the covers of Time and Newsweek. Listening to this record now confirms how much I like it; it’s the one I choose to put on if I’m in the mood for Bruce Springsteen. It’s also making me kind of curious, now, about what led up to the first two records. Maybe I’ll check out his autobiography. Anyway, I guess this record brings back some summer evening in the late Seventies, softly through my Advent speakers while sipping a rum drink, that fragrant, warm evening air, low lights in the “breezeway”—a room off the garage of my parents’ house that really was a time and place, and this record was part of it. Call it pure nostalgia, and I can’t argue with that, but that’s the sweet part of a good cocktail, and mixed with the right proportions of reality and weirdness, you get why the golden ratio is greater than the sum of its parts.




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