Friday, September 15, 2017

On The Run With Rhonda Lee

goodnight rhonda lee

Last week we packed up the family and headed out of dodge to avoid hurricane Irma. Driving out of Florida was like something out of Children of Men, with a trip to Atlanta which normally should have taken 9 hours, taking exactly 22 hours and most of our sanity. None the less, once we were out, while the hassles and stresses continued, we were instantly calmed by mountains and winding roads through the deep south. We spent a night in Atlanta, a couple nights in Nashville, a couple more in Knoxville with many little pit stops in between. Sure, at most stops north of Orlando, I would look around in a panic until I saw at least one person of color before almost loudly sighing in relief, but still there's a lot to love about The South. We encountered many very nice people all over the place. At a lunch stop in Chattanooga we went to The Terminal Brewhouse where the parking attendant let us park for free on seeing our Florida tag. The food and beer was amazing there, by the way. I can't wait to go back as soon as I can.

All this driving meant time to listen to music. At some point, I'll have to really dig in and make a list of the best road albums, but this trip there was one album in particular I kept going back to and which I'm already predicting will still be my favorite album of the year when it's over: Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee. I'd already been listening to this before last week, with my love for it increasing with each passing month since its release back in July, but after this week it has jumped to a whole new level for me. This is truly a masterpiece of an album.

Nicole Atkins has been putting out great music for at least 12 years, all of it soulful and demonstrating a love for classic soul, R&B, country and rock while still maintaining a fresh feel - it's never been "retro" just for the sake of it. But on Goodnight Rhonda Lee it's like she leaned way into these styles and let her love for the artists and sounds that inspire her come out completely through her song writing and performance from the inside out. She dug into what makes her influences tick and then mastered it in her own way. These songs are somehow meticulously crafted in a way that makes them sound effortless. It's like these songs always existed (or at least since about 1975 or so) and she sort of plucked them out of some parallel universe that was waiting for her, this band and this production team, specifically, to record them for the first time. The result can only be called timeless. It's of today as much as it is of yesterday and the future (I hope the future, because more of this would be amazing).

There isn't a single song on here that is less than stellar and the production is exactly my favorite kind, putting you in the room and giving it all a live feel. The band is loose but clearly made up of amazing players who know how to swing and create the right pockets for it all to breathe. It's funky and real from start to finish. The word that comes to mind is organic. Atkins has a voice that can reach amazing powerful heights, but her true talent is that she knows how to control it so well. Her voice goes from soft to beyond the moon like a tidal wave, calling to mind greats like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison among others, but always uniquely her. There's a vulnerability in every note, that's compelling as fuck but that vulnerability comes with confidence and fearlessness and that effortlessness that I mentioned before.

I could go song by song, but instead I'll give you a couple stories. At one point, I was playing the album and Shayera (my 8 year old) calls from the back seat with a song request. I barely heard her and got kind of upset because I was into the album and said "NO! Right now, I want to listen to this album all the way through!" Only to realize her request was for "Goodnight Rhonda Lee," which was the very next song to play. Later, Zoey (my 4 year old) requested "the walking song" which is actually "A Little Crazy," the first song on the album that she sings along to every time. So, yeah, my girls have good taste.

I'm sure I'll be writing a more in depth take on this at the end of the year. Until then, do yourself a favor and listen to this over and over again. It's that damn good. Also, check out this Audiotree session she did a few weeks ago. Damn, I need to see her live.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rage, Rapture and Transcendence: Blondie, Garbage and Deap Vally in Orlando

blondie garbage

This past Wednesday, August 9th at the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, my wife and I went to the Rage and Rapture show, featuring Blondie, Garbage and Deap Vally. It was somewhere near the end of Blondie’s set, during “Dreaming” that my brain sort of returned to me enough to interpret what I’d been feeling during the whole show that night. Here I was, seeing this band I grew up listening to but had never seen. This band that represents a whole scene in rock history that I hold in the highest regard and while they are older and far removed from CBGB’s in the 70s, what they delivered this night was still relevant, vital and filled with heart. It made me think of the concert experience, of music, of art, of life in general. It was transcendent.

On New Year's Eve, 1991, I went to my first concert, ever: Guns n Roses at Joe Robbie Stadium. On August 8th, 2017, I drove through hellish traffic to see the impossibly reunited (mostly) Guns N Roses at Marlins Park in Miami, arriving three songs into their set, but appropriately, just in time for “Welcome to the Jungle.” It was hot and muggy, with the smell of weed and cotton candy in the air. The circus atmosphere of the venue made sense. I outgrew GnR many years ago. I find Axl’s voice grating. But my wife never saw them and wanted to go so I support. And while I didn’t much care for the show, it was great to see her rocking out to the hits.

Axl Rose

Sound at stadiums is shit, there’s no way around that. But I will say the band did sound like they were on point otherwise, at least technically. Even Axl, who’s voice can’t quite reach those annoying notes, so he comes off a bit more subdued. But still, there was a point where I realized Slash had played every single note in existence and while I was impressed with his technical ability, I was also bored with his choices (or lack thereof). Every song seemed to go on much longer than it needed to with solos and vamps that became interchangeable. To me it felt like they were just living up to the expectation of delivering the 30 song set list in an almost mechanical way, dressing it up in “Rock n Roll excess.” It was more about “look at us, all old but still rocking” than having any real passion for the music. Interestingly enough, the best song of the night was “Attitude” a Misfits cover, sung by Duff McKagan, which appeared on The Spaghetti Incident and was played short, sweet and aggressive, as it should be.

When it was all said and done, this show came across exactly like the cash grab that it was and nothing more. This is a group of guys that mostly put aside how much they hate each other because the money was too much to turn down. Maybe it’s the size of the venue and maybe people in the front row got a different vibe, but this was spectacle and not much else. So it was a stark, refreshing, contrast to see the Rage and Rapture tour the following night in a much more appropriate and intimate venue.

Lindsey troy julie edwards

I was excited for all three bands that night, but if I’m being honest, I was most excited for Deap Vally. This is one of my favourite bands of the past few years, who put out my favorite album of 2016, Femejism, and aside from an in-store at Radio-Active Records, I had yet to catch them live. I was not disappointed in the least, even though their set was short. Opening up with “End of the World” from their first album, Sistrionix, they instantly got the (fellow) olds in the audience to pay attention. Just before they went on I had heard several people in the audience saying “oh, there’s some other band” with shades of disappointment. But they couldn’t deny the power of Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards as they ripped through their set. At one point, I heard myself loudly “woohooing” when Lindsey introduced “Smile More,” and I’m sure I drew some looks near me. Soon, they all understood though. I was particularly blown away by Ms. Edwards’ skill on the drums as she beat out complex, hard and funky rhythms with apparent ease. After their set, they went out to the merch table to say hi and sign stuff so I ran out there. I’m sure I came off like a total fanboy, but you know what, good. They deserve ardent fans of all ages and genders and I am not ashamed of my excitement.

not ashamed

On the way back to the floor, holding my second copy of Femejism (now signed), the lights dimmed and Garbage exploded into their new song “No Horses,” an excellent apocalyptic song that is perfect for our times. I was stuck halfway to my wife who was still standing about 2 people back from the stage, as Shirley Manson and the boys destroyed us all. Back in the late 90s when Garbage first came out, I was pretty heavily into them, but I had never seen them live until this night and they blew me away. Shirley Manson’s stage presence is a beautiful ballet of performance and laid back honesty that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in anyone else. When she sings “this is the apocalypse” you believe her. At one point she dedicated “Special” to a fan from Orlando they had come to know, who passed away, and her voice cracked a little. She talked about how much their fans means to them and it was clearly sincere and heartfelt. These candid moments would then lead to her performing a song with all of her essence like it was a theater piece, sometimes throwing hands over her head in ecstasy, sometimes down on her knees in pain, or dragging the mic stand around in a gloomy march and even, for part of “Only Happy When it Rains” standing perfectly still, hair in face, like a true goth queen as the world exploded around her.

shirley manson

I was happily surprised that they played “The World Is Not Enough,” their contribution to the history of great James Bond themes. The annihilation Garbage unleashed on us peaked with a devastating “Push It” that had everyone dancing and jumping. Throughout the night I kept trying to figure out how they were incorporating some of their more electronic beats and sounds, because it was seamless. Of course, Butch Vig was playing what seemed to be a fully electronic drum set, but none of it felt anything but organic. The sound at the Hard Rock Live is among the best I’ve ever heard. It’s loud and clear and just what a band made up of studio geeks needs.

The crowd seemed to be there mostly because of Garbage based on the energy level. Although, I doubt anyone could have resisted what the band was doing even if they weren’t there for them. By the time they got to the closer, “Vow” everyone was amped up and ready for more from Blondie. It’s probably the best handoff from one band to another I’ve ever seen. And here I have to shout out the roadies that spent next to no time resetting the stage between sets. Within maybe 10 or 15 minutes, they were done and we were back in business, not losing any momentum.

The screens filled with static and a loud buzzing was playing as Blondie opened with a ferocious “One Way or Another” and straight into “Hanging on the Telephone.” And there they were, these - as Shirley Manson had said during her set - “Icons of Rock,” and I was standing mere feet away from them. I’ll never be able to go back to CBGB in the 70s and this show wasn’t that, but I was struck instantly by how this band was still sounding so fucking good after all these years and how they had so much energy. Continuing my focus on drummers, Clem Burke has not lost a single beat and I was kind of out of breath just watching his aerobic display.

debbie harry

What mostly stood out to me during this set was how this was not a set by a band relying on their past glory. Their latest album Pollinator features songs written mostly by or with other artists such as Johnny Marr, Sia, Charli XCX and Dev Hynes. The new songs are good and relevant and the album is solid. But I have to say these songs really came alive when played live. They didn’t just stand up next to the classics, they brought their own vibe to the party as well and it was more than welcomed. In an unexpected twist, I saw several people singing along to the new songs. And not for nothing, but at Guns n Roses, mostly people just sat through songs from Chinese Democracy. But that’s to be expected. This band may not be all the original members, but the history of the band is one that is too complicated to be hung up on that. The core of the band, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke have held in place and rather than having interchangeable hired hands come in, they’ve just expanded their core over the years. So, Leigh Foxx, Matt Katz-Bohen and Tommy Kessler are absolutely vital parts of this whole and it comes through in every note.

About halfway through, a raucous “Rapture” lead to a cover of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” that was unexpected but still had us all singing the “everybody must get stoned” chorus with glee. And then came what was probably the standout song of the night, from the new album, a cover of “Fragments” by an Unkindness. This song is rather grand in scope, going from ballad to driving plea and back, in an almost theatrical, progressive structure. It’s a song where the band as a whole can really shine due to the complexity and they didn’t just shine, they blew the roof off of the place with it. It’s a longish song but god damn it if I didn’t want it to continue. When the last note played, I was just standing there awestruck and I don’t think I was alone. This is good on the album, but live it was absolutely holy.

I was beyond happy that they played one of my favorite songs of all time by anyone, “Atomic.” And they didn’t just play it, they played the fuck out of it, with Ms. Harry smiling, jumping and dancing like a 20 year old. They could have just ended it there and I would have been happy. But then came “Heart of Glass” with just as much joy and energy as they started with. For the encore, they came back for “The Tide is High” and closed the show with a performance of “Dreaming” that was sincerely inspiring and moving. At one point Ms. Harry spoke as the band played, calling on us to dream and be creative not just as a means to achieving personal fulfillment, but a call for creativity as a method of protest in a time when it is sorely needed. She repeated the line “dreaming is free” over and over as the band played and I felt myself getting choked up. It's the simplest things that make a difference sometimes. And that’s where I was really struck with the contrasts of the show I’d seen the previous night and this one. Heroes can fall or sell out. They can refuse to let go when they should or quit while they’re ahead. They can be replaced or forgotten altogether. They can stop being relevant or they can transcend. They can fade away or radiate.

Shirley Manson spoke several times during her set, shouting out her tour mates and particularly pointing out that being a woman in rock is hard and takes a tough woman. She praised both Deap Vally and Debbie Harry for this and thereby glued the show together as, not so much a statement, but a celebration of women in rock and I can’t think of three bands that could better represent this at this moment. The progression is clear between the 3 and it’s fantastic that they can coexist simply as badass musicians, icons and heroes.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Juliana Hatfield - Become What You Are and Beyond

Juliana Hatfield Three

Back in the year 2000, on a typical Florida summer day, it was pouring oceans worth of water from the skies to the point that I was potentially stuck at work due to flooding. The people on the next shift couldn't come in and we clearly couldn't leave. Roads were being closed all over town and we were on the verge of going to emergency mode at work. But there were two things that made me consider risking the dangerous drive home in my Chevy Cavalier through waters that went more than half way up the door. One, fuck that job. I really hated it. But more importantly, my wife and I had plans to drive up to Orlando early the next morning to see Juliana Hatfield. So off I went and although everyone at work had some version of "see you back here in a few minutes" I somehow made it, driving by all kinds of stalled and floating(?) cars on my way home. So what I'm saying is Juliana Hatfield is important to me and it's beyond overdue for me to put her in this stupid blog.

I wish I had a more original intro to her music, but I first heard her like I guess most people my age did, when "My Sister" and "Spin the Bottle" were out. I got her album with The Juliana Hatfield Three, Become What You Are based on those songs, but back then, it quickly wound up being one of my most played albums. There was just something about it that went well beyond most of what was being pushed as "Alternative" at the time. There was something very real behind it all even if I couldn't put my finger on it. I used to read a lot of Spin and Rolling Stone back then and although I can't remember much of what I read, I do remember a lot being made of her "little girl voice" which, ok, but so what? Her songwriting and her honest delivery more than made up for any incorrectly perceived lack of vocal power or range. Also, her voice was not a gimmick although I'm sure if we broke down many artists that came after, we couldn't say the same. She wasn't in some stupid made up box where young girls in the music business were "supposed to" be.

Become What You Are

The more I read about her, from attending the Berklee College of Music to her criticisms of popular culture and her ways of describing how socially awkward she was, the more I wanted to hear. So, little by little (because I had no Spotify or money to go all in) I bought singles, her previous solo album and with albums with her previous band, The Blake Babies. I continued to buy and love her new albums, but still, I kept coming back to Become What You Are. To this day, if I think of the 90s, this album, this artist and her particular style, her very specific sense of melody (which if I knew more about music theory I could break down, but that I know I could identify in a blind test type situation) is probably what first comes to mind for me. Even before Nirvana, Pearl Jam, grunge in general or anything else, her dynamics, her honest pop sensibility, that somehow carries a subtext of sincere real life angst no matter how cheery the song might seem to be, are what I most connected with then and now.

Over the years, because no matter how much I am actively listening to music new and old, I did sort of lose track of her work at times. But, thanks to Spotify, this has changed and in the last few weeks in particular I've been revisiting and catching up. She put out an album this year, Pussycat, which is exactly the kind of thing I expected more artists to put out this year as it is a protest of the Alt President and all his bullshit. But more than that, it's about our culture of misogyny. It's an appropriately angry and bitingly sarcastic work. I still have to live with that album some more before I can break it down but I think it's a contender and recommend it.


But also, in the past few months, I've been going back to Become What You Are a lot more. One thing that stuck out to me recently is how beautifully produced this album is and my mission now is to get this on vinyl, which is going to cost me a bit since it's somewhat rare to find but I digress. It's balanced so damn well and has that atmosphere of the room thing I love in music. Todd Phillips' drums in particular sound crisp and clean, but overall it just has a sense of space that I don't think I ever realized was there before. Not consciously, anyway. And The Three, with Dean Fischer on bass are in perfect sync. One of the tightest bands of the 90s. The album was produced by Scott Litt who is most famous for producing R.E.M.s most famous albums. So, it all makes sense. But beyond the production, the song writing is just perfection. As a student of music, both academically and as a fan, Juliana Hatfield is also one of the best song writers of our generation and criminally underrated as such. I could go on forever about songs like "Little Pieces," "President Garfield," "Dame With a Rod" or even "My Sister," which no matter how much it was played, is a brilliant song. I could dig into the rest of her catalog and find countless perfect songs. Instead I'll focus on one song, the one song I think that I related to and continue to relate to most off this album, "For The Birds."

The brief bass intro and the chords that follow, with the swinging drum beat are exactly what I think of when I think of a Hatfield song. And then she tells this simple story in the first verse of finding a baby bird laying on the street, dying, and it clearly has an effect on her. The melody of the chorus somehow uplifts with melancholy, in perfect marriage to the lyrics, "I'm trying, I'm trying, I'm trying, but I can't get away from the thought, it's dying, it's dying, it's dying, and it's something that I couldn't stop, you're lying, you're lying, you're lying, if you say it's gonna make it cause I know that it's not." The "I'm trying" is desperate but affirming because she's not giving up, but she might. It's at the edge of hope and for me it was always about taking some comfort in being a human who is still able to care enough to feel this way as method to dealing with the feeling of hopelessness. As the song builds, each verse and each chorus makes what she's trying to deal with bigger than the bird, but somehow still relevant to the fact that this bird is dying, that we all are dying and that it's all inevitable. The weight of life, the shit that humans do, is draining and that's why seeing this innocent bird dying, with no recourse, is so overwhelming in that moment. It's not an "everything's gonna be ok" song, but it's cathartic. Anyway, that's where I was at the time when I first heard this song. That's where I was for a long time and played the fuck out of this song, taking comfort in it. And I'm not sure another artist really has ever captured this in a more simple direct way that lives as metaphor and literal at the same time. Her delivery is heartfelt and authentic, too. She has clearly been there and I am glad she is able to channel it this way. This is a perfect song.

Her lyrics, her musicianship, her outspokenness make Juliana Hatfield one of the artists that I can truly credit with reinforcing my feminist tendencies in my 20s. To the point that she reinforced my humanist tendencies overall as well. And Become What You Are is only the tip of that. Her EP Please Do Not Disturb and the album Bed were also things I played heavily. That concert I went to back in 2000 was in support of her albums Beautiful Creature and the heavier, Total System Failure, both released simultaneously. I actually found one tiny write up of that show, including a couple of pictures here. Sadly, she didn't play "For The Birds." Since then she's continued to work as a solo artist and with several bands, not all of which I have heard in depth. So, Spotify here I come. Maybe she'll play Florida again soon, hopefully not during another monsoon, but I'd drive through another flood to see her.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Perfect (Cover) Songs - Don't Worry Baby

don't worry baby

Today I'm going to talk about a cover song that manages to bring to life both sides of the story in a way that is breathtaking to say the least, forever changing the original for me. This cover really epitomizes what this blog was meant to be about, even though I have strayed away from that many times. When Rachel Fannan's cover of The Beach Boys' "Don't Worry Baby" dropped, back in May, I heard it about 12 times in a row, each time wishing it wouldn't end. Produced by The Ravonettes Sune Rose Wagner, this version is less doo wop-y and more twangy with a lot of bottom and reverb as you'd expect from The Ravonettes, but more subdued and even airy. It's nostalgic and retro but in a way that glues it to the meaning of the lyrics and gives the song a new purpose beyond just being a retread. Basically, it's a perfect cover.

It's important to note that this cover is part of a series from Instant Records called Instant Love, where every two weeks different artists, all female, record a famous love song keeping the gender between women. In their own words: "INSTANT LOVE supports feminism, girl power, and the LGBTQ community." So, go check that out.

I can't fault the Beach Boy's original. It was always one of my favorites of theirs, though not my number one. But in comparison to this version, their sweet song comes off somewhat rushed and typical of a teenage boy who doesn't quite know how to express himself, which actually kind of makes it brilliant in it's own way (yet another reason this cover is great is that it has actually made me reevaluate and find new appreciation for the original). After all, this is really just a hot rod song about a guy worried about a drag race and how his girl calms him down. This is all well and good, but Rachel Fannan's delivery here is more focused on how her lover makes her feel and it's absorbingly believable to the point that the same words Brian Wilson sang, now sung by Rachel, somehow make the lovers completely three dimensional and the emotion is palpable. Where the Beach Boys gave us a beautiful song, Fannan is giving us a blissful soliloquy wrapped in a breathless sigh of ecstasy. Every time I hear her sing "Oh what she does to me when she makes love to me and she says 'don't worry baby'" with the hint of a smile (remembering or emulating the way she said it?), I get chills. Every single time. I can see her eyes twinkle thinking of her girl and beyond that, I think I understand why, because the way she quotes her, the obvious reverence and awe in her delivery, brings her lover to life. This is not the sort of thing I can put my finger on, but I don't have to. Just listen and feel. It's perfect.

By the way, this is the first time I've written about the same artist twice as a perfect song. In this case, both the Beach Boys (for "God Only Knows") and Rachel Fannan (with Only You for "The Pressure") have made an appearance.