Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 1 - Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee

goodnight rhonda lee

I'm not one for cheesy nostalgia, but I'm a sucker for music that can recall a time and place while still being fresh and timeless. Whether it's music made in the period in question or just as an homage to that period, the songs have to feel alive. This is usually not achieved by accident. It takes work but the final element to make it successful is to make it seem like it didn't take work - like the music just sort of came together, spur of the moment. Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee feels so immediate that it almost comes across as an improvisational jam session. If you didn't know any better, you could believe these songs are all covers, though you may not be able to pin down exactly where the original came from.

This is essentially a break-up album where the relationship is with one's former self. Rhonda Lee is Atkins' name for her alter ego when she was drinking. Knowing that, the album's title and lyrics all come into focus as a nakedly personal expression. The thing is, none of it comes across as being quite that literal or ever crosses the line into being wallowing or navel gazing. The fact is, you don't need to know what it's really about to enjoy it or get the more universal truths of the lyrics and the emotions behind them. Who can't relate to a line like "All that I have left is the sound of my own breath/And then darkness falls so quiet/But the loneliness can have it’s own allure/I can keep the quiet and keep myself inside/Cuz my records are old friends/I have trusted in them many times before" from "Darkness Falls so Quiet"?

This year has not been easy for many reasons. While protest and facing issues head on in more explicit ways through art is important, sometimes things that are not about the fight specifically can work just as well if not better. An album about changing, maturing and putting harmful things behind you is as important as one about fighting injustice. And personal growth is always welcomed. We can all hopefully learn to "Listen Up" when listening to Atkins sing "I should’ve listened up when I was young/But I always talked to much/Punch drunk on some bad luck/Hard times/You gotta make mistakes to know/It takes mistakes to grow/And now I know I gotta listen up." The reward for this personal growth is that we can "wake up from a nightmare to a dream" as the album's closer, "A Dream Without Pain" tells us. This final song is musically reminiscent of "Knockin on Heaven's Door" but instead of Dylan's weariness, it leaves us hopeful while we put the past behind us.

This summer, as hurricane Irma took aim on Florida, we made the decision to pack the family up and head out of town. The stressful trip had it's ups and downs, and it's no exaggeration to say that having Goodnight Rhonda Lee on repeat for most of the trip made it that much better. I wrote about this before, here. This album will always be special to me. That level of connection to music is why I started this blog in the first place and having an album that is also beautiful on it's own merits accomplish this is icing on the cake.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 2 - Hurray for the Riff Raff's The Navigator

From my teens forward, there's a couple of strange things that used to happen to me regularly. People that knew me would regularly tell me, out of the blue, how if I went to New York, I probably wouldn't leave. Also, people that didn't know me would routinely think I was from New York. It took until my mid twenties when I finally went to New York and not only did I understand why this happened, but a third thing happened while I was there - I kept getting mistaken for a local and asked for directions as if I had a clue. I mention this because I feel a strong connection to that city and particularly to music that has a certain New York feel and I can't think of an album in recent memory that better captures that than Hurray for the Riff Raff's The Navigator. And that's just one of the many aspects that makes this album not just great, but truly special, engaging and moving. It's the most complete work of art I've experienced in a very long time.

the navigator

The main creative force behind Hurry for the Riff Raff is Alynda Segarra, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in New York. At 17, she jumped a freight train out of town and crossed the country several times before ending up in New Orleans. Her career so far has been heavily in traditional "Americana" so it's appropriate that this album properly places Puerto Rican influence on the culture in that context. This is perhaps the most political album to come out this year and it happened before hurricanes and the blatantly racist neglect of responsibility by the current administration ravaged the island. Segarra has been politically and socially outspoken her whole career, but this is by far her most pressing and immediate commentary. The fact that it's wrapped in such a beautifully crafted work of art makes this timeless and breathlessly moving.

Years ago I watched a documentary on the history of Rock n Roll in which Iggy Pop talks about how he came up with the iconic sound of The Stooges. He talked about walking down the streets of the industrial parts of Detroit and hearing the loud crashing of the factory presses at the car manufacturing plants and then imitates the sound. Hearing that interview and then playing The Stooges' Funhouse album, it's crystal clear how that sound is there in every aspect of the record. It completely catptures the feel of that time and place in the sound of the snare and the guitars, but also in the recording technique and explosive aggression of his vocals. Throughout The Navigator, the same thing happens, creating a sonic painting of urban life that is very specific to New York City. Whether it's the echoes of a subway station in the doo wop opener "Entrance" or the metallic grinding of synths and guitars that could be the sound of the train itself or traffic on the street on tracks like "Hungry Ghost" these details pull you into the world of this concept album's main character, Mariposa as she journeys through the city, discovering her identity.

It's almost a disservice to break this album down into it's parts. The songs are all amazing, with stellar production and poignant lyrics. Segarra's voice has a very particular feel to it that makes you want to listen to what she has to say. It has a velvety flow and vibrato, but behind it is a passionate assertiveness that gives her words impact beyond the literal. There are certainly some standout songs. The first proper song after the "Entrance" theme, "Living in the City," has a Velvet Underground feel that comes across as authentic rather than simple imitation. Another favorite is "Settle" which is perhaps the most subtle version of using the production style and the instruments to create the sounds of the city on the album. It's slightly over-modulated at times while gliding along with a soft melody on strings. It's a beautifully balanced song. And, then of course, there's "Pa'lante" which honestly chokes me up every single time I hear it.

The Navigator's story is presented in true New York City style, as a musical. The album's liner notes are presented in a Playbill and the cover features a very stage-like set of what we might think of us NYC with fire escapes and steam coming up out of the sewers. But the album's themes chip away at this facade while diving into the truths behind what makes New York and by extension, "the American Dream" so romantic. It's the story of immigrants and outsiders, struggling against oppression of all kinds to establish an identity and "be something" as the climactic, empowering and moving "Pa'lante" affirms. The New York City of The Navigator is at once real and imaginary. It's the great city that was built by these immigrants and outsiders, but now it's been occupied, gentrified and appropriated, the original inhabitants pushed aside. The journey taken in the album is a search for true identity, both the protagonist's and the city's.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 3 - Lorde's Melodrama

The first time I heard "Green Light," the lead single for Lorde's second album, Melodrama, I was completely taken with its overwhelming euphoria. I must have played it the whole way to work that morning. I was already a fan since the release of "Royals" and was excited to hear more from this young prodigy. Once Melodrama came out in the Summer, it was clear this whole album was on another level. Lorde's pop virtuosity has multiplied exponentially since her debut, Pure Heroine. Her voice, her songwriting and her lyrical inventiveness are in perfect sync and the result is an album full of vivid pictures, feelings and memorable phrases that is very much alive and kicking.


This album is much more organic than Pure Heroine, with the presence of pianos being the most obvious addition. But also, the songs are more open and inviting. It's the little moments that most stay with me, such as on "Homemade Dynamite" when the music stops and she softly sings "Now you know it's really gonna blow" pause, then the soft "poough" (or however that would be spelled) of the explosion. The humor of that is unexpected and refreshing and ultimately exposes her playful personality, but not for the last time. The very next song, "The Louvre," a tale about a love that is knowingly being exaggerated as being epic has a couple of these moments, but my favorite is the line that gives the song its title, "But we're the greatest, they'll hang us in The Louvre/down the back, but who cares, still The Louvre." It's a line that is realistically conversational and brings the album's main character to life.

Lorde has said in interviews that the idea of the album is of a party where this girl goes from room to room thinking of this relationship that just ended. The shifts in emotional tone from song to song and in her vocal expression make this clear. She has a very mature sense of control over her voice. A song like "Liability" could have been very different if it was more restrained or completely unrestrained. Instead, it is beautifully balanced and heartbreaking with the slightest crack in her voice punctuating the sense of loneliness that is framed by a very subtle uplift in it's declaration of self-love and acceptance. It's a complex song and a theme I'm not sure I'd heard before.

The other straight up ballad, "Writer in the Dark," is chill inducing with her high register chorus that makes me think of Tori Amos: "I am my mother's child, I'll love you til the breathing stops/I'll love you til you call the cops on me/but in our darkest hours, I stumbled on a secret power/I'll find a way to be without you, babe." It's that combination of sadness and empowerment that is hinted at in every song on the album, and those lines are its most clear expression. Yes, it hurts, but also, she will be ok.

My favorite songs tend to make me imagine a movie scene they could play over. Not like a music video, but a scene in a movie that has context beyond the song. Maybe it's because I once wanted to be a filmmaker and because my favorite directors are masters of using pre-existing songs in their movies. Think Martin Scorsese or Quentin Tarantino. With "Supercut" it's as if Lorde has reached into my head and created a song that comes with the scene already burned into it. This is by far my favorite song on the album and perhaps of the year. The music and lyrics work like a holographic projection into your brain where she plays out these scenes of this relationship that was, in detail. Lorde has synesthesia, which basically means her senses sort of work together so she hears music and sees colors. Her music and sense of imagery in her lyrics likely benefits from this, and no song does this more than this one.

This summer, my 8 year old daughter, Shayera, would ride with me to work every morning because her summer camp was near my job. While we would listen to many different albums on the way, we probably played this album more than any. While some of the themes of the album are still beyond her, I was happy to share the work and perspective of a strong, confident, young woman like Lorde with her and watch her sing and dance to these songs. Anyway, here's what she thinks of it in her own words:
I love Lorde because her music makes me smile. The type of music is pop music. It makes me get up and dance every time I hear it. The songs flow into each other like they're one song. This is just a little bit of what I think about Lorde.

I like "Green Light" because it sounds like you are talking to someone. I also like it because it sounds like a song you would hear at a party. I like "Sober II (Melodrama) because it sounds like she's relaxing at a party. I think that this is the most pop song out of them all.

I love Lorde's album Melodrama because it just makes me want to get up and do something. If you compare Lorde's music with someone else's music, Lorde's music would win. That's how good her music is! I also like her music because it's very unique. Lorde is a great singer and composer.
I recently listened to the WTF Podcast episode where Marc Maron talks to Lorde. They talked about how expressions of joy tend to be uncomfortable and she said she has decided to express her joy openly in her art and life. It comes across in her completely free performances where she's not afraid of being awkward in her movements. But it also comes across in her music and her singing. When I worked with Shayera on writing her piece, I was taken by how much of this she was intuitively picking up on without the knowledge of the interview. That, to me, speaks volumes about how successful Lorde is an artist. And to think this is only her second album.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Favorite Albums of 2017 Number 4 - Royal Thunder's WICK

The only reason this album isn't higher on my list is because the numbers are really meaningless and interchangeable based on my mood. A couple of years ago, Royal Thunder's last album, Crooked Doors was my number 1. This year's WICK feels very much like a follow up to that album, not just because it's the next one they made, but because there is a sense of connected themes, lyrically and musically, that I can't help but think is no accident as the band has developed their artistry and point of view considerably over the past few years.


While the album could be argued to be split in two sections with the more upbeat (relatively speaking) songs up front before going into the more introspective and moving tunes, this is by no means to suggest that it's not cohesive. One thing easily leads to another and everything is connected. There's a progression that makes sense and connects the songs to one another and possibly to the previous album. Maybe I read too much into it, but opener "April Showers" talk of "fifty pills in the wall" and closer, "The Well"'s final line "these walls will tear us down" feel like there's more than just a common word between them considering the overall themes of loss and isolation that appear in between those lines. Then there's the hymn-like ending of the final song that fans will recognize from Crooked Door's "Floor." The vaguely religious allusion and connecting of loss to ritual is haunting.

As usual, the band is tight. Josh Weaver's riffs are complex enough to keep things interesting without losing the rock structure. These songs are not meant to be rousing anthems but there is a little bit of an 80s metal vibe going on through a couple of songs like "Sinking Chair" and "April Showers" that drives them into your being. And of course, Mlny Parsonz's vocals are beyond phenomenal. In particular, the ballad, "Plans" is a gut-wrenching and cathartic performance that feels like an open wound, finally getting some healing air after a past due bandage is removed. 

Overall this album may be a little more "mainstream" than any of their previous releases. But to me, that makes it even more daring, since they do this without losing any of their power or perspective. If anything, what I find is that the melodies lull you into what might be an easy, "radio-friendly" hard rock mood before taking an unexpected turn that illuminates the brilliance of the whole. A given note or chord might be more major than minor, but the band has figured out how to still imbue it all with their same emotional heft. This is an album that, like all of their work, gets you headbanging and pondering the pains of existence at the same time. 

Royal Thunder is easily my favorite band of the last several years. I will buy anything they put out at this point, really. You should, too.