Monday, January 30, 2012

A Little Bit of Everything

Ryan Adams and Dawes (among others)
Live at the Ann Arbor Folk Festival
Hill Auditorium
Ann Arbor MI, 1/27/12

Back at the end of 2009, one of my favorite blogs (here) named Ryan Adams as the artist of the decade. My vote for that title, quite obviously, would have gone to Butch Walker, who put out half a dozen of my favorite albums and became a world class producer in that time, but looking back, it's hard not to think of Adams as the definitive musical force of the '00s. His eclectic and prolific solo career began after his old band Whiskeytown, the poster-boys of the 90s Americana movement, broke apart in 2000. His first record, a sparse acoustic set of break up songs called Heartbreaker, released later that year, beginning what would be a ridiculously busy ten years, consisting of ten officially released studio records spanning numerous genres, sonic palettes and topics; meanwhile, at least as many unreleased projects made their way onto the internet and into the hands of fans everywhere. So many things about the decade in music were reflected in Adams as a figure: his struggles with his record label, his prolific, overarching musical ideas, his tendency towards excess, and his choice to embrace the growing internet music phenomenon, among others; a lot of Adams' music sees him looking back, channeling influences or directly referencing them, but at the same time, he's remarkably current: a troubadour for a new age.

I can't recall exactly when I became a Ryan Adams fan (though I would trace my earliest interest back to his haunting cover of Noel Gallagher's Oasis tune, "Wonderwall," which released as part of the Love is Hell album back in 2003. It wasn't until 2009 that I tackled the rest of his vast, challenging catalog (including unreleased works like The Suicide Handbook and 48 Hours, which sit amongst his best material). Adams very quickly rose to prominence on my top played artists chart, not only due to the quantity of the material, but also to the quality: there is a Ryan Adams record for every mood, and when I wasn't in the mood for the upbeat acoustics and the collision of influences on Gold (still my favorite record of his), chances were that the icy piano ballads on Love is Hell or the masterful alt-country, roots rock of Jacksonville City Nights were likely to hit the mark. Then last year's Ashes & Fire, Ryan's first true solo album in years and the first since the dissolution of the Cardinals, who served as his backing band for years, made it onto my list of favorite albums at the end of the year. And last Friday, I added Adams to another list: that of the artists I've seen live.

Ryan Adams served as the headliner for the first night of the Ann Arbor folk festival, which also included acts such as Carbon Leaf, Elephant Revival, Devotchka and Dawes, another band who appeared on my end of the year list for 2011. The show, which kicked off at 6:30 p.m. at the University of Michigan Hill Auditorium, was emceed to great effect by comedian Heywood Banks, who brought a welcome sense of levity and glee to the proceedings with his jokes and his comedic singalong routine. Unfortunately, the evening's seven acts was at times dull and exhausting, and had me counting the minutes until Banks would return and speed things up a bit. Blues-folk singer/songwriter Sunny War, who took the stage first, was the epitome of this, and boring songs and a lack of stage presence made War's five song set feel much longer than it was. David Wax Museum also fit into this category, with a lead singer who shouted his way through the band's entire set of Mexican-influenced folk music.

Elephant Revival and Carbon Leaf were two of the brighter spots in the show's first act: the former filled the Auditorium with their rich, unique sound, their orchestral instrumentation and haunting lead vocals (courtesy of Bonnie Paine, who also played the band's percussion on a washboard) making use of the venue's stellar acoustics. The latter gathered around a single microphone and performed a set of Celtic infused folk, with their gorgeous vocal harmonies becoming a high water mark for the night up to that point. Both are bands that I'm interested in exploring further.

Dawes shook the place awake with the most exciting, involved set of the night. Though their five song set was far too short, the band made perfect use of every one of their 30+ minutes onstage, making me understand perfectly what I've been reading about them since the first time I heard their albums: that they're great on record, but even better live. Opener "Fire Away" was a perfect example of this, and the song thrived in new ways in its live format. Frontman Taylor Goldsmith delivered a rousing guitar solo that, in one fell swoop, made me wish the band were co-headlining the show. "That Western Skyline," the opener from the band's 2009 debut North Hills made me resolve to give that record more listening time, and the set's brevity didn't stop the band from playing my two favorite songs in the form of the bookends from last year's Nothing is Wrong. The first, "Time Spent in Los Angeles," was hampered somewhat by feedback issues and disproportionately heavy bass, but still proved to be every bit as electric as it is on record, and the second, the lyrically stunning "A Little Bit of Everything" saw the band turn the venue into a ringing cathedral for five minutes. The fifth and final part of the set, "When the Time Comes," was the perfect finale to the show's first act, with its anthemic, singalong chorus and Goldsmith's pristine vocals sending the band off on a high note.

For reasons unknown to me, Devotchka (another Mexican folk band), were given near co-headliner status, and played for almost double the time of Dawes. While the band's level of musicianship was obviously high, it seemed to me that their melody challenged songs and meandering arrangements would have been better suited for serving as the score to some indie-comedy (which they have, in 2006's Little Miss Sunshine) than they did as the backbone to a compelling live set (which they didn't). The fact that they were allowed to play for the better part of an hour while their more talented (and more musically varied) predecessors were relegated to extremely brief sets was something I found quite upsetting, and was a big strike against the Folk Festival's structure for me. Luckily, Heywood Banks returned to the stage just as my irritation was reaching a fever pitch, and his stand-up comic routine made the minutes fly by as Ryan Adams set up for his set.

Adams arrived onstage shortly before 10:30 p.m., picked up his acoustic guitar, sat down and began to play. As Adams played his first song ("My Sweet Carolina," a highlight from his first record), the capacity crowd of the 3,500+ people fell to complete silence and it was magical. Over the next hour, Adams morphed the regal Hill Auditorium into an intimate, coffee-house setting, playing 13 songs with nothing but acoustic guitar, harmonica and piano, and without the assistance of a single other musician. The Ashes & Fire material (the title track, "Dirty Rain" and "Lucky Now" all made welcome appearances in the set-list) thrived in the sparse acoustic setting, and it struck me how, perhaps more than any other artist I've seen, Adams' voice sounds as good live as it does on record. Adams dug deeply into the Heartbreaker album, which became the most well represented of his records in the 13 song set, and the album's songs were obviously very at home in such an intimate setting. "Carolina" seemed like an especially appropriate opening to his set, as Emmylou Harris (Saturday Night's folk fest headliner), lends backing vocals to the studio version. "Be My Winding Wheel" was every bit as good, and Heartbreaker's closer, the gorgeously restrained "Sweet Lil Gal" gave Adams his first trip to the piano in a moment as breathtaking as any that played out on the stage all night.

As far as songs go, none were more welcome for me than the inclusions from Gold: a slowed down performance of "Firecracker" reminded me why I love the song so much, and a piano take on that record's opener, "New York, New York," which became somewhat of an anthem following the September 11th attacks, struck a more mournful, emotional chord than its album counterpart. Adams was clearly aware of the set's slow tempo, and made several sarcastic, self-deprecating remarks concerning it, from "and here's another ballad" to "man, we gotta slow things down here." At the end of such a long night of music, Adams' low key set could have come across as a bit anti-climactic for some, but I've always loved seeing artists strip their songs down to their bare essentials, and the intimacy of the show had an electricity about it that was palpable even from the back row of the second balcony. 

"Come Pick Me Up," Adams' signature song and the most memorable cut from Heartbreaker, served as a fitting, if somewhat sudden, conclusion to a stellar set, with the profane lyrics, piercing harmonica, and heartache drenched subject matter bringing full circle what was, in effect, a condensed retrospective of Adams' solo acoustic material. Though the set-list was obviously trimmed considerably from what he's been playing on other tour dates, it was still a joy to hear some of his best songs come alive in such a venue. It would have been easy for Adams to come out with the full band, rock the house for an hour, and leave the audience with the loudest, most raucous, most climactic set of the night, but the fact that he was able to command the audience in the way he did with such sparse, acoustic material was the mark of a true veteran. From the moment he walked onstage on Friday night, Adams had the audience in the palm of his hand, to the point where you could have heard a pin drop, and that proved very quickly that, even after six other acts, he was simply in another class.


1) Fire Away
2) That Western Skyline
3) Time Spent in Los Angeles
4) A Little Bit of Everything
5) When My Time Comes

Ryan Adams
1) My Sweet Carolina
2) Ashes & Fire
3) Dirty Rain
4) Be My Winding Wheel
5) Sweet 'lil Gal
6) Everybody Knows
7) Firecracker
8) Please Do Not Let Me Go
9) Lucky Now
10) Let it Ride
11) Two
12) New York, New York (Piano)
13) Come Pick Me Up

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Bruce Springsteen Retrospective Part V: The River (1980)

"But I remember us riding in my brother's car
Her body tan and wet down at the reservoir
At night on them banks I'd lie awake
And pull her close just to feel each breath she'd take
Now those memories come back to haunt me
They haunt me like a curse
Is a dream a lie if it don't come true
Or is it something worse?"

By the time Bruce Springsteen reached his fifth LP, he wasn't the international icon he should have been, but he was a star with a good following and a handful of terrific records under his belt. He'd moved from the Dylan worship of his first two albums comfortably into a rock 'n' roll sound that was all his own, and he had the eclectic, electric talents of the E-Street Band behind him. What better time to attempt the double album, that mystical Holy Grail of rock music? Ever since the Beatles entered into the double album conversation with The White Album in 1968, it has undergone a colorful history that has seen works from everyone from Pink Floyd  to the Smashing Pumpkins, Led Zeppelin to the Foo Fighters,  from the Red Hot Chili Peppers to M83. To attempt the double album is to enter into an ambitious task that has proven, time and time again, nearly impossible to succeed in completely. Double albums overflow with songs, sounds and ideas; they allow artists to indulge in their quirks or in their adoration of genres outside of their comfort zone, and while they often result in some of the most creative and engaging material of ant artist's career, they also often come out gloriously flawed, with more throwaway filler material than should ever make it onto a full length album.

Bruce Springsteen came into The River with enough material for three or four albums (and b-sides from it make up at least a full disc of the Tracks collection). Like his predecessors, he stumbles into a few of the double album's inherent traps, but the resulting record is one of his most brilliantly compelling. The River, like many double albums, could be considered a blend of Springsteen at his loudest and his softest, his most raucous and his most introspective. Throughout the album's two discs, Springsteen presents a set of songs striking in their duality, one half bar-band rock 'n' roll, the other half among the darkest material he ever recorded. The opener, "The Ties That Bind," is a classic Springsteen rocker and perfectly encapsulates the record's louder sound. At first, the record was going to be a single-disc effort, and "Ties" was going to be the title track. That changed as some darker material began to emerge in Springsteen's writing, ultimately resulting in the stunning title track that closes the first disc. If "The Ties That Bind" captures Springsteen's more joyful side, "The River" finds him at his most inward, as he takes us on a journey through memories shrouded in shadow and regret. His portrait of young love in hard times captures an entire relationship in the course of five minutes, from the ecstatic euphoria of first love to the end of innocence, and the result is one of his best songs. Next to "Thunder Road," I don't think Springsteen's lyrics have ever hit me harder. His vocal is also a revelation, as he delivers his evocative lyrics with emotional honesty and intensity that is, quite frankly, chilling.

"The River" follows in the footsteps of Darkness on the Edge of Town, and like many of the songs on that album, it examines what happens after we wake up from the American Dream, after Thunder Road runs out and we realize that maybe we weren't born to run after all. It's heavy subject matter, and it permeates the best songs on The River, like the gorgeously sad "Independence Day," a song that Springsteen wrote about the day he finally moved out of his father's house. Springsteen and his dad never saw eye to eye, often fighting when they were young, but even despite this, his love for the man is palpable on "Independence Day," and the result is one of the most revealing songs he's ever written. It reminds me of one of the greatest recorded moments in the Springsteen collection: a live version of "The River" that was released on the Live: 1975-85 collection, along with choice cuts of many of Springsteen's most notable songs. This version is arguably better than the one on the album, full of all the sound and the fury that comes out when Springsteen cuts loose live, but the best part is what comes before the actual song. Amidst an elegiac rain of accompaniment from the E-Street Band, Springsteen tells a story about his father and the relationship they shared:

"I remember I got into a motorcycle accident once. I was laid up in bed and he had a barber come in and cut my hair, and man, I can remember tellin' him that I hated him and that I would never ever forget it. And he used to tell me: 'Man I can't wait 'til the Army gets you. When the Army gets you they're gonna make a man out of you. They're gonna cut all that hair off and they'll make a man out of you.'
And this was in, I guess, '68, and there were a lot of guys from the neighborhood going to Vietnam. I remember the drummer from my first band comin' over my to house with his Marine uniform on, sayin' that he was going, and that he didn't know where it was. 
And a lotta guys went and a lotta guys didn't come back. And a lot that came back weren't the same anymore. And I remember the day I got my draft notice. I hid it from my folks, and three days before my physical, me and my friends went out and we stayed up all night. And we got on the bus to go that, we were all so scared.
And I went and I failed. I came home. It's nothin' to applaud about...but I remember coming home, after I'd been gone for three days, and walking in the kitchen, and my mother and father were sittin' there.
My dad said, 'Where ya been!?'
I said, 'I went to take my physical.'
He said, 'What happened?'
I said, 'They didn't take me.'
And he said, 'That's good.'"

The first time that version really hit me, I was in the middle of a lonely drive home after a weekend of concerts, one of which was my first Springsteen live experience. It was late a night, barely a car on the road aside from my own, and I had nothing but my thoughts and my music to keep me company. I played that version of the song, and by the end of Springsteen's speech, I was in tears. I never heard "Independence Day" the same way again after that night, and it remains one of my favorite things Springsteen has ever done. With so many Springsteen songs, it feels like he's writing from the point of view of another: telling a story with complex characters, giving voice to the everyman: hell, it was his ability to write like that which earned him the nickname "the Boss" in the first place, but "Independence Day" is such a special song because it is completely personal and because it comes right from his heart. As the years go by and my relationship with my own father continues to dwindle, that song just hits me harder and harder.

Aside from those two landmark songs, the first disc of The River is actually fairly upbeat and fun. "Sherry Darling," which first originated during the Darkness sessions, is one of the catchiest songs Springsteen has written (he'd imitate the song's style a lot two and a half decades later on Magic). Disc One also contains numerous great bar band rave ups. Springsteen and co. sound like they're having an absolute ball on "Crush on You" and "You Can Look (But You Better Not Touch)," and "Two Hearts" and "Out in the Street" are almost equally enjoyable. None of them are among Springsteen's best songs, nor can I say that they're more worth of being on the record than a few of the Tracks stand-outs ("Take 'Em As They Come," "Restless Nights," and "Be True," among others), but Springsteen has never sounded as spontaneous on record as he does here. Disc One also yields the pleasantly pretty slowdance of "I Wanna Marry You" and "Hungry Heart," a song with a radio ready chorus that earned Springsteen his first top ten hit.

I've often felt with double albums that the artist begins to lose steam somewhere during the second disc. Looking back at my favorite double albums, it's hard to find one where I legitimately prefer the second disc, but on disc two of The River, I think Springsteen laid down some of the finest songs of his career. The opener, "Point Blank," is one of the most haunting introductory tracks I've ever heard. A slow-burning masterclass in intensity, "Point Blank" epitomizes the kind of mournful regret that defines much of The River's second half, and it's only the beginning. It's the same sense of urgency that infects the narrator on "Fade Away," a simplistic break-up song that Springsteen injects with every ounce of heartache that comes with the end of a once brilliant relationship.

Gorgeously downbeat electric guitar chords and piano flourishes herald the arrival of "Stolen Car," and over the course of four minutes, the song has consumed me, time and time again. Perhaps more than anything Springsteen has ever recorded, "Stolen Car" is entrancing and hypnotic, and to this day, even after listening to it hundreds of times, it still breaks my heart. Over the course of those four minutes, we watch the love between two people evaporate and drift away. Springsteen doesn't have to say much: it's three verses and two choruses, but the song's atmosphere is so utterly, hopelessly heartbreaking that the song, which comes at the end of the record's third side, has always stopped the whole thing dead in its tracks. Amidst the song's mournful atmosphere, Springsteen delivers what might be the most perfect lines about falling out of love that I've ever heard:

"She asked if I remembered those letters I wrote
When our love was young and bold
She said last night she read those letters
And they made her feel one hundred years old"

It's a simple verse, a mere four lines long, but in those four lines, Springsteen fits an entire relationship, from the first days, so full of excitement and spontaneity, to the falling in love, all the way to the present, where the narrator feels so broken and lost that those early days feel like a part of another life. Is he really driving a stolen car? Did he commit a crime to feel alive and spontaneous again? Is he really that far gone? Or is the car a metaphor for a life and a love that has gone so completely off course that he no longer knows how to find his way back. "Each night I wait to get caught, but I never do," Springsteen sings. With either interpretation, the line is drastic and powerful, and the song ultimately comes to the same meaning: this man is lost, and he needs someone else to wake him up again. Springsteen has never written a more shattering, hopeless song; I don't think any other songwriter has either.

The closing trio of songs (along with "Ramrod," another big bar rock song) make up one of the best sides to any record in the Springsteen catalog. "The Price You Pay" finds our protagonist (whoever he may be) in the same situations that have defined so much of the music on this album or on Darkness. The American Dream has faded, the age of innocence and youth has come to an end, and the characters of these songs have woken up to a world that is bleak and unforgiving, but much like Darkness's closing title track, "The Price You Pay" finds that character in a state of resignation and defiance. The song's gorgeous, often biblical lyricism, and simple, almost hymn-like musical structure build into an unexpected anthem, with Bruce's voice rising above the chaos until it reaches it's rousing peak in the song's final moments. "Drive All Night" is the song's spiritual sequel, and it is certainly no mistake that the songs are back to back, near the end of the record. That same defiance and redemption found in "The Price You Pay" continues to grow here, and Springsteen comes to an ultimate conclusion that has often left me wondering why "Drive All Night" isn't this record's finale. Despite the fact that his life has taken a different course than he envisioned in his dreams, the protagonist has, at very least, finally answered one of the key questions of life. On "Born to Run," Springsteen sang "I wanna know if love is real," and here, he comes to the realization that, not only is love real, but it has this massive power to heal and support. In the song's final verse, he sings:

"There's machines and there's fire waiting on the edge of town
They're out there for hire, but baby they can't hurt us now
Cause you've got my love
Through the wind, through the rain, the snow, the wind, the rain
You've got my love, heart, and soul."

Those lines are among my favorites that Springsteen has ever written. In the midst of this busy, disjointed record, full of boozy rock and roll and regret, there is this one grand moment of clarity. The protagonist knows there are always going to be hardships, but here, he's turning to face that darkness on the edge of town that's been dogging his steps for ages, and he's ready to fight. Love will be the thing to save him: what could be a more romantic ideal than that?

The River closes with "Wreck on the Highway," a moody, subdued post-script of a coda that does just what Springsteen has always been the best at in his songs: it tells a story. While driving home from work one night, the narrator comes upon the scene of a hit and run that has left a man half-dead on the side of the road. He calls the police, they take the man to the hospital, and then he continues home, but thoughts of the scene continue to haunt him. He lies awake at night, thinking about what he saw, imaging the death of the man and the reactions of the people that loved him, and he finally realizes the astounding brevity of life. Though The River seems to end in the same sadness and shadow that defines its best songs, I think there is a message of uplift here as well. The narrator realizes how our time here on Earth can be cut short in a split second's time, and though he doesn't say as much, I've always heard a resolve in his voice to try harder: to live more fully, to love more completely, to work harder and cherish the world around him and the people in it. For a record about characters getting over their regrets and failed dreams, there could be no more appropriate ending.

Over the course of The River's 20 songs, Bruce Springsteen covers a lot of subjects and sounds, from elegiac ballads to honky-tonk rock and rollers, from songs about family and love, both lost and re-affirmed, to fun ditties about fast cars and girls.  It feels disjointed, uneven, sometimes even completely directionless, but I'd argue that that's part of the point. The River, above all else, has always felt to me like a journey through adulthood: where Born to Run epitomized the endless opportunism of youth and Darkness captured the post-innocence shock of discovering a much crueler world, The River finds its characters settling into that world, learning to survive, love and (dare I say) thrive in it. Many have problems with the flow or the album's personality crisis, but life isn't consistent or easy or obvious: it's messy. Human existence is the messiest thing of all, and this record mirrors that. As a result, The River is a long, challenging record, and it actually took me quite a long time to recognize how truly spectacular it is. There have always been other songs I wish had made the cut, and it's length and tonal inconsistency has kept it from getting the kind of play Born to Run has over the years, but when I do put the record on, it still completely absorbs me. All double albums are flawed, but Springsteen made one of the greatest ones here, and I would argue that, aside from the untouchable Born to Run, he hasn't made another record nearly as compelling, memorable, or indeed, as great as The River.

***Lots of exciting news in Springsteen world in the past week, what with new album information and tour date announcements. Needless to say, I'll be offering my thoughts on the album as soon as it is in my hands, and I'll also be at the Concert at the Palace in April. Counting the days!***

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"And all at once you look across a crowded room to see the way that light attaches to a girl..."

 A Tribute to the Music of Counting Crows

When I think about the bands that have defined my musical experience the most, there aren't many that I can list higher than Counting Crows. Back in the mid-90s, my music listening was limited to whatever CDs my parents would play in the car or whatever albums my brother would bring home one day to play on his boombox. I remember afternoons and evenings sitting around in the basement, listening to his CD collection, picking out the ones I liked most, and having him make me cassette tape copies of those. There are albums and artists I fell in love with back then that I still listen to regularly: The Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse remains one of my favorite albums; I'm still waiting for the new Matchbox Twenty album, still wondering what would have happened if Oasis ever made another record as good as Morning Glory, and most certainly still enthralled by the flawless trinity of songs that ends Third Eye Blind's self-titled album. Hell, I might even still have some of those tapes. I believe Green Day's Dookie and Weird Al's Bad Hair Day were also among the collection. I was super cool.

One of my earliest musical memories was hearing Counting Crows for the first time. We were climbing into the car after some bike trip, and my brother slipped my step dad's copy of August and Everything After into the CD player. "Mr. Jones" issued from the speakers, and I loved it immediately. It's a moment I would think of a lot a little less than a decade later, when I bought the band's greatest hits collection (called Films About Ghosts, after one of my all-time favorite lyrics from "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby"). At that point in time, I think I owned about six CDs, half of which were Creed (I am not proud of this), but that CD, which contained 16 of the Crows' songs, was a turning point. Throughout that winter, I played that record almost every day, and those songs brought life into the bleak winter weather that covers my hometown every year: the rip roaring electricity of "Angels of the Silences," the emotional swell of "Round Here," the lyrical perfection of "A Long December" and "Mrs. Potter," and the nostalgic beauty of "Recovering the Satellites," they all became a part of me.

Naturally, my impulsive purchase of the greatest hits record only made me want to delve deeper into the band's back catalog, a key event in my musical evolution. Up to that point I'd always pretty much been a "singles" guy. I had a couple of albums (again, not proud), but most of my listening revolved around the mix CDs that I made out of songs I heard on the radio or on TV shows (most of these are still at least partially listenable, thankfully). That was about to change. I dug up my parents' copy of August and my brother's copy of Recovering the Satellites and I dove in. I still maintain the former is one of the greatest records of all time, and I was shocked that most of the album's best songs ("Round Here" and "Anna Begins" being the exceptions) were left off of Films. Over the years, every song on that album has come to mean something to me. The lyrics of "Time and Time Again" took my breath away, while the climactic scope of "A Murder of One" (and an impeccable vocal performance from frontman Adam Duritz), made it one of my favorite songs. "Sullivan Street" became one of my go-to nighttime drive songs when I finally got my first car, and the palpable emotion I could hear in Duritz' voice on key album cuts like "Anna Begins," "Raining in Baltimore" and "Round Here" keep him on the list of my all-time favorite singers. For all of those reasons and many more, August remains my favorite album of the 90s. The loneliness and desperation of those songs have kept me coming back, year after year, even as other records that I loved as a kid have begun to fall hollow; that record was one of the first times I realized just how much visceral, emotional power music could have, and that discovery is one that continues to drive my love of music, even to this day.

Recovering the Satellites was (and is) a much more challenging record. On "Mr. Jones," Duritz sang, "when I look at the television, I wanna see me staring right back at me." It was a big pop song from a guy who wanted to be big and popular, and the irony was, it was just the song that granted him those wishes. Satellites finds him looking around at what his life has become since he wrote that song and rebelling against that fame. Right from the first two tracks, the scorching back to back duo of "Catapult" and "Angels of the Silences," it's clear that this isn't the same band that laid down the folky jams on August. The first half of the record finds them turning up the electricity and delivering a set of songs full of anger, confusion and nostalgic yearning for simpler times. It's a master class in intensity, from the blistering build of "I'm Not Sleeping" to the memorable riff on "Have You Seen Me Lately," though it's broken up a bit by the dusky nostalgic of "Daylight Fading" and the gorgeous alt-country lilt of "Goodnight Elisabeth." It's when the rage begins to dissipate and the amplifiers go down that the record becomes an enigma, and I've always had a much harder time getting a handle on the second half for that reason. The songs range from stark piano ballads ("Miller's Angels," the most depressing song Duritz ever wrote) to almost blues-rock experimentation ("Another Horsedreamer's Blues," "Mercury") to what might be the strangest album cut I've ever heard from an established band ("Monkey"), but amidst this oddly appealing collection of deep cuts are three of the best songs in the discography: the title track, "A Long December" and "Walkaways," which I've often thought of as my favorite Counting Crows song. It's less than a minute and a half long, just 16 bars of Duritz and an acoustic guitar, bidding a bittersweet farewell to...well, I'm not so sure. "Someday, I'm gonna stay," he sings in the album's dying moments. "But not today."

Satellites has never been my favorite Counting Crows album, but every time I listen to, it draws me in and beguiles me. I've always thought of it as an inconsistent record, not in the strength of its material but in its mood and sound, and the result is a disjointed, confusing collection of songs, but it's also a truly captivating one. It's a portrait of a troubled mind and of a man who got everything he wished for and realized it was both a blessing and a curse. Duritz has often stated his belief that Recovering the Satellites is the band's finest work, and while I don't necessarily agree with him, I can see where he is coming from.

The following summer, I bought Hard Candy, which was, at the time, the band's most recent record. Awhile ago, I wrote a blog post about the importance of the "summer soundtrack" album in my life, that album that comes along and defines the long, glorious months of that season. Hard Candy was my first summer soundtrack album, and even as I've grown up and summers have come and gone, I can still come back to it on a beautiful, warm summer night and feel the same way I always have. On "Up All Night," Duritz sings, "we could drive out to the dunes tonight, 'cause summer's almost here," and on "Miami," it's "the bus is running, it's time to leave, this summer's gone and so are we." Those songs are the cornerstones of this record, and they've pretty much bookended each of my summers since the day this record came into my life. The former takes me back to those nights just before summer breaks, when you can almost taste the coming season, and when I hear the latter, I hear the endings of half a dozen perfect summers and my heart still aches for them. When I listen to records for the first time today, the first thing that strikes me is the emotional aspect in the singer's voice, and that's all thanks to listening to Adam Duritz for so many years. I still remember the first time I listened to "Miami." The way that song builds into this climactic vocal tour-de-force still blows me away, but back then, I don't think I'd ever heard anything like it. And yet even despite how terrific that song (and many others) are, Hard Candy has always been written off by fans, considered by some to be the weakest link in their discography. There aren't many more misunderstood records in my collection. The naysayers saw Candy as the record where the long tortured Adam Duritz sold out, cheered up, and wrote bunch of bubblegum pop songs; nothing could be further from the truth. The hooks are the brightest the band has ever written, drenched in sunny pop production and instrumentation, but underneath that are some of the most strikingly dark songs Duritz has ever written, whether he's imagining a suicide ("Black & Blue"), struggling with his longstanding battles with insomnia and depression ("Goodnight L.A.," "Holiday in Spain"), dealing with a miscarriage ("Carriage"), or going through a particularly damaging break-up ("Miami"). The combination of the album's bright pop hooks with its dark subject matter has always been incredibly compelling to me, and it's something that's kept me coming back to this album over and over again. It reminds me, in that regard, of Butch Walker's Letters, and much like that album, it's an absolute love letter to all kinds of pop music, from rootsy classic rock ("If I Could Give All My Love"), to spiraling synth-pop ("New Frontier") to songs that sound like they would have been right at home in a classic stage musical ("Butterfly in Reverse," "Why Should You Come When I Call?"). There's not a bad song on the set, and for a long time, Hard Candy was my all time favorite album.

This Desert Life and Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings are the lesser pieces of the catalog, in my eyes, though the former is another fantastic, interesting direction for the band to take, and the latter contains some truly stellar songs. Desert Life was the last of the initial four that I got in to, and the one I liked the least of those, but there are a lot of moments on that record that still bring back great memories. The outstanding lyricism in "Mrs. Potter's Lullaby" put the song among Adam's greatest accomplishments, while "Speedway" is one of his most effective break-up songs and "Colorblind" is one of the most hypnotic songs ever, by anyone. And then there's the vaguely experimental atmosphere running through the likes of "High Life" and "I Wish I Was a Girl" (another very, very strange song), the gorgeously downbeat "Amy Hit the Atmosphere," and the gloriously climactic "get into my car and drive!" moment at the end of "St. Robinson in his Cadillac Dream," the album's finale. Saturday Nights & Sunday Mornings is, I think, the only less than stellar record in the discography, though when it came out, I didn't think so. I bought it on release day, in March of 2008, nearly six years removed from Hard Candy's arrival, and I played the hell out of it. The Saturday Nights portion has always been great, revitalizing the sound the band used on Satellites, and culminating in "Cowboys," the kind of furiously angry anthem you play at full volume in the car when you're pissed off (I can't do this anymore, since I drive far too fast when I do). The Sunday Mornings portion is blessed with some truly gorgeous folk songs ("Washington Square," "On Almost Any Sunday Morning," "When I Dream of Michelangelo"), but I've always thought it gets more and more bogged down by its concept as it goes. That doesn't stop the Crows from delivering a typically strong closer (the fantastic "Come Around"), but there's a preponderance of filler ("Tuesday in Amsterdam" is the dullest song Adam Duritz has ever written), and the record ends up feeling both overlong and not quite effective in its themes. That said, and despite the fact that its fallen out of regular rotation since 2008, I'm not sure if there was a record I played more that year. It dropped three days before my spring break, after an endless wait for new music from the band and what had felt like the longest winter of my life, and it pretty much became the soundtrack for that break (an impromptu road trip to New York City) and the rest of the spring that followed.

And now there's a covers album on the way. It's called Underwater Sunshine, out March 27th, and featuring a long slate of songs that the Crows have been playing and making their own for years now. Many of them have made fairly regular appearances in live shows (and have likely made their way onto the iPods of Crows fans, thanks to the band's open door policy for bootleggers), and a few have even been recorded in the studio before (hell, I downloaded their version of "Start Again" on the same day that I first heard "Up All Night). My point is, I've always known many of these songs more for the band's covers of them than for their original versions, and as a result, I'm thinking this will almost feel like a brand new, full-length record from them, to me. Anyway, here's the song list:

"Jumping Jesus" by Sordid Humor
"Start Again" by Teenage Fanclub
"All My Failures" by Dawes
"Meet On The Ledge" by Fairport Convention
"Like Teenage Gravity" by Kasey Anderson & The Honkies
"Ballad of El Goodo" by Big Star
"Coming Around" by Travis
"Four White Stallions" by Tender Mercies
"You Ain't Goin' Nowhere" by Bob Dylan (originally recorded by The Byrds)
"Untitled (Love Song)" by The Romany Rye
"Ooh La La" by The Faces
"Hospital" By Coby Brown
"Return of the Grievous Angel" by Gram Parsons
"Mercy" by Tender Mercies
"Amie" by Pure Prairie League

I, for one, am excited about this record. One of the great things about the Counting Crows is their obvious love of music, a love that permeates every moment of every record they've made and probably every live show they've ever played. I still haven't seen them live, but their aren't many acts with better bootleg collections, and listening to live versions of their songs is riveting because of their tendency to reinvent things on the spot. It's still amazing to me that, even after months spent not listening to this band, a live version of "Round Here" can still pop up on shuffle and blow my mind. The way Adam invests himself emotionally in his live performances, that song in particular, is a stunning thing to hear, and it places this band near the top of the "artists I need to see live" list. My hope is that we'll get a tour for this covers record, or that maybe it will even inspire Adam to start work on another full length record. But even if Duritz is at the point of his life where he wants to do the band on a more part-time basis than he once did, and even if he never writes another record (this does seem possible, judging by the ever increasing gaps between albums), at least I still have the records: I'll always have August for those rainy days, Satellites for those gloomy, wintery afternoons, Hard Candy for warm summer nights and This Desert Life for every first day of Spring. And, above all, I'll always have the memories of how those records came along when I was 13 years old and changed my life.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

"You still get my heart racing for you"

Safetysuit - These Times
Universal Republic Records, 2012
Four stars (out of five)

 Three and a half years ago, I think I finally started to grow up. The end of my junior year of high school brought a lot of changes: saying goodbye to some of my best friends in the world, facing failures that I'd never had much experience with before, summer jobs and, along with my first car, more responsibility than I'd ever had before. That car also brought me a lot of freedom, and that summer was an exciting, unpredictable time in my life. Indeed, I spent many nights out of the house, hanging out with friends, terrorizing the town, staying out until all hours of the night, and through all of that, music started to play an even bigger part in my life than it already had up to that point. So many records came alive on those late night drives back home throughout that summer, perhaps none more than Safetysuit's viscerally emotional debut, Life Left to Go.

Life Left to Go wasn't a perfect record: there are a few songs in the second half that I still skip roughly half the time, songs that I think veer a little too far into the realm of generic modern rock, but when the songs were good, they were great. The band had this ability to blend both pop sensibilities and U2-sized stadium rock and roll into a sound that was, while not wholly their own, instantly distinctive. There weren't a whole lot of opening tracks as good as "Someone Like You" last decade, but that was only the tip of the iceberg of what that album had to offer. There was the stunningly emotional build of "Anywhere But Here," the visceral force of "Something I Said," the hurricane of sound on "Annie," the shattering resignation of "Gone Away" or the chilling pleas of the title track, which closed the record in truly powerful fashion. Those songs were all massively important to me then, and they remain so now. They take me back in time, even as I form new connections with them, like only the best records can ever do. There are only a handful of albums that I've formed a personal connection of that level with, and for a short period of time, I think a part of me didn't want a follow-up; I just wasn't sure if the band could deliver another record like that on the second time around.

For awhile, it seemed like These Times would never see the light of day. The first single, the hook laden and lovelorn "Get Around This," dropped last April on the band's website, and the record was set for a tentative June release. It was soon pushed back to October, then to November, and then into the New Year. As disappointing as those delays were for fans, they merely allow These Times to be the first record on a fairly blank slate of music for the year, and despite my initial feeling that it was a step down from Life, repeat listens have uncovered more emotional nuances than I originally noticed, and I now think that it's something I will continue to revisit throughout the year. The torrential, anthemic opener "Believe" is a contender for album highlight, as frontman Doug Brown's voice rises through a familiar feeling verse to a soaring chorus. The song picks up right where the last record left off, recalling at once both Life Left to Go's opening (the stadium ready, guitar heavy sound) and it's closing (a few lyrical callbacks), and it feels both refreshing and reminiscent of their older material. After my mixed reaction with the band's choice of a second single for this record, "Believe" reminded me immediately that they were still the same band I fell in love with nearly four years ago.

That second single is called "Let Go," and it's also the band's biggest hit to date: a dance/electronic-influenced pop song, co-written and produced by OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder, and bearing every one of his fingerprints. It's not a bad song by any means: indeed, "Let Go" is the kind of song I would be glad to find on the radio waves (were I forced to listen to that medium, that is), but it's well below the band's usual standards. It takes a big step towards the kind of generic, repetitive pop music that I think the band avoided so well on their first record, and when I first heard it, I was afraid that These Times would fall into many of the same traps. Luckily, "Let Go" is an anomaly, and most of the tracks on this record would have fit pretty snugly on Life Left to Go. That's not to say that there's nothing new offered here, though: "Crash" is a harder-driving rock song than the band has tried in the past, while "Things to Say," the gorgeous penultimate track, employs a dusky, folk-country inspired sound that is completely new for them. Just like on Life Left to Go, though, many of this album's best moments are firmly grounded in the grandiose, from "Believe," to the politically-minded title track, to "Never Stop," perhaps the band's purest love song to date. 

Safetysuit save what might be the best for last in the form of "Life in the Pain," a beautifully subdued moment, full of ringing guitars and gentle acoustics, the band providing the perfect bed for Brown's fantastic vocals. Brown's voice has always been the secret weapon for this band: their lyrics are fairly simple and blunt, both on this record and it's predecessor, and they could easily come across as bland and cliche in lesser hands, but Brown delivers them with such thorough conviction that they still somehow manage to hit home. Maybe it's because the things they write about are so easy to relate to, but I always have just felt their songs, and this new album, especially its closer, is no different. Their last record found me at a crossroads of sorts in my life: like I already said, that was the summer where I really grew up, at least where I started to. These Times finds me at a similar crossroads, bidding farewell to things that have been a big part of my life for a long time and embracing new opportunities, but the music still resonates with me just like it did back then. Albums like this are a gift: they come into your life in a serendipitous instance and they remind you why you love music so much, remind you how some things never change, how a perfect song can still come along and take your breath away. Like its predecessor, These Times isn't a perfect record, but it is a sublimely moving one, and sometimes, that's even more important, and as long as this band continues to write records like that, I'll continue to listen.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

"You gave me the best mixtape I have..."

Love is a Mixtape by Rob Sheffield
Review, reflection and inspiration

     "We met on September 17, 1989. We got married on July 13, 1991. We were married for five years and ten months. Renee died on May 11, 1997, very suddenly and unexpectedly, at home with me, of a pulmonary embolism. She was thirty-one. She's buried in Pulaski County, Virginia, on the side of a hill, next to a Wal-Mart.
     As soon as Side Two cuts off, right in the middle of a terrible Belly song, I sit there and wait for the final ca-chunka. Then I flip the tape and press play again. The first song is Pavement's 'Shoot the Singer,' which I just heard an hour ago. I have some unfinished business with these tunes. I'm going to be up for awhile. Renee's not done with me yet."

Mixtapes: there’s no easier way to give a piece of yourself to another person, no simpler way of giving a person a window into your mind, your heart and your soul than by giving them a collection of songs that are important to you. And there are so many kinds of mixtapes: the retrospective soundtracks, lists of songs that were important to you at a very specific period of your life; the “I want to improve your music taste” tape, where you give your friend a collection of stuff by your favorite bands, in hopes that they’ll finally see the light; the “I want you” or “I love you” or the “break-up” tapes, tapes for every stage of a relationship. When I listen to my old mixtapes, I feel like I’ve preserved a piece of myself and my life in those songs, like it’s a time capsule for me to open up and travel back in time with, to the day I decided that Ray LaMontagne song and that Bruce Springsteen song would sound perfect back to back. When I listen to the mixtapes from the girl I love, I feel like she’s enclosed a piece of her heart in those songs, and even when we’re not together, I can put them on and feel like she’s near me. Probably the most important mixtape I have is the one she gave me the day I left for school after our first summer together, the summer we fell in love (even if we hadn’t said the words yet). Listening to the songs she put on that mix, the happy, the sad, the lovelorn, the distant, the nostalgic, it felt like a new beginning: I was confused and sad and broken, and felt like I’d just driven 150 miles away from the person I most wanted to be with, but that mix turned my eyes toward the future. Hell, when I listened to that mixtape, I knew we were going to be together for a long, long time.

Rob Sheffield knows all of this: he’s made every type of mixtape that I listed above (along with many others), and he’s heard thousands of songs become the soundtrack of his life, both as the subjects of his mixtapes and the mixtapes his late-wife Renee made for him. Those mixtapes are the basis for the story that unfolds in Sheffield’s 2007 memoir, Love is a Mixtape. Throughout the book, Sheffield chronicles his life through stories about his two great loves: music and Renee, from his early mixtaping days for the middle school dance (I've got stories of my own in that genre), to making his first mixtape for the woman who would become his wife, to soundtracking their final hours together, before she suddenly collapsed one Sunday afternoon and died in his arms; no warning, no chance to say goodbye.

As a book, Love is a Mixtape is over far too quickly, and once I reached the final page, a part of me just wanted to hit rewind, to loop the thing over and over again, or to just have it keep going, but just like Renee and Rob’s relationship, just like Renee’s life, it’s over far too soon. Sheffield is a terrific writer: as a columnist for Rolling Stone, he’s chronicled his adoration for the kind of pop music many of us (myself included) have written off time and time again, and he does that in this book, but he also gives us a window into his life, gives us a piece of his heart, like he’s mixed us the best tape of all. Sheffield’s endlessly sarcastic, self-deprecating wit lends a joyful humor to many parts of the book, from his awkward youth, to his perhaps even more awkward college days, all the way to the strange, euphoric taste of first love and then later, the ups and downs of married life: the great moments spent just driving around with his wife and singing along to songs on the radio, or of the whirlwind social life she brought him into, this shy guy who would have felt so much more at home with his records (I can definitely identify with that one), or of the stupid little fights they used to have, all of which he lost (the girl always wins…).

But Sheffield is every bit as good at painting the tragedy: the numbing shock of her “here-one-minute, gone-the-next” passing; the futility of trying to move on into a life without her; his endless nights of just sitting in the backyard, listening to mixtapes and trying to find her again in the songs; the overwhelming displays of human kindness he found himself surrounded by in the months after her death; the emptiness of things like work and bills and cooking, and how pointless they seemed to him when she was gone. The months spent eating out at restaurants, and the unbearable sadness in his prose as he describes his search for a place where he can just be alone, uninhibited by the stares of others or by the small talk of friends or acquaintances, and especially a place where the memories of the woman who was stolen from him far to soon won’t haunt his every thought. This part of the book, though it follows a hundred solid pages of smiles, laughs and happiness, is so crushingly sad, so painfully haunting, that it was hard to read at times, but it’s also completely honest, raw and powerful, and it makes the book something I don’t think I will ever forget. Some of my favorite songs of all time are songs that I find so powerful because I can feel the artist’s emotion in every word and every note, and that holds true for Sheffield’s book as well.

The mixtape really is a mythical creation: it can be such a simple thing, but when thought and love is poured into it, it becomes something so much more. I always used to think that I would never be happy unless the girl I fell in love with had great taste in music. I don’t know if that seems shallow or anything, but considering that music is one of the most important things on the planet to me, I really can’t imagine falling for someone that I didn’t feel musically compatible with, because that would probably hint at some other compatibility issues as well. One of my first favorite songs was Butch Walker’s “Mixtape*,” and it put this fantasy in my head of finding the perfect girl to make the perfect mixtape for. Luckily, I found a girl who is all of that, and even though love is, unlike Sheffield says here, so much more than just a mixtape, I honestly think the songs I’ve traded with my girlfriend have added a facet to our relationship that I wouldn’t give up for anything. Those songs have provided soundtrack for countless important moments in our relationship, expressed things we couldn’t quite say in words and, ultimately, they have brought us closer together. But like Sheffield discusses throughout the book, music builds bridges and bonds between people in so many ways, the obvious and the subtle, and just like him, it never ceases to amaze me just how many ways that can happen: I hope it never does.

*Later, by some strange coincidence, Jimmy Eat World and Jack’s Mannequin would both release songs of alarmingly similar titles. This means that three of my five all time favorite artists have written songs on the subject. There’s only one other song about mixtapes in my library. Now Bruce just needs to write one and I’ll have a conspiracy theory.

My favorite mixtape my girlfriend ever made for me, just for reference:

  1. Ian Broudie – “Song For You”
  2. Joshua Radin – “I’d Rather Be With You”
  3. Gin Blossoms – “Hey Jealousy”
  4. Hootie & the Blowfish – “Only Wanna be With You”
  5. Ingrid Michaelson – “You & I”
  6. David Ford – “Song For the Road”
  7. Iron & Wine – “My Lady’s House”
  8. Amos Lee – “Keep it Loose, Keep it Tight”
  9. Aimee Mann – “Save Me”
  10. The Wallflowers – “Closer to You”
  11. The Weepies – “Gotta Have You”
  12. Calexico and Iron & Wine – “16, Maybe Less”
  13. Bell X1 – “Eve, the Apple of My Eye”
  14. Grizzly Bear – “Slow Life”
  15. Damien Rice – “Grey Room”
  16. Ben Harper – “Waiting For You”
  17. Alexi Murdoch – “Wait”
  18. Switchfoot – “You”