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LOOT ROCK GANG: THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING

(BIG MUDDY RECORDS; 2014)

Loot Rock Gang album cover

Germination of a record review: The reviewer, with time to kill, visits a legendary Saint Louis record shop; of course, while there, the reviewer is on the look-out for new and interesting releases – especially from local artists – to write about… sometimes, it’s just an interesting cover. Imagine the above cover staring back at you as a glorious 12” by 12” album sleeve… a real live slab of vinyl. I was mesmerized… I had to hear this music! So, what’s the next step? Contacting the record label (or the artist) to request a copy for review. Then, it was just a matter of playing the waiting game, counting the days until that special package arrived at my doorstep. Naturally, there’s always the off-chance that the cover belies the musical talents of the artist and… well… the music sucks to high Heaven (believe me, boys and girls, I’ve been burned by a great cover many times playing this game). Thankfully, though the musical style was really something totally unexpected, I can tell you that in this instance, cover and material mesh perfectly. So, here’s the skinny on THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING:

Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson, Little Rachel, Kellie Everett, Stephen Inman) (uncredited photo)
Loot Rock Gang (Mat Wilson, Little Rachel, Kellie Everett, Stephen Inman) (uncredited photo)

The music of Loot Rock Gang, written by vocalist Mat Wilson (who adds acoustic resonator guitar to his LRG resume), encompasses a wide range of styles, all rooted in the deep heritage of the Blues and Americana. Likewise, the group’s instrumental configuration – Wilson is joined by his wife, Little Rachel on harmony and backing vocals, Stephen Inman on upright bass and, taking most leads and solos, Kellie Everett on the baritone sax (with help from Ryan Koenig on percussion, mandolin and harmonica) – hearkens back to a bygone era in American musical history. “Loot Rock Boogie,” a theme song of sorts for the band, gets the record off to a rip-roaring start. It’s kind of a dirty throwback to those great B-grade teen exploitation movies from the ’50s and early ’60s. The ancient rock ‘n’ jive continues on “Road To Burn,” a stompin’ good time boogie with a great baritone sax solo from Everett. The titular song, a Western swing kinda thing, features the Gang’s mission statement: “Just can’t help it/That’s why I’ve got to sing.” Next up is “Full Moon Cataluna,” a drowsy ballad with some nice pickin’ from Wilson and beautiful harmony vocals from Rachel. “Happy Boy To Be Your Man” is kind of a small band version of Squirrel Nut Zippers’ updated take on the Hot Jazz scene of the 1930s. The call and response duet vocals and upright piano (supplied by guest artist Chris Baracevic) add a distinctive flair. “Bank Despair” is a slow cookin’ hillbilly boogie-woogie number, the kind of tune that coulda ended up as a production number in a ’30s or ’40s comedy.

Loot Rock Gang (Kellie Everett, Little Rachel, Mat Wilson, Stephen Inman, Ryan Koenig) (uncredited photo)
Loot Rock Gang (Kellie Everett, Little Rachel, Mat Wilson, Stephen Inman, Ryan Koenig) (uncredited photo)

As dichotomous as the assertion sounds, “Better ‘Bout You” is a howling harmonica honk with a down-home Southern Gospel feel. “Won’t Get Lost” has a classic rock vibe but, the traditional swing instrumentation turns it into something uniquely Loot Rock Gang. The ’50s style rocker “My Gal Friday” channels a ’30s Western jump vibe. A skittering guitar leads the strolling waltz of “The Wrong Kind,” a number highlighted by particularly effective vocals. “Love For My City” is the sound of a small jazz combo performing a country stomp in honor of their hometown, the StL. The song “It’s You That I Do Enjoy” features a rather odd vocal and comes off as a weird homage to the original AMERICAN BANDSTAND theme song. “Trinidad,” as the name implies, has a wistful Caribbean vibe with a beautiful guitar intro and outro. Various Gang members have played and toured with kindred spirit Pokey LaFarge, honing their already razor-sharp talents to the pinpoint brilliance displayed on THAT’S WHY I’VE GOT TO SING, a debut that definitely bodes well for the future of the diverse Saint Louis music scene in general and Loot Rock Gang in particular. I, for one, cannot wait for the next chapter in this band’s story. I’m sure it’ll be a blast! For now, though, you can listen to and purchase THAT’S WHY… in your choice of CD, vinyl or digital formats at the group’s Bandcamp page.

MUSIKK AV DYPTFØLT SKJØNNHET!

NORWAY’S INGERLISE STORKSEN ON “ALL THE GOOD THINGS”: HER SOLO DEBUT, HER HOME BAND EPHEMERA, AND WHAT GOES INTO MAKING MUSICAL MAGIC

A worldwide exclusive from KEVIN RENICK

Ephemera (Christine Sandtorve, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen) (uncredited photo)
Ephemera (Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen) (uncredited photo)

Once upon a time, in the mystical, fjord-side town of Bergen, Norway, there were three clever and ambitious teenage girls who loved music. Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen spent many hours together talking about music, songwriting and life itself, and they decided to form a singing group. They called their trio EPHEMERA, a word meaning “something transitory or short-lived.” The girls had voices that could soothe the most hardened soul, and when they blended their three voices together, the universe itself seemed to smile and nod in approval. In 1996, they excitedly released their quirky first album, GLUE. But then they met a wizardly producer named Yngve Leidulv Saetre, who instinctively understood the depths of the music these three girls were capable of making, and he wanted to guide them a bit. With Yngve at the helm, the trio released SUN in 2000, the first album to truly capture the beautiful, luminous sound they would come to be known for over the next five years. They built a following in their native land, and fans in other parts of Europe and even Japan began to rave about them. Their third album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, won them a Spellemannprisen Award (the Nordic equivalent of the Grammys) for Best Pop Album in 2002. They toured, recorded and made magic together, and they kept growing as musicians. Across the ocean in America, one curious writer for a new publication discovered Ephemera’s music and fell in love with them. He became the first in that country to interview the band, and he told anyone who would listen how incredibly lovely and heartfelt Ephemera’s music was. America, though it seemed to be intrigued with many other popular artists emerging from Scandinavia, preferred flashier, more commercially aggressive or “obvious” type musicians, and did not take notice of Ephemera, despite one of their songs landing in a teen movie. Or maybe America just couldn’t keep up with all the Scandinavian exports of the new millennium and needed an urgent memo. The girls of Ephemera, however, decided to take a long break in 2005 to nurture relationships and raise families. But some fans, including the undaunted American writer, continued to listen, enjoy and talk about the band’s gorgeous music. “It’s like an amazing secret,” the writer said. “And more people should know about it.”

Ingerlise Storksen (photo credit: ORJAN DEISZ)
Ingerlise Storksen (photo credit: ORJAN DEISZ)

Oh, there are many ways to start an article about the female Norwegian musical trio Ephemera and the superb new solo album Ingerlise Storksen has just released, but since their music is so far above the norm, I thought we should begin with a fairytale flavor. The writer in that preface is yours truly, and I won’t hide the fact that this band has moved me to tears countless times with the transcendent beauty of their sound and songwriting. No other band in my adult life has given me shivers of emotion like Ephemera; I learned the word “frisson,” which means just that, because of them. I have digested every one of the songs on their five albums and even sublime rarities like “Puzzle” and “It Could Have Been Me.” I’ve had conversations with girlfriends, therapists and good friends about some of Ephemera’s most stellar compositions, which include “Maple Tree” (one of the most heartbreakingly life-affirming songs ever written), “One of a Kind” (should be an anthem for lonely or troubled people everywhere), “Little Lion,” “Bye,” “Thank You,” “Paint Your Sky” and many others. Ephemera’s music is sweet, romantic, sensual, empathetic, encouraging and hopeful. It is melodic, catchy and rendered with crystalline sonic clarity. It is free of cynicism and any sense of defeat; the songs are about living, loving, leaving (sometimes when you know you HAVE to) and learning to keep the fire burning in your heart. It may be classified as “pop music” stylistically, but the intimate vocals and engaging emotions in any Ephemera song make it something so much more, something more poetic and involving than just about anything you’ll hear in American popular music. It’s a gift, this band’s body of work, one with the kind of repeat listenability that only the best songs achieve. I have cherished and enjoyed a great deal of music throughout my life, but… sometimes, I see it like this: There is EPHEMERA. And then there’s everything else. The girls themselves may not truly realize how special they are…

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

Ingerlise Storksen isn’t the most prolific songwriter in Ephemera; that honor goes to Christine Sandtorv. But Ingerlise wrote some of the band’s most beautiful, heart-tugging tunes. No matter how many times I listen to her songs “Perfect,” “Close,” “Air,” “Bye” (simply a stunning gem of a song), and “Thank You,” the unmatched intimacy of her vocals sends shivers up my spine. Her songs are often “hushed secrets” that the listener gets to be privy to. And there’s a song called “Dead Against the Plan,” from the 2004 release MONOLOVE, a blue diamond of a pop song written by Ingerlise and Christine together, that is quite simply one of the most dazzlingly catchy, perfect songs EVER, not just out of Scandinavia. If I were teaching a class in songwriting and music arrangement, this is one of the songs I would have the class listen to and discuss. Yes, it’s that good.

It’s a big deal that Ingerlise is finally giving the world ALL THE GOOD THINGS, her first solo album. A big deal both for her artistic journey, and for fans of her contemplative songwriting style. While her mate, Christine Sandtorv, released FIRST LAST DANCE in 2006, followed it with several albums of children’s songs sung in Norwegian, and collaborated with other Nordic artists like Ralph Myerz, Ingerlise had not been so publically active. Those of us who are enthusiastic fans were quietly waiting and watching to see what she might do. And now here it is, the exceptional Yngve Saetre-produced gem that any Ephemera fan is going to adore. The album contains 11 original songs and Ingerlise performs with a band that includes Jorgen Sandvik on guitar, banjo and strings, Paul Inge Vikingtad on bass, Odd Martin Skalnes on keys and Vegard Fossum on drums. Ingerlise plays her distinctive acoustic guitar and also keyboards. It was no small thing for the artist to step away from Ephemera for the first time, and that was one of the first things I wanted to ask her about.

“At first I was a bit concerned and anxious that it was going to be too close to the Ephemera sound,” said Ingerlise via email. “But I concluded quickly that I am a big part of the Ephemera sound, and I cannot change my voice or the way I play the guitar or make music, just to keep a distance from what might possibly sound like something Ephemera did. The studio session was very focused and very good; I never thought about being on my own, or that it was scary or difficult. It was all very natural. The band was in the studio for only two days… so I had a good picture of what I wanted. Almost all the arrangements were already done, I had recorded them at home as demos. The band played and put their sounds and feelings into the songs and it went really great, I think.”

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

When a singer has been primarily known for being in a group with tight vocal harmonies, they must be cognizant of listeners’ expectations, and even though Ephemera were far from being “superstars,” they made a tremendous mark in the Norwegian music scene. But there is no trace of the other girls on this album, it is definitely all Ingerlise. Wasn’t that a bit strange?

“Actually, it wasn’t strange or difficult at all,” she said. “I love those girls, no question about that! But I have the need to make my own music, to make decisions and choices without always meeting others halfway. It’s been such a strong experience for me. Of course, I’ve had thoughts like, ‘what if I can’t do this without them? What if it isn’t good enough?’ But most of all, I’ve been excited and confident about this record. ALL THE GOOD THINGS is a turning point in my life. It’s a really personal album, and it is all about making the world the best it can be. To make the right decisions for yourself, spending the time right and doing what means something to you.”

Ingerlise is justifiably proud of this record indeed, as it’s a tremendous showcase for her sublime songwriting. “In the End” and “Hearbeat” are fine examples of the kind of achingly emotional, haunting ballads that Ingerlise contributed to Ephemera and now offers here in a different musical setting. It’s authentic and real, hearing songs such as these. Ms Storksen is incapable of ever hitting a false emotional note. On “Velvet Voice,” a phrase that could easily apply to the sound that comes out of Ingerlise’s mouth, unexpected harps add a surprising texture to a song that starts out somewhat plaintive and soon turns sublime. “If you have anything to say/Use your velvet voice in your best way,” the singer advises, and this could be directed to a struggling friend (“A poor lily lost her grounded view/Too much to lose… All the guilt, the endless wall/Insecure, even smaller… “) or possibly an affirmation for the singer herself. Such things are up to the listener to decide, but it’s a gorgeous song. There are simpler, acoustic guitar-driven tunes such as “Defender” and “The Birds Would Cry” that are the kind of songs Ingerlise seems to be able to write in her sleep. There’s an organic purity to these kinds of songs; if they were food, the label would say “organically grown, no artificial ingredients.” Like any normal person, Ingerlise has undoubtedly experienced plenty of hurt and disappointment, but the empathy in her voice at all times is a wondrous gift far beyond the ability of most singers to convey. “I keep breathing to keep you alive/I am your defender in every fight/I am floating, you’re dragging me down/I keep breathing, watching you drown,” she sings in “Defender,” a tune about someone that has clearly made some big mistakes and is NOT listening to our heroine. As for “Birds,” in one simple lyric, Ingerlise lays it on the line about the risk of loving: “I know you’re scared, so am I/The trees will mourn and the birds would cry/If we let it go without a try.” This is a singer who, when she sings words like that (in flawless, softly breathy English, by the way), you can’t imagine the kind of idiot who would NOT take her advice. Elsewhere on the album, there are some more rocking songs like “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep,” both of which are incredibly catchy and should be on the radio. Of that former song, it is worth mentioning that the peerless arrangement and production provides a rare moment of apt comparison. It’s not often that Ingerlise (or the other Ephemera girls) particularly reminds me of any other artists, but there is a breathtaking chord change in the chorus (“Night and day/High and low/I’ve been looking for you”) and a big, sweeping vocal ascension that is absolutely reminiscent of latter day Cocteau Twins. Nothing about Ingerlise’s normal singing voice would remind one of Liz Fraser, but this amazing moment truly does. High praise, I assure you. It’s also worth mentioning the stylistically uncategorizable first single, “I Killed Your Horse.” The unsettling title is metaphorical, one assumes; this is a love song with some high stakes, apparently, about a “strong cowboy” (or IS he?) and the woman asking him questions he may or may not be able to answer. The chorus is again, excellent, and Ingerlise has already gotten some plaudits in the Norwegian press for the tune. What is most interesting is to see her expand stylistically; this song in particular is NOT reminiscent of Ephemera, while some of the ones mentioned above, definitely are. At any rate, she’s made a fantastic, smoothly consistent, emotionally stirring record. And that wonderful voice? It oughta be playing in therapy centers and mental health clinics everywhere; I have to believe that at least SOME patients would soon find themselves feeling less anxious…

There were many, many questions I wanted to ask this amazing artist, and it was difficult to try to limit myself to a dozen or so. But the bulk of them follow; they cover the new record, the past and future of Ephemera, Ingerlise’s formative years, et cetera. Initially it might require some patience to get ahold of the vinyl (yes, it IS released in that format) or CD of ALL THE BEST THINGS, but I’d advise you to persevere if you like intimate, emotionally cathartic music of uncommon melodic beauty. Ingerlise Storksen is worth whatever you have to go through to hear her music. Personally, just knowing she is on the planet makes me feel better!

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: You seem to have this trademark style that is primarily acoustic guitar, your amazing voice, and then various quirky sounds that emerge during the production process. Do you generally have your songs finished as acoustic arrangements before you go into the studio? And do you also have the keyboard parts in your head?

INGERLISE: Yes, the songs are all finished and arranged in acoustic composition before I go in the studio. I’m working a lot at home, recording demos where I arrange and compose melodies for keys and choir and even strings. I love working out harmonies, and I love putting them together, chasing for that little magic touch.

THE MULE: There are some very intimate, melancholy songs on this album, like “You Are Love,” “In the End” and “Heartbeat.” You do these songs with such gentleness and emotional clarity. Do you ever get overwhelmed with emotion by your own songs? Are songs like this always about people or situations from your own life? “In the End” strikes me as a song that could be either about a character talking to herself, like therapeutic “self affirmation,” or advice to an insecure friend who is suffering.

INGERLISE: Those songs you mention are all very important songs for me. They are written in “real” moments. Moments when I really HAD to write them out. They are all very personal and emotional – especially “Heartbeat.” That song is about my dear, dear grandmother who passed away in May 2014. She and I have always been very close, and still I think it is so strange and so sad that she is gone. This song is for her. I managed to sing it at her funeral. It was hard work, but it was the right thing to do. I know she knows. So, yes, sometimes a song can be overwhelming – even for me.

THE MULE: I love the song “Velvet Voice” and it sounds like one of the album’s highlights. Could you talk about the recording of this song? I don’t recognize one of the string instruments, but the arrangement is startling. Is Yngve Saetre proactive about suggesting unique instrumentation like this? Does he surprise you, or do members of your band surprise you with suggestions that maybe you would not have thought of yourself?

INGERLISE: This song is one of my favorites, as well. The string-thing was something that happened in the studio, all spontaneous. I think maybe Jorgen picked up one of the harps in studio, just to play along with me while going through the song before we started recording. And all of a sudden, Paul Inge and Odd Martin were playing harps as well. It sounded great right away, and we jumped into takes. I think we played through the song two or three times, live – and there it was. It is two small harps and one Guzheng used. Plus two acoustic guitars. And Odd Martin is humming, as well.

Ingerlise Storksen I Killed Your Horse single
Ingerlise Storksen I Killed Your Horse single

THE MULE: “Knockout” and “No Need For Sleep” are the upbeat rockers on the album. Is it more fun to do songs like that in the studio? What made you choose “I Killed Your Horse,” a more eccentric song, probably, for a single rather than one of the upbeat tunes like this?

INGERLISE: It is really fun to record upbeat songs. It’s a whole different energy and way of working. I think “I Killed Your Horse” is such a strong song. It is not a typical single right away, but still it’s got a good chorus, but maybe more; it’s got catchy verses. The lyrics are very important for this song, and it really comes through. The next single release will be “Knockout” – a much more easygoing radio song. But when that song comes out, I will have already established a “deeper” image. About myself and my music. And I like that!

THE MULE: “Defender” is also a marvelous song, what inspired that one? It’s a great example of your style and your musicality. Do you need a “defender” in your own life?

INGERLISE: “Defender” is an important song for me. It’s about the need to “keep on walking”, and to leave things behind. To put something into sleep, while still keeping hold of the good feelings and the soul and the moments. It’s one of those sad love stories. I would like to have a big and strong defender in my life… but sometimes I think we all need to just lay down and let somebody strong and safe take care of us. Without any questions.

THE MULE: Your producer, Yngve Saetre, is a genius in my opinion. He worked on all the Ephemera recordings, and now he has produced your solo album. It would be an understatement to say he has good ears. What makes him such an ideal producer for you?

INGERLISE: Yngve has this unassailable way of working with music. He is a man with strong meanings, without any filter. So… we have had some good discussions on the road. He is stubborn and I am stubborn, but we both agree that we have to do what’s the best for each song. He is a very creative soul, and can often see things that I never would. Still, the songs on ALL THE GOOD THINGS were so ready when I went into the studio, and with all the preparation I already had done – the arrangements and harmonies – so there was not so much to discuss. I love working with Yngve, and I hope I get the opportunity again.

THE MULE: Bergen, where you live, has consistently turned out amazing musical artists. We think of it as a mystical, almost mythical music town here in the US. What is it like for you who live there? What makes it so unique?

INGERLISE: Bergen Is a small, but big city. Small in its size, but big in its facilities due to music and art and soul. The one thing that actually is kind of unique with Bergen, is that everyone who’s from this city is really intensely committed. Proud and loud about it! Even the mayor is really well known throughout Norway because of her big love for Bergen. There’s a little something special about Bergen that is hard to explain. When it comes to the music scene, there has always been a lot of generosity around. It seems everybody is cheering for each other – there is no fighting for the spotlight. The main thing is the music. Not money. Not fame or any of that.

Ephemera (Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorve) (uncredited photo)
Ephemera (Ingerlise Storksen, Jannicke Larsen, Christine Sandtorv) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: What is it that first made you want to write songs and sing? What were your biggest influences?

INGERLISE: I have all my life felt this big and natural passion for music. I remember being a small girl, yearning to sing out loud, being on stage, singing for people – it was an intense urge. I grew up in a very musical family, and both my parents always played music in our house. Actually, they both played in bands as youngsters, my mom in a girl band, and my dad as a lead singer in his band. So there were guitars and a piano around me at home, and I was 12 years old when I sat down in my room and started to figure out how to play the guitar. I loved it! And I preferred to stay home in my room, playing and singing, than to be outside playing with my girly friends. I began to write my own songs at 16 or 17, with no other ambition than just for the love of it. When we started to play gigs with Ephemera, we suddenly understood that people out there liked the music we made. And all of a sudden it meant something more… There was never a question about playing together or spending all our time doing music.

THE MULE: Did you set any particular guidelines or rules for yourself when you first started writing your own songs? Were you shy about the process?

INGERLISE: Hmm. No guidelines or rules. But just always hunting for the good melody. I think it is possible to learn a method, or follow rules and setups for how to write a song – but I don’t believe you can provoke the real soul that you can sometimes feel in a song. I write my best songs when I experience the darker days. I love writing songs when I NEED to. I remember I felt a bit shy early on, when I was performing a new song for the girls in Ephemera. Was it good enough? Would they like it? But we were all a bit shy back then.

THE MULE: How much did Christine and Jannicke, your partners in Ephemera, influence the way you composed? Did they give you a sense of what did or didn’t work? How much collaboration was there?

INGERLISE: Well, Jannicke, Christine and myself are so much alike when It comes to taste in music in general. We grew up together, and we shared our youth and the “basic time” …if that makes sense. Still, we are very different souls and we have different preferences. I would say that the three of us together IS the sound of Ephemera. We’ve influenced each other on the road, and we grew as a band and as songwriters together. That is quite beautiful, actually. We have shared some really great things together. We have mostly written songs on our own – taken the song to the band rehearsal, and together, making it an Ephemera-song. I developed my way of writing during the intense time in Ephemera, and of course I’ve been influenced by the other girls. Still, I have always had a clear view of my own music, and how and what I want it to become.

THE MULE: The first Ephemera album, GLUE, came out in 1996. It was a pleasant recording, but didn’t truly showcase the “Ephemera sound.” That came to fruition on SUN, when you started working with producer Yngve Saetre. What did he bring to your sound that made such a difference? What happened in the group during that period between GLUE and SUN, which was in 2000?

INGERLISE: Wow, it was a long time ago. I’ll try to think back. That first record, GLUE, was very pure. I was only 17 years old when we were recording this album. And we were very concerned, and focused on the “live sound,” making sure everything was clean and organic. And real. It was a great first experience, and we learned a lot during this recording. We met Yngve during the mix of GLUE, he is the one who mixed the album. He really liked the way we worked and our songs, and wanted to work some more with us. I remember recording the album SUN like magic. It was in summertime, late evenings, and we just had a really good process. Working with Yngve went very well. He understood us, and together, we found the Ephemera sound during this recording.

Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorve, Ingerlise Storksen) (uncredited photo)
Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen,Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen) (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: It’s hard to analyze what makes something “magical” in music, but I just want to tell you that for me as a listener, what you and Ephemera have achieved often sounds like pure magic. There is some special ingredient that makes it soar higher than mere “excellence.” What makes music achieve that magical level, in your opinion?

INGERLISE: The magic in music… that is so powerful. And, so hard to explain. For me, it is those times when you write music because you really NEED to – when there is pure and real feeling and meaning in your words. When you manage to get pieces of hurt or soul, fervently into a song – I think some of that soul keeps on living in that song, and other people can feel it when they listen to it. That is magic!

THE MULE: My impression is that you were not that assertive about songwriting in the early days of Ephemera, but became more so between AIR and MONOLOVE. Is this accurate? What was your “evolution” as a songwriter?

INGERLISE: Hmm… I think I have always had it in me. Remember – we were young back then. At least, that is what I kept saying to myself. 17,18,19, 20 years old. I think it was more about confidence than ability. For every year that went by, It became easier for me to write songs, and to believe in myself as a songwriter. Still, I have this fear of, “what if I never write a good song ever again?” But deep inside, I know it’s there. That there will be more songs. I hope!

THE MULE: All three of you have fantastic voices, and you each add something special to the mix. Christine has written a ton of great songs. And I have to say that a lot of your songs, your vocal performances, give me chills. There are many songs I could ask you about, but I specifically wondered about two songs from MONOLOVE, the last Ephemera album. “Thank You” features a heartbreakingly beautiful vocal from you, with a level of hushed intimacy that few singers could ever hope to achieve. And “Dead Against the Plan” is, to me, one of the catchiest and most dazzling pop songs ever put on record. Can you tell me a little about what it was like working in the studio on those two songs? Did you know you were capturing some amazing musical moments on record when you did these songs?

INGERLISE: “Thank You” is a song written to one of my favorite persons in my life, my grandmother. I have now written a song for both of them – but both were amazing, you see. Really. “Thank You” is about everything she gave to us. The beautiful perspective of life she gave us. She lost two of her children when she was young, and went through such hard times. Still, she was always there for my dad and us grandchildren. She gave us all the love in the world. She was so strong and small at the same time; she was broken, but she never broke. It just makes me so sad to think about. Life can be so brutal. “Dead Against the Plan.” This is a song I started writing, the melody and the story. But I needed some help from Christine to finish up. So this one is a collaboration. The story is about a girl and a boy, they have been really good friends through many years. Always there for each other, in the ups and downs. It all changes the day he starts to feel more. They ruin the friendship by not figuring it out, and they never get back to where they once were. Stupid, right? This was a special song, and it was recorded not long after it was written, so there is some real energy there.

THE MULE: What is the current status of Ephemera? Obviously you guys keep in touch, but some fans were disappointed when the “break” you took turned into over a decade long. What happened? Will the group ever record an album again?

INGERLISE: We will never fully break up the band. We are on a long break. You see, we started up when I was 15 years old, and Christine and Jannicke 16. From early on, Ephemera got a lot of attention and it quickly became a busy pleasure. So the life with Ephemera was committed, and it held us back from doing a lot of other things in life. BUT… I would never miss that for the world. We got to keep doing what we really loved, we traveled around and experienced a lot that other “kids” didn’t get to do. But after all those years together, we needed to do some stuff on our own. All of a sudden, there were babies coming into the band, and family life was a fact. It’s not easy to leave your kids behind, to travel and tour. So we decided to take a real break, with no pressure or expectations. And then came more kids, and we had time to finish our education and try out the “adult-life” for a bit. Will Ephemera ever make another album? I would say yes.

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

THE MULE: Do you have any insights as to why many Norwegian recordings don’t get released in the US? Many albums I love from Norway cannot be found ANYWHERE here, they can only be ordered as special imports. That is gradually changing, as downloading becomes the prominent way for listeners to get music, but still… why didn’t Ephemera records, for example, get released here?

INGERLISE: Hmm. I don’t know, actually. A lot of Norwegian bands typically tour and release their music in Germany, England and Europe in general, but not so often in the US. But yes, it’s changing now. I see more and more bands traveling over to you, and making things happen over there. Sondre Lerche. The Last Hurrah! They are both working in the US these days. With Ephemera, I don’t think we had the right contacts. And we were so busy touring in Europe, Japan – and we didn’t get to the US before we took this break. We did have some songs on some TV series and some movies, but it never quite got to anything else. Maybe I will try with my solo project! I would love to release my music over there.

THE MULE: During the long break since MONOLOVE, I understand that you were all raising families, but it has certainly been a much longer break than bands usually take. The only new recording the band made, I suppose, was your cover of the Prince song “Manic Monday” for a tribute album. How much were you working on music yourself those years? Did you ever lose interest in it? Or were there particular “barriers” to overcome?

INGERLISE: I could never lose interest. This is about so much more than just an interest. I’ve been writing music all the way, for all these years. It is such a big part of who I am, and I will never stop making songs and writing lyrics. It was just time for me to jump off the wagon for a while. I needed time home with my son, and this was a choice I made. I have been working as a journalist as well, and I tasted the “everyday-life.” I love being at home with my son, but working in front of a computer all day… no! It kills me. In the end, it makes me sad and “sick” if I can’t keep working and spending time with my passion and music. So I have recently quit my job, and will be focusing only on music now. And Oskar. There is one life. One chance.

Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)
Ingerlise Storksen (uncredited photo)

ALL THE GOOD THINGS is due for release this Spring on iLs Records. You can follow Ingerlise’s activities at www.ingerlisestorksen.com. Most of Ephemera’s music is available on iTunes, and some of it can be heard at Spotify.


FIVE EPHEMERA GEMS

Although on hiatus, the Norwegian trio has recorded a clutch of albums that are stellar examples of luminous, emotionally compelling modern pop. Here are five of their very best songs to seek out:

Ephemera  (Jannicke Larsen, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorve) (uncredited photo)
Ephemera (Jannicke Larsen, Ingerlise Storksen, Christine Sandtorv) (uncredited photo)

1. PERFECT – From their 2000 release SUN, Ingerlise sings this delicate tale of a troubled relationship in which the boy begs unsuccessfully for forgiveness for the way he’s messed things up. Spine-tingling harmonies only add bliss to the impossibly fragile lead vocal.

2. BYE – Another Ingerlise tune, this is one of the most perfect melancholy pop songs you’ll ever hear. Sweetly sad, flawlessly sung and graced with a soft chugging rhythm and singalong chorus. If that weren’t enough, the song unexpectedly breaks into a semi-jazzy piano break halfway through that sends this straight into “blue diamond” territory. Transcendent.

3. MAPLE TREE – Christine Sandtorv penned and sang this gorgeous romantic song from the 2003 release AIR. A seemingly simple song about a girl sitting under a tree on a sunny day, “holding a leaf with my toe,” with an unnamed romantic companion suddenly showing up. So perfect, sweet and life affirming is this song, it has brought me to tears on several occasions. “When the sky is blue, right in front of you/Touch it while you can/It may never happen again,” sings our angelic protagonist, and I don’t know of any advice on ANY recording that gets you right in the heart the way Christine does here. Nordic magic so sublime it puts the overproduced and melodramatic works by most American female artists to shame. Probably one of my ten favorite songs of all time.

4. ON MY FEET AGAIN – Another tune from AIR, this is a lovely collaboration between Christine and Ingerlise in which, improbably, almost every line begins with the word “Maybe.” It comes across as a girl talking to herself, trying to figure out, perhaps why things aren’t so great. The repeated refrain is a simple “Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about falling down/Maybe I’ve got a lot to learn about getting up on my feet again.” Melodically rich, catchy as hell, featuring an evocative keyboard sound, and oooh, those sweetly feminine harmonies. Beautiful simplicity, something Ephemera does better than anyone.

5. DEAD AGAINST THE PLAN – Before their fifth album, MONOLOVE, came out in 2004, Ephemera had raised their own bar so high that one could be forgiven for thinking they were finally going to make something LESS wonderful, something maybe a bit, I don’t know. Self-indulgent? Repetitious? Ordinary bands do that sort of thing, after all. But gee whiz, MONOLOVE turned out to be deeper, richer and more multi-layered than ever before, with a full slate of gorgeous new songs like “Thank You” and the anthemic “Paint Your Sky” (one of Jannicke Larsen’s finest songs). “Dead Against the Plan,” however, another Ingerlise-Christine collaboration mostly sung by the former, is ridiculously brilliant. Every single second of this song is so meticulously sung, performed and arranged for maximum musical impact, that you can only shake your head in awe. Multiple hooks, rich harmonies, odd little detours and breaks, one of the best uses of a banjo on a pop song ever, and an A plus plus plus production by Yngve Saetre put this song in a class by itself. It’s so damn good that I only allow myself to listen to it once in a while, because I don’t want to ever take for granted or “get used to” pop music this dazzling. Anyone who wants to quickly find out why I am so in love with this band just needs to put this song on, turn it up loud, close your eyes and experience Nordic songcraft at its most enthralling.

RUTHANN FRIEDMAN: CHINATOWN

(WOLFGANG RECORDS; 2013)

Cover

She wrote “Windy”? That big hit for the Association way back when? Really? It just proves once again, there is always something new to learn. I’d never heard of Ruthann Friedman before, but in addition to that rather significant songwriting credit, she apparently hung around with the likes of David Crosby and Joni Mitchell back in the early ’70s Laurel Canyon days. Before reading that, I could tell she was an older woman when I put this on; CHINATOWN clearly is the work of a mature artist, and the repeated refrain on “That’s What I Remember,” played over a blend of acoustic guitar and mandolin, is, well, “that’s what I remember.”

Ruthann Friedman (photo credit: LAUREN DUKOFF)
Ruthann Friedman (photo credit: LAUREN DUKOFF)

There’s a blend of whimsy and melancholy on most of these songs, and the musical arrangements are simple, so as to let Friedman’s lyrics shine through. Her voice is not the most distinctive or pretty, so I wouldn’t say this is an instantly captivating record. But if you’re in a receptive mood, songs like “Springhill Mining Disaster” (about an unfortunate event in Nova Scotia), the piano-laden “iPod,” and the atmospheric, existential angst rumination “All I Have,” which has an effective chord progression that soothes the ears, will hold your attention. It’s worth mentioning that the legendary Van Dyke Parks, another guy who knows plenty about the scene from which Friedman emerged, plays piano on “iPod,” “The End,” the title track and one or two more. And Jackson Brown loaned her his studio for the recording.

Ruthann Friedman, on stage in 2011 (photo credit: JOE MABEL)
Ruthann Friedman, on stage in 2011 (photo credit: JOE MABEL)

There’s a little Phoebe Snow, a little Christine Lavin, a little Laura Nyro in her presentation, but mostly Friedman sounds like someone who has been around a long time, and is both exhausted and still interested in the path of life. “The End” and “The Tides” are contemplative tunes that can trigger thoughts about your own life, and I gotta admit, they did provoke an emotional response in me. But Friedman falls short of providing a true catharsis; she’s just not that interesting of a vocalist. The songwriting is pretty strong here, though, and for a restless afternoon’s listen, CHINATOWN is reasonably pleasant.

WHAT’S IT TO ME, ANYWAY?: THE 25 ALBUMS THAT MOST INFLUENCED MY LIFE, PART 1

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

Hey everyone, it’s 2015! Didja notice? Yep, it’s a symmetrical year three fourths of the way through the first fifth of the new millennium! I find that this is making me, and plenty of other people I’ve spoken to, think about numbers, halfway points, anniversaries, etc. For me, this year marks the major anniversary of a lot of key things in my life and career, and I plan to write about some of those right here at the Mule. It’s gonna be fun, so saddle up and take this trip with me, through the past, smartly! Not that I feel like acknowledging my age or anything, but I would say I have been a true “music fan” for 50 years now. As a bonafide baby boomer, I grew up in the ’60s listening to all that classic stuff that makes the “Best Ever” lists these days. Sometime in 1965, probably after the Beatles’ RUBBER SOUL album came out, I became aware of music in a bigger way than before. It was no longer just the radio hits my sisters were listening to incessantly on AM, now they were buying albums (mostly the Beatles at first), and the repeated playing of these began to affect my young ears with increasing intensity. I love melodies and good singing, and everyone at the time was into the Beatles. A new era was upon us, and it was exhilarating.

What I thought I would do to celebrate my 50 years of being an active listener, is pick the 25 albums that influenced me the most. Here at the Mule, we like to take things personally, that’s why a conventional list of “Best of All Time” or “Best of the Decade,” that kinda thing, is not much fun to do. Stuff like that is all over the web or in your latest issue of ROLLING STONE. And though fun, that kind of clinical exercise can get tedious. But if I tell you I’m going to make a list of 25 albums that truly affected my life, that either set something in motion, changed me or altered my musical taste in some way, well, I get all tingly just thinking about that. The list could be much longer, of course, but it’s important to have parameters. And I like the symmetry of “25 in 50,” ie: The 25 recordings that had the greatest personal impact in 50 years of listening. You will encounter some of the great classics in here, and you’ll also read about stuff you never heard of. Maybe you’ll be shocked that there are no Dylan, Rolling Stones or Beach Boys albums on my list. I’ll say it again, this is NOT a list of the most influential albums, period. It’s a list of what most influenced ME, and made my musical life what it is. This is a thoughtful, personal exercise, and I hope you’ll enjoy sharing it with me. Maybe it will encourage some of you to think about what music most made a difference to YOU, and affected your personality the most. Fun, right? Making something all about YOU is more honest and real than those tedious “Best of” lists. So, here we go. These albums will roughly be listed in the order that I encountered them, although I can’t absolutely swear to that. But… all of these works helped make me whatever and whoever the heck I am today. Enjoy!

1. THE BEATLES: REVOLVER

REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)
REVOLVER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1966)

Although SERGEANT PEPPER… is usually cited as the greatest Beatles album, the 1966 classic REVOLVER had a bigger impact on me. It was the Fabs entering their psychedelic period, and my sisters, Therese and Pam, played this album all the time. I was fascinated by the unusual sounds on it (“Tomorrow Never Knows” was utterly hypnotic, as were the strings on “Eleanor Rigby”), and classic gems of songcraft like “Good Day Sunshine,” “I Want To Tell You” and “Got To Get You Into My Life” became lodged firmly in my young mind. I feel sad for people who never know the experience of growing up with a classic album like this.

How it influenced me: Gave me perhaps my first experience of enjoying an album all the way through, with melodies and sounds that seeped deep into my brain.

2. THE BEATLES: THE BEATLES (WHITE ALBUM)

THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)
THE BEATLES (APPLE RECORDS, 1968)

Barely two years after REVOLVER, the Beatles had evolved so much that it was almost dizzying to a budding music fan at the time. By 1968, only my sister Therese was still home among my siblings, and this album got constant play. It was a weird, unsettling, enthralling experience to listen to it back then. I vividly remember a couple of times when I fell asleep on the extra bed in Therese’s room absorbing the strange, diverse tracks on this album. Each side had a unique flow; some songs rocked out (“Back in the USSR,” “Glass Onion”), some songs were folksy and pretty (“Mother Nature’s Son,” “Julia”) and some were scary and from a place I yearned to know more about (“Long Long Long,” “Revolution 9”) What a remarkable sonic journey this double album took fans on! Nobody at the time talked about the “divisions” within the Beatles, or how “self-indulgent” the album was. We simply ate it up, listened with fascination, and marveled at the new age of rock that was now dawning.

How it influenced me: The first massive song collection I ever lost myself in, with unforgettable moments across the musical spectrum, including the first moments on record to scare the crap out of me (the moaning sounds at the end of “Long Long Long” and the entire “Revolution 9”). Hearing dark, weird sounds on a record began for me, oddly, with the Fab Four.

3. THE MONKEES: PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED

PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)
PISCES, AQUARIUS, CAPRICORN AND JONES, LIMITED (COLGEMS RECORDS, 1967)

In the late 60s, the Monkees were the OTHER band that captured the lion’s share of attention in my circles. We all knew the hits like we knew the shrubs in our front yard, and we watched the MONKEES TV show faithfully. This 1967 album was a superb collection of tunes that got constant play in my neighborhood. The previous Monkees albums seemed more like collections of big hits, but this one headed into some new territory. “Star Collector” was downright psychedelic, and Davy Jones sang it! “Pleasant Valley Sunday” was simply one of the best songs ever, ever, ever, one of the first songs to become a solid favorite for me. And many others stood out, like the minor-key laden “Words,” the Nesmith classic “What Am I Doing Hangin’ Round” and the Nilsson gem “Cuddly Toy,” which, decades later, would become a song I would sometimes perform live when I became a musician myself.

How it influenced me: A solid soundtrack to my childhood, full of innocence, whimsy and suburban dreams.

4. TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS: THE BEST OF…

THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)
THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS (ROULETTE RECORDS, 1969)

From 1967 to 1970, Tommy James was a fixture on radio, with classic hit after classic hit. They were often in the summer, becoming wondrous summer classics like “Crystal Blue Persuasion” and “Crimson and Clover.” At every swimming pool where radio was in the background, Tommy James was a part of the atmosphere. And the first song I ever declared to be my personal favorite, was “Sweet Cherry Wine.” This song absolutely captivated me, and I would sometimes wait for it to come on the radio, getting very emotional when it did. It was a beautifully produced song, with background vocals that got under my skin and never left my memory. THE BEST OF TOMMY JAMES AND THE SHONDELLS was, I believe, the first album I bought with my own money. It’s possible a Monkees album preceded it in that regard; memory can be sketchy. But it was unquestionably the first hits collection I ever bought, and the first non Beatles or Monkees music to get repeat play in my life. A soundtrack for the year 1969 in particular.

How it influenced me: The sound of the last year before I became a teenager. The first record to actively make me aware of the magic of background vocals. A collection of songs I truly, truly could listen to over and over.

5. SIMON AND GARFUNKEL: BOOKENDS and BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (tie)

BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)
BOOKENDS (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1968); BRIDGE OVER TROUBLED WATER (COLUMBIA RECORDS, 1970)

If you become a musician, some influences don’t become apparent to you right away; you might have to work on developing your style and think about the kinds of songs you want to do, before the stylistic touchstones become obvious. I grew up with Simon and Garfunkel, and all but their first album were regular spins at our home in Kirkwood. Most of their songs struck me as sad, intimate and evocative, and the musical personality they presented… the tight harmonies, the sometimes quirky lyrics… was vivid and powerful. These two albums affected me about equally, the former for its melancholy musings on the passing of time (“Old Friends,” “Bookends”) and quirky sing-alongs (“Hazy Shade of Winter,” “At the Zoo”), the latter for its epic production and exhilarating musical dramas (“Cecilia,” “El Condor Pasa,” “The Boxer,” the title track). This was one of a clutch of albums I listened to a great deal with an early girlfriend in 1972; such things stay with you. Years later, I fell in love with a girl actually NAMED Cecilia, and that song became significant in a very personal way. More importantly, Paul Simon’s songwriting stood out for me as artful, impactful stuff, and he is one of the composers I always mention as an influence on my own music and aesthetic.

6. CROSBY, STILLS, NASH AND YOUNG: DEJA VU

DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)
DEJA VU (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1970)

They were called the “first big supergroup,” “the American Beatles” and more. Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young were not destined to sustain the kind of impact such lofty labels created expectations for, but they made this one incredible studio album as a foursome. It was a 1970 classic, and that year they were omnipresent. Every song was amazing, and the potency of their musical personalities was overwhelming if you were a fan of singer/songwriters. I was, and this album, plus the live album FOUR WAY STREET, essentially planted the seeds of my own desire to write songs. From the iconic cover photo to the peerless harmonies to the counterculture sass, this was an unmissable classic of its time. And that guy Neil…

How it influenced me: The songwriting. The personalities. The times!

7. NEIL YOUNG: HARVEST

HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)
HARVEST (REPRISE RECORDS, 1972)

It’s really not easy picking one Neil Young album for my list. Considering that Neil Young is one of the two most important and influential musicians in my entire life, it seems inadequate to talk about one album. It actually could have been ANY of his first four: the NEIL YOUNG debut, the epic Crazy Horse workout EVERYBODY KNOWS THIS IS NOWHERE in 1969, the popular fan favorite AFTER THE GOLDRUSH from 1970. All had an impact, but HARVEST was one of my high school soundtracks. I listened to it with my first real girlfriend. I was profoundly affected by Neil’s singing and arrangements throughout, and, quite simply, I was a different person by the time I fully absorbed this album. Neil Young was the first singer/songwriter I claimed as my own, the first to pervade my life and shift my understanding of the craft of songwriting. I memorized everything on this album; it became a huge soundtrack for me. I even liked the orchestration on “There’s a World,” which some reviewers lambasted. Everything in my music life changed after Neil Young; he’s even the artist that got me interested in reading reviews, which then led to my writing career. His influence was profound.

8. PINK FLOYD: MEDDLE

MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)
MEDDLE (HARVEST RECORDS, 1971)

If you were in high school in the early to mid-’70s, Pink Floyd were a staple. FM radio played them all the time, and the longhairs and tokers were ALWAYS talking about them. DARK SIDE OF THE MOON was one of the first albums to become a genuine phenomenon, and it was absolutely everywhere when I was in high school. I was intrigued enough by the band to research all their earlier work, and I found their 1971 classic MEDDLE. That’s the one that burrowed into my brain. The trilogy of atmospheric gems on side one: “A Pillow of Winds,” “Fearless” and “San Tropez” stirred me with their smooth vocals, melancholy arrangements and haunted romanticism. I found these tracks more than a little compelling. And, as for “Echoes,” the spacey side-long excursion that graced side two, well, it was the first immersive space rock spectacle I had encountered, a headphone extravaganza for many of us buying our first stereo systems at the time. Progressive rock had arrived, and so had a plethora of mysterious sounds we’d never heard the likes of before, us teens.

How it influenced me: The dawn of headphones-ready space rock, David Gilmour and Rick Wright creating a perfect sonic template to serve Roger Waters’ lyrical ideas, and the important notion that something could be epic and intimate at the same time in music.

9. YES: CLOSE TO THE EDGE

CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)
CLOSE TO THE EDGE (ATLANTIC RECORDS, 1972)

And they WERE, too. Close to the edge of sonic possibilities at the time, as evidenced by the side-long title track that pretty much blew everyone’s mind. I didn’t truly listen to Yes with any depth until 1973, but CLOSE TO THE EDGE became a staple. Progressive rock was becoming one of the most popular genres, with Yes, King Crimson, Pink Floyd and others dominating the talk among hardcore music fans at the time. With musicianship on a scale hardly imagined before, Jon Anderson’s soaring voice and “out there” lyrics, and passages of music that were so hypnotic and evocative that they could be said to represent the beginning of the power of “ambient sound” (which would transform my life a few years later), Yes were unrvaveling layers of new possibilities in music. I ate it all up, shared it with friends, and even began trying to memorize some of the more interesting lyrics.

How it influenced me: The mystical, far-reaching “subjects,” the compelling lyrics, the incredible purity of Jon Anderson’s voice, the early ambient sounds.

10. BLACK SABBATH: SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH

SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)
SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1974)

I was never much into what was called “heavy metal,” although both Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath were huge during my teen years. I have no idea what first got me into Black Sabbath, but I listened to MASTER OF REALITY pretty often with the same girlfriend I mentioned in an early paragraph, and it had a lot of mystery about it. The heaviness of the riffs and the darker themes were quite compelling to me. I started reading some of the reviews of Black Sabbath, and by the time their fifth album came out, I was a senior in high school and a budding amateur musician. There seemed to be something of real substance to SABBATH BLOODY SABBATH to my ears at the time, and I even liked Ozzy Osbourne’s shrill voice. The oddest thing that happened, though, is that I began trying to play a couple of the songs on piano. I’d had a year or so of lessons, and I would occasionally try to just “pick out” chords or melodies from popular songs. Came up with my own versions of Neil Young’s “Southern Man” and, inexplicably, “Sabbra Cadabra” from the Black Sabbath album. I was playing controlled double octaves, and I was doing it with all the energy I possessed. I had the structure of this song down pretty well! It got to the point where this was pretty impressive, I suppose, because I played it at a couple of parties and for a number of friends, who always seemed to clap. Inadvertently, Black Sabbath had given me my first taste of what it might be like to be a musician. That’s influential, ain’t it?

11. BRIAN ENO: DISCREET MUSIC

DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)
DISCREET MUSIC (ANTILLES RECORDS, 1975)

In a month or two, I’ll be doing a piece on Brian Eno for this site, so I don’t want to go into undue detail right now. But… people who know me, know that Eno is the single most influential musical artist of my life, just a shade more than Neil Young because of the differing STREAMS of influence he had. This 1975 album was a game changer, to say the least, and of earthshaking importance in my life. Try to imagine what it would be like to have your actual dreams and subconscious memories represented in musical terms. That’s what Eno’s first true “ambient” recording did for me. Consisting of wispy, ethereal, repeating and interweaving synth melodies, what Eno came up with was so new and different that no one really knew what to do with it at the time. I did, though. I listened to it late at night both through headphones and without. I played it any time I had a hangover, and the hangover would miraculously go away. I listened to it when I felt depressed, and I felt that, somehow, there was a force out there that understood me. “Miracle music,” I began to call this stuff, and it launched my lifetime love affair with ambient music. How did it influence me? In every possible way as a music listener. It asked questions that many people are STILL trying to answer. And a whole new world had opened up that I walked into with an open mind and open ears…

12. JONI MITCHELL: HEJIRA

HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)
HEJIRA (ASYLUM RECORDS, 1976)

By 1976, the legendary Joni Mitchell was exploring jazz stylings more and more in her music, and she was well past the stage of having conventional “hits” (1974’s COURT AND SPARK was her last album to feature anything like that). I’d been a fan, but HEJIRA was more than just a new album by a songwriter I loved; it was a restless travelogue by an artist at the peak of her powers. Songs such as “Amelia” (which referenced ill-fated pilot Amelia Earhart), “Song for Sharon” and “Refuge of the Road” really stirred me with their ruminations on life, memories and uncertainty, and furthered a growing desire I had to write meaningful things myself. If that weren’t enough, I fell in love with a girl not long after this that looked very much LIKE Joni Mitchell, and kind of worshipped her. So, me with my Neil Young obsession and this girl with her Joni fixation, began comparing notes and trading insights on our idols. It was heady stuff, and although it ended badly, this Joni Mitchell album in particular captured something emotionally potent that was not only on the recording itself, but echoed through my own personal life. And the lyrics of that “Refuge of the Roads” song are brilliant and sobering.

13. TELEVISION: MARQUEE MOON

MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)
MARQUEE MOON (ELEKTRA RECORDS, 1977)

Something strange and mysterious was going on in New York City in the mid ’70s, and my cousin Roxanne, who lived there, started talking to me about it. There were a lot of new bands playing at a club called CBGB’s, and Roxanne and I, who were already close partially due to shared letters and phone calls about relationships and the music we loved, began going to that club and others in NYC, regularly. A band called Television was getting a great deal of attention, and I didn’t think too much about this until I went to New York myself in 1977 and got to see them, with my cousin and my brother Kyle along for the experience. There’s a thing that happens when you see a band that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard. You get transported, you have your mind blown, and it expands your reference points for the old sonic vocabulary. Television had two incredible guitarists, Tom Verlaine and Richard Lloyd, and the mesmerizing interplay of the two lead guitars, coupled with bizarre, evocative lyrics and Verlaine’s charisma on stage, was unforgettable for anyone who saw the band. The term “new wave” was created to try to label bands like this; “punk” just wasn’t cutting it. These guys were musicians, and they were reaching for something out there that the punk bands couldn’t care less about. Roxanne sang me her favorite lyrics from the band over and over, even my snobby brother was affected, and I was left reeling by yet another brand new rock sound. The MARQUEE MOON album came out later in 1977 and took the indie music scene by storm. Some of the best guitar work ever played was on this album.

How it influenced me: By generating understanding of the far-reaching drama that two electric guitars could generate, seeing the experience of people getting swept away by music in the dingiest of dingy Bowery clubs (at a legendary time in rock music history), and by raising the stakes for underground music, which was also to generate so much press that the mere READING of reviews and articles at this time became an experience unto itself.

WARDRUNA: RUNALJOD – GAP VAR GINNUNGA

(INDIE RECORDINGS; reissue, 2014; original release, 2009)

Wardruna cover

Let’s just get this out of the way upfront. It IS okay to play favorites when you’re a music writer. I wouldn’t believe ANYONE who says they like everything the same; we all have our favorites. And while anyone bold enough to write about music or art in a public forum better at least be open-minded, it is normal and human to be drawn to certain things more than others. A whole host of factors determine one’s personal aesthetic and predilections, and these generally change as you grow older. So I just wanted to say all this by way of explaining my delirious response to the Norwegian group Wardruna. I’m well known for loving Scandinavian music, especially what comes out of Norway and the rustic forests of Finland. I also tend to love anything that’s weird and unclassifiable, and I am an avowed ambient music fanatic. So, imagine how enthralling it must be for me to encounter this Norse trio, who are plenty weird, plenty ambient, and absolutely committed to their quest to conjure up a sound that evokes old Viking mythology, the darkness along ancient rocky shores, and the fiery passions of a people so tied to a beautiful, cold, mountainous land far away that nothing else matters except their homes, their families, their lifestyle and their surroundings. The sound of this recording is not “unearthly” per se, although some may call it such. What it IS, though, is wild, untamed, eerie, primal, awe-inspiring and deeply mysterious. Parts of it sound like bits of the score from the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy (it’s well-known that composer Howard Shore drew from Norse mythology for some elements of LOTR), parts are reminiscent of Dead Can Dance (only superficially, though) and most of it is rich in the traditional folk stylings of Norway’s boundless musical past.

Wardruna performs at Vikingskipshuset (The Viking Ship Museum) in Oslo  Norway, 2010 (photo credit: wardruna.com)
Wardruna performs at Vikingskipshuset (The Viking Ship Museum) in Oslo Norway, 2010 (photo credit: wardruna.com)

So, who is behind this spellbinding sound? Let’s meet them, shall we? The chief visionary is Einar Kvitrafn Selvik, who apparently writes everything and plays most of the instruments, along with his deep-register vocalizing. Lindy-Fay Hella is the woman in the group, and she contributes amazing, much needed female vocals. And Gaahl is credited on vocals and “conceptual contributions.” This GAP VAR GINNUNGA project is part one of a planned trilogy about runes. What’s that, you ask? Let’s just quote right from the group’s website here: “The ongoing RUNALJOD trilogy is a musical rendition of the 24 runes in what is often referred to as the Elder Futhark. Some of the recordings are done outdoors in places or under circumstances of significance to each rune. Wardruna primarily use old and historical instruments such as primitive deer-hide frame drums, kraviklyra, tagelharpe, mouth harp, goat horn, lur and more. Non-traditional instruments and other sources of sound like trees, rocks, water and torches are also used.” Are you better prepared now, listeners? Well, I doubt it, because no description is truly apt for the mighty, immersive, sonic grandeur this trio has forged. And lemme tell you, “forged” is a better word than something as bland as “recorded.” You don’t sit down and “record” stuff like this. You sculpt and chisel it out of the very foundation of your SOUL, using materials tied more to the earth than anything the average musician picks up. The vocal incantations, drones, ancient horns, percussive THUMPS and thoroughly mysterious other instruments take you to another time, another place, a dreamscape so far away from your normal reality that you can’t believe it exists out there. This is a history lesson without the names or events, a trip to an exotic place without having to drive, fly or sail, an experience in unbridled passion without having to touch or question the motivations of your partner. Wardruna are making living, breathing, stirring musical art that anyone with even mildly adventurous musical taste should revel in. It’s unforgettable, music that is at one with the ancient power of nature in a manner unattainable by most recordings.

Wardruna (Lindy-Fay and Kvitrafn) (publicity photo)
Wardruna (Lindy-Fay and Kvitrafn) (publicity photo)

And listen, picking out individual song titles is not particularly relevant in this case. It’s all of a piece, one track flowing into the next. The titles are in Norse anyway: “Hagal,” “Bjarkan,” “Jara,” “Laukr,” et cetera. Speaking of “Laukr,” by the time I got to that eighth track, I was already so deliriously grateful for what this group had laid down for us that I knew the kind of review I was going to write. This music renders most adjectives inadequate. Wardruna have power, majesty, the singular intent of all the best art, the confidence that what they are embarking on is more than worthy, and the musical skill to capture the organic ebb and flow common to the best listening experiences. This stuff isn’t for you if you only like pop or rock and roll. But if you liked being STIRRED, haunted and enthralled by music and the mysteries of life, check out Wardruna. You will NOT forget what you hear. Oh, and Norway? You keep raising the bar SO high for interesting aural creations, what are the rest of them out there gonna do? Not your problem, though… just keep on being beautiful, provocative and wildly yourself, dear. Some of us appreciate you a ton, and we’ll see to it that only the most DESERVING get to experience your secrets.

JUAN WAUTERS: NAP – NORTH AMERICAN POETRY

(Captured Tracks; 2014)

Juan Wauters cover

It’s cool when an artist presents their creative wares without nodding to any particular influence, without, in fact, making you think of ANYTHING except their own particular musical slant. This disc by Juan Wauters, a Uruquay-born singer/songwriter who moved to Queens, NY around the turn of the century, has a quality that is actually kind of rare these days, an innocent charm and lack of artifice that allow you to experience Wauters as a fellow human being rather than some pop star layers removed due to technology. The sound here is lo-fi and indie acoustc overall, with just a little of Wauters’ South American roots in the mix. From his bio, one learns that Wauters spent a lot of time alone in the Queens basement he grew up in, and checked out recordings from the local library. But what mostly comes through here is the way Wauters must have been intrigued by his neighborhood surroundings, the people he met, and the conclusions he slowly drew about life here in the US. He has a warm, affable vocal style, and these songs are rather effortlessly engaging.

Juan Wauters (publicity photo)
Juan Wauters (publicity photo)

“Let Me Hip You To Something” grabs your attention with some acoustic finger-picking that seems curiously at odds with the briskly-sung, rather in-your-face vocal. Somehow the blend works, and it announces Wauters as an assertive but earnest talent. Primitive strumming adorns “Sanity or Not,” in which Wauters mostly pronounces the word “San-ee-tee,” as he shares his apparent struggle to tell what is real from what’s an illusion. Good luck with that one, Juan; most of us are already exhausted by that dilemma. I like the tossed-off ennui (and the title) of “Woke Up Feeling Like Sleeping,” which actually sounds like a track where the artist barely summoned the energy to record it, and maybe DID go back to sleep after. Good thing Wauters has an effective sound, blending ’60s era melody and “anything goes” confidence with early ’90s lo-fi casualness. “Water” is one of the essential tunes here, featuring again, insistent finger picking but this time with a solid arrangement and more importantly, an engaging. contemplative vocal that hints of Daniel Johnston at his outsider-music best. Johnston is actually not a bad reference point for a lot of this stuff. The song title “All Tall Mall Will Fall” is weird enough that I probably would’ve skipped right to that track out of curiosity even if I weren’t reviewing this sucker. It’s a bit of a trifle, having something to do with sentiments regarding a mall, but there’s a sensibility at work here that keeps you intrigued. Wauters isn’t alone in this world, either: his pal Carmelle makes an appearance on “Breathing” and “How Do They All Do?,” mostly just adding an extra layer to the vocals. But it reveals, engagingly, that Wauters is not just living in a state of removal, that he interacts with others and CARES. He also sings a couple of tunes in his native language, adding to our understanding of his multi-cultural background.

Juan Wauters (publicity photo)
Juan Wauters (publicity photo)

All the tunes on this record are rather brief, and contrary to the title, not all could be considered “poetry.” But that’s not the point. Wauters has an expressive, listenable voice, a way with both melodies and words, and a degree of self-awareness that informs his music with an indefinable edge. Something tells me he could grow into a top-notch artist someday. Meanwhile, I can give this album a thumbs up for how easygoing it sounds and how Wauters’ voice tends to grab you firmly, then hold you kind of closely and gently for most of the recording. Interestingly, the record also works nicely as background music. That may sound contradictory, but it’s not, really, it’s just the singular approach of a truly promising young singer/songwriter, one who deserves to be heard as he heads out there into the big, noisy musical wilderness.

RACHEL TAYLOR BROWN: FALIMY

(PENURY POP RECORDS; 2014)

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I remember when I first heard Rachel Taylor Brown, a Portland singer/songwriter, about seven years ago. I was delighted to discover that she seemed to be a genuine weirdo, not following any kind of formula or expectations, but really sounding committed to her eccentric, piano-laden art songs and darkly comical worldview. Sometimes it’s harder for a woman to pull that off than a man, at least in the US. The music marketplace here still puts unfair expectations on female artists. The fact that Brown’s latest album FALIMY is not available on Amazon, and is in fact, a Bandcamp offering, may have some implications. Whatever. Brown is still doing her unconventional thing, and it kind of whacks you around as a listener. Opening track “Let’s Have A,” the title itself an open-ended joke, begins as a jaunty little pop song, with Brown declaring with feminine sweetness that “The world is so frightening, there’s never enough/The world is so frightening for me and my love.” But then the apparent wistfulness is demolished when a loud, aggressive chorus commences: “Let’s make a family…let’s make a baby,” the kind of routine decision that causes more and more problems these days for many. It’s possible, I suppose, that Brown is being sincere, but I think she’s being bitterly sarcastic, and that makes this tune really funny, although Brown repeats the chorus with an increasingly repetitive shrillness that eventually wears thin. Still funny, though, in its dashing of expectations. Elsewhere, you get the spritely rocker “Mount Athos,” which uses its jingly keyboards to nice effect but chooses to serve up the utterly timely theme of serious problems with religious conviction these days. “Trying to get to heaven, but there’s a woman in the way/There’s a woman in the way/Of men on their way” is a lyric I dug immensely, and will likely find myself quoting to friends. And I love how the song just ENDS, sharply, as though there’s an implicit acknowledgment that you can never get to the end of this issue; it divides and leaves people hanging all the time.

Rachel Taylor Brown (uncredited photo)
Rachel Taylor Brown (uncredited photo)

In “Little Fucker,” a real attention getter, Brown sings “Little fucker/You go around fucking people over/Little fucker/You’re on the town fucking people over/You got a lot to go around.” This is more than a little reminiscent of Liz Phair’s brash sentiments on the groundbreaking EXILE IN GUYVILLE and arguably just as musically compelling, but Brown won’t get that sort of attention, not in this day and age. She exercises a lot of restraint here; this is essentially a plaintive piano ballad, as are tracks like “Robin,” “Trade” and the emotive “Men in War.” That one is a song that does about what you think it should do lyrically. Brown is rarely all that sentimental; she’s a bit too original for standard tear-jerking, but this song serves it up and then, ends suddenly again, which is nice. “Me Hurting You” is a showier, more typical Brown composition, featuring somewhat dissonant descending piano chords while an insistent slashing guitar chord helps steer a path through a clearly angsty piece. Brown is good at creating musical stress to accompany lyrics that deal with stress themselves. “Litany of the Family” is my favorite, though, a wickedly detached narrative serving up line after line about an apparently ideal family’s behavior when out together, with only Brown’s impersonal delivery and a single sparse tonal undercurrent providing sonic direction. It’s very much the kind of thing Laurie Anderson was once known for. “Family taking a walk outside… Attractive family of four…. Family at the lake… Family looking at the water…. Happy family…. Mother playing with her baby… Couple with their daughter…. Father holding son…. New mother kissing baby’s forehead… Closeup of a beautiful happy family together…” You get the idea. As the wordiness of the song increases halfway through, the effect is both comical and kind of authentically ghastly, and it sure makes you think about this whole “family unit” thing that we so treasure in modern society. The track is actually one of the most compelling things I’ve heard in a while, a real showstopper.

Rachel Taylor Brown (photo credit: RULA VAN DER BERGEN)
Rachel Taylor Brown (photo credit: RULA VAN DER BERGEN)

FALIMY is a spartan affair overall; a couple of the songs are very slight, and Brown has a truly curious knack for NOT mincing words or varying the arrangements much. “All I need is one brave soul” is about the only lyric in the last song, and there’s a curiously long pause after that which, if you keep listening, ends with Brown merely saying “thanks” quietly. It’s personal, it’s disarming and it’s unexpected. Which kind of sums up this Oregonian’s aesthetic in a way. She is one to watch, and if not the most beautifully voiced or sophisticated gal making music out there, she sure has ideas, and the panache to deliver them with, confidently. A few moments on this record will definitely stay with me, and I’ll look forward to Brown’s future efforts.

THE SHOE: I’M OKAY

(COMMUNITY MUSIC/THERE WAS AN OLD WOMAN RECORDS; 2014)

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I regard it as a pretty good sign if the first song on an album gives me chills. That happened with “I’m Okay,” the first sonic salvo on a beautiful debut by the multi-talented Jena Malone, an actress known for her recent appearance in the HUNGER GAMES franchise. She described the sound on this album as “a one-woman instrument… built out of an old steamer trunk,” but that’s not very helpful. What IS, is to tell you that Malone is working with talented pianist Lem Jay Ignacio, and between his delicate playing and her haunting vocals, something special is going on here. “I thought I’d write you this song instead/’Cause it’s cooler than calling you or texting you like I was a high schooler/But I guess it’s not cool anyway/To lose your love, to go astray/I guess it’s not cool to go away/I guess it’s pretty bad to not be okay,” sings Malone in her stark, beautiful dulcet tone, reeling you in more and more with every sentence. And by the way, she is masterful at shooting off a lot of words in a short amount of time… making those words clear and compelling. She’s the first artist I know to talk about using “Google maps” in a song, for whatever that’s worth, and the first in a long, long time to command this kind of attention with relatively little musical backing. That keyboard is there, yes, but it drops out at times almost imperceptibly, and the narrative pull of Malone’s voice loses nothing when it does.

The Shoe (Jena Malone and Lem Jay Ignacio) (uncredited photo)
The Shoe (Jena Malone and Lem Jay Ignacio) (uncredited photo)

The magic continues on “Paper Cup,” which adds light percussion and subtle backing vocals to the mix. Always, Malone’s words are way upfront, as they should be, and her voice is rich in character and deep empathy for the struggles of love and life. “She’s not alone in her day/Now that she’s got someone to hold onto/But she didn’t know him like she should/She didn’t own him like she could,” sings Malone with aching emotional force, while a gripping “Oh oh” backing harmony deepens the texture. I don’t know if Malone has listened to any female Scandinavian singers, but this is the kind of thing they do over THERE; it sure isn’t typical of American songstresses.

The Shoe (Jena Malone) video still from "His Gorgeousness")
The Shoe (Jena Malone) (video still from “His Gorgeousness”)

Most songs here deal with rumination on love or loss, and the mode is introspection of the “walking down the street thinking about you” kind. The relatively conventional pop structure of the curiously titled “His Gorgeousness” completely surrenders to the wildly quirky originality of “Indian Giver,” one of the best songs here. “Oh dear, what a gosh little good little Indian you made out of me/Oh dear, oh gosh, oh get real good, God you made me feel free/What an Indian wrap little puppet I became… ” Malone bleats over sly, tinkly instrumentation that perfectly complements her darkly comical lyrics. She has a way of making you hang on every word, and it’s honestly been a while since any singer, male OR female, has made me respond like that. And just TRY to find a lyric on any other female-driven piece of work these days with the power of a lyric like “what an animal slaughter I became.” Malone’s sense of emotional dynamics is stunning, honestly. I can’t imagine why she hasn’t gotten more attention for this album. “Broken Hearted” is a heart-piercing waltz that sustains an utterly haunting mood throughout, a perfect blend of relatable, angst-ridden lyrics about love vs. sex, effortlessly appealing vocals and uncluttered instrumentation. And “Harry Barry” is beautiful from start to finish, with ambient keyboards in the background that underscore the sense of something impossibly remote and yet personal being shared. Can this really be a debut? How can Malone sound so masterful and accomplished throughout?

The Shoe (Lem Jay Ignacio and Jena Malone) (uncredited photo)
The Shoe (Lem Jay Ignacio and Jena Malone) (uncredited photo)

Malone hasn’t done herself any favors by calling this project “The Shoe,” as a Google search will likely bring up multiple entries for the power pop band “The Shoes” before guiding the curious to her album. But I feel fortunate to help shine a spotlight on this truly sublime piece of work, the kind of rare project that goes into that “one listen is all it takes to reveal the brilliance” category. I’M OKAY is an unforgettable, bracing, spine-tingling work rich in humanity, self-reflection, and casually brilliant observations about the depth and pain of the search for love. It’s one of the best albums of the year but one you will have to seek out if you’re interested, ’cause so many other artists are hogging all the attention.

BERNIE TORME: FLOWERS AND DIRT

(RETROWREK RECORDS; English import, 2014)

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To most here in the States, the name Bernie Torme probably means very little. First of all, he is not the son of “Velvet Fog,” Mel, but, if you are one of the legions of followers of one John “Ozzy” Osbourne’s particularly lucrative solo career, you will remember Bernie as the hot-shot gun-for-hire brought in to continue the DIARY OF A MADMAN tour after original (and much lauded) guitarist Randy Rhoads found himself on the receiving end of a gravedigger’s hole-filling shovel in early 1982. Before saving Osbourne’s bacon, Torme had made a name for himself with Gillan, the band led by former and future Deep Purple frontman, Ian, appearing on three albums between 1979 and 1981 (including the UK chart-topper FUTURE SHOCK) and subsequent tours for each.

Gillan, circa 1980 (Bernie Torme and Ian Gillan) (uncredited photo)
Gillan, circa 1980 (Bernie Torme and Ian Gillan) (uncredited photo)

After leaving the Ozzy Osbourne situation behind (it was never the guitarist’s intent to be a permanent replacement for Rhoads), Bernie formed Electric Gypsies, eventually renaming the group Torme (and bringing ex-Girl singer, Phil Lewis, along for the change). After a total of six albums (including an excellent solo record called TURN OUT THE LIGHTS, just re-released on Bernie’s own Retrowrek label and worth picking up), and experiencing minimal success, Torme hooked up with Dee Snider and Iron Maiden’s original drummer, Clive Burr, in the band Desperado. 1999 saw the release of WHITE TRASH GUITAR, credited to Bernie Torme’s Electric Gypsies, but for all intents and purposes, a solo record; in 2005, Bernie teamed with powerhouse drummer Robin Guy and his old Gillan bandmate, bassist John McCoy to form GMT (Guy, McCoy, Torme). The trio released two great studio albums and one live document in five years. Now, some fifteen years after his last studio album of new solo material, Bernie is back with FLOWERS AND DIRT, a two disc set with 20 totally unique Torme tracks.

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)
Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

The first track, “Crash and Burn,” is a chugging rocker, reminiscent of Bernie’s guitar hero, Rory Gallagher; the lead and solo work, however, are unmistakably Torme. Once a distraction on early releases, Torme offers a solid vocal performance, no doubt refined by his years leading GMT. A muddy sounding bass and a noisy, stick-in-your-skull riff fuels “Partytown,” allowing Bernie to run off some high-register solos. The lyrics, as the song’s title implies, are of the basic, throw-away variety. The vocals, again, are rock solid. “Blood Run Cold” blasts in with a hefty power chord that has you imagining a BILL AND TED’S BOGUS JOURNEY type scenario where some unfortunate (oh… Death, let’s say) standing in front of a massive stack of Marshalls is blown completely off the stage (and, maybe, through the back wall). As usual, the guitars are top-notch, the rhythm section (bassist Chris Heilmann, drummer Simon Jeffrey) is rock hard, the lyrics are a vast improvement over “Partytown” and, somewhere, buried deep in the mix is a bluesy harmonica (could it be Bernie’s old boss, Ian Gillan, making an uncredited guest appearance?)… this song just sounds LOUD! Slamming into your earholes with a Zeppelin-like riff and a John Bonham bottom end, “Your Voodoo” features Torme as a veritable guitar army, with finest-kind slide work and swirling, buzz sawing, psychedelically influenced runs thorughout. “Mister Fixit” has a great, bluesy “Train Kept A-Rollin’” kinda feel, with Phil Spalding offering up a nice, strolling bass line and Bernie delivering some awesome hair band inspired solos. Overall, this is one fantastic song. With Jeffrey playing on the rims and Torme’s funky, grooving guitar, “No Lips (Tsunami Blues)” has a slow-burning ZZ Top thing happening. There’s great interplay between the rhythm guitar, bass and drums and another awesome, slashing solo from Bernie.

Devil and the Deep Blue” is flat-out Americana – bordering on new country. Even the shredding multi-layered guitars have that certain down-home vibe. The lyrics are a notch above and Torme’s vocals add a suitably menacing touch. Fellow Irishmen Bono and U2 have attempted songs like this, but they just manage to sound condescending (okay… to be fair, Bono ALWAYS sounds condescending); Bernie, Chris and Simon make it work and make it sound right. The guitar on “Lockjaw” has a kind of Chuck Berry-cum-John Sykes dichotomy thing going on. The tune itself is of the “storming-the-beaches,” chugging rocker variety. “Everybody Needs Love” has a distinct “Give Me Your Money Please” (Bachman-Turner Overdrive) vibe, with heavy drums (by Torme’s regular skin-pounder, Ian Harris) and another great guitar melody. The slow, near-balladic “Good Man Down,” while totally Torme, features an uncharacteristically understated guitar that still manages to bite, heartfelt lyrics and one of the most passionate vocals of Bernie’s career. The track leads into “Warpaint,” a swampy, foot-stomping blues number with Torme heating things up on the dobro. The major problem with the song is its length; it’s only two-minutes long and seems to just be hitting its stride before an all-too-soon end.

Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)
Bernie Torme (uncredited photo)

I think that “Bad Juju” is what they mean by “gut-bucket” rock and roll, with echoey bass and drums, a staccato descending riff from Bernie and a slide guitar lead part. “Mister Bad Luck” is a noirish strolling blues track. Torme’s guitar is about two parts CORRIDOR OF POWER era Gary Moore (another of Bernie’s early influences) and one part Ritchie Blackmore bombast… rather a nice combination. There’s more homage with “Highway Chains,” as Gallagher and Eric Bell (a solid blues player who formed Thin Lizzy and played on their first three albums) are referenced. The highlight of the tune is a fuzzy, over-modulated solo. Bernie’s vocal delivery on “Out in the Cold” has a distinct Bob Dylan feel, as do the symbolic, allusory lyrics: “Wanted you to believe/That you could always leave/Make your move and head on down the road.” Bernie unleashes a wicked, atmospheric minute-long solo over the slow but powerful groove, which reminds me of Epic-era Alice Cooper (maybe “Love’s a Loaded Gun” from HEY STOOPID). “Garden of Earth’s Delight” is a straight-out rocker with lewd, smarmy sounding vocals. Chris Heilmann offers up an intriguing bass sound and Torme does a cool “solo-as-rhythm” kinda thing that works really well within the context of the song.

Bernie Torme (photo credit: TRUDI KNIGHT)
Bernie Torme (photo credit: TRUDI KNIGHT)

Though Bernie has skirted around the issue a bit throughout the entirety of FLOWERS AND DIRT, it isn’t until “Spirit Road” that he lets his more adventurous side appear. The number has a distinctive mix of African and Asian influences, with Harris introducing djembe and Torme approximating the sound of a sitar on his guitar; a very psychedelic offering. At first blush, I was thinking of English highwaymen but, once all of the instruments were introduced, they became Moroccan robbers. The track is topped off with a beautiful acoustic solo from Bernie. “Turn of the Tide” starts off as a gently swaying folk tune and the vocals keep that folky feel throughout as brutally heavy drums and bass – not to mention some blistering guitar runs – drive the song home. The epic “Stoneship” has a big, heavy Black Sabbath feel with lyrics that are vaguely reminiscent of Sabbath’s SEVENTH STAR record. There’s a weird kind of swing in the doomy, dirge-like tempo that gives a feeling of dread. That feeling is only heightened by a monolithic guitar break. The final track, “Outlaw Blues,” is an honest-to-goodness cowboy song, featuring campfire harmonica, a semi-acoustic guitar and a twangy vocal turn from Bernie. It would seem as though Mister Torme waited for the last fourth of the album to veer away from the bluesy hard rock that he does so well, proving that he is most capable of just about any style. A couple of the more “standard” heavy rockers bog down a bit, but the rest of the record more than makes up for any shortcomings. The twenty tracks here-in have reminded me why I always loved Bernie Torme; it’s music that should be in everybody’s home.

NEIL YOUNG: A LETTER HOME

(THIRD MAN RECORDS/REPRISE RECORDS/WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS; 2014)

Neil Young A Letter Home cover

I’m into nostalgia. Everybody knows that about me. I hang onto stuff from my youth, still think of lost loves and memories from decades past, and made much of my music career from writing about the inescapable march of time. So, I am perfectly comfortable (if melancholy) looking back, although I can’t stay in that state. Neil Young seems to be the same way. Although he is known for always putting his attention into the project he’s doing NOW, and his recent patenting of the PONO high-tech audio system is about as modern as you can get, Neil has bouts of unpredictable, intense nostalgia. Albums like A PRAIRIE WIND and HARVEST MOON, as well as his ARCHIVES series and its many included live recordings, all reveal an artist keenly aware of his past and given to visiting it rather often. But A LETTER HOME is something else again: A headfirst dive into the very sound of the past, featuring songs recorded in a refurbished 1947 Voice-o-Graph recording booth, something Jack White (whom Young struck up a friendship recently) had at his Third Man headquarters in Nashville. Apparently, this thing is barely big enough to accommodate one musician and his guitar, but Neil was fascinated by the concept, and decided without much chin scratching to make an album this way. He chose a selection of all covers, mostly songs he grew up with in Canada and a couple of others by fellow artists he met later, and proceeded to sing these numbers like they belonged to him alone. It’s a pretty revelatory piece of work by this rock legend, showing his true “heart of gold” at work.

Neil Young (publicity photo)
Neil Young (publicity photo)

The scratchy, primitive sound may put some off, but the key word here is nostalgia. Forget about everything you know regarding modern sound and equipment, and take this journey. It’s a deeply touching one. The record begins with Neil talking to his Mom in the great beyond, and this may conjure forth a tear or two if you are like me, in the category of people who recently lost their moms. “Be sure to talk to Daddy again,” Neil advises, a comment on the bitter divorce Neil’s parents went through when he was a child. He then launches into Phil Och’s poignant classic, “Changes.” Young has often spoken of Ochs as one of his musical heroes, and he wrings every bit of emotion and intimacy out of this; if you didn’t know it was an Ochs song, it would sound just like something Neil himself wrote, right down to the melody and repetitive nature. Dylan’s “Girl From the North Country” is also nice, but must bow meekly to the magnificence of the next track, Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death.” This is possibly the highlight of the record, and the longest track at nearly 5 minutes. Beginning with Young whistling not such a merry tune, the track is literally spine-tingling, with its evocation of a “troubled young life” derailed by drugs. If you know anything at all about the losses Neil himself endured because of friends who died from drugs and his outspoken comments on the matter many times, this song is overwhelmingly personal, ghostly and gut-wrenching. It isn’t just the highlight of the record, it’s one of the most haunting performances Young has ever rendered, Voice-o-Graph or not. It took me awhile to recover from the experience of listening to this. Jansch, a guitar hero of Young’s, died not long ago himself; I was lucky enough to see him open for Neil on a tour a few years back.

Fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot penned a couple of the tunes Young chooses to cover here, “Early Morning Rain” and “If You Could Read My Mind.” Both of these are pretty revelatory, as Young not only gets the timeless feel and romantic angst of these compositions, he gives a fresh spin to both. The former is jaunty but in a way that preserves its underlying sadness; the latter is surprisingly pleasurable, because we’ve all heard Lightfoot’s version way too many times through the years on the radio, and it’s nice hearing Neil give it his spin. The short take of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is also warmly engaging. Young is clearly focused 100% on these performances. Sometimes in the past, he has made recordings where you suspect he’s not fully into it, or is just doing something to be perverse or throw off his fans (or in a notorious case in the 80s, his own record label). But there is no doubting Neil’s conviction here, and that’s the key to this record: he MEANS it, man. And Young at the peak of his performing and emotive powers is a singular force, and is definitely enough to offset the primitive nature of the recording, which features only voice, guitar, piano and harmonica.

Neil Young (publicity photo)
Neil Young (publicity photo)

With the time-bending beauty of the previously mentioned tracks, more modern-sounding songs like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” and Bruce Springsteen’s “My Hometown” suffer a bit by comparison, although Neil does make the latter sound like something very much applicable to his own youth. Tim Hardin’s “Reason To Believe,” begins with another spoken word message to Neil’s mom, about how he and Jack “rediscovered a lot of the old songs we used to listen to in Grovenor.” Lilting piano adorns this, with the lyric about finding “a way to leave the past behind” emerging as perhaps the key line on the album. And the lovely Ivory Joe Hunter ballad “Since I Met You Baby” oughta be in a film or something. It’s a bar room soundtrack here, with pensive rumination underlying what is, ostensibly, a simple love song. In this unique audio setting, something emerges from the recording that is captivating, and actually, profoundly sad in these days of crazy violence and technological dependence. Young is giving us an artifact, a shelf of memories, a reminder of a more innocent time in the evolution of art and entertainment when things cast a different kind of spell and had people marveling. Not even this record is likely to do that for most people, because the world is a different place now. And that’s kind of a shame. Because A LETTER HOME is a deeply stirring document, and just like the death of handwritten letters themselves, it deserves to be successfully delivered to the much-missed party on the other end.