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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 2

(Ruminations of a music junkie, by KEVIN RENICK)

It’s interesting how certain albums come to mean so much to you, the longer you are an active music fan. From 1976 to 1979, I worked at a major record store, which increased my access to all kinds of new and upcoming artists. I also began to read music magazines obsessively, so I was able to follow the music scene really attentively. Hundreds and hundreds of albums crossed my path during that time and beyond. I went to college from 1980 to 1983, and that, too, brought a ton of new artists into my life. So-called “new wave” music ruled at that time, with artists such as Elvis Costello, the English Beat, the Clash, the Cars and many more finding favor among people I hung out with, and my friend Tina Carl and I began trading and sharing and even dancing to a lot of the music at that time. There was so much stuff I loved, but the sheer volume of it probably prevented most of it from becoming INFLUENTIAL. And that is my focus here: what were the albums that actively, in a meaningful way, became an influence on my life and creative journey? So, here is part two of that list of 25, carrying us from the late 70s to the present…

14. TALKING HEADS: FEAR OF MUSIC and REMAIN IN LIGHT (tie)

FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)
FEAR OF MUSIC (SIRE RECORDS, 1979); REMAIN INLIGHT (SIRE RECORDS, 1980)

This is the second time I am cheating by calling a TIE between two albums. I pretty much HAVE to, because each of these albums by the New York new wave group fronted by David Byrne was HUGE for me. FEAR OF MUSIC came out while I worked at Record Bar, in the summer. It was an amazing piece of work, quirky as hell, rhythmically unique and heavily atmospheric. Songs like “Air,” “Cities,” “Animals,” “Drugs” and the new wave dance anthem “Life During Wartime” were like catnip for my ever-growing interest in offbeat music. And the hypnotic piece “Mind” became the unofficial breakup song for me and that girl who looked like Joni Mitchell. I loved this band, and the fact they were produced by my new hero, Brian Eno, was a bonus. But the following year, while I was attending Webster University, the incomparable REMAIN IN LIGHT came out. Influenced by African high life music, and featuring Eno again as producer and even co-writer of many of the tracks, this was just a full-on masterpiece of innovative modern rock. I absolutely went gaga over it, and “Once In A Lifetime” remains, to this day, one of the most instantly captivating weird songs ever recorded. Topping things off, MTV was becoming a going concern, showcasing this new “music video” art form to a fast-growing, interested public, and the Heads’ video for this song got huge attention. My friend Ted Moniak and I also discussed this album at length in college, and I remember him taking a long verse from the song “Crosseyed and Painless”, and writing the lyrics on a piece of paper which he posted on a door in the theatre conservatory to make a point. These were major, heady days of music listening for me, always intense, always communal. REMAIN IN LIGHT is truly one of the greatest and most interesting albums of all time, and that coincided with it being influential for me in its awesome creativity, its often dark and globally inclusive mood, and a palpable sense of ALL things truly being possible now. It made me want to learn about ethnic music, and my mind just kept opening more and more…

15. NICK DRAKE: FIVE LEAVES LEFT

FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)
FIVE LEAVES LEFT (ISLAND RECORDS, 1969)

I didn’t know anything about Nick Drake when he was alive and making music (1969-1974). It was some years later that I learned about him through my friend, Ted. The doomed British singer/songwriter, who died at the age of 24 either through suicide or an accidental drug overdose (theories differ on that), was an instantly compelling new “find” for me. Nick always sounded like he was apart from the rest of humanity, a lonesome figure who couldn’t fit in and related more to nature and quiet moments than anything else. I probably identified a little too much with this, I have to say. FIVE LEAVES LEFT was his first album, and it’s one of the best debut albums ever. I love every song on it; “Time Has Told Me,” the gorgeous “River Man,” “Cello Song” and “Fruit Tree” are just a few of the timeless, intimate songs on this album. I began performing “River Man” as a musician myself some years later; the mood of isolation combined with a deep reverence and connection to nature, was a recurring and potent theme in Nick’s music. Also, the way his career never took off (fame eluded him during his lifetime; it took a clever Volkswagen commercial using his song “Pink Moon” to catapult him to real fame after his death) and the aching solitude made me start thinking much more about the uncertainties of being an artist and the pain of being perhaps too sensitive. This is essential singer/songwriter stuff, and will likely always be one of my top 10 albums of all time.

16. BRIAN ENO: ON LAND

ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)
ON LAND (EG RECORDS, 1982)

I already covered Eno’s album DISCREET MUSIC, which found him inventing a new kind of music that baffled many listeners and critics at the time. And in 1979, he basically announced ambient music as an “official” new genre with the release of MUSIC FOR AIRPORTS, labeled as “Ambient 1” in his new series at the time. That album was influential, for sure, but 1982’s ON LAND was so far ahead of the game in this genre, so much farther than his own DISCREET MUSIC, in fact, that in a way, my life instantly changed right then and there. If DISCREET MUSIC had made me feel like dreams had come to life, ON LAND recreated the experience of being lost in nature, and thinking about the most private and long-gone of memories while doing so. It was a series of rather lengthy pieces with titles such as “Lizard Point,” “The Lost Day,” “Lantern Marsh” and “Unfamiliar Wind,” all of which were made in such a mysterious process that almost no recognizable instruments appeared on them. Eno had traveled deeply into new, mysterious musical territory, and in these heady days before the internet, finding albums like this and maybe, just MAYBE encountering another human being who liked it, made you part of a cult in a way. I was utterly, utterly shocked and amazed that an album like ON LAND, which vividly captured the way I felt when I was out in nature, watching birds and feeling the glorious solitude of my surroundings, could exist. I had literally never been so affected by an album before, and I went a little nuts. I started collecting every article and review of Eno I could find, even compiling a scrapbook. More significantly, I decided I had to write to Brian Eno himself and express my admiration. It was a crazy, bold impulse, but I was unstoppable; I wrote about a 25-page letter to Mister Eno telling him about how I had long dreamed of a kind of cinematic, pastoral music that would evoke landscapes and the mysteries of life, and how in awe I was that HE had single-handedly created this music. Late in 1982, one day when I was at Webster University, I was flabbergasted when Eno answered my letter. He was warmly appreciative of my enthusiasm, hand-wrote a 3-page letter to me, and shared some of his thoughts about this bold new music that was happening. We corresponded several times, and it was a highlight of my life. It’s possible that ON LAND is, in fact, the MOST influential album of my life, it depends on how you want to measure these things. But the way this album combined many of my interests, veered sharply into unknown and haunting new sonic territory and carried with it an entire new philosophy about recorded musical art, was to change the big picture for me forever. And the time I played it on my car stereo at sunrise while driving into the Grand Canyon National Park, is one of the most unforgettable listening experiences of my entire life.

17. COCTEAU TWINS: VICTORIALAND

VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)
VICTORIALAND (4AD RECORDS, 1991)

Ah, the Cocteau Twins. Their fans sigh and swoon at the mere mention of this so-called “shoegaze” band (a lousy label that some critic made famous, even though none of the dreamy sounding bands saddled with that label could stand it). You’re lucky in life if you meet friends who introduce you to some new band that goes on to really affect you, a band you might not have encountered otherwise. That was the case with my first introduction to this ethereal Scottish trio. Liz Fraser, the sublimely gifted female singer who fronted the band, sang like no one else EVER, not even singing understandable lyrics until the last years of the band. Instead, fans were treated to wailing, intoning, swooping and soaring, shiver-inducing tones and unearthly vocal bursts that were uncategorizable. With her partner at the time, Robin Guthrie, who conjured one of the most recognizable and groundbreaking painterly guitar sounds to ever come along, the Cocteau Twins (joined by bassist Simon Raymonde on most of their albums) earned in instant cult following with their visionary sonic palette. Many of their albums are now considered classics, but VICTORIALAND, a largely acoustic and sparsely played recording, has some of their most singularly beautiful moments. It’s music that is not easy to describe. In many ways, it is ambient, because Liz Fraser does not sing understandable lyrics, and the overall mood, a haunted one, is what you respond to most. The music is wintery, solemn and desolately beautiful, filled with mystery and destinations unknown. Some friends and I listened to it one day while we were all sprawled out on the floor together at a party, in a totally receptive mood. There was a sense of discovery at this time in the mid 80s that was magical, and by the time the internet came along and music like this was analyzed and discussed to death by countless pundits, some of that mystery went away. But the Cocteaus’ powerful music endures (though they disbanded in the late 90s), and Robin Guthrie is now a prominent ambient musician and soundtrack composer, continuing the awesome legacy of this pioneering band.

How it influenced me: By proving that truly wondrous music could render lyrics irrelevant, by emphasizing mystery over almost everything else, by demonstrating that a female voice could power a kind of “new form of ambient,” and by partially inspiring me to start writing my first novel, a story about a girl who worshipped this band, and happens to get embroiled in a supernatural murder mystery. Not sure if the novel will get finished or not, but if it does, I am contacting Robin Guthrie to compose the score.

18. REM: AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE

AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)
AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE (WARNER BROTHERS RECORDS, 1992)

This Athens, Georgia band became heroic in the ’90s for their status as one of the ultimate college bands and for helping to create the very notion of what “indie rock” meant. Michael Stipe had a unique, stylish approach to vocals (in the early days he utilized a kind of beguiling mumble), and there was something about the SOUND of these guys that was able to keep growing an audience year after year. “Losing My Religion” became their most classic song, but in 1992, they released AUTOMATIC FOR THE PEOPLE, an evocative song cycle about loss, change and disillusionment. Three of my favorite themes! This was an autumnal album, one that I played constantly and featured regularly on road trips with a couple of friends. It was conceptually solid, deeply moving and strangely comforting. I reacted most to the melancholy songs like “Try Not to Breathe” (a painful song about an old person’s last moments), “Sweetness Follows” (heartbreaking song, with potent cello playing, about the aftermath of a death in a family) “Nightswimming” and a personal favorite, “Find the River.” This album made me cry a few times, and I have to mention in particular that the song “Sweetness Follows,” a truly haunting piece, was something I listened to on the fateful day I found out that a close friend, and the founder of a publication I had written for, was killed in a horrible car accident coming home from Chicago. I was on the highway the same day, maybe an hour behind her, and didn’t find out ’til the next day what happened. It was a huge, tragic event. There were many upbeat REM songs, and I had fun growing with them album after album for almost 30 years. But it was their softer, more intimate songs that ultimately affected me the most. I don’t play this album that often because it brings back some painful memories, but it definitely had an impact.

19. PETE NAMLOOK: AIR 2

AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)
AIR 2 (WORLD AMBIENT RECORDS, 2002)

Considering that most non-aficionados consider “ambient” to be nothing more than background music, something probably with repetitive droning or tinkly keyboards and not much variety, it’s a huge surprise to discover that there’s actually a HUGE diversity of sounds and approaches in the world of ambient releases. That topic will be discussed in depth another time on this site, but I have to include a Pete Namlook album on my list because Pete, like Eno, created an entire world of ambient releases. He launched a private German record label called Fax in the early 90s, and began releasing limited-edition recordings that became collectors items fairly quickly. The releases spanned the musical spectrum from straight ambient to stuff heavy on beats to weird experimental things to jazz stylings and beyond. Fax fans were challenged by all this and discussed Pete’s work on several key websites. One of the best pairs of ambient recordings on Fax was the first two volumes in a series called AIR. These were meant to be expansive, “ethno-ambient” projects that included instrumentation far beyond mere drones and keyboards. AIR 2, in particular, was a spectacular album. It’s hard to even describe, because it constantly changes, from hypnotic travelogue soundscape (with subtle rhythms) to breezy synth to chanted middle-eastern sounding vocals to glassy, wind chimey stuff and more. “Traveling Without Moving” is the subtitle of the work overall, but it is so filled with diversity, and so enthralling to listen to while driving, that it became a personal landmark for me. I played the entire thing in my car while driving in the mountains of Colorado one evening, with some dangerous conditions happening, and it was one of the most amazing cinematic experiences of my life. This is real musical art, raising the notion of “ambient to a much, much higher level.”

How it influenced me: By creating a bold, fascinating new vision of what ambient could be, and by allowing me to lure friends and other newbies into the ambient “fold” by providing a stellar, immersive and unforgettable listening experience.

20. RADIOHEAD: OK COMPUTER

OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)
OK COMPUTER (CAPITOL RECORDS, 1997)

Radiohead took the music world by storm with this album. It seemed to come out of nowhere, and it was said to be an epic meditation on millennial angst and the growing encroachment of technology in our lives (with the subsequent alienation we were sure to face). I was utterly enthralled with this recording; it really did achieve some sort of pinnacle of creativity for a rock album. Having always loved high, emotive male voices, Thom Yorke’s singing on stunning tracks like “Paranoid Android,” “Subterranean Homesick Alien,” “Let Down,” and “Lucky” was spine-tingling, and the arrangements (and production by Nigel Goodrich) maximized the emotional impact. I listened to this one over and over; it was a thoroughly modern rock masterpiece that took me back to the days of listening to Pink Floyd, Yes and the Moody Blues when I was a teen. The underlying anxiety about the future and the ups and downs that were soon to come with the pervasiveness of the internet and other technologies, were deeply ingrained in the musical aesthetic of this record.

How it influenced me: By announcing a new candidate for “Best group in the world,” showcasing powerful new songwriting and arrangements in a neo-prog rock idiom, and reminding me clearly of the power of writing music that echoed the times and tried to make people think and feel about our fate as humans.

21. THE DOMINO KINGS: LIFE AND 20

LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)
LIFE AND 20 (SLEWFOOT RECORDS, 2000)

This is the only Missouri album on my list, and at this writing, it is out of print, sadly. The trio of guitarist Steve Newman, upright bassist Brian Capps and drummer Les Gallier, based in Springfield, play roots music that blends barroom country and early rock and roll into a snappy, lively formula that is a genuine pleasure to listen to. But that’s not why the album is on my list. It’s here because the album came out when I was an active music journalist for a publication called NOISYPAPER, and I was assigned to review a show by the Domino Kings. I met Brian Capps and struck up a friendship with him. Just a few years later, when I saw Brian in concert again, I was about to endure one of the most painful relationship breakups of my entire life, and Brian’s songs not only served as a bit of a soundtrack for this period, they made me want to dance through the heartache. The Kings were (and still ARE) crack musicians, capable of playing the kind of alcohol-fueled, lost-at-love rave-ups that patrons have been dancing to and enjoying for years. On this album, the Capps tunes “Borrow A Lie,” “Alice” (a wickedly catchy stomper about a bad, bad woman), “Don’t Be Indifferent” and “Steppin’ Out Again” all deal with the kind of women and relationships that tear a man’s soul apart. As this happened to me at the end of 2003 and the first part of 2004, I got to hear Brian Capps perform live several times, with most of these tunes in the mix. And he was kind enough to discuss relationships with me and tell me his own stories of romantic woe. Very cathartic and significant. Additionally, the Kings’ music increased my awareness that Springfield, Missouri was a center of musical vitality. Not far in my future at this point was a deep connection and involvement in that city that would affect my own music career dramatically.

22. EPHEMERA: BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE

BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)
BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE (EPHEMERA MUSIC, 2002)

It’s funny how one little action can end up leading to something much bigger, something you couldn’t predict. By 2002, I was working at an advertising agency, getting into the groove of internet communication and browsing, and trying to learn about new music and discover new things. I had read a few things about Norwegian music, just sort of casually, and I ended up purchasing a CD called THIS IS NORWAY on impulse. It was a compilation of Norwegian pop and rock bands, and there was a track by a band called Ephemera on there. I had never heard of them, and knew nothing about them. The song, “Last Thing,” featured several female singers offering beautiful, tight vocal harmonies, and unusually crystalline keyboards and production. It stood out, and I wanted to know more about this group. Nothing by them was available in the US, but I ordered this album, BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE. Lordy. It so far exceeded anything I could have expected, that it’s hard to put into words. It was like realizing your eyes have been impaired for a long time, causing you to never see certain details, and then being given a pair of stunning new glasses that brighten up the entire world, with colors, details and landscapes you were never aware of appearing vividly before you. The three women of Ephemera – Christine Sandtorv, Ingerlise Storksen and Jannicke Larsen – are singer/songwriters of peerless, diamond-pure talent. Since I have an interview with Ingerlise pending, I’ll save most of my thoughts for that piece. But I was bowled over by this magical trio from the start, and they are one of my absolute favorite musical groups in the world. On BALLOONS AND CHAMPAGNE, tracks such as “Act,” “Air,” “Bye” and the title track are such heartbreakingly beautiful, with emotive, delicate singing and a level of purity that I had almost never heard on an American record. I love literally every song this band has recorded, and I came to the conclusion early on that they don’t really know how good they are. They are some kind of magical musical goddesses that simply do what they do, and trust that some people will like it. Ephemera opened up a new world to me, the world of Scandinavian pop music, which I would, within a year, be writing about regularly for a couple of different publications. They actually changed the way I LISTEN to music, because after absorbing the beauty of their vocals and the genius production techinques of their producer, Yngve Saetre, I could no longer respond the same way to typical American pop records. Here’s how passionately in love I am with Ephemera’s music. If there was a fire or a coming tornado, and I could only save a limited number of CDs from my collection, I’d grab an armful of ambient CDs and then use my other hand to grab my small stack of Ephemera CDs. They have been a HUGE, huge influence, and when I became a musician, I kept their intimate vocals in mind at all times as I advanced in my own career.

23. DANIELSON FAMILE: TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK

TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL' CHOPPIN' BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)
TELL ANOTHER JOKE AT THE OL’ CHOPPIN’ BLOCK (TOOTH AND NAIL RECORDS, 1997)

I never, never found so-called “Christian groups” musically interesting; the vast majority of what I heard in that vein seemed like the most shallow, over-reverent, musically insipid crap I could imagine. Nothing against Christianity, only something against boring music. But Lord God almighty! The Danielsons changed that in a big way. It is, of course, not cool or even accurate to call them a “Christian” band. In fact, they are so weird and arty that their first label, a Christian one called Tooth and Nail, dropped them after one album. Instead, Daniel Smith, the composer and frontman for this band along with a rotating cast of family members and friends, began to attract a following from the fringes of indie rock and outsider music. Smith has a very, very high voice, and he makes it even higher by singing one of the highest falsettos in the history of pop music. It is showcased on several tracks on this amazing, visionary album. But the entire album is notable for the focused PASSION on display, the extremely original songwriting, and the sense of communal empathy that pours from the whole thing. Less important than the Christianity of the band is their deep, poignant humanity and concern for the well-being of everyone, meaning every single listener. They really don’t PREACH per se, they simply share their souls, and they do it with powerful music that ranges from Beatles to Beefheart in influence. I’ve tried to share Danielson music with various friends, and it is honestly too much for a lot of them. When Smith ascends to that remarkable falsetto and starts ranting about something in the modern world, it results in a singular, aggressively original sound that is not meant for all. But the humanity and intensity of this album is undeniably hypnotic, emotional and yes, quite beautiful. Some of their later albums, although I like all of them, are at times spotty. But TELL ANOTHER JOKE… is a masterpiece to me.

How it influenced me: By demonstrating that religious themes on an album can be musically riveting, that the subject of confessed vulnerability (one of my favorites) is worth examining, and that weirdness and focused passion are absolutely compatible bedfellows, something I have kept in mind ever since.

24. LISA GERMANO: LULLABYE FOR LIQUID PIG

LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)
LULLABY FOR LIQUID PIG (INEFFABLE MUSIC, 2003)

I decided to include this one among some of the final “candidates” for this list because it was a crystal-clear example of a dark, depressing album being cathartic at a time when I was lost. The very offbeat, non-commercial style of Ms Germano is an acquired taste, but fans of originality and darker artsy/folksy stuff can find a lot to love in her work. LULLABYE… was released to little fanfare late in 2003, right as I was breaking up with a girl named Star in an unexpected manner. I went into a downward spiral for a time, and this record is about just that, a downward spiral. Although I’d found other dark, sad albums in the past to be compelling, such as stuff by Neil Young, Lou Reed, Joy Division and others, Lisa Germano really let her worst fears and sorrows hang out, and the album was willfully uncommercial. Yet it had a lot of fragile beauty on it. There were some verses, and eerie sounds (inspired by struggles with alcoholism, reportedly) on this album that could absolutely get under your skin. One verse that almost brought me to tears, was “Without you here/Without your love/The world’s just THERE/It doesn’t move me.” The songs are generally short, and Ms Germano really sounds like she is fighting off a breakdown, which oughta sound familiar to anyone who has suddenly lost their love, or found themselves on the wrong end of a battle with substance abuse. This is not a fun album, but I’ll never forget how it provided therapy and catharsis during a pretty rotten four month stretch for me.

25. In order for this list to have a sense of “completeness” for me, I have to put FILM SOUNDTRACKS

FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)
FILM MUSIC: NEVER CRY WOLF (WINDHAM HILL RECORDS, 1983)

for the final slot. I don’t mean loose collections of songs, I mean orchestral scores. I grew up with film music and I love it, and my brother is one of the most knowledgeable film soundtrack buffs in the country; he writes a column about it. Film music has been described as the “first cousin” of ambient music; it’s generally instrumental, generally evocative and mood-setting, and able to be created in many different musical idioms. Watching movies and TV shows all my life, I have to say that I always noticed the music, and the mood-enhancing nature of movie music got deeply into my psyche. When I write songs now, there is always part of me that hopes to capture something subtly cinematic. There are tons of soundtracks in my collection, but to round out this list of influences, I will pick three different ones: TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD, the beautiful Elmer Bernstein score for the classic Gregory Peck movie (with a main theme that everyone loves and remembers); DANCES WITH WOLVES, a rapturous, Western-themed score by John Barry that covers as much terrain as the epic film itself does, and NEVER CRY WOLF, by the prolific Mark Isham, whose 1983 score was one of the first ambient soundtracks ever. Isham stated in interviews that he was influenced by Brian Eno, so… it figures I could identify with his movie work!

TEN OTHER INFLUENTIAL RECORDINGS THAT MISSED OUT ON THE MAIN LIST:

NEIL YOUNG: ZUMA… THE WHO: TOMMY… MIKE OLDFIELD: OMMADAWN… XTC: ENGLISH SETTLEMENT… THE SAMPLES: NO ROOM… THE RESIDENTS: NOT AVAILABLE… PHILIP GLASS: GLASSWORKS… HAROLD BUDD AND BRIAN ENO: THE PLATEAUX OF MIRROR… MUM: FINALLY WE ARE NO ONE… PINK FLOYD: DARK SIDE OF THE MOON

SPECIAL HONORABLE MENTION:

ROBYNN RAGLAND: MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT

MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)
MODERN AMERICAN FEMALE GUT (RAGDOLL RECORDS, 2003)

Although it didn’t feel right to place this on the main list of 25, I need to include Robynn Ragland’s record because, first of all, it was one of the most well-written and well-produced collections of songs by a local artist during my early years as a writer, first for NOISYPAPER, and then for PLAYBACK STL and fLUSH. Appreciating artists in Saint Louis wasn’t always easy, but Robynn made it a cinch. Her true significance for me was that we became close friends, and she really encouraged me with my own writing and creative pursuits. And in a twist that neither of us could have foreseen, when I had my surprising success with the UP IN THE AIR song, Robynn became my manager for a few years. She was singularly responsible for my spectacular trip to Japan to promote the movie, and I could hardly forget something like that!

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.

GENE CLARK: TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY

(HIGH MOON RECORDS/RSO RECORDS; reissue 2014, original release 1977)

Cover

Reading Gene Clark’s Wikipedia entry is an exercise in frustration, another classic case of a prominent musician suffering the pitfalls of inadequate promotion, dashed expectations, poor timing, et cetera. A founding member of the Byrds, one of the most influential bands of the ’60s, Clark surely deserved better than the checkered solo career he endured after essentially leaving that band in 1966. Clark wrote or co-wrote some of the best-known Byrds tunes, such as “Eight Miles High,” “She Don’t Care About Time” and “Set You Free This Time,” helping to pioneer some of the early country rock stylings with a twist that the Byrds became known for. But his solo work, although gaining critical favor in some circles with quality offerings like 1971’s WHITE LIGHT and 1974’s NO OTHER, seemed to always fall short commercially or have some record label “issue” that confounded Clark’s hopes. The 1977 release TWO SIDES TO EVERY STORY was an introspective album that partially documented the fallout of Clark’s divorce at the time, and though very listenable, it was ill served by the first CD version in the early 90s, which many fans complained about (record labels tended to rush out CDs in the early days of that format with little concern about the sound or pressing issues; pun intended). But now TWO SIDES… has been given a deluxe remastering by High Moon, and Clark’s stellar songwriting shines through at last.

Gene Clark (photo credit: TORBJORN CALVERO)
Gene Clark (photo credit: TORBJORN CALVERO)

Things kick off with the rousing banjo picking of “Home Run King,” and Clark’s engaging vocals. I was struck by how much Clark’s voice reminded me of Mike Nesmith’s from the Monkees. It’s well-known that Nesmith was a fan of country rock, and you gotta think he was a fan of stuff like Gene Clark and Gram Parsons in particular. “In the Pines” features classic fiddle, keyboards and female backing vocals, and is bursting with energy. Evidently, this is a traditional folk/blues song, although an online note says the song may have initially been composed by blues great Leadbelly. “Kansas City Southern” is a terrific train song that Clark had previously recorded with Dillard and Clark, and it rocks pretty madly here, with fiery guitar work. It’s also more than a little evocative of John Fogerty’s CCR stuff. A cover of the James Talley mining ballad “Give My Love to Marie” makes for one of the most achingly sad numbers here. Clark’s voice is way upfront, and the string section combines with it (and some very spartan drumming) to induce shivers. Truly beautiful, actually. The following “Sister Moon” suffers by comparison; it aims for subtlety, but the big backing vocals and strings again don’t serve it particularly well. “Mary Lou” is an overdone cover that, while energetic, is emotionally empty in context. The straight, traditional country numbers here such as “Lonely Saturday” and “Hear the Wind” are much better, the kind of tunes Clark was known for, with strong melodies and pleasing arrangements. “We talk and hear about loneliness/The cold blue hunger of the soul,” Clark sings on that latter track, which delivers its pathos with pedal steel and piano in timeless fashion. Sometimes a line like that can really overpower you, in a way you weren’t prepared for.

Gene Clark (uncredited photo)
Gene Clark (uncredited photo)

“Past Addresses” and “Silent Crusade” are the sound of heartbreak; with slivers of haunted sentiments that Clark sometimes seems reluctant to fully release. “I am told that my life is a clipper/The sea of time has tossed about/And I know that there’s only one skipper/Who can guide that ship about, he wearily intones on “Silent Crusade,” as a lonesome keyboard punctuates his simple guitar picking. Nothing like a tough breakup to make you feel you’re adrift at sea, I guess. There is something timeless about this brand of Clark-ian songcraft, and when you realize the guy died at the tender age of 46, probably falling well short of his dreams, you’re in true melancholy territory. That distinctive voice and his often pioneering sound surely would’ve matured and given us so much more if he had lived a few more decades. At any rate, this is a fine reissue of a neglected album, and purchasers also get to download a generous selection of bonus live material. It’s not ALL wonderful, but there is definitely stuff here that is essential in grasping Gene Clark’s rightful place in the Americana/singer-songwriter scheme of things. He was there when both those categories were first being conceived, and that ain’t no small thing.

SARA RENAR: JESEN (AUTUMN)

(AQUARIUS RECORDS EP; Croatian import; 2014)

Sara Renar cover

Reviewing a singer/songwriter from another country, singing tunes in their native language, pretty much forces you to concentrate on the pure sound of their offerings, since you can’t follow along with the lyrics. Although I have listened to a fair amount of unique stuff from Europe, Sara Renar is the first singer I’ve listened to from Croatia. So I don’t have many reference points for her 7-song EP titled AUTUMN, or JESEN in her native tongue. I certainly wasn’t expecting a somber 2-minute ambient instrumental to kick things off. The title track was a bit plodding and not very original, but “Trag” was a bit more interesting, repetitive in a good way and using its two-chord simplicity to good effect. Another mid tempo vocal track, then a rather delicate piano and guitar instrumental called “Post Sezona” pretty much lets you know you’re listening to something rather unusual, aesthetically speaking. “Razmak” offers another surprise by beginning with squiggly sounding synth and drum machine and actual lyrics in English. But lest you get too comfortable, Renar switches back to her native Croatian, although the arrangement and feel of this track are so lithe and appealing by this point, you don’t really care. It’s a strong, energetic track. Things close out with an a cappella version of the title track, with two different vocal lines competing for your attention. It’s striking, and a good reminder of how much power the simple human voice can have when singing with conviction and this kind of potent drama. Renar has emotions to spare, and it’s a real kick to hear her going full tilt like this. I didn’t really need to know WHAT she was singing, I could simply tell SHE was into it, and that was enough.

Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)
Sara Renar (photo credit: DOONJA DOPSAJ)

Hard to say if Renar is an important artist on the basis of this EP, but one thing’s for sure, it does NOT follow a predictable formula. It’s a burst of somewhat nervous energy, with an exploratory feel, and it is curiously asexual in nature. Mostly, I liked it. I hope her next full-length will answer some of the questions that, creatively, this disc leaves hanging.

100 GREATEST ALBUMS OF ALL TIME (ACCORDING TO ME), NUMBER 98

If you’re here looking for a Jann Wenner/ROLLING STONE/Rock and Roll Hall of Fame style affirmation of how great Bruce Springsteen is, move on… there’s nothing here for you; Springsteen’s indecipherable vocal grunts have never appealed to me and – like Kurt Cobain’s – his lyrics are a tick (well, okay… several ticks) below that “Friday” girl (Rebecca Black). So, with that out of the way, I can pretty much guarantee that this list will not look like any other such list. Why? Okay, while there are albums that are obviously classics, landmark releases or “must hears,” most of those don’t manage to meet my stringent requirements for this list. Do I like Miles’ BITCHES BREW, Dylan’s HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED or the Floyd’s DARK SIDE OF THE MOON? Absolutely! And, just for the record, I do actually like a lot of Nirvana’s stuff, IN UTERO being my favorite. But, and here’s the major prerequisite for this list, how often do I listen to them? Not as often as I listen to the records that made the cut and, to these ears, that’s what counts. So, there you go… that is my stringent requirement: How often do I listen to the album and, to a lesser extent, how vehement am I about forcing said album on everyone else with whom I come into contact. A few minor things to consider (or not): There are no live albums (that’s a completely different list); these are all full-length releases (no EPs or singles); every album on this list is an official release (no bootlegs or “promotional only” items); “Greatest Hits,” “Best of… ” and singles collections are strictly verboten.

Ask me again next week and this list will probably look quite different; in fact, it’s already changed significantly since I decided to do a list. I started at 20 (in line with my list of favorite live albums). The list quickly ballooned to almost a hundred before I started whittling it back down to 50. I then found myself adding, deleting and substituting the other nearly 50 albums, so… what’s a music lover to do? The answer was obvious: Make the list a firm Top 100, regardless of the massive undertaking. If you wanna call this a “guilty pleasures” list, if that’ll help you sleep better at night… that’s okay with me. What I hope to accomplish with this list is to get you to take a closer look at some albums you may have crossed off after a spin or two or to get you to check out something that you may have never even been familiar with. It ain’t rocket surgery, kids; it’s just me telling you what I like and, why – maybe – you should like the stuff (or at least give a listen), too. With that said, and heading from the bottom of my humble list to the top of the heap, here’s…

(98) JERRY JEFF WALKER: RIDIN’ HIGH

(MCA RECORDS; 1975)

Ridin' High 1975

RIDIN’ HIGH was the fourth MCA release from upstart country artist Jerry Jeff Walker, the man who may forever be best known as the author of the classic tear-jerker, “Mister Bojangles.” My brother liked Jerry Jeff’s music, which was sometimes traditional to a fault, especially the live VIVA TERLINGUA, released two years before RIDIN’ HIGH; I, however, was a hard-headed 16 year old who, the year before, had quite stupidly purged my record collection of everything that wasn’t the hardest of rock (the one exception being anything by Frank Zappa). One day, my brother handed me a stack of MCA releases, a copy of this record included; I’d heard enough Jerry Jeff to know what to expect but, I was feeling expansive once more toward certain types of music and thought, “Okay… just the first song. That way I can say that I at least tried to listen to some country music.” It took me a whole lotta years before I opened my arms (and mind) wide enough to allow country music a little corner of my music room… the one exception being Jerry Jeff Walker’s RIDIN’ HIGH. I listened to the album all the way through that first day and for several days after that, until I’m sure that everybody around me was sick of it; it had achieved a vaunted status amongst Alice Cooper, the Who, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath, Deep Purple and all the rest. And, now, some 40 years later, it sits at number 98 as one of the greatest albums of all time.

Guy Clark, Dave Perkins and Jerry Jeff Walker (uncredited photo)
Guy Clark, Dave Perkins and Jerry Jeff Walker (uncredited photo)

Jerry Jeff took his Lost Gonzo brethren, mixed in some Nashville veterans and recorded what is, arguably, the best album of his career. The first song on that album is “Public Domain,” written by the bass-playing Gonzo, Bob Livingston. The song is sort of a Texan’s (while Jerry Jeff hailed from upstate New York, Livingston was Texas born and bred) take on New Orleans jazz, with acoustic bass and a ragtime piano. Deep down, this is a protest song (against the government; against the music industry; against the return policy at the local Woolworth’s; against… something): “Don’t be concerned if the song sounds familiar/Don’t be concerned if it all seems the same/Just be concerned that your policies will kill you/And it’s all just public domain.” Don’t let that bother you too much… just enjoy that progressive cosmic cowboy groove. “Pick Up the Tempo” is a more rockin’ Texas stomp from Willie Nelson. It’s closer to what we’ve come to expect from the Lost Gonzo Band when they back Walker. Jerry Jeff gets sentimental with Guy Clark’s “Like a Coat From the Cold.” The cracking, world-weary voice and sparse accompaniment make the song all the more effective. “I Love You” is more of the same, but much more personal, as the track was penned by Walker himself. It features a really nice bass line and one of those pedal steel parts that just makes you feel so lonely. Side one finishes with “Night Rider’s Lament,” a real live cowboy song by Michael Burton, with a pretty fiddle solo and Jerry Jeff’s yodeling… sorta.

Jerry Jeff Walker with Lost Gonzos, circa 1973 (photo credit: Steve Knagg)
Jerry Jeff Walker with Lost Gonzos, circa 1973 (photo credit: Steve Knagg)

On to side two and “Goodbye Easy Street,” a Texas waltz with a lilting melody, written by another backing Gonzo, guitarist John Inmon. The waltz estimation is heightened by a bouncy bass line and augmented by some nice harmonica and a touch of banjo; toss in some very Beatle-esque (no… really!) backing vocals and you have another winner on an album full of ’em. “Pot Can’t Call the Kettle Black” has kind of a weird Irish reel feel to it. I could actually envision this as one of those quirky tunes that Faces were so adept at; the piano could come straight out of Ian McLagan’s playbook and the number has that easy rolling feel that would have suited Rod quite well. It is definitely one of the better fast tunes here with equally impressive vocals from Jerry Jeff; to top things off, there’s a unique harmony break with guitar and pedal steel. Jesse Winchester’s “Mississippi, You’re On My Mind” is kind of a Texarkana cowboy blues, with some fine guitar pickin’ and great backing vocals. I’ve never been a big fan of Winchester… maybe it just took Jerry Jeff and the Gonzos to open my mind a bit. Another Lost Gonzo Band/“London Homesick Blues” type of tune, “Jaded Lover,” is country to the bone, but with a meaty progressive outlaw marrow. The Chuck Pyle tune holds up amazingly well and would probably be a hit if it were released today. Finally… it’s the reason we’re here, the song we all came to hear: Jerry Jeff Walker’s very own “Pissin’ In the Wind.” The song trumps “Friends In Low Places” and “All My Rowdy Friends Are Coming Over Tonight” by at least a decade. The word play comes fast and furious, with lines like “I called this Guy,” and “this Nunn called me up,” and “some Gonzo buddies would like to play,” references to Guy Clark and Gary Nunn and his Lost Gonzo cohorts. Even if the rest of RIDIN’ HIGH wasn’t as over-the-top good as it is, this song alone would be worth the price of admission.

Willie Nelson, Jack Rodgers and Jerry Jeff Walker (uncredited photo)
Willie Nelson, Jack Rodgers and Jerry Jeff Walker (uncredited photo)

This particular set of songs and this particular group of players, along with one of the best voices in any genre of music, make this record indispensable and one of my greatest albums of all time. I’ve got a feeling that my brother is looking down on me and saying, “I told you so!” To which, I can only smile and say, “I love you, too.”

As far as I can tell, the latest edition of RIDIN’ HIGH comes from Australia’s Raven Records and was released in 2012. It’s packaged as WALKER’S COLLECTIBLES/RIDIN’ HIGH… PLUS, with Jerry Jeff’s previous release, WALKER’S COLLECTIBLES, as a two CD set featuring six bonus cuts. You can check it out and order it here: www.ravenrecords.com.au.

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.

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.