Hot off the presses: new music! Better said, new music that is worth your time.
This is quite a week in new music, folks, and it thusly produced the longest post to date (sorry). The impressive thing is that I wrote this in ten minutes, and if you believe that I have a bridge to sell you… Set aside a few minutes to read these reviews, but more importantly set aside a few hours to give these beauties a listen.
Neil Young – Songs for Judy (Live 1976) – 23 songs / 79 minutes
The GOAT (Greatest Of All Time for all you squares out there) performing a variety of hits and unknown songs solo to one lucky Texas audience provides us 80 triumphant minutes of genius to enjoy some 42 years later.
After losing his sidekick and co-conspirator on guitar, Danny Whitten, as well as his roadie and longtime friend Bruce Berry to drug overdoses in the span of a few months, Neil hunkered down and recorded some of the darkest (and best) music of his career from 1973 to 1975. Time Fades Away, On the Beach, and Tonight’s the Night are now considered masterpieces and sometimes dubbed “the dark trilogy”, but at the time they were mostly critically dismissed and sold poorly. Funny, then, that this recording finds him just a year later sounding, well, happy. He had just turned 31 and makes a corny Baskin Robbins joke, raps with the audience throughout – including a joke/story about seeing Judy Garland in the audience pit (hence the name of the album).
Mr. Young is known for his rocking and raucous recordings, but even more so for his mellower folk music, and his genuine prowess of the latter is on full display here. Now, he has always been one to play whatever he wants, and before he even gets to start a song the crowd is yelling requests at him. Instead of getting angry or annoyed, he turns it into a semi-comedic commentary, saying “I know all those old songs, trust me, I still know the changes. Sometimes I feel like a Green Wurlitzer. I love it when ya ask me for those old songs and everything but ya know its funny cuz what keeps you alive is what kills you, ya know – too much of the old shit and you know… t’s goodnight.”
This is the strongest collection of songs of the many live albums released from his 70’s heyday, and features songs that were already classics in 1976 (Heart of Gold”, “After the Gold Rush”, “Mr. Soul”, “Journey Through the Past”, and “The Needle and the Damage Done”) as well as unreleased songs such as “No One Seems to Know”, “White Line”, “Human Highway”, “Give Me Strength”, “Campaigner”, and “Pocahontas”. This review could go on for pages and pages, trust me – I can give you thoughts and tidbits on each of these songs, telling you which studio album they appear on and with which of his many backing bands. I promise not to do that. Instead, here are a few highlights – but I will say again that listening to him bounce from acoustic guitar to piano to banjo (all the while blowing the shit out of that trademark harmonica) is a real treat that you deserve to hear.
“Here’s a song I wrote for all you loud boisterous mothers out there, I can hear ya… just pretend you can hear that ol’ pool hall clanking in the background” serves as his intro to “Too Far Gone”, a song about crazy nights in bars, driving home when you shouldn’t and putting the car in the ditch, and falling in love. When Neil starts the opening to “Heart of Gold” the crowd loses it completely. Very few of his live releases feature his most famous track, and that alone makes this a unique set. It always blows me away how long an artist will have a song written before finally releasing it, and it was a total surprise that “White Line” was included here. You see, that is a standout track from his 1990 grunge-rock record Ragged Glory, which means he sat on this thing for FIFTEEN YEARS before giving it to the world. On the song Neil sings about traveling, saying “that ol’ white line is a friend of mine, and its good times that we been making; right now I’m rollin’ down the open road, but the daylight will soon be breakin’”.
As an introduction to one of his prettiest and most powerful songs, “After the Gold Rush”, Neil says “I would like to do a song for all of the freeways here in Texas” – of course referencing the pollution and destruction that those roads represent to him. Sadly, as always, the crowd is most boisterous when he sings the line about feeling like getting high. Ugh, people. The furious banjo playing on “Human Highway” is a welcome change from the album version he would release two years later on Comes A Time, and is introduced with this: “Here’s an old song I wrote a long time ago, but I never got to record it folks… seems like every time I tried to record it someone stepped in and stopped it.”
Oh, man, I’m running long… ok, I’ll quicken this up… just one more paragraph for a dozen songs…
The lone Buffalo Springfield song here is “Mr. Soul” which sounds interesting in this acoustic realm without the electric flair and sound effects of the original. “Give Me Strength” is a sweet song of yearning for lost love that has still never been released on a studio album. “Roll Another Number” is one of my favorites, with its references to ridin’ dirty and his appearance at Woodstock (’69, not ’99, kids). “Harvest”, the title track from his best-selling record, is as beautiful as ever here. “The Losing End” loses something for me without the electric/country twang that was found on the studio album Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. “The Needle and the Damage Done” is the most honest and gorgeous song about drug overdose I have ever heard and shines here, and “Pocahontas” is a show-stopper that somehow wasn’t released until three years later (on Rust Never Sleeps). A biting rebuke of our European ancestry and their destruction of an existing society and people that wonders what North America was like before “the white man”, this has always been a personal favorite. His deep interest in Native Americans and their ways of life is a recurring theme throughout this great artist’s work.
Key Tracks: “Pocahontas”, “After the Gold Rush”, “Campaigner”
Spotify album link:
Jeff Tweedy – WARM – 11 songs / 39 minutes
This terrific Chicago-based songwriter (and OG sad bastard) finally releases his first true solo effort after over nearly thirty years of making music with Uncle Tupelo and Wilco.
Jeff has always enjoyed sonic experimentation and he takes no time to get started here: “Bombs Above” starts with his acoustic guitar strumming being played only through the right side of the mix, and as the other instrumentation and Jeff’s vocals blend in, they all come in stereo. The first words spoken here (yes, I would say Jeff’s vocal delivery is more spoken word than singing on much of this record) are quite powerful: “all my life, I’ve played a part in the bombs above the ones you love; taking a moment to apologize, I should have done more to stop the war, so I’m sorry”. That is quite a way to start your first solo album, with a short two-minute missive about suffering and American indifference.
Yes, this album is mostly a bummer (which comes as no shock to longtime Jeff Tweedy fans, despite the triumphant pose on the cover photo), but it is truly a lovely and spellbinding bummer. “I’ve lost my way, but it’s hard to say, that what I’ve been through should matter to you.” That theme of loss, pain, and addiction and his audience’s (and the world at large’s) indifference to it are revisited later in the record. Oh, and a shitload of pedal steel touches in the back of the mix, which I am admittedly a sucker for.
To say that Mr. Tweedy has seen it all is an understatement. At a young age he rose to relative fame and a big cult following in Uncle Tupelo before that outfit disbanded and he formed Wilco in the early 90s. After 13 Wilco studio albums – including three with their pal Billy Bragg – Jeff has recently taken more and more time to find his muse on his own. Last year he released an underrated record under the moniker Tweedy that featured Jeff on vocal and guitar and his son on drums. And now, we get a proper solo work, and it is worth the weight. Wait, weight? Yes, folks, this is not easy listening – the music is mostly dark and sparse and the subject matter is heavy.
There are, of course, a few exceptions: “Let’s Go Rain” and “I Know What It’s Like” are rare uptempo moments and would sound at home on most Wilco LPs, but even these still feature some gray and introspective lyricism. On the former, Jeff opines about his religious background and yearns (jokingly?) for another great flood, name dropping Noah and positing that he may just have to build himself a wooden ark. On the latter song, even if the drums and guitars are pretty happy, Jeff is not. He is reliving a life full of feeling unwanted, alone, and obscured by his own shadow that seems to follow him everywhere.
“Don’t Forget” serves as a reminder for those who may be in a little too deep that they aren’t alone. Jeff serves up some advice, saying “don’t forget, don’t forget sometimes; we all think about dying, don’t let it kill ya”. The wonderful dichotomy of the sullen and morose with some random humor continues here when Jeff warns in his trademark way “don’t forget to brush your teeth or you’ll have a funny smile, but you don’t have to smile to me”. There are positive elements in some of these songs, but usually you have to strain to find them. The title track has a line that smacked me in the face with its powerful imagery: “I don’t believe in Heaven, I keep some heat inside, like a red brick in the summer, warm when the sun has died.”
Perhaps the most interesting song on the album is the introspection in the lyrics of “Having Been is No Way to Be”, where Jeff opens up about his relationship with drugs, fame, and his fans. The lyric that stuck with me the most after combing through the album the first time was “people say, what drugs did you take? And why don’t you start taking them again? But they’re not my friends. And if I was dead, what difference would it ever make to them?”. You see, Jeff is sober now, and happy with the music he is making in his older years, but he clearly takes to heart comments from those who wish he would make drugged out masterpieces again.
Musically speaking, I most enjoyed the sparse and bleak desert feel of album closer “How Will I Find You?” and the haunting beauty of “How Hard It is for a Desert to Die”. The former song runs over six minutes and contains only the lyric “How will I find you? I don’t know. You will know”. That may not sound like a compelling song, but give it a try – maybe wait for a rainy day first. If you agree with me that the saddest and simplest music is often the prettiest, you are in for a genuine beauty here.
Key Tracks: “Let’s Go Rain”, “Having Been is No Way to Be”, “How Will I Find You?”
Spotify album link:
Monteagle – Midnight Noon – 10 songs / 36 minutes
Another exciting new artist hits one out of the park on his solo side project debut.
OK, to be truthful, Justin Wilcox is a bit of a mumbler. No, not the former Boise State defensive coordinator, rather the mastermind behind Monteagle. After being a part in other bands (Nassau, Moonlight Bride), Justin has set out on his own, and his first attempt is a solid success. While this record didn’t have a huge impact on me from a lyrical standpoint, the music is so pretty that I took to it instantly. The man has a knack for constructing simple yet interesting melodies and this album is worthwhile nearly from start to finish. Oh, and the fact that the band is named after a mountain in his home state of Tennessee is pretty cool, too.
Much of this album has lovely guitar riffs that allow each note to ring out and seem to jump out of your speakers. At times reminiscent of a slowed down Real Estate, and at times more mellow folk, this thing is a winner. “Master” rocks more than most of these tracks, and the tambourine adds some value to be sure. On “Hollow Ground” Justin leaves the scruff of the chord changes on his acoustic guitar in the mix, which is a guilty pleasure of mine. “Honey Moon” is driven by a lively drum beat and although the guitar work is fairly simplistic it is just so clear and concise that I am dying to see him perform live. I want to see how much of this magic is terrific production and how much can be replicated in an open setting.
“Elvis” comes complete with piano and some background bird noises and rainfall. When the acoustic guitar appears halfway through, it adds the missing element that makes a near-perfect song. Oh, but wait, there’s more! Yes, folks wait for the electric guitar and harmonica to come join in. Greatness. On “Chery Wine” Justin sings of love lost/scorned/betrayed? Up to the listener when he sings “cherry wine, all over my hands; if you’re wondering why I turned and I ran, its cuz I hurt you more than I could stand.” It is always a treat to hear a new artist emerge with something immediately worthy, and this qualifies.
Key Tracks: “Chery Wine”, “Elvis”, “Master”
Spotify album link:
The 1975 – A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships – 15 songs / 58 minutes
These blokes from Manchester would never have hit my ears if not for a special someone: now I am torn between thanking her and cursing her. You see, I am not a pop guy, and I am not supposed to like this – but to be honest, I sincerely dig SOME of this quite a lot.
These guys are pretty new to me, obviously. Recently I have gotten some good exposure to them and was actually looking forward to this new album as a chance to start from scratch and enjoy it simultaneously with my super-fan pal. The title gives a hint at the ruminations on post-modern life, online existences, and flirtations with death that this album centers on. Written during and shortly after a rehab stint for lead singer/rhythm guitarist and songwriter Matty Healy that was the result (end, one would hope) of a heroin addiction, this is some heavy pop.
Before I can feel comfortable writing about the solid songs that are found over the course of this hour-long LP, I have a few criticisms to levy. Why? In part because I feel they are deserved, and in part because I feel the need to put some context on why the Hell a record that is largely the very type of music I normally rail against is here to begin with. Well, the answer is that there is more than enough goodness here for this album to qualify as worth your time – I just had to get past some of the parts that would typically make me want to move on as quickly as possible to the next release.
Auto-Tune is a non-starter for me, and there is an abundance of it here, including on leadoff track “The 1975”, “TOOTIMETOOTIMETOOTIME”, “How to Draw/Petrichor”, and “I Like America & America Likes Me”. The first song mentioned is another rendition of the same song that the band records differently on each of their albums, which is a cool concept that I had never heard of before – it’s just too bad this version is unlistenable for me. “TOOTIME” is catchy as Hell, I must admit, but has just a bit too much of the cliché “boots and pants and boots and pants” techno beat for me to get on board. “How to Draw” has almost-operatic touches as it bounces from one sound to another, and is definitely a compelling listen. But, again, the Auto-Tune. You have a great voice, and your band is solid- why?? I’m sure people think the same thing about Radiohead and a whole bunch of other bands that distort or manipulate their sound for the fun of it. Still, I struggle… ok, now on to why this album is here on this list.
“Give Yourself A Try” is the first solid song on the record and has a riff that sounds like a broken fax machine (in a good way) and is fantastically catchy. This song is well-written and laments being of a “certain age” (29… ya, I know), learning about what true friends are, the importance of your vinyl collection and coffee preferences, stressing about gray hair, getting STDs, and the fact that he apparently hasn’t yet garnered a true appreciation for whiskey.
On “Love It if We Made It” Matty laments how modern life has failed us and the mix has some terrific samples that quickly conjure an 80s pop vibe (speaking of that vibe, see also “It’s Not Living” or “I Couldn’t Be More In Love”). The soft-spoken verse “consultation, degradation, fossil fueling masturbation, immigration, liberal kitsch, kneeling on a pitch” is pretty freaking awesome and almost as good as the following line: “’I moved on her like a bitch, so excited to be indicted’”, a very thinly veiled shot at Senor Trump. This is a solid song and captures their risqué and complex songwriting quite well.
What follows is a song that rises to an almost gospel vibe, thanks to the choir singing in the background: “Sincerity Is Scary”. The moral here is that guarding yourself and not being a real person, choosing instead to be pithy or ironic, is a mistake that too many of his generation revert to. Frequently in today’s world being sincere and open is seen as weakness or somehow uncool; however, my favorite people all tend to have that genuine, heart-on-their-sleeve quality. The line “instead of calling me out, you should be pulling me in” is apt, I would say.
There are two songs that really stand out for me on this album. First, the organic sonic palette of “Be My Mistake”. Here Matty sings to a woman who seems to be “the other woman” – one who likes the jeans that were bought for him by another, and one that might make him hard but can’t make him weak like that same other can. She is nothing more than his mistake, and her time will come – but should she really want it? This four minutes of acoustic guitar playing, solid songwriting, and genuine singing is a welcome shift from all of the other things that cloud much of the album. “Surrounded By Heads and Bodies” has a similar feel but doesn’t hit me quite like this one does.
On the album closer and best song of the bunch, “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes)”, Matty and crew do their best to channel the 90s Brit-pop sound and hit it out of the park. Sure, this is no Oasis, it’s not even The Verve – but it is lovely and will fit nicely with my favorites of that era. Written shortly after Matty exited rehab, one of his bandmates was quoted in a review I read (paraphrasing here) that when he heard Matty play this song for him, he knew everything was going to be all right.
In the end, the moral of this story is that while pop still generally sucks, sometimes a pop band is uber-popular for a reason – they are talented and make music that people enjoy listening to. The 1975 meet both of those metrics with this album and if they can avoid Auto-Tune on their next album it might be their best yet. See you lads in April!
Key Tracks: “I Always Wanna Die (Sometimes), “Give Yourself A Try”, “Be My Mistake”
Spotify album link: