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Harry Styles – Harry’s House

My first exposure to Harry Styles was on Saturday Night Live when he was promoting his first album in the spring of 2017. I was immediately impressed – he had that pop star magic that is hard to describe, but you know it when you see it. About a month later his first album was released and I was hooked. Eventually my wife and I saw him live and he is a performer – many great musicians are not performers and many performers are not really musicians. Styles appeared to be both.

Harry Styles appeals to my 80s R&B and classic rock ears. I hear Prince, Stevie Wonder, McCartney, Bowie, etc. In the age of hip hop, Styles dares to play pop without a trace of the dominant flavor in modern pop. Styles is not a pop original, but a brilliant craftsman. His music is pure ear candy.

This is his third solo album, and although there is nothing new here, there is the pure confidence of an artist who doesn’t feel the need to impress anyone but himself. I listened to a recent podcast from the New York Times that suggested that Styles’ music does not live up to his greatness as a pop star and celebrity. I get that. His music is derivative and unoriginal, but it is fun and engaging. That is good enough for me!

Wilco – Cruel County

Wilco: Cruel County (dBpm Records 5/27/22)

I love Wilco, but there has been a sameness to their recent albums – they were not bad, just unremarkable (fortunately the live shows have been transcendent over the last decad). On first listen, Cruel Country breaks that pattern: this is an engaging, yet subtle masterpiece. On subsequent listens it just gets better – it continues to grow on you.

Wilco’s origin is in the alt-country movement, but by their second album they were clearly not going to be bound by that. Cruel Country embraces alt-country without being beholden to early Wilco or Uncle Tupelo. Is this Wilco going “country” or going back to their alt-country roots? Country is in the album title and implied in the doily cover art. There are country elements in the album (twangy guitars and adult lyrics).

“There have been elements of country music in everything we’ve ever done,” per Jeff Tweedy said in the pre-release hype for the album. “We’ve never been particularly comfortable with accepting that definition, the idea that I was making country music. But now, having been around the block a few times, we’re finding it exhilarating to free ourselves within the form, and embrace the simple limitation of calling the music we’re making country.”

My conclusion is Cruel Country is country music (in the non-Nashville alt-county/Americana sense that Tweedy helped invent), but it is also a double meaning: it is music about our country. Wilco are country like the Grateful Dead are country: they are informed and influenced by it, they borrow from the country palate and they deconstruct it and reassemble something new. Tweedy tips his hand in his press release:

In spite of ourselves, and all of our concerns and efforts to distract, we had made an ‘American music’ album about ‘America.’

Per their website: “The double album features 21 songs recorded with all 6 members of the band together at The Loft.” That is significant in that the band has not been altogether in the studio since recording Sky Blue Sky in 2007. As much as Wilco is Jeff Tweedy, Wilco is a band. Cruel Country sounds like a band at the height of its powers: a firm leader and a supportive set of players dedicated to making great songs and not showing off their instrumental prowess. This is a hefty album – the 21 songs spread over an hour and a quarter – this requires a commitment to consume.

Lyrically Tweedy is lamenting our fractured times in America, like in “Hints” were he says:

There is no middle when the other side
Would rather kill than compromise

Or in the titular track:

I love my country like a little boy
Red, white, and blue

I love my country stupid and cruel
Red, white, and blue

But it is also an interior album, like “Tired Of Taking It Out On You” that juxtapositions gorgeous sounding music with heavy self-aware lyrics:

Freeze my warmth away
Tear the tears out of your quiet face
I can’t take the way I am with you
Or recreate things we used to do
I’m tired of taking it out on you

Musically the album is deceiving – at first listen it sounds acoustic and mellow, but after more careful listens it is as sonically as adventurous as Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. A great example is the epic “Many Worlds” that displays everything that is sonically brilliant about Wilco. And who knew Nels Cline, noise guitarist extraordinaire, was a closet country picker.

It is great to have Wilco back at full strength. Not that they were ever gone or had started to suck, but Cruel Country is better than anything they have done in the last decade. This is an early contender for my album of 2022. Some good medicine for our sick times.

Cruel Country is only available via digital channels at release and again per their website: “Yes, CD and LP editions are in the works, but we’ll spare you the supply chain talk.”

🌵 Sessions: Reflecting On Early Prince – First Three

I listened to a recent Political Beats podcast on Prince. Part One, which was nearly four hours long, focuses on 1978 to 1985 (his first seven albums). I think of myself as a serious Prince fan – especially for this period as I experienced most of it in real time. But in reality I was late to the party (the first Prince album I bought was #3: Dirty Mind). I really only have superficial experience with the first two albums. I have failed to explore the deluxe reissues of 1999 and Purple Rain. This podcast has forced me to go back and re-familiarize and re-evaluate the first two albums and motivates me to explore the deluxe reissues.

Prince – For You (1978)

If you are not from Minneapolis, the assumption is that Prince was a local phenomenon before he became a big deal on the national and global stage. I was there and relatively awake in 1978 and he was invisible – at least to this white boy. I was vaguely aware that he existed, but did not pick this album up until after being hooked by Dirty Mind. My recollection of my reaction of my first listen to For You was that it was generic R&B and not the game changer I heard on Dirty Mind. I dismissed it as the early work of a genius in progress.

Listening to it with fresh ears, I now realize what an audacious debut it was. Prince was 19 with minimal experience as a performer and in the studio. Yet he was as confident as a seasoned pro. He sang all the vocals and played all the instruments, including: acoustic, electric, and bass guitar; acoustic and Fender Rhodes piano; synth bass; various keyboard synths by Oberheim, Moog, and Arp; orchestra bells; drums and percussion. He dismissed the advice of his experienced producer in favor of his own vision. He blew his three album advance on this one record.

Yes, it is generic late 70s R&B, but it is also a glimpse of a genius honing his craft. The building blocks are here: the hooks, the guitar histrionics, the voice, the clever horny lyrics and most of all the swagger. It would not take him long to revolutionize funk, R&B, rock, and pop. This is the seed.

Prince – Prince (1979)

On For You Prince arrived fully formed – or so we thought – Prince became Prince on this album. He sounds like no one else, yet he will grow significantly more on the next several albums.. Again, I did not experience this is in real time, but as part of my back tracking after Dirty Mind. I remember this one clicked for me at the time, especially the hit “I Wanna Be Your Lover.” But I was so enamored by Dirty Mind that I never really dug in past that hit.

Coming back to it now, I appreciate what a complete album it is. It has the songs that sound like hits, “I Wanna Be Your Lover,” “I Feel For You” (an actual huge hit five years later for Chaka Khan) and “Sexy Dancer.” Amazing quiet storm ballads. Lascivious glam rock with “Bambi.” He set the table not for the five album run, but the eight album run.

Prince – Dirty Mind (1980)

If this was Prince’s only achievement, he would be a legend. But it was merely his first of several masterpieces. He is now fully formed: the Minneapolis sound, the look, the hits, the originality, the foundation of a very long and successful career – a brand. Was it funk, rock, pop? The only appropriate genre designation is Prince music. I am not going to say anymore – just listen.

🌵 Sessions: Record Store Day 2022 (drop one 4/23/22)

I don’t set an alarm for Record Store Day (RSD), I wake up when I wake up. This RSD I woke up at 4:00 AM. Nope. Went back to sleep. Woke up again at 4:45. Okay. Up and at ‘em.

My wife and I became snowbirds and are wintering in Phoenix. Our idea of embracing the local culture has been to go to breweries. We have also sampled a few record stores: Zia on Thunderbird (a local chain with large selection and shit ambiance), a forgettable overpriced used shop, and Stinkweeds (small but well curated store with classic record store vibes). Guess where I am for RSD?

So far we love Phoenix with one notable exception: everything is at minimum thirty minutes away. I jumped into the car at 5:00 AM and arrived at Stinkweeds at 5:30 AM. There were about 40 people in line in front of me. Good, that will make it easier to keep to my budget.

I am not sure if I went to the first RSD fifteen years ago, but I remember going to the Electric Fetus on a Saturday afternoon to check out this RSD thing (assume it year one or two of RSD). There was nothing left, the next year I was an early bird and have been since – learned my lesson.

One of the best parts of RSD is making acquaintance with those in the queue with you. “What’s on your list?” is the conversation starter. It is always a pleasure to find out that there are people with weirder taste than you. Cheers to my new RSD friends: Kansas City Kent, Frisco the Swifty, the Montanas and San Diego Dad. Bonus this year there was a kind soul distributing donuts included my favorite: chocolate/custard filled.

This year’s RSD ambassador is T Swift. Her 7 inch single brought out some RSD newbies. I am all for that – keep the hobby alive.

Stinkweeds does a nice job with RSD. They set up tents in their parking lot and have an orderly process. They have coffee from Esso. I appreciate that the store opens early (8:00) for RSD. Thumbs up to what appears to be the premiere record shop in The Valley. Just before the store open a diminutive, but charismatic woman gave instructions on how the event would proceed and some introduction of the Stinkweeds’ staff. I did some googling and was pleased to learn that Stinkweeds is a woman owned business. Read more about Stinkweeds owner Kimber Lanning here.

I was able to score all four LPs on my list:

  • The Bleeding Hearts – Riches to Rags: this is the long lost Bob Stinson (original Replacements’ guitarist) solo album
  • Jazz Sabbath – Vol. 2: a clever schtick where a jazz band claims to be to have had their compositions stolen by a famous heavy metal band
  • Joni Mitchell – Blue Highlights: extra material from the classic album Blue
  • Golden Smog – On Golden Smog: first vinyl release of the Americana supergroup’s 1992 debut EP

Overall a great 🌵 RSD. Looking forward to many more in the 🌵. See you at RSD drop two June 18, 2022 at the Electric Fetus in the Bold North.

🌵 Sessions: Father John Misty – Chloë and the Next 20th Century

I got hooked on Father John Misty (FJM) with his debut album Fear Fun. I did not discover Fear Fun as much as a wave of critics demanded I listen to it. With one listen I was in. I have loved every album and have seen him in concert several times – I am a FJM fanboy. Independent of FJM, I became a Jonathan Wilson fan via his solo releases. It was only after becoming a Wilson fan that I put two and two together that he was FJM’s producer. I say all this as I typically avoid reading reviews of albums I am reviewing so as not to be influenced. I do read a band/artist’s PR, interviews, etc. as I see that as a part of the album cycle. I loved the new FJM album in first listen, but I didn’t trust my fanboy enthusiasm and the lack of artist controlled album cycle hype. I got a second opinion from some trusted critical sources and they were positive. I am now comfortable gushing.

Josh Tillman’s FJM character has always had a bit of Nick The Lounge Singer (one of Bill Murray’s most popular recurring characters on Saturday Night Live) in his bag of tricks. On this album he doubles down on the lounge gimmick with big band, bossa nova and Muzak arrangements to supplement his long standing singer songwriter Laurel Canyon schtick.

One of FJM brilliant tricks is to juxtaposition gorgeous music with twisted lyrics. Chloë and the Next 20th Century is extra twisted: suicide, fatal car wrecks, and dead cats.

Tillman and Wilson continue their brilliant soundscapes – I love that they expanded the palette with additional genres – it totally works. As usual for Tillman and Wilson, the recording is pristine. A very nice master and pressing for vinyl too.

One of my favorite music critics, Steven Hyden, has an interesting rubric – the five-albums test. The idea is to declare a band or artist great based on the fact that they have released five good to great albums in a row. This is not the only tool to measure greatness, but one tool. In his recent podcast, Indiecast Hyden declared that with Chloë and the Next 20th Century Father John Misty (FJM) had passed the five-albums test. I couldn’t agree more. Looking forward to seeing/hearing this batch of songs live (we have tickets when he comes to Minnesota this fall).

🌵 Sessions: Red Hot Chili Peppers – Unlimited Love

I like the Red Hot Chili Peppers – not a huge fan – mainly the big records: Mother’s Milk, Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and Californication. I like their cartoon goofiness juxtapositioned by serious musicianship. I saw them live in 2012 at Lollapalooza and they were a great live act. They never really hooked me, however the new album, Unlimited Love, is the first RHCP’s album I have been obsessed with.

Not content to be a legacy act (they could easily sell out arenas on their greatest hits), they have released a phat new album of 17 songs clocking in at an hour and a quarter. The RHCPs have a history of bloated albums but this one is a worthy excess.

I did not realize the importance of John Frusciante to RHCPs. His contribution is as significant as the other three guys and for me it is the main attraction. His guitar play on this album is so tasty – by itself it is worth the price of admission. He adds so much lyric beauty and color to the RHCP’s sound and when necessary he can shred.

I forgot what a cool vocalist Anthony Kiedis is. He doesn’t have great range, but makes up for it with phenomenal phrasing. He croons, he raps, he plays characters and he plays it straight – sometimes in the same song.

And Flea is Flea. He seems showy, but his playing is always in support of the song.

Chad Smith is merely one of the greatest rock drummers of all time.

Unlimited Love is a mellow album – fitting for rockers late into their fifth decade. Despite its easy groove, it is totally in character: funky as fuck and occasionally rockin’. Quick take: it is just plain good vibes.

A capstone to a nearly four decade career. It is totally them. But an old them. In a good way. This is going to be in the rotation for awhile. Good enough to justify purchasing the wax!

🌵 Sessions: Klipsch R-51M Bookshelf Speakers

Sold in pairs ($250)
1″ Aluminum LTS tweeters
90° x 90° Square Tractrix Horns
5.25″ Spun-Copper IMG Woofers
Bass-Reflex via Rear-Firing Port
Strong, Flexible Removable Magnetic Grille
Dimensions: 13.3″ x 7″ x 8.5″

My wife and I recently purchased a second home in Phoenix and have been wintering here since January. I had an extra Croft Acoustics amp that I brought down as the foundation for Catchgroove South (AKA: The Desert 🌵 Sessions) stereo. For the first few months I have used headphones, but it was time to get some passive speakers. My fantasy speakers would be something from the Klipsch Heritage collection, but they are way out of my price range, so I decided to go the budget route (under $300). My listening space is about a 13’ x 13’ carpeted room and I listen at a low to moderate volume – a bookshelf speaker seemed like a good way to go. There are a lot of great inexpensive choices in bookshelf speakers. I picked the Klipsch R-51M because they got solid reviews, I trust the Klipsch name (I have had a pair of KG2s since the mid 80s) and they were under budget at $250.

I had a scare the first night I set them up. I placed them on the folding table that serves as my temporary stereo rack (see below) and they sounded atrocious – like the pocket transistor radios of my youth – tinny. I was disappointed and prepared to return them.

First attempt

But then I made a modification and set them up on “speaker stands” (padded folding chairs) and they were a whole different speaker – the sound totally opened up and a created a wonderful stereo soundstage – wow!

Second attempt

I have been listening to them for about a week now and have about ten hours on them. I have been predominantly been listening to a new album, the Red Hot Chili Peppers Unlimited Love. Not a great idea – you should audition a new speaker with an album you are intimately familiar with. But I am so in love with the new Chili Pepper’s album and it sounds so good on the new speakers I can’t stop myself.

The R-51Ms have a clean sound, a strong stereo soundstage and just enough bass. I listen at moderate to low volume and there is plenty of character at my desired volume. I am using them purely for music. The Chili Pepper album actually is a pretty good test as it has mellow and rocking songs. It has a a simple non-gimmick mix: Most songs are just drums, bass, electric guitar and vocals with plenty of separation.

As for my set up I am using a bespoke British hybrid amp: Croft Acoustics Phono Integrated. The primary input is Bluesound Node (3rd generation) streamer using Tidal MQA recordings (I don’t have much vinyl here in Phoenix). Here is a review of my 2nd generation Node 2i in Minneapolis (the new Node is very similar). I am using simple 16 gauge speaker wire (Rocketfish). I am borrowing my daughter’s Music Hall mmf-2.2 le modified with a ceramic platter. The Croft has an excellent tube based phono preamp. My listening position is direct center about 10 feet out from the speakers (which are about 8 feet a part and slightly toed in). My ears are on level with the tweeters.

I moved on to a more appropriate reference recording: Pat Metheny’s Bright Size Life (streamed). This is an album I have listening to for 40+ years. It sounds great on the R-51Ms. Jaco Pastorius’ bass it is appropriately bold – not distorted and plenty of punch. No complaints. The Chili Peppers were not misrepresenting the R-51Ms.

Then I moved on to vinyl, a mono reissue of Miles Davis’ Kind Of Blue. This is in my top 10 recordings, both for the quality of the music and the production. This LP really shows off the speakers: great soundstage, the horns sound fantastic and the rhythm section sounds sublime. Perfect record to make these sound like $1000 speakers.

The speakers have a nice retro appearance. Up close the simulated wood is a bit cheesy, but they look fine from a distance. They really look cool with grills removed. Overall nice build quality.

Finally, some conventional rock ‘n roll: Keith Richards’ Main Offender (2022 vinyl reissue). Another one of my all time favorites for both the music and the sound. Steve Jordon’s drums a punchy and Keith and Waddy’s guitar have gorgeous separation. This is a nuanced recording and the R-51Ms reveal, but don’t distort – perfection!

I am curious what they would sound like on proper stands – specifically without the chair backs obstructing the bass rear ports.

Bass-Reflex via Rear-Firing Port

It is hard for me to imagine how these speakers are designed, built and marketed at 250 bucks – they must sell a shit ton of them. An amazing mass market product. I am fully satisfied with the R-51M given their price point. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them for a similar application as mine. Plan to invest in some speaker stands too.

For those of you who would prefer a powered version (for use without an amp), there is powered version (R-51PM) for about $100 more.

🌵 Sessions: Bob Dylan Live – Phoenix 3/3/22

Bob and band at Arizona Federal Theater

Sorry, for the tardy review, but Bob’s Rough and Rowdy tour is planned to continue for another couple of years (ambitious and optimistic for an 80 year old man), so better late then never.

I don’t know how many times I have seen Bob Dylan, but my guess is about dozen times. The first time I saw him live was June 26, 1986 in Minneapolis at the Metrodome. It ranks as one of the worst sounding concerts I have ever witnessed (it was the first concert at the Dome). This March 3rd 2022 performance in Phoenix was one of the best sounding and engaging performances from Dylan – it is in my top 5 Dylan shows.

Here’s the set list (it has been pretty consistent throughout the tour):

Phoenix set list

In all the times I have seen Bob, he has never focused a show on his most recent release. But this show was different, the focus of the set list was Bob’s latest: 2020’s Rough and Rowdy Ways (R&R). I love that album and to witness 9 of its 10 songs live from that album and was amazing. The set list was filled out with deep cuts too. If you were here for the hits, you might have been disappointed. But if you are serious fan you were delighted. Hearing Dylan songs live, for the first time (both recent and old) is a bucket-list experience.

The R&R song arrangements were similar to the recording and the non R&R songs were cast under the R&R spell. One exception was a raucous rock ‘n roll version of “Gotta Serve Somebody” – a highlight of the show for me.

Dylan played an upright piano – I can’t recall the last time I saw a guitar in Bob’s hands at a concert. His piano was mixed prominently – which was cool to hear (in past show it was buried in the mix). His voice was similar to what you hear on R&R: a sweet gravelly croon.

Poster purchased at show

If you want to hear the greatest hits, skip this tour, but if you appreciate Dylan’s last album, this is a special treat that can’t be missed. It’s great that, in what I assume is the last phase of his illustrious career, Dylan is still painting masterpieces.

🌵 Sessions: Maren Morris – Humble Quest

Humble Quest (2022)

Maren Morris’s music is rooted in country, but she is comfortable performing R&B, rock, Americana and pop. Country has been flirting with pop as long as I can remember. Sometimes that flirtation works, but often it comes off forced. Not for Morris, she is a master at country pop. Her latest, Humble Quest (her third major label album release) makes it a country pop hat trick – she has it figured out.

Morris has songwriting credits on all the songs, but as is the practice these days, there are plenty of all star co-writers. She seamlessly can move between humor and poignancy.

The first couple of passes through the album, I heard a sameness, but about the fifth time through I picked up a very nuanced variety. In the age of singles, Morris has pulled off a rare feat: a genuine album. It is not sameness, but continuity.

The album is beautifully arranged and produced. I assume credit goes to producer Greg Kurstin who also contributed to Morris’ last album Girl. Kurstin has developed quite a track record, having been involved in the last two Adele albums along with working with Sia, Kelly Clarkson, Halsey, Beck, Paul McCartney, Pink, Lily Allen, and the Foo Fighters.

My simplistic definition of country music is that it is pop music for adults. Maren has created a masterful example of adult pop. This is Morris’ Golden Hour.

🌵 Sessions: Big Thief – Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe in You

I had never heard of Big Thief until a recent episode of Indie Cast where cohost Steven Hyden raved about this album. I went to his Uproxx review:

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You for a few months, and it already feels like the kind of album that’s destined to be handed down from generation to generation, like Automatic For The People (R.E.M) or Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (Wilco). It’s music I know I will reach for on epic road trips or in the midst of profound grief. An all-timer. A masterpiece.”

That caught my attention. I gave it a listen and I liked it, but did not love it. But it is a grower and with each listen I liked it more and now I am hooked – if not a bit obsessed.

It is a wonderfully weird album. It is both tossed off and ambitious. I don’t know what to make of it, but I like it. I hear so many things: Radiohead, The Band, Bon Iver, Neil Young, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Stevie Nicks, Emmylou Harris – I will stop there – this is a deep album.

I liked it enough to buy a vinyl copy from Stinkweed Records in Phoenix. Tangent: Stinkweed is a nice little record store with a good selection of new vinyl. I did not do a deep exploration, but what I sampled suggested this is a well curated shop. Staff is friendly and without the usual record store pretensions. I will be back.

Although the Big Thief has a distinctive vocalist in Adrianne Lenker, this LP has a strong band vibe. I don’t know how to prove that point, it is just a feeling I have given how interesting the music conversation is between the players.

Dragon New Warm Mountain I Believe In You is a double album that clocks in at one hour and twenty minutes. It sounds like a few versions of the band. Which is not surprising given the album’s concept. Per Wikipedia, the album was produced by the band’s drummer James Krivchenia, who conceived the concept of the album. The band would travel to four different locations: Upstate New York, Topanga Canyon in California, the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, and the Colorado mountains. They would record at four different studios with four separate engineers, and go to each place with a specific sonic plan in mind. Krivchenia’s intent was to capture a full expression of Lenker’s songwriting and the band onto a single album.

The concept worked and this is a spectacular album. Despite different palettes, there is a cohesion to the album. The album has diverse dynamics: from quite acoustic tunes to loud electric jams – in essence Neil Young’s career.

For an interesting take on Big Thief check out this New York Times podcast where a critic, who is a hater, talks to two critic/fans.