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Puss N Boots – Sister

I have been a Norah Jones fan since day one. This is an artist who I fell in love with on her debut album, released February 26, 2002. I had been introduced to her a few months earlier on Charlie Hunter’s album Songs From the Analog Playground.

She was noticeable on that album, someone to pay attention to in the future.

What got my attention about her debut album, even before hearing it, was learning in prerelease PR that Arif Mardin had produced it. A legend – this guy produced Aretha, Anita Baker, and Roberta Flack to name a few (I was reminded with the recent passing of John Prine that Mardin produced Prine’s debut). Mardin knows how to produce women and make big hits! I was going to buy Come Away With Me on release day no matter what. In those days there were no leading streaming singles. There was not even radio play early on for an unknown like Norah Jones on a jazz label (Blue Note). So I bought Norah sight unseen, it was a perfect album.

Eventually, Come Away With Me crept on to radio and it became a massive hit. It sold over 27 million copies worldwide as of 2016 making it one of the best-selling albums of all time. Jones won five Grammys in 2003.

Well anyway, I am a Norah fan – a big obsessive fan. This poster is from her first national tour and hangs in our home:

So based on all of that, I don’t know why I did not get into Puss N Boots’ first album. But I sure dig this new one.

The cool thing about Norah is she did not let the fame and money ruin her. She leveraged it; Puss N Boots is one of those leverages. A cool detour into an artsy modern girl group with Americana leanings.

Norah has hooked up jazz singer-songwriter Sasha Dobson and singer-songwriter Catherine Popper to create Puss N Boots. Their focus is alternative-country/Americana. They play mostly their own songs and occasional covers. Lead vocals are distributed amongst all three. Harmonies are heavenly, the arrangements and performances are relaxed. The vibe is deceiving laidback, but don’t be fooled this – it is a sneaky masterpiece.

Although Norah Jones is the big name here, this is a collaborative effort. Jones’ contribution is less as a lead vocalist, but through her ubiquitous minimalist guitar playing, drums and harmony vocals. All three vocalists are distinctive voices, yet there is a cohesive flow to the album. The three switch instruments (guitar, bass and drums) nearly as much as they switch lead vocals. This is a band and not a vocalist or instrumentalist showcase. Less is more, seems to be the plan here.

Of particular delight is Catherine Popper’s take on Paul Westerberg’s “It’s A Wonderful Lie.” This gem is from Westerberg’s third solo album Suicaine Gratifaction. An obscure, but brilliant choice for the ladies. I assume Blue Note label boss Don Was had a hand in that (he produced Suicaine Gratifaction).

This is a gentle album to spin in the background, but you will be rewarded if you give it a serious upfront listen. One of my favorite releases so far in 2020.

Pearl Jam – Gigaton

I am not much of a Pearl Jam fan, but I was motivated to check this new album out after listening to Bill Simmons’ podcast with the band’s Eddie Vedder and Jeff Ament.

It is hard not to be a rock fan of a certain age and not be a Pearl Jam fan. Their first three albums (Ten, Vs. and Vitalogy) were great. Those three albums, plus being a great live act, have allowed them to be the grunge Grateful Dead for thirty years. I have never seen them live and I have not kept up with them since their 90s heyday – so as I said earlier, I am not much of a fan.

The new album sounds fresh and energetic. It is a mix of punk attitude and classic rock influences  – my definition of Seattle grunge. Like their 90s best, the songs have great hooks. Eddie Vedder’s vocals sound fantastic.  It is probably not fair to call this a comeback, but it is for me – I have comeback to Pearl Jam because of the quality of this album.

There are some new sounds (at least for this marginal fan).  “Dance Of The Clairvoyants” sounds like a Talking Heads/Peal Jam love child – it totally works – it sounds like Bowie.  “Come Then Goes” is a beautiful acoustic piece. “River Cross” has an epic Springsteen gospel feel.  There are plenty of rockers too.

“Seven O’Clock” a protest song about Trump, accidentally has a message for the pandemic:

For this is no time for depression or self-indulgent hesitance

This fucked up situation calls for all hands, hands on deck

Then specifically on Trump:

Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse, they forged the north and west

Then you got Sitting Bullshit as our sitting president

The 12 songs are perfectly sequenced.  Pearl Jam reminds me of The Who. The Who resurrected recently, so they have more than sound in common. This album is a welcome surprise and I am motivated to revisit their catalog and see them live.   This album is as essential as any of the albums in their 90s trilogy.

Bob Dylan – Murder Most Foul

Bob Dylan dropped a nearly seventeen-minute epic the other day (3/27/20). The foundation of the song is the Kennedy assassination.  More interesting, it is a mosaic of baby boomer pop references (primarily musical) of the last sixty years. Dylan has created yet another magic trick – he has pulled a masterpiece out of his hat in the midst of a crisis. Is it merely a gorgeous piece of art or is it a message?  Probably both.

So how did Bob deliver this beauty? A tweet of course (that is what septuagenarians do these days).

Greetings to my fans and followers with gratitude for all your support and loyalty across the years.

This is an unreleased song we recorded a while back that you might find interesting.

Stay safe, stay observant and may God be with you.

Bob Dylan

The song is a puzzle – a brain teaser. He weaves the Kennedy assassination nuggets with a list of pop music and culture trivia.  NPR’s music critics Bob Boilen and Ann Powell have attempted to catalog the musical references in the song and it is a huge list.

Sonically it is as beautiful as anything in Dylan’s catalog. Sung in the warm croon of his most recent standards albums, but with pure Dylan phrasing. The arrangement is atmospheric piano, strings, and subtle drums. It is perfect.

So why this song and why now? Bob’s tweet suggests he has been sitting on this gem for a while. My theory is that the Kennedy assassination was a traumatic event that changed everything (it rivals 9/11 for boomers).  This pandemic will and has changed everything. Scarier than war because war is over there – this is here.  What I hear in this boomer litany from Dylan is both sad and hopeful. I guess that is about where we are at this moment in time.  Thank you, Bob, I do find it interesting.

Jonathan Wilson – Dixie Blur

Jonathan Wilson’s album Rare Birds was one of my favorite albums from 2018. That album had a psychedelic Pink Floyd vibe, Dixie Blur has more of a country/Americana feel. With each listening, it sounds less country/Americana and more like the psychedelia of Wilson’s other three albums, but the Americana prevails.

Wilson has an interesting resume. He has produced Father John Misty albums and serves as guitarist in Roger Waters’ (Pink Floyd) touring band (he plays David Gilmour’s role in that band). His resume is long – if interested you should check out his Wikipedia page.

Wilson was recently interviewed in Variety and he did not shy away from the Americana label.

When that genre started getting talked about, or at least the first time that I became aware of that as a sound or a thing, I was like, “Oh my God, that sounds gross. Like, what is that? Some newfangled version of the fucking “Harry Smith Folk Anthology” sung by some British dudes on the Grammys or something? I felt like that was kind of what it was peddled as. So I wanted to explore it and figure out what could I do within that genre that could be tasteful. And then for me, considering where I grew up and my family — I mean, my grandmother’s brother played with fucking Bill Monroe, so it’s not a stretch for me to dabble with the fiddle and with the banjo. So rather than a scholastic “let’s do an American roots study,” it’s really where I’m from, so it’s not a stretch. Some of the stuff I’ve done in the past, like the British-psych-acid-buzz thing, that’s exotic. This kind of sound for me is just a natural thing.

One of the thrills of this album is Mark O’Connor’s fiddle work. Once upon a time, O’Connor was thee Nashville fiddle session guy, but he got fed up and stopped doing that. How Wilson talked him into playing on Dixie Blur is miraculous. Per Wilson:

“I was thinking about fiddle as being an integral part of the record, and I needed to find the best. In my mind the best of the best was Mark O’Connor. So I decided to reach out to him. I said, ‘Hey man, I’m doing a session, would you like to come down and play fiddle?’ and he’s like, ‘Thank you, but I haven’t done a session since 1990.’ So, he didn’t say no and he didn’t say yes! Over time, he eventually said, ‘Maybe, but my only stipulation is it’s got to be with the band, no overdubs. That’s what drove me out of the session business.’ That was a big deal to all of us. Mark truly elevates the record and he shines as the most brilliant fiddler on Earth, I thank him for his beautiful melodies on this album.”

In addition to O’Connor, the album was produced by Wilson’s buddy Pat Sansone (Wilco). It was recorded in Studio A at the Sound Emporium, the late country maverick Cowboy Jack Clement’s studio, with premier Nashville studio cats including bass player Dennis Crouch, Russ Pahl on pedal steel and multi-instrumentalist Jim Hoke.

It is a delightful album. Wilson has successfully mixed his Laurel Canyon singer-songwriter schtick with his psychedelic Pink Floyd vibe and Americana to create a Jonathan Wilson sound. It results in Wilson’s most original album to date. That is all you can ask from a recording artist – to develop their own voice.  It has the perfect album title Dixie Blur. He has brilliantly blurred several styles with down-home southern charm.

Stephen Malkmus – Traditional Techniques

I am a bigger fan of Stephen Malkmus’ solo work than his work in Pavement. This latest solo effort is top-notch. Per the LP sticker:

…Malkmus shines a light on his guitar playing with a set of folky jams.

All Malkmus albums shine a light on his guitar playing, but I get what they are saying. With these sparse semi-acoustic arrangements Malkmus’ guitar really pops.

I am burying the lead: This album is as good as anything Malkmus has done over his career. It is a new mellow. It is a new sound – Malkmus as folky. Don’t be deceived by how laid back this is, it is raging. The arrangements are deep and psychedelic, Malkmus spices the arrangements with world music. There are some stinging guitar solos, the lyrics are wild-ass. I have no idea what the words are about, but they sure are interesting. He is super mellow in his vocal delivery, but there is so much going on. There is more nuance to his vocals then I have heard before.

The Pitchfork reviewer (Evan Rytlewski) gets it right:

The most surprising thing about the album isn’t how far Malkmus has strayed from his comfort zone. It’s how at home he sounds there.

Per Malkmus’ label (Matador):

Traditional Techniques is new phase folk music for new phase folks, with Malkmus as attuned as ever to the rhythms of the ever-evolving lingual slipstream. Instead of roses, briars, and long black veils, prepare for owns, cracked emojis, and shadowbans. Centered around the songwriter’s 12-string acoustic guitar, and informed by a half-century of folk-rock reference points, Traditional Techniques is the product of Malkmus and engineer / arranger Chris Funk (The Decemberists). Playing guitar is friend-to-all-heads Matt Sweeney (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Chavez, too many others to count), who’d previously crossed paths with Malkmus on the opposite end of the longhairs’ map of the world, most lately gnarling out together back east in the jam conglomerate Endless Boogie.

This album sounds like Lou Reed made a Father John Misty album. This LP hits me in a sweet spot, this may end up being my favorite Malkmus album.

Bad Review Tame Impala – The Slow Rush

The main reason I write this blog is to review albums to help me appreciate the music I like even more.  Trying to figure out why I like something deepens my understanding of that thing.  A bonus is when someone trusts my opinion enough to actually listen to something they might not have otherwise tried.

I started writing this blog in the fall of 2011 and I can’t think of a post that was a “bad review.”  My theory has been that I don’t want to waste my energy on something I don’t like or shine a light on something I don’t think is worthy of attention.  But I think I need to reconsider that.

I was recently listening to an episode of the New York Times Popcast (check out the pod at about the 42-minute mark) and was hooked by a conversation between NYT’s pop critics Jon Pareles (JP) and Jon Caramanica (JC).  They were answering a listener’s request for advice on how to be a pop critic and they shared some great insights:

  • There is a difference between an enthusiast and a critic.  An enthusiast, per JP, is someone who jumps up and down and points at something they care about.  A critic is not just pointing out what they like, they are, per JC, trying to tell the story of the artist/album/record/performance. They are trying to give it context (that is, where does it fit in the broader context of pop music), trying to figure out if it hits you on a primal level or an intellectual level, wondering how people will respond to it.  Determining what kind of audience is the music trying to attract.
  • A critic can really dislike something but can understand it in a broader context. If you want to learn to be a critic, you need to write about something you hate.  Figure out why it works for some, but not you.  Who it is speaking to, why you think it is pernicious or lame, why it seems cliched or last year’s trick (JP).

In light of that conversation and my desire to be more than a mere enthusiast, I present to you my first bad review.

It took me a while to think of an album to give a bad review. I wanted it to be something current and something that had some cultural relevance. I heard all the hype about Tame Impala’s 2015 album Currents and tried several times to catch the wave. It had the right label to catch my attention: neo-psychedelic pop. But it failed to catch my interest.  It was clearly catnip for critics, but I was not the right animal. So I thought I would try again with The Slow Rush. I gave it a listen and Bingo!

My short review is The Slow Rush is vapid. I will try to elaborate.

The music is not offensive or annoying, it is just not engaging. It shimmers and it sparkles. It reminds me of a generic teen exploitation movie: B actors are slow dancing under a disco ball at a high school dance – a tired image.  If you were flipping channels you wouldn’t stop for this movie, you would keep flipping. I was listening to the album in the car and I was not sure if a song was on repeat or not – the album is monotonous drivel.

I don’t hate it, it just doesn’t leave an impression. I listened to it at least five times and I can’t recall a single song. If you played me a cut I am not sure I would even find it familiar, let alone identify the band.

Just out of curiosity I went over to Pitchfork to see what they think. They gave it a great score – an 8.0.  WTF?  What am I missing?  So I read Jillian Mapes’ review and there was nothing she said that made me question my opinion. In fact, she validated my thoughts:

“The repetition of phrases pairs well with the dubby, trance-like aspects of the music. Think of it as psychedelia for people with meditation apps and vape pens: Instead of opening your mind, you’re just trying to silence it.”

I guess I am looking for music to excite my mind, not tame it. I like art on my walls, not wallpaper. The best I can say about Tame Impala is that it’s neutral musical wallpaper.

Pat Metheny – From This Place

I can’t listen to this new Pat Metheny album without thinking of Metheny’s long time collaborator Lyle Mays who recently passed away.  From This Place is a guitar, piano and orchestra album. These last two features were the kind of contributions Lyle Mays typically made as keyboardist, composer and arranger in the Pat Metheny Group. Although this album’s creation predates Mays’ passing, I choose to savor it in Mays’ memory. Fortunately for us and in remembrance of Mays, From This Place is an extraordinary album.

The core musicians on the album besides Metheny, are long time Metheny drummer Antonio Sanchez, bassist Linda May Han Oh, and pianist  Gwilym Simcock. In addition, there is the Hollywood Studio Symphony conducted by Joel McNeely.

The addition of an orchestra is not an insignificant sweetener, it is core to the songs on From This Place. Adding an orchestra in jazz is dicey. In the wrong hands, it can distract or come across as a hackneyed attempt to make the music easier to digest. But in the right hands, it is an organic and essential component. With Metheny, the orchestra is in the right hands. This is not a surprise given Metheny’s experience with synthesizers and his Orchestrion projects. Metheny’s work has always been highly orchestrated, this album just uses a conventional symphony orchestra instead of automated constructs.

Metheny is from the American Midwest and over his career he has created many sonic love letters to the land he loves. But as we all know, there is trouble in paradise. Metheny signals his concern right off the bat with the album cover: our beautiful land is being attacked by a native predator: a twister.

The opening track is not subtle in title or content. “America Undefined” is the sonic equivalent of the album cover art. It starts out gentle and quiet, evolves into a complex beauty and ends violently. It is a fascinating instrumental editorial.

The content of the titular track is best expressed in Metheny’s own words from his website:

“On November 8, 2016, our country shamefully revealed a side of itself to the world that had mostly been hidden from view in its recent history. I wrote the piece From This Place in the early morning hours the next day as the results of the election became sadly evident.”

The song (it is more of a hymn) feature words by Alison Riley and vocals from her partner Meshell Ndegeocello. Per Metheny the words:

“…captured exactly the feeling of that tragic moment while reaffirming the hope of better days ahead.”

Although the album has a political context, I don’t think that over time it will be dated. Again Metheny’s words:

“Music continually reveals itself to be ultimately and somewhat oddly impervious to the ups and downs of the transient details that may even have played a part in its birth. Music retains its nature and spirit even as the culture that forms it fades away, much like the dirt that creates the pressure around a diamond is long forgotten as the diamond shines on.

I hope this record might stand as a testament to my ongoing aspiration to honor those values.”

Metheny is his usual phenomenal self. Sanchez and Han Oh are tasteful accompanists. I have not heard Simcock before and he is a star. He is a perfect foil to Metheny. In addition, Gregoire Maret (harmonica), and Luis Conte (percussion) make essential guest appearances.

Metheny’s work is always complex. At first taste, it is always delicious and easy to enjoy. But if you dig in, there is a richness and sophistication that rewards your effort. I am in the first taste stage of From This Place and I am confident that it is going to be a rewarding rabbit hole over the next several months. Metheny has never made a bad album, but this one stands out as a special masterpiece in his catalog. I may be forced to write a follow-up review after I have fully digested this album in a few months.