Sunday, May 31, 2015

Way Out Weather, by Steve Gunn (Album of the Week)

Steve Gunn’s album, “Way Out Weather”, is impressive without being showy, catchy without a single hook, and mellow without being dull.  It’s also like s whole guitar store playing at once – many of the songs feature picking, strumming, sliding and fingering guitars working together to build a sound that is somehow always comfortable and controlled.

Many of the songs swell from a single guitar into a wall of sound, but the instruments step in so naturally that you don’t notice until suddenly you’re in the middle of a rock song jamming to a a full band.  It’s well-crafted, lush and welcoming. 

Unlike last week’s Dwight Yoakam album, there’s not a song here that will make you want to belt our your own version in the car or shower.  This isn’t a case of lyrics plus music equaling a song – the lyrics are part of the sound, and the whole thing fits together. 

This is a moody album, with a hint of foreboding but not a lot of action.  It is atmospheric and pensive.  You catch an occasional line of the lyrics murmured, but in at least 5 listens, I never caught enough to get a sense of what the lyrics were really saying.  That’s not to say that they’re not good lyrics – “Never look down at what you need to do” appears in the final track, and you get the sense that Steve Gunn takes pride in his workmanship without feeling the need to scream into a microphone. 

With the relaxed pacing and intricate instrumentals, this album recalls to me long hours of sitting around a dorm room listening to Steve Winwood or the Dead, enjoying the company of friends and perhaps a mood enhancer.  There’s nothing here to harsh the mellow.

I read a review somewhere refer to this album as “mope folk”.  I don’t think that’s a fair description, but I know what he means.  Gunn tends to drop his voice at the end of lines as though lapsing back into quiet is as important as speaking.  It’s the opposite of “up-talking”,  and it lends a world-weary inflection to the songs. 

Several of the songs hint at environmental concerns, and the album cover features a huge stack of refuse, but there’s not going to be a call to action in this mellow collection of songs.  Instead of “fight the power!”, you get more of a head shake and a mumbled “bummer” out of this effort.

If you want an album you can shut your eyes to and just listen to sonic layers of well-worked guitar, you will love this one.  I’m going to a festival this summer where he will be performing, and I am really looking forward to seeing him live.  He’s a hell of a musician, and I bet the crowd will be a real trip.

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin writes an amazingly similar review.  We didn’t discuss this album at all before writing our pieces, but you could accuse us of plagiarism in our write-ups.  Too funny!

Next up:  Too Bright, by Perfume Genius

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Dwight Eisenhower on Daily Goals

"Unless each day can be looked back upon as one in which you have had some fun, some joy, some satisfaction-that day is a loss." Dwight Eisenhower

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Mark Twain on Worry

"I am an old man, and have known a great many troubles, but most of them never happened." - Mark Twain

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Clara Barton Founded the Red Cross Today in 1881

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Second Hand Heart, by Dwight Yoakam (Album of the Week)

I may as well admit straight-out that I like Dwight Yoakam.  I’ve liked him ever since one of his songs showed up on a mix tape given to me be a musically sophisticated friend. It might have been “Fast as You”, or maybe “Thousand Miles from Nowhere”, but I remember being shocked that I was hearing twangy country music amidst the latest hits from England and New York.  I hated it – for about a minute.  Then I loved it, and I still do.

If you’ve listened to Dwight Yoakam before, his latest album isn’t gonna change your mind about him.  It’s another platter of broken hearts, tough luck and skepticism.  In the up-tempo opening song, he promises that all the hurts of love will disappear, not in his arms, but “in another world”. 

In the second song, “She”, he sings that a woman won’t show you what’s really going on in her heart, and it’s not till the song’s half way through that the “you” being addressed isn’t a general term – it’s an individual, and the “she” shows the truth in her eyes to the singer.  It’s no longer a general complaint about the difficulty of communication between men and women; it’s a tale of betrayal and hidden love. 

If it weren’t for broken hearts, Dwight Yoakam might not have much to sing about.  By the third track – the title track – two world-weary souls are warily contemplating giving love a try, though she suggests “It’s better off just not to start/Than to have to watch us fall apart.”  By the end of the song, though, she’s recalling that when she “trusted love I dreamed in color too . . .” and you know that the hard-won cynicism is buckling under the pressure of a yearning “Second Hand Heart”. 

There are nine songs of heartbreak on this album, but the closing song is a delightful hymn to hope.  The singer sees “blue skies and sunshine up ahead” and knows that “even fallen angels need shelter from the harm.” 

If that sounds like a tedious dose of misery, you haven’t heard the way that Dwight Yoakam can bend his voice and work his guitar.  It’s not a subtle parlor game to guess at some of his inspirations – Buck Owens, Elvis Presley, and Buddy Holly  live on in Dwight Yoakam’s memory and voice.  Each song sounds fresh and individual, but securely sewn into the fabric of the album. 

Over at Deliberate Obfuscation, Robin recalls the great show that Dwight Yoakam put on for us at the Forecastle Fest in Louisville last summer, and generously tolerates my tendency to sing along with some of my favorites.  (My version of “The Heart that You Own” will bring tears to your eyes, one way or the other.)  She proclaims herself a fan, and I have duets to look forward to on our road trips.

How can I have anything but praise for an album that I know will make my cherished road trips with my wife even better?

Next up:  Way Out Weather, by Steve Gunn

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Ivy Tripp, by Waxahatchee (Album of the Week)

Waxahatchee’s new album, Ivy Tripp, is ethereal, interesting, self-confident and masterful.  There’s a lot to like here, and a few things to love.  What it isn’t, though, is edited.  It’s a slacker album, created by Katie Crutchfield, an artist with a boat load of talent but not enough rigor or ambition to make something brilliant.  She plays around with sounds like a bored sculptor messing around with some Legos. 

Robin cuts Waxahatchee a bit more slack than I do, and appreciates the amateur side of it.  It might be a difference in our personalities - she hears a dog barking in the background of a song and wonders whose it is, and I wonder what in the hell a dog is doing barking in the background of an album I actually paid for.  

The first song starts with an annoying buzzing organ sound that continues through the whole thing.  It comes off as kind of a “screw you” to the listener (or at least this one), and, in the lyrics, she twice tells us that she’s not giving us her all:

You take what you want
You wear it out
I'm not trying to be a rose
 . . .
You take what you want
You call me back
I'm not trying to be yours
You indulge me
I indulge you
But I'm not trying to have it all

Mix in a buzzing organ, and you get the sense that the artist is warning the listener that she’s not fully committed to creating an amazing album.  She’s more about slouching toward someplace cool.

Which is fine, I suppose.  With some exceptions, the album sounds great, and it covers a good range of styles, from slick guitar-driven pop to a piano song that could have been pulled off a Carole King album.  The closing track, “Bonfire”, screws around with more annoying crunchy guitar sounds for 38 seconds before settling into a pristine bass riff-based anthem that could have been done by Weezer.

She does rouse herself to create some really good music paired with vague lyrics sung with one of the best voices around.   Her voice is a joy.  Raspy, growly, and sweet, kind of like the Cranberries’ Dolores O'Riordan with a faint southern twang replacing the Irish lilt.

By most measures, an album packed with really good music and a wonderful voice performing them ought to have me speaking in superlatives, but there’s something wasted here.  It’s not just that the buzzing sound on the opening track or the unnecessary surf sounds and dog barking on “Summer of Love”, though those are regrettable immature lapses of judgment, along with a couple other missed attempts at studio “magic”.

I could joyfully overlook the lapses if there were more substance here.  When Katie Crutchfield has a baby, or loses a loved one, or gets politicized, or finds religion, or whatever, she has the musical talent to create something that is really fantastic.  Right now, though, she’s just making some good music.  Even she seems to realize that she’s kind of drifting – in “The Dirt”, she sings:

Long since I was as empty as a young child
Hope lying in prospect

I wasted my boredom hastily
I'm a basement brimming with nothing great

Mix her talent with something she’s passionate about, and she’s going to be amazing.  She’s just not there yet.

Next Up:  Second Hand Heart, by Dwight Yoakam