Sunday, January 26, 2020

Anna St. Louis: If Only There Was a River (2018)

Release Date: October 12, 2018

Produced by Kyle Thomas and Kevin Morby

Side One: Water; Understand; The Bells; Paradise; Daisy

Side Two: Desert; Hello; Freedom; Mean Love; Wind; If Only There Was a River

Hailing from Kansas City, singer-songwriter Anna St. Louis released one of the most impressive albums of 2018. A collection of melodic, somber, and minimal folk tunes, her vocal style has been compared Loretta Lynn and Joni Mitchell and at same time expresses a varied emotional range.

"Water" features strings and a muted acoustic guitar, setting a mood of uncertainty and suspicion towards the figure in the song. "Understand" is a standout track, atmospheric and melancholy, using spare lyrics to perfection. Anne repeatedly asks in the refrain, "understand me, do you understand" takes on a hypnotic tone.

"The Bells" may be a sly take on Dylan's sardonic farewell song "Don't Think Twice (It's All Right), even Edgar Allan Poe's poem "The Bells." "Paradise" is a folk song about finding possibilities in malaise: 

Paradise, Paradise
Has a nice ring
But it's hard to find

Side one concludes with an instrumental, "Daisy."

"Desert" has more of a Western vibe, a sense of wonder at the vast landscapes and their spiritual undertones. Musically, it's more sonic and epic. On "Hello" Anne sings "the dark is never dark enough" to what could be a mirror image of herself. "Freedom" is about a solitary wanderer searching, but keeps returning to a mysterious town connected with her past. 

"Mean Love" continues with the searching motif, asking if what appears to be good for you is actually that good. The soft Western tone of 'Wind" seeks a communion with nature. "If Only There Was a River" end the record on an uncertain beat, with the refrain "if only."

A quiet album with a lot brimming beneath the surface, St. Louis's introspective collection of songs leave a lasting impression.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Albums of 1970: The Temptations: Psychedelic Shack

Release Date: March 6, 1970

Personnel: Dennis Edwards, Eddie Kendricks, Paul Williams, Melvin Franklin, Otis Williams

Lyrics and Composition: Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong

Instrumentation: The Funk Brothers

Produced by Norman Whitfield

Side 1: Psychedelic Shack; You Make Your Heaven or Hell Right Here on Earth; Hum Along and Dance; Take a Stroll Thru Your Mind

Side 2: It's Summer; War; You Need Love like I do (don't you); Friendship Train

The 12th album by The Temptations continued their cycle of psychedelic soul records which began with their 1969 album Cloud Nine. Full of good vibes with an eye towards a better future, there's an optimism propelling the album along.

"Psychedelic Shack" opens the album, imagining a place where creativity and peace flourish in the midst of the mayhem of the outside world, getting the record off to a rousing start. "You Make Your Heaven or Hell Right Here on Earth" offers a simple message, we get to choose how we live. Everyone has a choice:

You and your beliefs
Are the weights
The things you do each day
Determine the balance

"Hum Along and Dance" is an instrumental inviting everyone to join in. "Take a Stroll Thru Your Mind" is a standout track. A sonic journey of doo wop, soul, and psychedelia - their 1965 hit "My Girl" is even referenced.

The album's single "It's Summer" recalls an early Temptations song, smoothly produced with some wonderful harmonies. "War" would become an anthem of the era, becoming a number one hit for Motown artist Edwin Starr in June of 1970. 

"You Need Love Like I Do" never quite takes off like the other tracks, but "Friendship Train" continues the theme of unity and friendship - the only forces that can save the world. Your heart just has to be in the right place.

Psychedelic Shack offers up Utopian visions but never shies away from the realities of 1970, the sound and style have aged well.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

The Albums of 1970: Simon & Garfunkel: Bridge over Troubled Water

Release Date: January 26, 1970

Produced by Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, and Roy Halee

Side 1: Bridge over Troubled Water; El Condor Pasa (If I Could); Cecilia; Keep the Customer Satisfied; So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright

Side 2: The Boxer; Baby Driver; The Only Living Boy in New York; Why Don't You Write Me; Bye Bye Love (Live); Song for the Asking

The fifth and final album of the duo from Queens stands as their most complete and satisfying collection of songs. With the duo about to go their separate ways, Garfunkel into movies, and Simon embarking on a solo career, their swan song proved an affectionate, but uneasy, farewell. Backed by a roster of superior session musicians with a production style mimicking The Beatles, Bridge over Troubled Water offers a variety of styles. 

Opening with the majestic title track, with Garfunkel's close to divine vocal, it's one for the ages. Painstakingly composed and performed, the song stands right alongside the best pop songs of all time. Transcending the division of 1970, the song will never become dated.

"El Condor Pasa (If I Could) is an Andean folk song Simon erroneously thought was in the public domain but was actually written by Daniel Alomia Robles. Another wonderful production, "El Condor Pasa" extended the stylistic range of the album. The frenetic folk rock of "Cecilia" about a promiscuous girlfriend also became a radio hit. "Keep the Customer Satisfied" recalls "Got to Get You Into My Life" from Revolver with the prominent trumpets, creating a unique tone for a whimsical tune. "So Long, Frank Lloyd Wright" is attributed to Simon saying farewell to his singing partner who had studied architecture at Columbia:

I'll remember Frank Lloyd Wright
All of the nights we'd harmonize till dawn
I never laughed so long

Side two opens with another popular single "The Boxer," the tale of a young man struggling to survive in New York City. "Baby Driver" would inspire a film of the same title by Edgar Wright in 2017, the tale of a country boy celebrating a wild life on the road seems to recall Dylan's surreal epics he wrote in the mid-60s. The B-side to "Cecilia", "The Only Living Boy in New York" is a hymn to loneliness and ennui in the city (also inspired a 2017 film).

"Why Don't You Write Me" also speaks to longing as adulthood beckons. A live version of The Everly Brothers song "Bye Bye Love" was included because of Paul and Art liked the clapping accompanying the performance. And the subdued acoustic number"Song for the Asking" is Paul speaking to Art about the end of their partnership and the possibility of reunion.

Bridge over Troubled Water is a wintry record. There's a sense of exhaustion and poignant hope with occasional humor. Simon is reflective and looking backward, taking stock at the start of a new decade, one without Garfunkel. Despite their differing trajectories in life, together Simon & Garfunkel created a fulfilling culmination of their years together. 

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

The Albums of 1970: The Moody Blues: A Question of Balance

Release Date: August 7, 1970

Personnel: Justin Hayward (vocals, guitar, mandolin), John Lodge (vocals, bass), Ray Thomas (vocals, flute, tambourine), Graeme Edge (percussion), Mike Pinder (vocals, keyboards)

Produced by Tony Clarke

Side 1: Question; How is it (we are here); And the Tide Rushes Down; Do you feel Small; Tortoise and the Hare.

Side 2: It's Up to You; Minstrel's Song; Dawning is the Day; Melancholy Man; The Balance

Known for pioneering the concept album with their 1967 LP Days of Future Past, The Moody Blues began the 1970s with a more stripped down record which included a killer single with "Question." A Question of Balance would reveal a folk influence fused with the cosmic awareness with which the band had become known for. The album would reach #1 in the United Kingdom and peak at #3 in America. 

As evident in the collage of the album cover, The Moody Blues were apprehensive at the state of the world. Justin Hayward mentioned how the song "Question" spoke to this in an interview, "After a decade of peace and love, it still seemed we hadn't made a difference in 1970." The song asks the same questions we're asking ourselves in 2020:

Why do we never get an answer
When we're knocking at the door
With a thousand million questions
About hate and death and war?

The acoustic driven rock of the first section gives way to a more introspective balladry and then picks up for a reprise of the first section for a blistering finish. 

"How is it (we are here)" continues along a similar theme with a more psychedelic edge. The song asks how can we keep taking from the earth and giving nothing back. "And the Tide Rushes In" reflects on how everything disappears with time, all of our worries, ambitions, and triumphs will all vanish as nature looks on with indifference. 

"Don't You Feel Small" moves into a folk rock direction with a prominent flute. It's also about nature, which makes a mockery of the human ego. One look no further than a mirror."The Tortoise and the Hare" uses the famous fable as a metaphor of doing things at your own pace and not worrying about how fast others are moving. 

Side two opens "It's Up To You" a love song about finding peace through love and everyone has the choice to either turn away or embrace the world. "Minstrel's Song" is a catchy tune, defiant against the tides of the time. Love is everywhere if you look, it can come from anywhere. The Minstrel could be anybody, any holy figure with the knowledge. "Dawning of the Day" is even more spiritual, a lovely acoustic number, the simplicity that comes from the sounds of the morning. 

"Melancholy Man" is haunting, filled with monk like chanting, but it's really about redemption, out of a despair will come a cyclical understanding:

A beam of light will fill your head
And you'll remember what's been said
By all the good men this world's ever known

A Question of Balance ends on a hopeful note of compassion with "The Balance." Rock critics tend to turn their nose up to spoken word poetry, but I never minded it, it brings the record to a suitable ending, followed by some wonderful harmonies.

Musically, A Question of Balance improves with multiple listens. It opens on a note of frustration and anxiety and ends with a sense of peace - a spiritual journey with an ecological focus.

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers #1

Release Date: November 9, 1976 Members: Tom Petty (vocals, guitar); Mike Campbell (guitars); Benmont Tench (piano, organ); Ron Blair (bass);...