Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Growing Old With Rock and Roll

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Humphrey/McKeown - Tapestry of Shadows (2017)

Written by Ed Price, posted by Jason


Great songwriting partnerships are increasingly rare. More and more young artists seem to aim for the recognition that solo success brings and tethering their futures to the talents of another seems like it will only dilute their glory. Heather Humphrey and Tom McKeown, however, are superb individual talents who realize their combined chemistry is much greater. Such instances are rare and require an unique confluence of personalities and skill. Often one is achieved without the other and those instances are near-misses that, invariably, don’t have staying power. Humphrey and McKeown, however, share an all-encompassing musical and emotional sympathy that comes through in each of the twelve songs on Tapestry of Shadows. Their fifth release brings some new musical faces into their fold and results in one of the most seamless “band efforts” yet from this duo, but their customary mix of traditional with the individual makes this a much more memorable effort.

You know you’ve struck something special just based on the opener alone. “Beautiful”, at first glance, might strike some as trite just based on title alone. It would be a hasty judgment. One of the abiding qualities of the duo’s music is how their songwriting continually upends listener’s expectations. “Beautiful” tackles familiar themes in popular song with an unusual poetic sensibility, yet it never overreaches and hits all the right reflective and exploratory notes. “Better Day”, the album’s second track, proves that the duo’s musical explorations have the same flexibility as their lyrical and vocal ones. The deep fried Southern feel they find here requires just the right amount of restraint from the players to pull it off and the duo, ably supported by their collaborators, pull it off with flying colors. They take a different tenor altogether on the third song “You Don’t Know Me”. This isn’t a cover of the longtime pop standard, but rather one of the duo’s best originals defined by a haunting vocal from McKeown that finds the emotional key to this early one and dovetails nicely with the arrangement. The arrangement hinges on the collaboration between piano and other instruments – it has a deeply emotional, melodic grace that many will love.

There’s a slight shuffle quality prevalent on the duo’s performance of “Someday” that peaks nicely on the chorus. It’s one of the album’s songs where the duo sings together with the best effect and they exhibit just the right amount of restraint. The lyrics, as well, are among the finest on the album and the duo finds just the right phrasing even working as duet. They hit another high point with the impressive “Sasha on the Carousel”. This is one of the album’s better lyrics thanks to its evocative imagery that, only occasionally, falls flat. When it works, however, it works so well that listeners are transported into the song’s point of view with little effort. The march tempo and assertive percussion heard in “Passing Shadows” sets it apart from much of the surrounding material but the differences in presentation are never so stark that the track seems incongruous placed against the remainder of the album. Tapestry of Shadows succeeds for many reasons, but artistry is chief among them and that quality has defined Humphrey and McKeown’s work through five albums and counting.

Grade: A-

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds - Henry's Dream (1992)

I used to write and spend a lot of time in libraries. I had a predilection for getting in trouble later evolving into high art, but I spent more time at seventeen parked at a wooden library cubicle surrounding by weighty tomes of poetry, biographies, and ever present pens and notebooks where I scribbled significant details about long dead heroes I deemed my Gods and blabbering poems where I attempted to find their measure.
I read magazines too. Musician, Spin, Goldmine, and Rolling Stone ranked high among those. I wanted to read biographical articles, interviews, reviews. Seventeen years old in the early nineties, pre-Internet in a Midwestern college town, meant Rolling Stone’s review section carried a certain cachet others lacked. The brand held a strong allure. This looking back on those days may not constitute a portrait of an artist as a young man, circa 1992, but I still have notebooks from those days twenty plus years later. Make of that what you will.

I had a long history with Rolling Stone too. I spent most of my time engrossed at the magazine and book rack when my parents went to the grocery store. Lou Reed. David Baerwald. Procol Harum, Chris Whitley, and Neil Young. Rolling Stone, between 1989 and 1992, introduced me to those artists and many more thanks to some well written positive reviews. I think they were, usually, David Fricke reviews. One review leaving a mark on life for years to come proved to be a write-up on Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds’ Henry’s Dream.

I learned later that David Briggs produced the album. Briggs, sound-meister of Neil Young’s albums with Crazy Horse, is a big reason why the album endures with me as an unheralded young masterpiece. A low hanging darkness and the smoke of conflict hangs over the album’s nine songs and much of the blame for that can likely be laid at the feet of a fiery relationship Briggs shared with Cave and the band. The coarse, jagged edge Briggs’ work lent to the ragged glory of his work with Young and Crazy Horse, cut deep into this collection and left a lasting mark.

The opening one two punch of “Papa Won’t Leave You, Henry” and “I Had a Dream, Joe” are dizzying. The first track rides a wave of propulsive acoustic guitars and Cave’s apocalyptic street corner preacher raving a travelogue of gory horrors. The language is pared down, rhythmic, and solidly concrete. The second song, “I Had a Dream, Joe”, is rousing in spite of itself, but its exhortation submerged with blackly humorous parody. The musical structure follows the same general idea we hear in the opener – the Bad Seeds used as an acoustic orchestra, of sorts, and it comes across with breath-robbing power. “Straight to You”, certainly the closest thing to a commercial moment on this release, is one of Cave’s better love songs to this date and he crouches his devotion in the sort of specific, if not cataclysmic, language defining much of his songwriting. “Brother, My Cup Is Empty” is a blistering masterpiece packing power far beyond the wattage of most songs. Cave’s seething vocal, fatalistic and defiant, inflame great lyrics with the full flush of performed poetry and the band steamrolls any resistance with an unified and energetic workout.

“Christina the Astonishing” is quite unlike anything else on Henry’s Dream. The muted hymn-like arrangement enormously benefits from Cave’s vocals. It quickly takes on an uniquely elegiac quality. The lyrics’ narrative strengths are considerable and the same talent for specificity helping earlier songs stands out and serves this track particularly well. Even a cursory listen to this song doesn’t suggest, initially, that it grows with you over time. You can credibly argue, thanks to personal preference, Henry’s Dream is front loaded with substance and sags during the album’s second half. Smarter listeners will hear diversity. “When I First Came To Town” successfully mimics traditional balladry in a sort of Grand Guginol fashion, akin to a more tempered “Para Won’t Leave You, Henry”, and there are certain decisions along the way reinforcing those musical choices. Cave’s spectral, distorted harmonica in the song’s second half is a superb touch. “John Finn’s Wife” has an enormous capacity for musical drama it doesn’t exploit until late in the track – there’s some lasciviously obvious touches in the songwriting, but Cave’s writing, vocals, and idiosyncratic vision makes this work as an explosively modern take on traditional music. It also hints at future directions with albums like Murder Ballads.

The album’s final two songs, “Loom of the Land” and “Jack the Ripper”, are radically different numbers. The former of the two is the stronger song and its deliberate pace sets a perfect stage for some of Cave’s finest, measured writing on the entire album. There is a certainly a melancholy quality surrounding the song, but it makes for one of the album’s more affecting moments. “Jack the Ripper” is heavy-handed Strum and Drang ultimately signifying nothing, but Cave does an appropriately leering job aping a small basketful of blues clich├ęs. It isn’t an inherently terrible track, but seems lightweight in light of its predecessors. No matter. This gave birth to a lifelong admiration abiding to present day. I found a home. A wife, kids. I write at a desk now instead of a library cubicle but thank Rolling Stone for having the good sense to favorably review this album a long time ago, in a place far away. I am still listening a quarter of a century later.

Grade: A-

Monday, April 3, 2017

Brit Royal - Change (2017)



Twin brothers Kais and Mazin Oliver’s 2015 debut EP enlisted a bevy of top shelf music world talent like hit songwriter and producer Mikal Blue as well as JR Richards from the band Dishwalla. The debut led the duo to a successful string of concert appearances throughout continental Europe and the UK, including a well received and sold out live debut in their hometown London, but it’s their first full length album, London, that will further establish them among the most promising talents working today. The thirteen track release features a number of stunning performances and compositions but few are as impactful as the single “Change”. The Dream mix of this song has recently been released and it’s a dizzying example of what these brothers are capable of while retaining all the necessary artistry to inspire their audience and any new converts to their music. Like the remainder of the album’s songs, “Change” is infused with an appealing sound and real individuality.

It is also a spartan track of immense tastefulness. The song is primarily built around piano and vocals, but there are some light keyboard touches in the track providing a discreet amount of color. The vocals, however, are the undisputed star of this particular show. They land in all the right places and play off the backing track with great distinction while veering from artful understatement to resounding emotional high points without ever overwhelming the listener. The unique confluence of emotion, musicality, and a perfectly tailored vocal melody working in concert with the minimal backing is reminiscent, in some respects, of top shelf Brit pop from both the eighties and nineties, but Brit Royal have a completely contemporary sound that never embraces retro principles outright. Instead, they brandish their influences without ever being wholly beholden to them.

The track wraps up at the four minute mark and never feels overextended. The piano playing has a warm, wonderfully lyrical quality that looks to serve the song first rather than indulging in any sort of fake virtuosity. The cascading runs, the space created between the notes, and the elegance created from matching the piano with the vocal establishes a memorable mood from the first. There’s a bit of the ballad form suggested by this song, but the suggestion is never strained and the thoughtfulness of the track’s presentation will please longtime listeners and newcomers alike. The lyrics are rather notable as well. Brit Royal hit up some eternal verities and universal truths that have a strong personal connotation in the song, but will also resonate with a vast swath of the duo’s audience. Brit Royal make it all sound impressively easy, but long standing musical devotees will know and understand their talents are special and emanate from a place deep within. “Change” is intelligent pop the way it should be done – it isn’t aiming to hit the lowest common denominator and, instead, touches listeners in a honest way. The Oliver brothers are the sort of musical act who is built to last.

Written by: William Elgin