Flirted With You All My Life by Vic Chesnutt

I have long been a Vic Chesnutt fan.  He was one of our most brilliant songwriters before he took his own life.  The above song, Flirted With You All My Life, is just about as powerful as songwriting gets.  It doesn’t flinch from the bleakness of human experience, yet their is something truly beautiful about it as well.  Normally I would post the lyrics, but I think it is best if they unravel while listening, as he plays with expectations during the first half of the song.  I love the creeping death cartoon music of the intro, followed by the transcendent almost African sounding music in parts of the proper song.  This song still gives me the chills when I listen to it, as I realize someone is tapping into the unexplainable and profound.  A true masterpiece.

Below is a live performance of this song recorded near the end of Chesnutt’s life.  It is almost hard to watch because of the emotions laid bare.

The Genius of Joni Mitchell


While I have been at Steamboat MusicFest, I have been listening to a great deal of Joni Mitchell.  She is simply one of my favorite songwriters of all time.  Her music is so unique that I both understand and don’t understand why she isn’t more popular.  I understand that her music can be challenging in the way that so very few singer songwriters are, with serpentine melodies and completely unique chord progressions.  But I also don’t understand as she is a giant in terms of talent and so very few artists have ever come close to what she has accomplished.  I think she is haunted by the tag of FEMALE singer songwriter, as in my mind, she is the peer and equal of someone like Dylan, whom I also love and respect.  In fact she is probably more original and talented on a purely musical level than Dylan is.  While someone like Dylan or Neil Young, who is also from Canada like Mitchell, are regarded as almost founding fathers by this point, I feel like Mitchell is acknowledged in a much more limited way.

Although everyone should own what many consider her masterpiece, Blue, I would also recommend that everyone check out her 70’s trilogy of The Hissing of Summer Lawns, Hejira, and Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter.  This is not to say that this is the only work that she has worth hearing.  Although I don’t own every album she has ever made, I find something valuable in all the periods of her music.  Her last studio album, Shine, is simply fantastic, with a title song among the many that simply show she has never stopped being a master.  One of the hardest subjects to write about without coming across as cheesy is the environmental concerns of the day, but she does so on this album with a poetic depth that no one, outside of maybe Jackson Browne, has been able to do.

The 70’s trilogy that I mentioned is some of the most original music of all time.  It is expansive work, where each album seems like its own universe.  If one listens to pop music, like Nick Hornby suggests, until one can solve the puzzle of each song, I can’t imagine ever getting tired of these records.  They seem as if they were created by someone on another plain than most normal humans operate on.  This music is shape shifting as folk, jazz, pop, rock and occasional tribal music intertwine and emerge with a fluidity that very few could accomplish.  She holds her own with musicians such as Jaco Pastorius, and seems more than a capable leader of such talents.  In fact she takes someone like him, makes his work more accessible, and loses none of the musicality in the process.

Mitchell’s guitar playing is some of the most original in recorded history.  She uses a wide variety of tunings and creates chord structures that are simply one of a kind.  Rhythmically influenced by jazz at times, she has a style, combined with the tunings, that sounds unlike any other singer songwriter of her or any time period.  While most greats, like the above mentioned Dylan and Young, synthesize what came before them into their own style, Mitchell seems to use different elements of music as a launch pad to take off to her own unique stratosphere.

Her melodies are again a thing completely of their own.  Listen to one of her most popular albums, Court and Spark, and ask yourself how this album became so popular.  Not many humans could sing, let alone write those melodies.  While they eventually ingrain themselves into your subconscious, they are not the simple hooks of pop music.  That album alone makes me wonder if music audiences were more advanced in their tastes back then, then they are now.

Enough cannot also be said about her lyrics.  They are simply some of the most poetic ever recorded.  Listen to the wordplay, the intelligence, and the wit displayed throughout her career.  She is the equal of a Dylan, without copying him.  Sometimes it almost seems as if she came out of nowhere.  While Dylan built an entirely new language in pop music, it was definitely rooted in the traditions of the folk world.  Mitchell seems to create a language all of her own, especially once she got to the above mentioned trilogy, that is still relatable as often as it is complex.

Now there is no doubt that Dylan had a greater cultural impact.  I am also not trying to say that Mitchell is better than Dylan.  I am only trying to make the case that if you want to talk about truly originals in music, she is one of the few that should be put on equal footing with the all time greats.  And while better or greater mean something different than more original, I would argue that Mitchell is actually more original than most of the all time greats.  She has consistently turned out fantastic mind bending stuff.  I constantly put on her records and am left awestruck at the sheer mastery of each component of song craft and playing. If you are a real music fan, I am telling you to get this stuff.  If you can open yourself to what she is doing, and she definitely is an acquired taste at times, this is music that will open up entire worlds that no one else has explored.  We will not see the likes of her again.  She is a true one of a kind and should be realized as such.

My Favorite Albums of 2014

The following is a list of my favorite records of 2014.  I strangely enough felt that a lot of the best work was done by artists that are well into their career.  This was an incredible year for career artists.  Although I love a good fun pop song as much as anyone, my favorite artists are ones that have strong personalities that seem like they are trying to communicate their truth, and sometimes the truth of the times.  I feel like these are ten records that I will be going back to for years to come because of their musicality and the complexity of thought that is involved in them.  Too many newer artists seem to make albums that might be sonically magnificent, but are somewhat shallow on the ideas side of things.  The best albums, as far as I’m concerned, do both.

An album like The War on Drugs new album, Lost in the Dream, which has been featured on many best of lists, is musically truly something to behold and I love the blending of Roxy Music sonics with Tom Petty kind of American song craft.  It’s a great album, but lyrically the album is merely good and not great.  I can get lost in the album, and I do really like it.  However, it works best to me as background music, music that changes the mood in the room, but that I never engage with intellectually front to back.

I also wish more than anything that there was equivalent of something like a modern day Black Flag, a young band that was coming out full of sweat and fury, but I don’t feel like there has been anything new that I have discovered like that.  Too many of the visceral sounding rock records that I have heard seem like they are treading on past styles instead of adding any new ideas to the mix.

There are many albums that I wanted to add to this list, like the new AC/DC, but an album like that has several great songs, and then some stuff that is just filler.  I’m sure I’ll forget many records that have moved me this year.  I tried to go back and look at my record collection, but I’m sure something has evaded me.  Surprisingly, given the state of the music business, this has been a really strong year for music, especially career artists.  I worry that the fact that the way the business works economically, the fact that artists that can make enough off touring and catalog sales are the ones that are often making the best records, is a sign of things to come.  I hope not.  The older generation has been raising the stakes lately, and we need to meet their call.

10.  Bruce Springsteen – High Hopes – Although I have liked all of the Boss’s recent releases, this seems to be the one in my opinion where he truly builds upon his legacy.  It is a collection of songs that didn’t make his last few records that have been newly recorded.  He is one of the few recording artists that can create transcendent rock n roll and speak truth to power on the same record.  Because of the patchwork nature of the songs, meaning that they were written at different point and differ thematically, this is probably the least complete record on the list.  Like all later period Boss records there is one or two songs that could have been stronger.  However, the record sounds great and the high points are truly exceptional.  He is definitely reaching on this album.  By having Tom Morello joining the usual E-Streeters he expands upon his sonic territory.  On Harry’s Place we get a dark cinematic character study that lyrically could almost be on a Lou Reed record.  That song, like several on the album, feature new sonic territory for Springsteen.  The political songs are fantastic, even if some of them have been in his set for years.  American Skin (41 Shots) and the new version of The Ghost of Tom Joad are visceral.  The understated The Wall may be the one that sticks with me for years.  It is a song about the Vietnam Memorial.  There is a seething anger just below the song’s calm surface.  The anger is directed at the “masters of war” that send young men to die in wars that should have never been fought:

Now the men that put you here eat with their families in rich dining halls
And apology and forgiveness got no place here at all, here at the wall

9.  Chuck D – The Black in Man – Chuck D has always delivered since his career began in Public Enemy.  Although there were one or two latter era Public Enemy records that I wasn’t extremely keen on the production, his voice and ideas have always remained an unbelievable force of power.  He has never stopped speaking truth to power and this album is no exception.  In an era when our justice system is finally being called into question in the mainstream, Chuck D appears to be what he always was, a prophet.  Like his other solo albums, this record is more soul influenced and melodic than Public Enemy.  Although I prefer the chaotic discord of the Enemy, this is only the slightest of steps down.  How can you complain when you got Mavis Staples laying it down in a chorus?  PIC I Hate Every Inch of You tackles our obscene Prison Industrial Complex with a vengeance.  This album makes you feel like you can do pushups in the rain, push the boulder up the mountain.  There are definitely some great James Brown like grooves being laid down as well, culminating in a new version of Say it Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud) that brings no shame to the original.  Chuck D is again laying shit down!

8.  Bryan Ferry – Avonmore – This is the one album that breaks many of the rules I have established for this list.  It’s not particularly deep.  Although it is sonically great, it is an artist doing what they do best and not necessarily adding anything new to their game.  However, what Ferry does here is to simply create an album as good from front to back as any album he has been a part of since Roxy Music’s Avalon.  I mentioned that The War On Drugs album was a great release this year, a record that was very influenced sonically by Roxy Music’s Avalon, but if you are going to draw on a record that pays tribute to that sound, you might as well go with the person that created it.  There is no fat here.  The grooves are deep, the album is cinematic, the musicianship is excellent, and Ferry sings in the seductive and sleazy style that is his signature voice.  The album ends with one of the greatest songs of his career, Johnny and Mary.  This is a song that could be a movie in and of itself.

7.  U2 – Songs of Innocence – U2 have finally made a complete album that plays to their many strengths for the first time since the 90’s.  While their last few albums all had great songs and great moments, this is their first album that musically, melodically, and thematically feels like a complete vision since that time.  It is personal music, at times political, in which song craft is paramount and that sounds like only a group of musicians that have played together for many years can.  Every song on this album is a winner and it is one of those few albums you can listen to front to back.  An extremely powerful moment is the song Iris, in which Bono examines the relationship with his deceased mother over a rock n roll band performing at the top of its game.  No matter how intelligent something is, music needs to be emotional, and this is emotional stuff.

6.  Sinead O’Connor - I’m Not Bossy I’m the Boss – Sinead O’Connor has long been one of the most fearless artists around.  She has spoken truth to power often to her own detriment.  (She was right about what was going on at the Catholic Church years before anyone wanted to believe it.)  She is fighting form on this new record that also features some of her best melodies.  Even when she is singing about love, like she often does on this record, there is a righteous power to her performances that make the songs seem expansive in their meaning.  If you were to read some of the lyrics they might come across as simple love songs, but when you hear them performed they are songs of the eternal love that speaks to the possibility and dreams of humankind.

5.  Marah – Marah Presents: Mountain Minstrelsy of Pennsylvania – Marah is one of the great American bands.  Unfortunately they are not known very well outside of their fan base.  They put out another exceptional record this year.  Marah is a band that has dabbled in different styles and feels through the course of their career, but there is always a rock n roll heart beating underneath.  Dave Bielanko is simply one of the best rock singers around.  On this album they took lyrics from an old book of unrecorded folk songs and and wrote new music to them.  The music combines all different kinds of American traditional music in new and interesting ways.  They also recorded this album with the townsfolk of their current home of Millheim, Pa.  When you listen to this record it feels as if you are discovering the present from the vantage point of the future.  The record often has a ghostly organic feel, but there is a tremendous amount of passion and love going on as well.  Folk music has long been a way to communicate the needs of the people through song.  This is a modern day folk record in the best sense.

4.  Weezer – Everything Will Be Alright In the End – As with most Weezer records, the lyrics on this album deal with the personal state of lead singer songwriter Rivers Cuomo.  There are themes of forgiveness and familial ties, but some of the songs are just about rock n roll and girls.  However, this is the one record that is on the list just because it is pure rock n roll joy.  He has crafted his best set of songs and melodies since Weezer’s Pinkerton record.  The melodies are punk rock Brian Wilson and the production, by Rick Ocasek of Cars fame, makes each little guitar part its own small universe.  One’s spirits can’t help but be lifted when this album is put on.

3.  Marianne Faithfull – Give My Love to London – This album, celebrating her 50th year in show business, is one that I believe will be seen as a cornerstone of her career.  Although she has been making great music all along, I believe this is her best and most complete record since her pinnacle of Broken English.  She revisits many of the styles and themes she has touched upon during her long career and delivers every single time.  This record is a statement of purpose and not merely a rehashing of past virtues.  The production is varied, always interesting, and yet somehow the different styles all sit perfectly next to each other.  You have her tackling styles that remind one of her Brecht/Weill covers, pastoral English folk, rock blues, and beautiful ballads.  The lyrics touch upon everything from her own shortcomings and drug dependency to her disconcerted opinion of the state of the world.  This is raw vital music by an artist that isn’t afraid to leave it all hanging out.

2.  Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach – An artist at the height of his powers.  Browne has made an album that sonically calls upon the best of his past, but lyrically could only have been written right now.  Browne is ever the seeker, always trying to understand the world that is around him.  He is one of the few that can be extremely poetic and topical at the same time.  And although he might be addressing matters of the moment he does so in a way that is timeless.  These songs will not rot as the political fortunes of the day change.  And as he sings and crafts such powerful lyrics along with expertly written melodies, the organic backing recalls his all time triumphs like Late for the Sky.  However, while many of his past masterpieces were personal in nature, this album looks out as much as it looks inward.  The group of musicians that surround him on this album are fantastic.  They play with subtlety and depth that highlight his every move as a songwriter.  This album is the thesis of a master.

1.  Morrissey – World Peace is None of Your Business – I know beyond any doubt that this is the album of 2014 that I will return to the most as the years progress.  This is another career artist that is turning out a high-water mark of an album, in a career that is full of them.  Morrissey is at his most combative.  What he does that so few other artists do, and that he quite frankly does better than anyone, is expand the form of what songs can be about.  He makes macho male behavior, that is often so destructive in our world, look unappealing and silly in his song I’m Not a Man.  In Mount Joy, he stretches back to Behan and uses the Irish prison as a metaphor for the often cruel way that people treat each other.  His singing makes every barb, joke, and confession sting with maximum impact.  The melodies are the kind that are built to last.  However, Morrissey is often pegged as being musically conservative, but this album is adventurous as anything released this year.  It is his testament to his road band, that has often been dismissed by critics, that they have created an album so varied and so interestingly musically.  Flamenco guitars blend with British sounding pop songs, there are moments of white noise, and the title song begins with tribal drums that open up eventually into a beautiful melodic arpeggio.  A song like Istanbul is a mini-movie that makes you feel as if you are witnessing the story that it tells.  Maybe no other album that he has released demonstrates that behind his caustic view of the world there is love and a hope that people can treat each other better.  And did I mention the album is funny?  Despite all of the genre blending, deep poetic insight, and strong political convictions, this album will more often than not bring a smile to my face.  This is what the best of music can do.  It can make one see the world in a new light, even when you are viewing the darkest recesses of human nature, and allow you to transcend and endure at the same time.  While you could have moved some of these albums around the list, and possibly slid one or two other albums in some of their places, this album is the undisputed number one in my book.

And I’m already remembering albums I failed to mention like Leonard Cohen’s Popular Problems.  Although I would put it somewhere near the middle of the pack concerning his output, even average for him is better than 99% of artists.  He is another musical giant that is still, at age 80, putting out thought provoking and incredible albums.  Popular Problems is one that I might substitute for one on this list if I thought about it deeply.  It is definitely worth checking out.  He is a true original that I am grateful is still making music.  

Here a song from each album:

Songs From My Favorite Albums of 2014

The Birds of St. Marks

Jackson Browne, one of my favorite songwriters, has a new album coming out in October.  This is the first song released from the record, The Birds of St. Marks.  I’m glad that it sounds like he is in top form.  HIs last studio album, Time the Conqueror, was one of the best albums of 2008.  There are few songwriters that can match intelligence and emotion in equal measure as he has done throughout his career.  

Comparing Songwriting to Drawing

I like to think of a song as a pencil drawing.  It is the most important part of the drawing, because it defines what it is you are looking at. But with good musicianship and the production, the colors and the frame, it can be made to resemble many different things.  You could draw a picture of a cowboy, but then you could color it in with strange colors and make it a psychedelic cowboy.  Or you could color it is with traditional instruments, make it rustic and dust worn, and it could be a traditional country western song.  You could put it up with no frame or you could put a frame up around it that makes it look as if it should hang in some expensive gallery.  That’s what musicianship and production do, they take that thing that is either great or not on it’s own, and make it presentable to more people.  A great song, like John Lennon’s Imagine, would be great in any form, whether just as a sketch or as the final product, produced by Phil Spector.  Meanwhile, you take something like Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, and although there is some song craft going on there, most of the true magic is in the production and the musicianship.  They are taking a simple drawing and making it into a piece of art through attention to detail.  Meanwhile I just looked at the Billboard Top 20.  Most of that stuff is like someone pissing on a canvas, putting it in an expensive frame, and then telling you it is is a portrait of Jesus.

Vesuvius at Myself

Trying to clip the creek to the bank with a clothes pin
Waterlogged system, rusty spring, faulty planning
Logic squeezed out like mustard at a corndog
Hypertension is not wisdom, chewing the leather straps
Trying to hold the sun still with a bobby pin
Burned fingers. excellent conductor of heat
Private fantasies are not public policy
Christian charity is a doily over my death boner
Busy work is not the Great Wall of China
Vanity bamboo hut out back behind the big house
Pretend is salve for whitey-boy guilt
Furiously slapping at the moon with a cane pole
Trying to prop up the heavens with a fresh flat pencil
Some folks are allergic to rubber
I am trying to stitch this one to all the rest of them
But the seams will split, collide and cleave
Neopolitan ice cream is never truly integrated until it’s too late
Trying to stop the bleeding with scotch tape
Platelets spoil adhesion, fire up the cauterizing iron
It’s a branding of necessity not scarification
Bliss was a pimple that I tried to pop
It erupted up and out on my countenance
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius, ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Ugly eruption, Vesuvius
Vesuvius at myself, Vesuvius at myself

I thought I would start out the Fourth of July by posting the lyrics to the great American songwriter Vic Chesnutt.   He is criminally overlooked.  One look at this or many of his lyrics and you can see why.  He was not one to wince from hard truths.  This is one of my favorite songs by him or anyone.  There are so many great lines in this song: Busy work is not the Great Wall of China.  Almost every line is a vivid image and thought in and of itself.  If not for the fact that his voice was an acquired taste, and possibly also the fact he was in a wheelchair,  he would be on the songwriters Mount Olympus with Dylan, Cohen, Mitchell, or any of the greats.  As far as I am concerned he is. 

Lana Del Rey Ultraviolence Review

I felt that the following review did not do the album justice so I posted a follow up here:

I really like the new Lana Del Rey album, Ultraviolence, in spite of Dan Auerbach’s lazy production.  I know there is a lot of internet noise claiming Lana Del Ray is a fraud, but I actually think she is one of the few originals in pop music right now.  She has a dreamily haunted voice, is great at crafting darkly beautiful melodies, and is great at taking different kinds of American iconography in her lyrics and forging something new with them.  I must admit that I am a sucker for David Lynch and Del Ray’s blending of American pop culture and dark dreams sound like they would be the perfect soundtrack to a Lynch movie. I am predisposed to like the kind of music she makes.

Del Rey had a pretty consistent vision across her albums and singles.  You are not going to mistake her for a different artist.  If you liked what she did before you are going to like what she is doing now, while the opposite is also true.  One of the reasons I believe her first album was a success was that she took several retro elements, infused them with some modern production and lyrical references, and ended up with her own small patch of uncharted territory.

I first want to state that I like her new album.  Any criticism thrown at it is minor and not actually aimed at her.  She still sings fantastically, although I do miss her lower register a bit, which is my favorite part of her range.  If you don’t think she can sing listen to the final track on her new album The Other Woman.  The melodies are still great.  She also still uses the language of pop culture, mixes it with a dark sexuality, and creates something her own.  Some people will claim that she is inauthentic, because she records under a false name, but the pop world is littered with people who built self created myths.  Bob Dylan is not his real name and he never road to New York City in a box car.  Johnny Rotten and Sid Vicious are, surprise, not their real names either.  That is not to say that she is as talented as Bob Dylan or as ground breaking as the Sex Pistols, not by a long shot, but in the world of pop music she has created something uniquely hers.  That alone should be applauded.

However, I do have some minor quibbles with her new album.  These I mostly attribute to Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys fame.  For someone that has a strong retro vibe in her work, I can’t imagine that there was very much thought put into the idea of recording her mostly live to old analog tape, dousing her in a shitload of reverb, and having her track with a live band.  I love the sound of analog tape and I also love when people track live to it.  Hell, my band did that on our new album.  But with someone that takes so many influences from the past this seems to make her work even more backward looking than it really is.  It just seems like such an obvious choice that to me it shows the mind of a producer with little imagination.

First he puts so much reverb on her voice that it pushes her voice to the background at times when it is her biggest asset.  Sometimes this ridiculous amount of reverb actually makes it hard to understand what she is singing about.  Also, I think with someone that draws so much influence form the past you have to be careful with how “retro” you make her record sound.  It becomes more of a genre exercise that it ought to be.  I also find the backing band to be lacking in any real personality.  They do serve the songs, but to the point that if she wasn’t singing on them there wouldn’t be much going on musically that was interesting.  Look, I love effects, I like hearing real musicians play, I like these songs and this singer, but I can’t help but feel the arrangements could be more memorable in and of themselves.

Listening to her two albums, and the song that she did with Bobby Womack, I believe Lana Del Rey is a great talent that will probably have a long career of making interesting records.  Hopefully next time she won’t choose a hack like Dan Auerbach to produce it.