True or not, this feels like my first exposure to these songs. So, this is kind of exciting, I guess. I have a lot of respect for the band, and I’ve always wanted to catch them live, but I didn’t want to fight to the death for a ticket, which is about what it takes in San Francisco. People love this group. And for good reason, it seems. Let’s see…
I’m to believe that this record sounded positively groundbreaking in 1997. It is not so uncommon to find a bunch of blinky electronic sounds mixed in with more organic instrumentation now. Maybe Radiohead is why, but I blame or thank Beck, depending on who’s doing the blinking. This record’s cool, man. A bunch of fun melodies, and a ton of interesting sounds. I like Jonny Greenwood’s guitar work on some film scores he’s done for Paul Thomas Anderson. And he’s certainly on fire for most of OK Computer. Thom Yorke is a gifted lyricist and vocalist, even if he does have too many letters in a simple name. There’s so much to explore on OK Computer that it’s hard to take it all in after just a few listens. It’s like trying to see all of New York City during a three-day weekend. For diehards, the highlight of the reissue is purported to be three songs that have never been released previously, but are well known through live shows and bootlegs. Or something. They were recorded during the ’97 sessions and named: “I Promise,” “Man of War,” and “Lift.” Of the trio, “Man of War” jumped out at me most. It’s a rocker, that’s why. I cannot, however, conjure any of the songs on any of the six sides to mind on my own. They come back immediately when the records start revolving, but there’s simply a sonic overload that has kept the songs from seeping in up to this point. Many of the tunes have multiple parts or “movements,” if you prefer. So that doesn’t help. But I can tell you this: “Climbing Up the Walls” is a rager of the first order. It’s got all the danger and menace one could want in a Rock ’n Blink song. The original release included the twelve songs that make up sides one through four on OKNOTOK. The three previously unreleased tunes are supplemented by a bunch of b-sides that the kids have already purchased on previous reissues. Which must be frustrating. I guess I am glad I waited. I don’t know what took so long for the “new” songs to appear. They are not at all conspicuous when placed within the original album’s larger context. That is to say: they’re really good.
Folks are burning up the online forums bitching about the American pressings for this one. That’s what I’ve got, and they are certainly not up to RTI standards. But they’re not actively bad. There’s some surface noise in parts. If my copy has distortion, it blends in with Radiohead’s own. There’s plenty of that, and there’s plenty of fun. You probably already have most of it already. Seems like I’m the only one who didn’t.
Some works focus on character. Some on plot. The River and the Thread flows through a variety of settings, many in the Deep American South, and reveals a ruminative mood. Songs about home, leaving home, thinking one has left home, but somehow winding up back where one began. There’s a feeling of inevitability and resolve. Not necessarily the type of resolve that indicates a solution or a firm determination, but more of an organic leveling out. Letting the proverbial chips fall where they may, and sorting out the details with the benefit of hindsight. There’s an overarching tone of cleansing or healing, which suggests a need for healings and cleansings in the first place. Maybe we’ll all be so lucky, but we can only play the hand we’ve been dealt.
This record was produced and arranged by a gentleman named John Leventhal. He plays most instruments, co-wrote all the songs with Cash, and does some singing too. Turns out, he’s married to the featured artist. The couple created a humid atmosphere and a deep document with The River and the Thread. Knowing that the two are hitched somehow adds depth to the whole affair. This work sounds like it was harvested more than created. Like all the raw materials grew up out of the southern soil and the duo just melded and blended them into music. It’s quite a feat, and Cash is right to be proud. The literary lyrics and the earthy tones combine to form a work that is as still on top and as deep below as the Mississippi River itself. It may not rearrange the sonic landscape the way the Mississippi has the American terrain, but there’s plenty to explore, and the record rewards multiple focused listens. This ain’t background music.
Hopefully, someone will pick this one up for an audiophile release somewhere down the line. As is, the pressing is spotty, and there’s a lack of three dimensionality and depth. It’s good, but it could be magical. It hurts to feel like the impact of a work like this might have been blunted by a pedestrian presentation. Mobile Fidelity could make this one float above the water. And we could use the help. This is for the contemplative listener. It deserves the recognition it’s received.
(This record was purchased at MusicDirect.com.)
Jason Isbell is a creator of moods too. Don’t think he isn’t. His latest, The Nashville Sound, finds him creating many. It’s more varied and diverse than the Cash record, and equally smart and engaging. He credited his backing band, the 400 Unit, on the front cover after releasing a couple of “solo” records over the previous few years. The band is always there, but they seem to occupy a bit more of the spotlight on this one. They make quite an outfit, and they’ve made quite a record. At this point, we should not be surprised.
There seems to be a theme of disorientation and a sigh for simpler times throughout The Nashville Sound. That’s certainly in play on the album opener, “The Last of My Kind.” It has a “poor boy a long way from home” kind of vibe, which likely plays well with folks who are inclined to explore and push themselves out of their comfort zones. This character, however, doesn’t sound like he was exploring so much as he just wound up somewhere that’s bigger and colder than he’d have preferred. If there are any comfort zones left, this guy’s having a hard time locating them. This is his new normal, and he’s struggling to adjust. Lots are. Isbell is one of the more transparent lyricists working, and sobriety is a bigger part of his personal narrative than it is for most popular artists. There are multiple allusions to that throughout the record. As always, family is a focus, and Isbell clearly finds that lifestyle more agreeable than the thought of getting hammered. There are thorns with the roses though, and “Vampires” finds the singer contemplating his mortality while acknowledging that either he or his partner will likely outlive the other. No solutions are offered. What would they be if they were? A song like “Anxiety” might be a bit too conspicuous for some listeners, but certainly not for the legions of folks who struggle with the disorder. Or even for the ones who live with the suddenly ubiquitous undercurrent of unease and apprehension that is so lamentably fashionable today. The song resolves with a full-band instrumental rave-up that illustrates the emotion perfectly. Isbell has his finger on the pulse, and it’s not always steady. His songs often feel like journalism. He writes from a variety of perspectives, and “Hope the High Road” is a shot of positivity and spirited initiative in a time of need. The singer acknowledges the feelings in two distinct camps without invalidating either. But there’s no question about which side of the line he’s standing on. Empathy does not equal weakness, nor does it amount to support. Feels like a high wire act without a net.
It had to occur to Isbell that large swaths of people might assume that he was laying claim to the Nashville sound by naming his record as such. And maybe he was, but it feels more likely that he was making a joke. This ain’t what that town pushes on the wider American public. If it were, maybe he’d have called it “The Nashville Machine.” Isbell’s sound is more real, more relatable, and approaching important. The vinyl presentation is worth the investment. It’s not perfect, but it’s a perfect reflection. This is where we are. Far from flawless, but weathering the storm. Trying to find some understanding. Making gains in the face of regression. “There can’t be more of them than us.”
Neil Young finally released Hitchhiker, an album that he shelved after recording it in 1976. It is a unique entry into his Archive Series in that it’s a solo acoustic effort recorded over the course of a single August night in a Malibu studio. Eight of the ten songs found their way onto later releases, the title track finally seeing daylight in the earlier part of this decade. Young has publicly discussed the pronounced lack of sobriety that was involved with this recording. As such, this is a “warts and all” affair. And Ol’ Neil has such lovely warts. Everybody knows this…
For many, “Powderfinger” will be the most recognizable of the Hitchhiker songs. The acoustic version obviously lacks the bombastic guitar lines that made the full-band electric versions so spectacular. It’s a cool document of the song’s evolution, and it’s easy to hear the nascent majesty that would become so apparent on Rust Never Sleeps three years later. The same could be said for “Ride My Llama,” and “Pocahontas” to a lesser extent. And the title track kicks hell out of the version that would eventually make it onto Le Noise from 2010. This version needs an expanded nametag to accommodate the extra “(Like An Inca #1)” in the title. The overall feel and timbre of these songs was dampened by having them released over the course of so many years. Taken together, you get all of the Nixon dread and the violence of the ‘70s in much sharper relief. Neil’s percussive guitar playing propels the program along nicely, but without the Crazy Horse muscle that defined the era for so many of his fans. One may occasionally hear a sleeve button against the guitar’s body along with the intentional studio banter… Neil moves over to the piano for the album closer “The Old Country Waltz,” a saloon ballad later to surface on 1977’s American Stars ’n Bars. Hearing Young accompany his own piano playing with his mouth harp can be a celestial event. His harmonica technique is more melodic than Dylan’s with more emotional depth and greater musical impact. Dylan’s has “character,” but Young’s is more musical, certainly. The scarcity of its appearances on Hitchhiker makes the harmonica’s impact that much more obvious when it arrives. The whole set is a quick, engaging study that his fans will devour until there’s no marrow left in the bone. It’s a soundtrack for all occasions as it can hog the spotlight or sway in the wings with equal abandon. To think that he put it away and moved on after creating it just boggles the mind.
Many of the Archive releases have been cost prohibitive for some listeners, but Hitchhiker is comparatively affordable. Interestingly, some online outlets are selling FLAC downloads for more than the vinyl. There were issues with some earlier Pallas pressings of his Archive titles, and it appears that he didn’t use that facility for this one. It’s on a 140-gram disc with minimal pops and virtually zero surface noise. There’s not much between the listener and Ol’ Neil, which is undoubtedly the way he designed it. And certainly, the way his fans want it.
A quick glance online reveals that Martha Argerich is considered to be one of the greatest pianists of the latter 20th century. She performed her first concert at the age of eight years playing Mozart & Beethoven fare. She won the first of a gazillion awards in 1957 at around the age of 16, and she received the Kennedy Center Honors in 2016. Back before it became “unpresidented” (sic) to do so. She’s beaten cancer that is typically terminal. Two times. She is, in point of fact, an Argentine badass. That badassedness is on full display during and throughout her Chopin / Brahms record, recently reissued by Speakers Corner.
If one were to go into this listen with the expectation of relaxing background music, one might quickly adjust course. This is, as Duke Ellington might have said, “piano in the foreground.” It demands rapt attention. Anything less would be uncivilized. The music is invigorating. Sometimes exhausting. Especially the Prokofieff business. Busy-ness, perhaps. The liner notes printed on the back cover undoubtedly shed light on the pieces and the performances contained on this disc, but they’re written in German, and no translators were available at the time of this writing. People who know about this type of thing describe every selection as a “show piece.” There are quieter moments, but they’re almost always in the service of setting the stage for a more ostentatious reveal. Ravel and Liszt make appearances in addition to the previously mentioned composers. It’s all over and above the author’s head, but the performances find the ears well enough. And the ears agree with the information found online. There’s fluidity and flow to Argerich’s playing that is surely hard to come by. So much nuance and detail, and violent dynamics. It’s lovely to hear her take command of the entire show, as she’s an orchestra to herself. If you’re in it for virtuosity, you’re in the right vein.
The folks at Speakers Corner utilize zero digital components in their mastering process without telling you about it in advance. That’s the rap, anyway. The sonics on this record are immense. It’s as if the piano spans the entire giant stage. So much depth of tone, and so much air in the highs. Transparency for days. A focused listen is truly transportive. The pressing is pristine so the listener won’t be jolted from their reverie by any distortions or imperfections. Cleanings are required before every go in order to maintain that flawlessness. Do whatever it takes to enjoy this release in its finest presentation. It’ll give back every time. Highly recommended.
(This record was joyously purchased at MusicDirect.com.)