Album of the Week: #88 “When the Pawn”

#88: “When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks Like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes To the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘Fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might So When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right”, Fiona Apple, 1999

In 1999, I had a summer job. I had a winter job too. At school, I had a meal plan and loans to defer financial concerns to the next decade plus. At home, I had very few living expenses, so I put most of my earnings into CDs. Had those CDs been certificates of deposit, I might be a wealthy man now. Alas, my investments were in Blur’s lush melancholy, Kula Shaker’s global experimentation, and Ben Folds Five’s nerdy bravado. Interest was accrued in credibility among my music geek friends.

Because of this relative financial windfall, my music collection grew more in 1999 than it ever had, and for the first time, I kept a year-end list of my favorite new albums. When the year began, I never would have guessed that it would end with Fiona Apple’s November release at the top of said list.

I wish I could say Fiona Apple didn’t fit with the artists I listened to in the ’90s because most of her songs were piano-driven or because of her showtunes-inspired flare for the dramatic. Nah. She was different because she’s a girl.

Music by women wasn’t aggressively marketed to me as a teenage boy in upstate New York and I wasn’t progressive enough to seek it out. Sure, I’d seen the “Criminal” video from Apple’s 1996 debut a thousand times on late-night MTV and, years later, broke down and bought a used copy of “Tidal”. But when my friends were caught up in Blur vs. Oasis debates and lamenting The Smashing Pumpkins trading guitars for techno, I wasn’t about to step in with a defense of Tori Amos or Bj√∂rk and why their music was at least as culturally relevant as that of anyone else in this sentence.

But Fiona was different.

She was cute. And only two years older than me. That mattered in 1999. Of course, so was Natalie Imbruglia, and I wasn’t dropping $14 on her new album.

She wrote her own music and played an instrument. That was essential. I had no time for The Supremes in 1999. Then again, Lucinda Williams wrote her own songs and played a mean guitar, and I wasn’t listening to her in ’99 either.

Fiona spoke to me. Twenty years later, I still haven’t looked up the definitions of derring-do, rigadoon, or desideratum, all of which she drops in “To Your Love”, but I remain mystified by her vocabulary and her willingness to eschew the prosaic language of the pop canon for such esoterica. The way her voice flutters when she sings “and fooooor a little while” on “Fast As You Can” still makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up.

“Tidal” was good: a showcase for a young genius with a piano and an appreciation for classical music and a hint of a subversive side. “When the Pawn” is a monumental step forward. Jon Brion’s production is rich and warm and perfectly suited to Fiona’s ambition.

From the bass-heavy intro of “On the Bound”, it’s clear that Fiona has grown up and is going to take a stab at a more mature statement. By the end of “Limp”, the stunning, third track, it’s clear that she’s succeeded. She’s a woman scorned and she’s not taking any more shit. “Paper Bag” is lounge jazz with a Rodgers and Hammerstein cadence. “Fast As You Can” uses “Criminal” as a starting point, but ratchets up the intensity, highlighting the virtuoso singer, songwriter, arranger, pianist, and performer Fiona has become.

Even if the other nine tracks were throwaways, I’d’ve gotten my $14 worth and then some just for “Get Gone”. It starts with piano and voice, as soft and slow as the scene before the first murder in a horror flick. Someone’s lurking, and at the one-minute mark, the payoff: “So put away that meat you’re selling me”. This is the first of several sharpened arrows slung at a disgraced former lover. Each bridge from verse to chorus hits just as hard. The second is instrumental, Apple’s refusal to speak as damning as the scathing verse it replaces. The third time around puts the nail in the accused’s coffin. “Fucking go”.

“When the Pawn” is a work of staggering genius. Fiona Apple can write like Nabokov and play like Rachmaninov. Her music is literate and sophisticated. Also, the best line on the album is “fucking go”.

That’s my 88th-favorite album.

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Album of the Week: #407 “The Order of Time”

#407: “The Order of Time”, Valerie June, 2017

When I write about The Beatles or Madonna, I can launch right into my reactions to their music, leaving out an introduction to give the reader an understanding of what said music might sound like. When I review an artist with less universal renown, it’s usually easy to start with “this hip-hop classic” or “this lost psychedelic gem” to set the stage. Valerie June’s wonderful “The Order of Time” defies easy categorization, robbing me of that terse lead-in.

Valerie June comes from Tennessee, so she’s a country artist, right? Well, she records in Memphis, not Nashville, so maybe it’s the blues. When I asked my daughter what kind of music she thought we were listening to, she said “dance music”. That would rule out the blues, wouldn’t it? In this album’s closer (and perhaps its best song), June repeatedly reminds us that she’s “Got Soul”. She certainly does, and one might define her as a soul singer, but her nasal, reedy voice makes her an odd fit for that genre as well. I pressed my daughter’s “dance music” answer a little further and she decided it was jazz, which happens to be the first genre listed on the artist’s discogs.com profile. Most of these tracks contain no brass and no keys, so it’s no traditional jazz album. Allmusic.com classifies it as “pop/rock” (a copout barely worth discussing) and folk, though that site introduces Valerie June as “Memphis-based Americana singer”. Let’s use that to start our review.

Valerie June’s “The Order of Time” is a triumph of Memphis-based Americana. What is Americana? Think of your favorite country-blues-soul-jazz-pop-rock album and add a little folk. Also, you can dance to it.

Highlights on “The Order of Time” include… well, all of it. Slow-burning opener “Long Lonely Road” sets the stage for something you’ve never heard before but you direly need to hear again. “Love You Once Made” proves that a voice listeners might quickly chalk up to a liability can be a massive asset with the right songwriting (think Joanna Newsom with more Southern soul). “Shakedown” is Mississippi Fred McDowell for the 21st century. “Astral Plane” is a contemplative folk number that bursts into radio-ready pop song. “Slip Slide On By” is blues rock that would fit on “Sticky Fingers”. And “Got Soul” is a four-minute party celebrating the invention of a new genre.

How did my daughter decide she was listening to jazz while she danced to “Man Done Wrong” on our back porch? “It has words, so it can’t be ballet.”

It’s certainly not ballet.

That’s my 407th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #912 “At Mount Zoomer”

#912: “At Mount Zoomer”, Wolf Parade, 2008

This week, I had my second speaking engagement in promotion of the book, graduating from the library scene to the patio at Maine Beer Company, where I hosted a guessing game. I asked the crowd to give me numbers between 11 and 1,000 (you have to buy the book to get 1-10), and played 30-60 seconds of a song from the album corresponding to that number on my list.

When someone called out #912, I flipped to page 15 and found “At Mount Zoomer” the excellent sophomore effort by Wolf Parade and had to play more than a minute of centerpiece “California Dreamer”. It took some time to build, opening with just an organ and whispered vocals, but by the time the full band kicked in, the patio was rocking.

No one in the audience knew what band we were listening to. The best guess I got was Of Montreal, and it’s true that Wolf Parade hails from Montreal (oddly, Of Montreal formed in Athens, GA), but it came as little surprise to me that there were no Wolf Parade fans in the room. Silences after other song clips (no one knew Prefab Sprout or The Clipse either) made me feel a bit alone as a music nut in a brewery full of regular people out for a beer and some entertainment.

Playing Wolf Parade for this crowd felt entirely different. It made the whole ridiculous project feel justified. Someone asked me for my 912th-favorite album and I gave them the rapture. “California Dreamer” is an epic, a tour de force capable of converting the masses to indie rock. “At Mount Zoomer” isn’t even my favorite Wolf Parade album, but I just told thirty-something people that I like 911 albums more than the balls-out banger I played for them. It sold a couple books.

I don’t know how many people took my advice and went home and listened to Wolf Parade for the first time, but if they did, they heard more than “California Dreamer”. “Call It a Ritual” is as catchy as the album is esoteric. “Fine Young Cannibal” is a smooth, keyboard-driven earworm. Closer “Kissing the Beehive” flaunts the band’s musicianship and the skills of two-songwriter attack Dan Boeckner and Spencer Krug, showcasing every idiosyncrasy in their oeuvre over 11 minutes.

Not every song on “At Mount Zoomer” is perfect. I like 900 albums more than this one. But the high points fly high enough that I’d recommend it to a fan of any persuasion. I’m humbled to have the chance to introduce people to music like this.

That’s my 912th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #304 “The Midnight Organ Fight”

#304: “The Midnight Organ Fight”, Frightened Rabbit, 2008

In the wake of singer Scott Hutchinson’s recent suicide, his bandmates enlisted the help of a cadre of musicians who happen to be Frightened Rabbit fans to release the tribute album “Tiny Changes: A Celebration of Frightened Rabbit’s ‘The Midnight Organ Fight'”. After one listen, I’m not ready to assess the merits of the covers that comprise it, but I dare anyone to listen to “Tiny Changes” without immediately reaching for the album it honors.

A tribute album is a great way to celebrate, interpret, or show affection for an inspiring artist. The musician performing the tribute is pressured to be true to the original while adding enough spin to make it worth the rerecording. The one element of Frightened Rabbit’s music to which devotees can’t possibly do justice is the vulnerability in Hutchinson’s quivering brogue. Whether it’s the longing on “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms”, the anger and sympathy in “Keep Yourself Warm”, the tragedy of “Poke”, or the brief foray into joy that is “Old Old Fashioned”, Hutchinson’s voice is the center of the band’s greatest work.

A listen to “The Midnight Organ Fight” in 2019 is quite a roller coaster. Opener “The Modern Leper” is still the highlight, a breakup song loaded with allusions to illness and death, but somehow uplifting enough to leave the listener begging for more. “Floating in the Forth” is perhaps its antidote, a more direct accounting of the protagonist’s post-suicide desire to walk, fully-clothed, into a river where he’ll float away from his heartbreak. The track is saved by the line “I think I’ll save suicide for another day”. Sadly, though, that day came a decade later, in a manner eerily true to the song that portended it.

To chalk a listen to this album up to an exercise in masochism is to miss the joy it brought, and still brings. The charging outro to “My Backwards Walk” still sounds determined to find hope in heartbreak. “Fast Blood” is as much triumph as trial. And “Head Rolls Off” is both funny and sincere, offering the line that would give name to the tribute album: “and while I’m alive, I’ll make tiny changes to Earth”.

Hutchinson’s changes to Earth may be tiny to the majority of its 7 billion inhabitants. To Frightened Rabbit fans, though, Hutchinson was a poet, a fighter, a role model, and an artist who conspired with fate to bring his greatest gift to the ears of so many people who needed to hear it. “The Midnight Organ Fight” is the most wonderful of the many documents of Hutchinson sharing his gift.

That’s my 304th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #580 “Something More Than Free”

#580: “Something More Than Free”, Jason Isbell, 2015

Jason Isbell is many things: a skilled storyteller, a strong vocalist and guitar player, an advocate for those without a voice, a survivor of addiction, a soldier for progressive values in a conservative minefield… On his best album, “Something More Than Free”, his knack for melody outshines all of these attributes.

The second half of “Something More Than Free” is full of perfectly adequate songs like “Speed Trap Town” and “Hudson Commodore” that lament and celebrate life’s trials and triumphs. The songs are rooted in country but not far from folk in their social consciousness and lyric-first production.

The first half of the record is sublime. Opener “If It Takes a Lifetime” kicks things off with the pep of a recovered alcoholic celebrating a new lease on life, weary of speed bumps past and present, but committed to a brighter future. It’s “24 Frames” and “How to Forget” that really steal the show. Both are showcases of Isbell’s uncanny knack for melody- equally worthy of pop radio and the country canon. They’re earworms, loaded with emotion, from regret to nostalgia to heartbreak to hope.

“Flagship”, “Children of Children”, and “The Life You Chose” are cut from the same cloth- pop songs if there’s room for such introspection in pop, country songs if there’s room for such beauty and depth in country.

Every album in Isbell’s growing catalog shines a light on his ability to tell stories from places personal and provincial. Only “Something More Than Free” supplements that ability with a string of melodies that deliver Isbell’s introspection and elocution in such sweet packages.

That’s my 580th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #476 “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”

#476: “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”, Neko Case, 2006

Neko Case is my favorite singer. I don’t know what is means to have a favorite singer. Is it the singer naturally gifted with the best voice, the singer most talented at using that voice to produce sound, or the artist who writes songs that best fit her voice? By any of those definitions, the answer for me is Neko Case.

My favorite album featuring Neko Case’s voice is not a Neko Case album. The New Pornographers’ first two efforts, “Mass Romantic” and “Twin Cinema”, both make better use of the Canadian ensemble’s range of voices and styles. Case’s 2016 collaboration with k.d. lang and Laura Viers rivals anything in her solo catalog. But the album that best showcases the most satisfying voice I’ve ever heard is “Fox Confessor Brings the Flood”.

Neko providing her own harmonies on “A Widow’s Toast” sends shivers down my spine every time. She comes across as an angel who just might have a dark side, and layering her voice over itself suggests those two sides may coexist moment-to-moment. I can’t think of anyone else qualified to elicit nostalgia from listeners the way Neko does on “That Teenage Feeling”. The gospel hoedown “John Saw That Number” comes out of left field, not matching the tone of much of the rest of the album, but Neko’s sweet but sturdy croon ties it into the rest of the affair.

Any moment Neko Case’s voice pumps through your speakers is a divine one, but the highlights of “Fox Confessor” come toward the beginning and end of the album. “Hold On, Hold On” is a love letter to a stranger, dipping into Case’s country roots while celebrating that devil-loving dark side. Closer “The Needle Has Landed” doubles down on those aforementioned harmonies, showcasing Neko’s vocal range and ability to write a more complex song without sacrificing pop sensibility. When it fades to a close, you’ll want the repeat button close at hand, because listening to any other voice will feel like a letdown.

That’s my 476th-favorite album.

Album of the Week: #247 “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”

#247: “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”, Courtney Barnett, 2015

Last week, I saw the National in concert in Portland, Maine. They’re one of the great bands of the early part of the 21st century- consistently excellent, popular, and critically acclaimed. They put on a good show. Of the two acts who took that stage in Portland last Thursday night, The National were a strong second best.

Much of The National’s appeal stems from the rich baritone of Matt Berninger. Their music seems tailor-made to his natural gift, and it always fits within their formula- on record, anyway. In person, Berninger takes center stage, though he occasionally leaves the stage to share crooning duties with zealous fans. For the most part, though, he stands there, singing and gesticulating- pointing to his head when he sings the word “mind” and pinching his fingers together when he sings “small”. His gift is real, but it’s more nature than nurture. This comment intends to disparage Berninger and The National only by comparison to last week’s opening act, Courtney Barnett.

On record, Barnett’s charm is in her attitude. She writes nerd rock, packing jokes and subtleties into every song, loading more syllables into a bar than one might have thought reasonable before the release of her 2015 debut, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit”.

On stage, the wordplay isn’t half the story. She wields quite an axe. Songs like “Dead Fox” and “Need a Little Time” use the guitar as an accent on record. Courtney’s got something to say, and after she makes you laugh or ponder, she bangs out a quick solo for good measure. On stage, it’s the vocals that set up the solos and the solos that bring the house down.

At times, Courtney is so subtle in her shredding that the viewer might think it’s her bassist tearing into a solo while she calmly keeps rhythm. At other times, she walks away from the mic and rips into her guitar like it’s an extension of her body. At even odder times, she puts the guitar on top of her head and picks at it from there, piling on distortion and earning raves from the crowd. At all times, she’s completely in control of her gift, one that certainly requires natural ability, but that has clearly been honed over the years. She’s a performer of the highest grade.

A National album is better than a National show. A Courtney Bartnett show is better than a Courtney Barnett album. Nevertheless, “Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit” is an all-timer, loaded with cheeky numbers like “Pedestrian at Best” and “Nobody Really Cares if You Don’t Go to the Party” and hard rockers like “Aqua Profunda!” and “Dead Fox”. Barnett is in total control of her world, whether playing with precision in the studio to complete her stream-of-consciousness thoughts or blowing away live audiences with guitar histrionics.

That’s my 247th-favorite album.