Thursday, April 30, 2020

The Album Thing: Ferron, Phantom Center

The album thing! (If you don’t know what I’m doing, look at some of the previous posts.)

Phantom Center is another album that came into my life at a time when I needed to hear the things it said. (By the way, the photo is of the cover of the original version of this CD. I guess it’s a collector’s item now. The remake version of Phantom Center is used in my links below.)

Stand Up” (yeah, that’s the Indigo Girls doing supporting vocals)

The Cart” is one of Ferron’s best songs, I think, which automatically makes it one of the best songs ever. The “wheel,” of course, is metaphorical. (Like, Buddhism.)

Sunken City” is an amazing song, too. Whoa, nelly, watch it build. “Some things just pull so strong, like the map of the sky is the map of your heart” . . . “Let’s go on a hunch and give this a name.”

If you’ve never heard of Ferron, I feel sorry for you. That’s like never having heard of Leonard Cohen. “Our Purpose Here” is one of her earlier masterpieces (from another album).

Ferron’s best songs have some trace of darkness (which she can have in abundance; for example, see “White Wing Mercy” from Phantom Center). Here’s the (autobiographical) title track from her album Shadows on a Dime. Another masterpiece. Like Joni Mitchell, she’s a poet first.

Finally, if you don’t care for Ferron’s voice, listen to what others can do with her songs. Here’s an example.

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

The Album Thing: Indigo Girls, Rites of Passage

The album thing again! It’s a Facebook fad that’s going around. You’re supposed to post a picture of albums you especially love. Since I’m going to the trouble to share it on social media, I might as well share it here, too.

Don’t worry, eventually we’ll get to the instrumental selections, and you may find some musicians you’ve never heard of. If this is annoying, then blame Facebook. But here's today's selection.

There are so many good songs on this album. The album helped me pivot from depression into hopefulness. “Love Will Come to You,” in particular helped me learn how to talk hopefully to myself—something that had been difficult-to-impossible when I’m in the midst of depression. But this song helped me to make that pivot.

Having hopefulness is a helpful illusion, I think. Sometimes in the deeper parts of depression, hopefulness feels like the cruelest hoax. At such times I have hunted for songs that offer the kind of bittersweet hope that only a fellow sufferer can convey. “Joy” isn’t the word for it, but it opens the door to the party at least.

Music has sometimes functioned like a drug for me, and often not in a good way. I don’t listen to the Indigo Girls much anymore. Most of what I listen to is instrumental. The vocal music I listen to tends to be classical or jazz, where the artistry and styling accentuates the theatrical aspect of the lyrics, which helps me remember that the singing is a performance, a role, a mask, and not necessarily a personal truth.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

The Album Thing: k.d. lang, Absolute Torch and Twang

The album thing again! It’s a Facebook fad that’s going around. You’re supposed to post a picture of albums you especially love. Since I’m going to the trouble to share it on social media, I might as well share it here, too. How many do you think I’m gonna end up posting?

The influential album du jour! You knew k.d. lang had to come up sometime. This here was her big one for me. Isn’t it fun how certain albums are associated with certain times in your life?

This album, with its self-assured opening song “Luck in My Eyes,” was, for me, Phoenix, and it was also San Francisco. Do I need to say more? Ah, youth, and its confidence.

I don’t even really like country that much. But boy, it sure can convey all the trouble love can get a stupid young person into. Here’s to “Pullin’ Back the Reins.”

By the time I left Arizona for Montana . . . so many regrets. Wow. “Trail of Broken Hearts” was my new theme song. I was a mess.

Monday, April 27, 2020

The Album Thing: Meg Christian, Turning It Over

The album thing continues! It’s a Facebook fad that’s going around. You’re supposed to post a picture of albums you especially love. And why not share it on my blog, too. This is fun! Today I’m sharing an album that few probably know, but it changed my life, for the better. Of all the women’s music performers I used to hear on KOPN radio, Meg Christian was always my favorite. I loved her tasty classical guitar playing, and her clear, expressive, but unaffected singing style.

The title track, “Turning It Over,” refers to twelve-step programs (turning it over to a higher power). More generally, however, it is about being grounded, true to oneself, focused. It spoke to me when I was in ninth grade, and it speaks to me now. (No, I don’t know why the video shows a covered bridge.)

Meg Christian helped me learn the vocabulary of my people. And songs like “There’s a Light” helped me get in touch with my true feelings, which was indeed difficult for me.

And then there’s “Southern Home,” also from the album, about reconciling love of one’s homeland with hatred of old-school bigotry. This is an album about softening oneself and learning to let go of what one cannot change. This album came out well before the Indigo Girls, k.d. Lang, REM, etc. made it okay to be a liberal southerner or small-town/rural inhabitant. I’m not a southerner, but as a midwesterner, I can relate. Columbia was, and still is, an island of progressivism in a sea of cultural conservativism. It’s possible to love your homeland while still detesting its bigotry and small-mindedness.

The Album Thing: Original Broadway Cast, Annie

The album challenge. It’s a Facebook fad that’s going around. It was supposed to be ten albums, but who are we kidding. I have lots more than ten albums to be happy about!

This is my nod to Broadway, to junior high when I learned to appreciate the glories of the American musical theater, and to Tricia Edwards, wherever she may be today. She turned a bunch of midwestern middle school monsters into Annie aficionados, Broadway buffs, Camelot connoisseurs.

Also, something that really instilled this as a favorite musical, is that my little high school self was lucky enough to be tapped to play the first trumpet part in our high school musical my senior year, and guess which musical it was. Indeed, our high school’s performance of Annie in 1984 happened to be the first amateur performance of that musical in our state, and I got to play the first notes of the musical as a solo. “The sun’ll come out tomorrow . . .”

Seriously. The overture starts with a trumpet solo.

A few more words about Tricia Edwards, the vocal teacher at Oakland Junior High when I was there. She made waves with her ambitious school musicals for such young students. She had junior high kids doing Broadway shows (including Once Upon a Mattress and Bye, Bye Birdie). She said it was actually easy: you just need to treat the kids as if they were able to do the jobs, show them how to do it, and they rose to the challenge. . . . Fact is, another ingredient is that we all adored her.

Her class in the American Musical Theater put us light years ahead of where we might have been; it gave us an overview and history of an important part of American performing arts culture. One of her personal friends had been an original cast understudy on Broadway for the role of Grace Farrell (Daddy Warbucks’ assistant). Mrs. Edwards made something very, very remote from our little Missouri lives seem somehow within close reach. (If you watched Glee, she was basically Mr. Schue, only thirty years before Glee; Matthew Morrison was just an infant.) I wish I could write her a letter to tell her thanks. Mrs. Edwards, if you’re still out there, I hope you find this post.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

The Album Thing: Cat Stevens, Tea for the Tillerman

Day “whatever” of the record album thingie. It’s a Facebook fad that’s going around. You’re supposed to post a picture of albums you especially love. Since I’m going to the trouble to share it on social media, I might as well share it here, too. I’m glad I was invited to do this, because it’s a fun way to reminisce about music that changed my world (at least, my musical world). I invite all my friends to participate in this one. The original rules said “no explanations,” but to heck with that. I want to explain.

I was five when Tea for the Tillerman came out. The hits from this album were all over the radio when I was young, but it was my older cousins in Michigan who really impressed me with this music. Sue Ann, especially, was an accomplished singer and guitarist, and she sang lots of Cat Stevens’s songs. Ohh I was so impressed by that! I was probably about twelve when I got a guitar, so this album was seven years old by then. I was immersed in acoustic singer/songwriter music while most my age were listening to KC and the Sunshine Band.

Where Do the Children Play?” . . . I learned to play all the songs on this album, pretty much. The chords are easy, and a beginning guitarist can strum them and learn basic patterns. The singing parts are interesting, and the words thoughtful, even at times spiritual.

Into White” is another favorite from this album. I love the simple, lovely pictures painted by these lyrics. I still sometimes play this on the guitar.

For anyone wondering what Cat Stevens (a.k.a. Steven Demetre Georgiou; now Yusuf Islam, “Joe Islam”) is up to now, here’s a fairly recent NPR Tiny Desk concert.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Album Thing: Joni Mitchell, Hejira

I would share Joni Mitchell’s Hejira with you even if I wasn’t doing the Facebook album thing. I was nominated by a dear friend to post something like ten (ha ha ha) album covers of favorite or transformational albums, blah, blah, blah . . . who cares about the rules.

Hejira is the second Joni Mitchell album I ever got, and by then it was already about three or four years old. I bought it a few months after I’d gotten Mitchell’s Ladies of the Canyon, a folkie favorite. There’s only six years’ difference between the albums, but there’s a world of difference in the sound. Imagine my surprise when I set the needle down and heard this!

Hejira,” the title track, is probably the best on the album. Every Joni Mitchell fan has a special spiritual place for this masterpiece of poetry, beat, and strings. Hear the lyrics.

Contributing in a big way to this album was Jaco Pastorius, who was Joni Mitchell’s bass player during this time. He was a brilliant, groundbreaking musician. Note his signature fretless sound.

Thursday, April 23, 2020

The Album Thing: Joni Mitchell, Ladies of the Canyon

So I’m continuing with this album thing. On Facebook, I was nominated by a dear friend to post something like ten (ha ha ha) album covers of favorite albums over the years . . . or something. There were a bunch of rules, but I’m gonna ignore them and just post photos of several of my favorite (or formational) albums over the years. Because that’s the point. And since I’m doing this on social media, why not also share it here?

Ladies of the Canyon” is the title track. I think I fell in love here.

Another favorite from this album is “Conversation.” This was the first Joni Mitchell album I bought, and I got it waaaaay after it had come out. Most of my classmates were listening to the Bee Gees or something at the time.

A lot of people know the song “Woodstock,” but they don’t know that Joni wrote it. Yeah, these were what she called her “helium voice” days. They wouldn’t last long . . .

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The Album Thing: Chuck Mangione, Feels So Good

So I’m participating in this Facebook fad. On Facebook, I was nominated by a dear friend to post something like ten album covers of favorite albums over the years, or something. There were a bunch of rules, but I’m gonna ignore them and just post photos of several of my favorite (or maybe I should say formational) albums over the years. Because that’s the point.

Everyone used to say my trumpet sound was so beautiful. I think it was because I tried to emulate Chuck’s sound on the flugelhorn. I didn’t even know such a thing existed. I was like twelve. I just heard it on the radio and thought it was a trumpet. It was much later when I finally saw the instrument he was playing. No wonder I developed a round, dark sound.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Album Thing: Carpenters, Carpenters

Okay, I’m participating in a Facebook fad. I was nominated by a dear friend to post something like ten album covers of favorite albums over the years, or something like that. There were a bunch of rules, but I’m gonna ignore them and just post photos of a bunch of my favorite albums over the years. Because that’s the point. So, we begin with something that should not be a surprise to anyone who’s known me for very long.

You know, I could fulfill this whole “favorite album thing” and with all Carpenters albums. That would be pretty funny, huh. Again, if you know me well, you’d know that wouldn’t be a stretch.

Superstar” was one of the huge hits from this album. It’s a great example of the synthesis of the best of Richard Carpenter’s arranging and Karen Carpenter’s vocal magic. The story goes, he had to press her to sing it because she hated it at first.

Rainy Days and Mondays” was another big hit from the album. And it was one of several Carpenters songs that was an exquisite study in depression. And no, no, in these days, there was no autotune in sight—this is all her (and their) real voices, painstakingly overdubbed.

Their famous Carpenters Bacharach-David medley is on this album—it was not a big radio hit, but as an arrangement it was a tour-de-force, featuring more amazing vocals. Here, I’m sharing a live version of it, in case anyone might think this virtuosity was all just “magic in the studio.” Actually in this live version, they use faster tempos than on the album. This kind of perfectionism might be one reason they ended up so burned out.

I would like to add that the last few years, I’ve read some really interesting stuff about Karen Carpenter. First, as a baseline, the Ron Coleman biography of the duo, which is the one Richard and the family approved of, so it tippy-toes around certain topics. Second, the book Little Girl Blue, by Randy Schmidt, is an unauthorized but respectful biography of Karen; it is the fuller, and focused treatment that she as an individual totally deserved.

But finally, I’d like to recommend a slim volume called Why Karen Carpenter Matters, by Karen Tongson, which really helped me understand that my young obsession with Karen Carpenter wasn’t ridiculous or sad and in fact was mirrored by many other people like me who stand outside the mainstream: “In Why Karen Carpenter Matters, Karen Tongson (whose Filipino musician parents named her after the pop icon) interweaves the story of the singer’s rise to fame with her own trans-Pacific journey between the Philippines—where imitations of American pop styles flourished—and Karen Carpenter’s home ground of Southern California. Tongson reveals why the Carpenters’ chart-topping, seemingly whitewashed musical fantasies of “normal love” can now have profound significance for her—as well as for other people of color, LGBT+ communities, and anyone outside the mainstream culture usually associated with Karen Carpenter’s legacy. This hybrid of memoir and biography excavates the destructive perfectionism at the root of the Carpenters’ sound, while finding the beauty in the singer’s all too brief life.” I highly recommend it.