It was a pleasant surprise when I scanned through the new album releases last week to find a brand new one from John Grant. 2013’s Pale Green Ghosts became a favorite of mine soon after seeing John perform “GMF” and “Black Belt” on Jools Holland. Melodic, electronic, and orchestral pop/rock with an edge. I was taken in..
So in listening to his new release, Grey Tickles, Black Pressure, John delivers another album full of his unique twists and turns, electro-sounds, and, shall we say, wholly unique lyrics. Have you ever heard anything near the line:
“And let’s be clear, Joan Baez makes GG Allin look like Charlene Tilton.” ?
Many of you may be familiar with all three personalities listed off in that lyric. But I couldn’t place GG Allin. 40’s movie star? Uhh. No. Not even close. And let me just warn you. If you also don’t know who GG Allin is, think twice before Googling him. And for God’s sake – don’t enter a GG Allin Youtube rabbit hole. You will be sick to your stomach (I was). I’ll say no more.
The line comes from “Snug Slacks”, which veers into Zappa-esque territory with a cool electrofunk twist. Another favorite is “Black Blizzard,” which confirms John’s appreciation for Gary Numan with those synth riffs.
I’m only a few listens in to this record, but suffice it to say it’s a fun, fresh trip worthy of many spins.. Do check it out.
One of my new year’s resolutions for 2014 will be to spend more time banging out some thoughts on this blog (which will turn 10 in December). It mystifies me how fast time flies between my posts here (and time in general). I want to come here more often and blurt out my reactions to all the good tunes swirling around out there. So what holds me back? It’s things like growing older, deepening responsibilities, two children growing up, work, stress, obligations, laziness, Netflix, bourbon…
Still, it’s important for me to continue to have this outlet. Although attention spans on the internet are fleeting and fragmented, and not many eyes gaze upon this site anymore, I still like having my own little virtual nook. So continue on I shall, and hopefully more frequently.
So what of my musical interests in 2013? As usual, not so much time was spent jumping voraciously into newly released material (although there are a few that rattled my core). I still love jumping back in time (often with the help of Rdio and Spotify) to discover and re-discover the myriad tunes I’ve missed and/or neglected all these years. It’s overwhelming, but it sure is exciting to know that so much music exists with the potential to have that profound impact that makes it so special.
So here’s my top 10 in music this year. These are the albums, songs, shows and moments that moved me in 2013…
This album came out in November and absolutely floored me. I had no expectations, and frankly wasn’t even aware of it until the week it came out. I took a listen, and I was hooked a minute into the album opener, “Roving Gambler.” The voices of Billie Joe Armstrong (of Green Day fame) and Norah Jones mesh perfectly in this sublime song for song cover of the Everly Brothers’ 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The whole album soothes my laid back, old folkie soul.
Saturday Night Live still has some great moments. Besides the regular appearances of my favorite cast members Cecily Strong, Kate McKinnon, and Taran Killam, the music guests can deliver and surprise. I enjoyed Haim this year, and I really enjoyed the Kings of Leon appearance, particularly “Temple,” the best straight ahead rock tune I’ve heard all year.
Here is KoL’s performance of the song from Live on Letterman:
Deep. Stunning. What a flawless voice. This slow burning, soulful track from Alice’s album, She, was an early year highlight. I saw her open for Citizen Cope several years back, and here’s hoping she makes it back to AZ soon, ’cause Alice, I Want You Just For Me.
Want your heart ripped right out of your chest, tossed around like a hot potato, and shoved back in? In a good way? Then this tune is for you. This is Guy’s tribute to his late wife, Susanna, who passed away in 2012. Here’s an intimate intro and performance from Guy’s home:
6. [Show] Steve Earle & the Dukes – Scottsdale Center of the Performing Arts – October 14th
It had been 10 plus years since I last saw Steve perform with his band the Dukes. This year’s incarnation included long time members Kelly Looney on bass and Will Rigby on drums, and husband and wife-duo the Mastersons (Chris Masterson and Eleanor Whitmore) on guitars, violin and background vocals. Seeing them in the hoity-toity confines of Scottsdale among the older set (okay, blue hairs) was entertaining in and of itself, but the main event was clear as could be: the bad-ass Steve Earle front and center, ripping through songs new and old, including his great new record The Low Highway. Highlights for me came from my favorite Steve album, I Feel Alright, with rip-roaring performances of “Hard Core Troubadour” and “Billy & Bonnie.”
Thanks to Later with Jools Holland, a British music show which started airing stateside this year on the Palladia HD channel, I was introduced to the talented John Grant. ‘Pale Green Ghosts’ is electronic, melodic, grandiose, and beautiful. One of its best songs, “GMF,” will have you singing along loud & proud: “I am the greatest motherfuckerrr that you’re ever gonna meet / from the top of my head down to the tips of the toes on my feeet.” I’m telling you.
4. [Show] Prince & 3rd Eye Girl – Marquee Theater, Tempe, AZ – May 1st
It was a really long drought for me between Prince shows. I hadn’t seen him since his One Night Alone tour in 2002, when he was touring behind The Rainbow Children album. This time, it was Prince (full on ‘fro in effect) and his new all-female backing trio 3rd Eye Girl, in the intimate setting of the 1000-capacity Marquee Theater in Tempe. I wasn’t further than 50 feet from him, and as you could guess, the experience was unforgettable. There were the impressive new cuts like “Screwdriver” and “Fixurlifeup,” but the true magic for me came with tunes like “Forever In My Life” (with P on bass), “Joy In Repetition” (with Larry Graham on bass), and “Purple Rain” performed at the piano. Ain’t no party like a purple party.
Matthew Houck released a hell of an album this year with ‘Muchacho.’ Its lead single, “Song for Zula” was a gorgeous introduction, an honest look at love and the frailty of the human condition. The album is rich with poignant, beautiful moments. Take for instance one of my favorites, “Down to Go”:
You say, Oh, you’ll spin your heartache into gold
And I suppose but it rips my heart out don’t you know
But if I’m waking each morning babe
All aching and ornery babe
All vacant and thorny, hey I’m down to go
Seeing Matthew and his band sing these songs live back in October at their Crescent Ballroom show – magnified the beauty and brilliance of this album, and showed how great music lives and breathes.
2. [Show] The Who – Jobing.com Arena, Glendale, AZ – February 6th
This may go down as the best last minute decision I’ve ever made. I had just wrapped up Pete Townshend’s great autobiography Who I Am early in the year, and was fully immersed in The Who and Pete’s solo work. It turned out that The Who were stopping through Phoenix in February, performing Quadrophenia in its entirety, followed by a greatest hits set. They are definitely a Bucket List-caliber band to me, so I recruited a friend and got a couple of tickets. I’m so glad I made that decision. Watching Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey live (yes, even in 2013) is a must for any fan of rock & roll. Seeing them blast through hits like “Baba O’Riley,” “Who Are You,” “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” and the full epic performance of Pete’s rock opera, Quadrophenia, was a once in a lifetime thrill. I soaked it all in, and walked out with a Who-induced buzz that lasted weeks. Fantastic show.
1. [Artist] Neil Young
I’ll finish with Neil.
Once again, a book was the catalyst in inspiring me to jump into a catalog of work. I found Neil’s bio, Waging Heavy Peace, a very entertaining read. It jumps from past to present and back, and you just never know what topic he’ll cover from chapter to chapter – whether it’s his Buffalo Springfield days in the 60’s, his adventures in Topanga Canyon in the 70’s, his passions in this century of developing a superior quality audio file or his alternate-fueled LincVolt car project… he’s all over the place (sort of how my brain behaves most of the time), and that appealed to me in the book. So to accompany the book, I jumped head first into Neil’s catalog later this year – his vast collection of solo albums (wow, still a long way to go), the Springfield stuff, his Crazy Horse records, etc. Now, I’ve always loved Neil’s stuff – the stuff I’ve been familiar with over the years, that is. Albums like Harvest, Harvest Moon, and Rust Never Sleeps. But for some reason, I hadn’t tracked down other gems – the biggest miss being his second album, 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. Yes, I know “Cinnamon Girl” and “Down By The River,” but damned if I didn’t discover that I had never – not once – listened to this 44 year old record in my entire 43 years on this planet! Over the past couple months, as I’ve listened repeatedly to masterpieces like “The Losing End (When You’re On)” and “Cowgirl in the Sand” – and I realize that this record would have been right up there with some of my landmark “life” albums (like ‘Sticky Fingers,’ ‘Hard Promises,’ and ‘Purple Rain’)… well, I feel like a dope.
But such is life. Better late than never. And speaking of Bucket Lists – Neil Young, you are right up there near the top. Cheers to a legend.
Best television discovery of late? Without a doubt, it’s Later…with Jools Holland, a BBC2 music show that showcases 4-5 artists per show in a unique way: all bands & artists are set up in studio at the same time in a circle, with each performing a song at a time (with Jools as emcee, introducing the acts). It’s really a neat dynamic, as it’s pretty easy to tell that it raises the game for the musicians, who are not only performing for a live studio audience, but to their musician peers standing feet away.
The first Jools show I watched straight through a few weeks back featured the Stereophonics, Low, the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra, Melt Yourself Down, Yasmine Hamdan, and John Grant. Two of the artists stuck out for me – the Lee Thompson Ska Orchestra and John Grant. If you want a great summer album to accompany a BBQ or poolside relaxation, definitely spin Lee Thompson’s latest album, The Benevolence of Sister Mary Ignatius. Lee is the sax player and one of the founding members of Madness, so that’s an instant indicator of its ska-cool quality…
But I was really blown away by John Grant. It’s music that’s hard to describe – electronic folk, maybe? Very melodic, great harmonies and sounds, both acoustic and synthetic. It just really caught on with me. One of the standout tunes on his new album, Pale Green Ghosts, is “GMF”, a tune whose tender and sensitive opening instrumentation unleashes into some eye opening and interesting lyrics – especially the chorus:
But I am the greatest motherfucker
That you’re ever gonna meet
From the top of my head
Down to the tips of the toes on my feet.
So go ahead and love me while it’s still a crime,
And don’t forget you could be laughing
65 percent more of the time.
You could be laughing
65 percent more of the time.
And it’s hooky enough that you’ll be singing along by the time the chorus rolls around for the second time. There’s a lot of analysis yet to be done on this record, but it’s clear that Grant, who is openly gay, does not shy away from the subject. But it’s only one dimension of this unique album and artist. The strange opening sounds of the opener “Pale Green Ghosts” pull you right in (headphones recommended) and don’t let go until the end.
For those of you in the U.S., you can catch Jools Holland on Palladia HD network.