60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites

(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)
(us.fotolia.com | Zarya Maxim)

I began writing this post several months ago, in January, carried along on the brief rush of excitement that comes with a new year. “2015! How about noting a bunch of anniversaries of great albums?” And, in fact, one of the great strengths of Progarchy.com is the sense of music history and the awareness of anniversaries: “Forty year ago….thirty years ago….twenty-five years ago…twenty years ago…”, as opposed to the dominant model out there, which is “Forty minutes ago…thirty seconds ago…twenty tweets ago…” But then life overwhelmed me and the burst of focused energy dissipated for a while. Now it’s back. Best strike while the vinyl is hot—or something along those lines.

The idea here is very simple: I listen to hundreds of new albums every year, along with hundreds of older albums that I come back to for various reasons; but how much of that music has real staying power? And what, in the end, makes a person return repeatedly to This Album rather than That Album? Sure, of course it is because of impeccable taste and a rare instinct for timeless music. (Duh.) But there is a wonderful mystery to it all, for so much of what resonates in a particular album comes from accidental things: the time, the place, the event, the moment. Certain songs bring back great memories; certain songs make you want to jump off a cliff (yes, I’m looking at you, Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical”).

But it isn’t simply a matter of nostalgia, which can only go so far; it is, I hope, more often a matter of discovery, of hearing something new—or, in some cases, hearing something old and suddenly hearing it. Really hearing it.

My criteria is this: what albums from 60, 50, 40, 30, 25, 20, and 10 years ago do I still listen to now on a regular basis? And never tire of hearing? And why? With that, here goes!

sinatra_torme1955: In the Wee Small Hours by Frank Sinatra and It’s a Blue World by Mel Tormé. I was not raised on Sinatra’s music; quite the contrary—I was raised on decent hymns and mediocre to rotten “Christian” music; I hardly paid attention to Top 40 pop and rock until I was in junior high. And I didn’t really listen to Sinatra or Tormé until a dozen years ago. Prior to that, I simply didn’t “get it”. Then I did. Why? I’m not sure. But since then, I’ve collected some 1300 Sinatra songs. The Chairman of the Board produced many classic albums, but this one is my personal favorite: dark, lush, aching, beautiful, gut-wrenching, perfect. I sometimes fall to sleep listening to it, especially when it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m wide awake. Sinatra had the rare gift of making you, the listener, believe The Voice was singing only to and for you. It’s impossible to describe; it simply has to be heard and experienced. And don’t forget: Sinatra is the God Father of Prog. Really. Sinatra, by the way, was born a hundred years ago this year.

Tormé did not have the edge or darkness of Sinatra, nor did he ever plumb the depths of emotional despair as did  the legend ten years his senior. But Tormé had range, talent, and genius to burn, not just as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, but also as an accomplished songsmith (he penned 250 songs or so), fabulous arranger, top-notch drummer (and decent pianist), novelist, biographer, author, actor, screen writer, consummate showman, and collector (guns, cars, movies, etc.). It’s a Blue World is a lush, impeccable set of songs, likely influenced by Sinatra’s Wee Small Hours. While Sinatra packs an emotional punch, Tormé thrills with pure beauty and dazzling musicality, all delivered with an effortless ease that reminds me of watching Roger Federer play tennis at Wimbledon. Bing Crosby, asked late in life to name his favorite musicians, named only one vocalist–Tormé–saying, “Any singer that goes to hear this guy sing has got to go and cut his throat.” For a taste, check out Tormé singing Duke Ellington’s “I’ve Got It Bad, And That Ain’t Good”. Continue reading “60 Years, Twelve Albums, One Man’s Favorites”

Succinct Reviews of Seven Sterling (Non-Prog) CDs

I live with several people and many things: my wife, our three children, a dog, two cats, five chickens, numerous fish, a dated wardrobe, and countless delusions. Among those delusions is an unwarranted—irrational!—belief that I will write long, detailed reviews of every album I deem worthy of such. Reality smirks at such excessive dreams, but I continue to harbor them. Still, I sometimes relent to reality, with gritted teeth and a fleeting snarl. So, what follows are short reviews of seven recently released albums (mostly downloads, actually) that share two qualities: they are not prog, and they are excellent. I should note that although the main focus of Progarchy.com  (which I conceived and Brad birthed—ooh, that sounds a bit, uh, strange) is obviously prog, it is open to all forms of good music. Genre is of far lesser importance than quality. That said, let’s push “Play”.

• “Until The Quiet Comes” by Flying Lotus. This is my sort of electronica: richly detailed, sumptuous, quirky, edged with darkness, possessing a jazzy flair, and endlessly inventive. The jazzy element has a genealogy, as Steven Ellison (who is Flying Lotus) is the great-nephew of Alice Coltrane, wife of the late, legendary ‘Trane. Includes a track, “Electric Candyman”, with a certain Thom Yorke. A near perfect late night album, this rewards repeated listens.

• “3 Pears” by Dwight Yoakam. His music has always been lean and his lyrics dry, but the new twist is subtle: a warmth in both content and sound. An example of the first is “Waterfall”, which is playful, with a wry and wistful sense of joy. The second comes through in Yoakam’s superb vocals, set in arrangements that are fat-free and feature just the right amount of twang and reverb, with tasty touches of organ and piano. The man is a superior songwriter and this set is further proof that country music can be twangy and contemporary without being shallow and trendy.

• “Long Wave” by Jeff Lynne. A part of me was prepared to dislike this because it is a covers album and is quite short (barely 28 minutes). Yes, this is a rather nostalgic homage to songs Lynne grew up on (standouts include “She” and “Beyond the Sea”), but the wizard of ELO brings such an obvious love to the project, I was won over. It doesn’t hurt that it is impeccably sung, played and produced, with lush Lynne-harmonies and ELO-like arrangements that are all about the songs. Besides, if there is one thing Lynne’s music has always had, it was a sense of nostalgic melancholy and romantic regret. Short, bittersweet, and stellar.

• “Manu Katché” by Manu Katché. Who hasn’t this phenomenal drummer played with? Notable names include Peter Gabriel, Sting, Jeff Beck, Tears for Fears, Tori Amos, and about a billion others. This is Katché’s fourth disc for ECM, and each has been fabulous; this newest release is notable for its propulsive approach. As one reviewer noted (I’ve lost the link), this is perhaps the funkiest ECM album ever, the sort of playful, soulful jazz album that gives an assured nod to modern sounds (read: synths and loops), but is rooted in acoustic bliss, with plenty of warm horns and shimmering organ. Recommended for anyone who loves great jazz and anyone who needs an entry point for modern jazz that is equally brainy and passionate.

• “Albatross” by Big Wreck. I was oblivious to this fine group (a “neo-prog hard-rock outfit” according to AllMusic.com) until I stumbled upon this new release on emusic.com. Singer Ian Thornley brings Chris Cornell to mind with his powerful, expressive vocals, but is hardly a clone, nor does he try to be. Three successive songs—”Wolves”, “Albatross”, and “Glass Room”—are worth the price of admission. “Wolves” (see YouTube video), especially, is a dynamite track, a perfect four-minute modern rock song, with top-notch playing and subtle melody. One of my favorite releases of 2012.

• “Born to Sing: No Plan B” by Van Morrison. No need for a Plan B for the Belfast Cowboy because he is the supreme Celtic synthesist, so soaked in jazz, blues, roots, and early rock, he can sing about grass growing and it is magical (and, in that regard, reminds me of G.K. Chesterton). This jazz-oriented album, on the Blue Note label, is arguably his best in a decade; he sounds refreshed, focused, and even happy. The horn arrangements are special and the songs are leisurely without ever wandering, mellow without ever dragging. The real revelation here are Morrison’s horn-like vocals, which are strong, elastic, and restless. Great album by one of my favorite musicians.

• “Now Here This” by John McLaughlin and The 4th Dimension. Some fans of McLaughlin’s legendary projects from the 1960s and ’70s aren’t too taken with his recent albums, which often feature guitar-synth and other modern devices. But while this album is occasionally frenetic and has a very modern (and crisp) sound, the adjective that keeps coming to mind is “soulful.” This comes through more obviously when things slow down, as on the lovely “Wonderfall”. The guitar solos are technically brilliant of course, but also have passionate, hungry logic that cannot be denied. This is music for the mind and the soul, which is about the highest praise I can give it. Fantastic effort from the legendary axe man.