ALBUM REVIEW: Janet Jackson, Damita Jo – BLACKLISTED

Since I cannot quite get through Justin Timberlake’s new album, I have continued to listen to Janet Jackson. Partly in protest to his halftime show, and partly because she is exceptional.

It’s really a shame though. Since 2004, Jackson has released 4 studio albums of brand new music. Not one of these albums has reached the success it deserved. Like I’ve stated before, it’s not her best work (because you can’t top Janet or The Velvet Rope), but it’s not shabby. It’s the classic R&B Jackson has always provided for us with each album.

To continue my series of blacklisted albums by Janet Jackson, I decided to look at her immediate follow up to “Nipplegate,” Damita Jo. 


Damita Jo was released 5 weeks after the Super Bowl performance. Viacom and Clear Channel’s ban of Jackson’s singles and videos contributed to its underperformance. I’m not going to be a Jackson purest. Damita Jo is not Jackson’s best work, but there are some incredible gems within this album.

The album opens up with another one of Jackson’s classic interludes that introduce you to the tone of the album. We are then met with the upbeat and autobiographical “Damito Jo,” before heading straight into an uptempo sex scene with “Sexhibition” and “Strawberry Bounce.” All three songs are incredibly aesthetic to the ear.

Next, we come into the album’s groovy and funky portion with the songs “All Nite (Don’t Stop),” “R&B Junkie,” and “I Want You.” What’s fun about these songs, besides the beat, is Jackson’s vocal tone. She isn’t using her normal sensual purr, but she is dancing with her voice. They slightly compare to “Scream,” her duet with Michael Jackson, in the fact that they push Jackson out of her comfort zone.  The same happens with the closing song “Just a Little While.”

The last takeaway I had from this album is “Thinkin’ Bout My Ex.” With the song’s beginning guitar rift to its smooth chorus, this song returns Jackson back to her sensual side with a flush of vulnerability.


What I really took away from this album is how every one of Jackson’s albums since Rhythm Nation 1814 listens like a novel. Each album is perfectly curated into themes (scenes) with narrative introductions (interludes) while cumulating in a resolved ending.

This album deserves a lot more praise then what it received in 2004. The reviews were tainted with “Nipplegate” influences, instead of objective musical reviews. Although this album did not get its time in the light and greatly underperformed compared to Jackson’s previous releases, it still went on to be certified platinum.

This album shows, even in the face of adversity, it’s hard for Jackson to make a flop.


Check out my first article in my Jackson Blacklisted series here.

Check out my halftime protest playlist of Jackson’s music here.


ALBUM REVIEW: St. Vincent, MASSEDUCTION

It has been awhile since I have written any of my musical musings and it’s not for a lack of words. I have discovered TONS of great music over the past few months. My job went crazy and my life went into an awkward spiral, but now I’m back, thanks to St. Vincent.

Over the last few months I decided to rejoin Vinyl Me, Please. I was once a member and I don’t particularly remember why I stopped. Through Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram reading all my browsing history and spying on my personal life, I received many advertisements for Vinyl Me, Please, and November’s record of the month, St. Vincent’s MASSEDUCTION, caught my eye.

St. Vincent Music Review, MASSEDUCTION
Vinyl Me, Please Special Edition

Now, who hasn’t heard of St. Vincent? The record stores back home in Oklahoma take pride in her career because she was born in Tulsa, but my research tells me she moved to Texas before she was 5. I’d like to call her an Okie, but I don’t know if she would accept it.

Anyways, MASSEDUCTION quickly took me by surprise. Although I had seen a lot about St. Vincent’s music, this is actually my first foray into her catalog. I already have more of her albums on order.

To be candid, I really love MASSEDUCTION. This album served perfectly as an intro to St. Vincent’s work. I understand her earlier work is different, but this record has served as my gateway drug.

There are many reasons why I love this album, so many that it is hard to pinpoint exact reasons. Each song is like an impressionist painting. St. Vincent lays out what she sees, yet she leaves much to the imagination. Like many impressionist paintings, this album is also full of color as the orchestration ranges from heavy synthesizers to basic piano.

This album explores many themes, especially in relationships and self-discovery, but the reigning motif for me was self-acceptance. St. Vincent asks to be someone’s flawed foundation in “Hang On Me,” while calling BS on this world’s standards with “Pills” and “Los Ageless.” She knows what it’s like to be lonely and how her decisions have impacted her plight in life with “New York,” Fear The Future,” and “Young Lover.”

St. Vincent Music Review, MASSEDUCTION
The Telagraph.

At the end of all these emotions and trials, she is working on accepting herself, because ” “she can’t help what turns her on” in “MASSEDUCTION.” Although this doesn’t result in her over confidence, because she is still completely vulnerable in tracks like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” and “Smoking Section.”

For me, MASSEDUCTION is not a musical journey, yet a musical process, set to the tone of purposeful “pop” if you will (Disclaimer: I think being “pop” is one of the most freeing “genres” of music. It is never a diss in my writings). Through this album’s instrumentation one can find influences of rock, dance, jazz, and electronica. This is easily seen from the rapid tempo of “Pills” to the string arrangement of “Dancing With A Ghost.”

One last note, St. Vincent’s vocals are nearly pristine on this album. Ballads, like “Happy Birthday, Johnny” really show off her “classic” vocal talent. She may be considered an indie or alternative artist, but she can sing circles with the best of them.

MASSEDUCTION completely accomplished it’s title, as it has completely seduced me into the world of St. Vincent and, apparently, I’m not alone. I was online today trying to buy tickets for her shows in New York City this weekend and they are completely sold out. Off to StubHub I go!

Check out St. Vincent’s official website here.

Check out St. Vincent’s Twitter: @St_Vincent.

Check out St. Vincent’s Instagram: @St_Vincent.

Check out St. Vincent’s Facebook here.

INTERVIEW: Transcending, A Conversation with Paula Cole

Every music aficionado finds multiple albums they love, but it’s not often they find an album that changes the tone of how they listen to music. These albums are few and far between, but sometimes there are facets of our mind we don’t realize need to be unlocked. When this happens, it creates a vacuum of self-exploration, a new favorite album, and often another favorite singer.

Recently, I found an album that did just that. Ballads by Paula Cole has taken my complete music world by storm and has caused me to explore a layer of my mind I didn’t know existed (Read my review on Ballads here).

Many of us know Cole from her renowned album This Fire, which sparked the top ten hits “Where Have All The Cowboys Gone” and “I Don’t Want to Wait.” She went on to win the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1998 and This Fire was certified 2x platinum in the U.S.

It is not often you get to speak to the artist that touched your soul, but I had the opportunity to speak with Paula Cole about her new album, what she is doing now, and how to define Jazz.

Before our conversation got underway, I had to tell Ms. Cole exactly where I was coming from. I have literally been a fan of hers for almost two months now, but I could not be a bigger fan today. Her music is fresh in my mind. After I fell in love with Ballads, I quickly and consistently listened to Cole’s complete catalog of releases, beyond her two biggest hits, finding multiple gems in each album.

That is my story in a nutshell. People think of me for those hits, then they move on. They don’t give it another thought and yet, I’m grateful for the hits, but there is so much more to what I am. I mean it was even ill fitting at the time when I was in the spotlight for one minute. It felt ill fitting and I needed to go away. I have always felt I was more of a catalog artist. That was odd, the whole hit thing anyway.

Cole started out as a jazz singer when she attended Berklee in the early 1990s. She was offered a few record contracts at the time, but she turned them down. She felt that she wasn’t good enough to sing Jazz and that she did not meet the standard it took to sing Jazz professionally. This surprised me, as I would not think a vocalist as talented as Cole would have this level of insecurities.

That’s definitely one of the reasons. I had 3 or 4 reasons…It’s a waste of one’s life. It’s a tragedy to be that cruel to one’s self and deprive yourself of artistic expression, for what? I needed to get out of that loop and try and I knew that now having lived at least 25 years in the music business and nearly 50 years in life, I know I can do this. I know that I was being unnecessarily mean to myself, and that I have something to say here…It’s time to just try.

Although what I quickly realized, as our conversation evolved, was that turning these deals down wasn’t just a case of the butterflies, it was a part of Cole’s artistry. There was going to be a time to make a Jazz album, and when it was, it had to be done correctly. She knew what she wanted from her own Jazz album.

The two Jazz deals that I got…I wouldn’t have been able to make this album [Ballads]. I think that I would have been pushed by A&R at the record company, and the producer that they were selecting for me, to make it much more shiny and polished and piano based, even choosing some of the songs, and walking into the control room of the studio and requesting certain changes…I wouldn’t have been able to stand my ground. You learn that when you are young and you get your first record deal, that you have to make some compromises in order to stay in that place of fortune and power of having a record deal…You have to make compromises, so if I had taken the Jazz deal then, it would have been thick and I wouldn’t have been proud of what I really wanted in my heart. I knew who I wanted to work with. I wanted it to be rootsy…So finally under the right conditions, me being the record company, me being accustomed to producing myself, and having fans that funded a Kickstarter project, I was able to make it the way I wanted it to be all this time.

If Ballads had been made 25 years ago versus today, it would not be the same album. Cole would not have been completely satisfied with it, although she did tell me it would have been beautiful in its own way.

Now, I wanted to get down to the essence of Ballads. It’s a mystical album that takes you on journeys through songs from the 1930s through the 1960s. Not only does she take classic Jazz standards and make them her own, but she also takes classic American songs and turns them on their head. At this time, I asked her how she arrived at ballads at this juncture in her life and why it had to happen now.

I have several items on that giant to-do list in the sky, well actually on my notepad on my iPhone, that are life items, things on my bucket list, and making my own Jazz album was one of them. It was uncanny the way an attempt of a Jazz album would manifest and it would go away, manifest and go away. So I knew I needed to do it for me and do it the way I wanted it, which was rootsy and blended genres that I think really stand side by side with Jazz and what Jazz is. I think it is also because I’m doing a lot of reflection right now in my life. My kids are growing up and they’re out of the house a lot. I’m feeling a bit of empty nest. My parents are getting older, more fragile; I have a sense of their mortality. I’ve lost love ones and I feel a sense of my own mortality and my dad is still here and I want to thank him while he is alive. 

This album Ballads, dedicated to her father and his musical influence on her, was just as much retrospective as it is a modern take on iconic songs. Ballads was a completely new concept for Cole in many ways due largely to the fact, that she didn’t write any of the songs. Her catalog is vast and covers many genres, topics, and styles; yet now she was honing in on one genre with covers of well-known songs.

Did she have struggles making this album without having any writing credits? Was she intimidated by covering other musician’s music?

I think that I sing them as myself and I’ve arrived at many of these songs without even hearing these famous singers’ versions of them first. Many of them I came to myself by reading the music at my piano and learning them and teaching them to myself … I was able to find the song first myself…

Cole, being a professor now at Berklee and a music scholar, had a deep connection to these artists she was covering.

I have been listening to Billie Holiday so much. I have so much profound respect for her and she could quite possibly be the best Jazz singer that ever lived…I can hear her influence more on “I Cover The Waterfront,” but in general I think it is more of a spiritual connection. I didn’t worry about sounding like other people. I feel pretty well formed as a person and that’s probably why I could make the album now. I trusted myself. I didn’t feel nervous in the way that you are asking. Yes, I’m singing these legends’ songs. I’m doing it because I love them. I love them. I’m channeling them and worshipping at their altar.

My next question dealt with Cole’s song selection. As I mentioned earlier, the songs on this album range from the 1930s to the 1970s. Some of these songs would be completely misplaced on a Jazz album, like “Ode to Billie Joe,” which is considered country.

What struck me the most was Cole’s choice of “protest” songs. The three songs that stood out for me was “I Wish (I Knew How It Feels to Be Free),” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll,” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” I had to know why she made these unconventional choices for an album categorized as Jazz.

I’m white. I’m from a little New England village called Rockport, MA. I knew kindness from my parents…I went to Berklee at 18 and I joined the gospel choir…I had never ever been in such a world like that. I was now the minority. I wish every white person could have that experience and what that feels like. I was so humbled and so moved. It really changed my life…I was in a much more diverse community that opened my eyes and that started me along the path of the music business and where I was able to live in a much more mixed way. 

Now I’m here, a mom to a biracial daughter, and I care very much about race and it needs to be a conversation. I’m moved by these songs because they speak to me and the way I feel. I think they are as relevant today as ever and I wanted to underscore that by including them in this collection.

Music is a pioneering place, but I remind myself always of a quote Picasso said, “Artists are the politicians of the future.” We have to be that voice, that love, and sometimes I stumble into uncomfortable conversations, sometimes I stumble into awkward places, but we must try.

It is here that genres and musical categories began to blend in our conversation. Earlier, Cole had already shared her dissatisfaction with being categorized as a certain musical genre, but now I didn’t even feel like we were talking about Jazz anymore. What I found out though, was that I really didn’t understand what Jazz and even music as a whole was, and neither did Cole. This brought me to the simple question of how does one define Jazz?

I really don’t think I can answer that question. It’s something I’ve been searching for my whole life. I’ve been one to transcribe horn solos and learn Miles Davis and John Coltrane and they are my heroes, but so is Billie Holiday, and she never improvised a note. I think of her as one of America’s great singer/ songwriters and yet, she’s Jazz. Nina Simone to me is gospel and classical and folk and a little bit of Jazz, but yet she is categorized as Jazz. I don’t understand what Jazz is. Maybe it’s a sense of freedom and the ability to improvise. I’ve always been drawn to that. Maybe it’s deeper musicianship, that you care about chord changes and the ability to be free within the confines of traditional music. Maybe that is Jazz to me, exploring the boundaries and being freer in what we understand as music. That’s Jazz to me.

I then asked, “so Jazz is a loaded word?”

Yes. I have this book of interviews with Jazz musicians and the question they pose at the beginning of every chapter is, “What does Jazz mean?” Jazz has no etymological roots that they can trace. People have every different understanding of what Jazz means. A lot of times what people come back with is “fucking,” a brothel word from the brothels of New Orleans. So who knows what it means? Who knows? It could mean that, maybe something else. I think it’s fantastic. And that’s kind of where we are at with it. I worship at the altar of several Jazz musicians and also Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris and Bobbie Gentry. And you know if Johnny Cash could sing Shel Silverstein lyrics and Nina Simone could cover Bob Dylan songs, then what is it? Why are we categorizing?

I then had to touch on Cole’s vocal technique and approach to this album. Anyone familiar with Cole’s catalog knows that she is a vocal acrobat. She can sing the softest love song, croon a torch ballad, and compete with the greatest belters of the past.

Although on this album, Cole took a rather reserved approach to her vocals. Her voice was retrospective. Was that intentional? Had she created this formula before going into the studio?

No, it was not any kind of executive decision at all. I think it comes from an internal, personal place where I’m just not wanting to scream as much. I have been doing some retrospective shows where I play This Fire and frankly, it’s exhausting. I can feel my 20-year-old self and I feel my anger and my frustration, especially in kind of being treated a little second class in the music business. I don’t want to sing like that on Ballads. Sometimes I do. It’s absolutely liberating. It’s victorious and I find the audience loves it. There is a time and place for that, but it wasn’t on these songs. No, no. I wanted something more gentle. I wanted to sing for the lyrics not for vocal prowess. I wanted to sing for the lyrics and the stories of these songs now.

There is so much to the album Ballads. So much, that I can’t even begin to describe what the album means and what one is supposed to take away from it. The album is transformative as Cole weaves in every genre, sings in sync with the greatest artists of all time while conveying a message of strength, social injustice, and self-worth.

Lastly, as a teacher at Berklee, I wanted to know what Cole had to say in regards to millennials and this album. What was she wanting my generation to take from this record?

I want millennials to listen to the masters in music and I want them knowing that history to go forward and be a voice that the world needs. They need to stand up. They need to make this world better. We’re counting on you. We as “Xers” or “Boomers” above you need to walk the walk, too, but we need you now because you’re young and you are relevant and you are forming the modern pop society right now. You’re forming the modern culture right now. We need you to look back and hear our stories and bring it into the light and be the politicians of the future through your art.

That call to action has been rolling in my head since this conversation. Now, in the light of the recent tragedy in Vegas, it seems to ring even louder. It’s time for everybody, but especially young people, to stand up and stop hate. We have to look at the legacy of our family, country, world, and humankind and move forward. I believe we hold the answers, finding them is the difficult part.

This album has moved me in many ways, freeing my mind to think on a larger scale. Cole achieved this through song selection, vocal style, and never putting up walls to categorize music. Her vision is clear and she is using the only universal tool known to mankind, music.

As I contemplated my interview with Paula Cole, I listened to Ballads again. Her words inspired me, many of which are not written here. Her album has given me a clearer direction on what music is, especially Jazz; yet, it has completely muddied the waters. This album is retrospective in both music, cultural issues, and situations each individual faces. This album is also innovative due to its musicality and message. This album simply transcends time, genres, categories, and ideas.

What I have learned from Cole is that music truly has a home in every heart surpassing time. It’s artists like Paula Cole that bring that universal connection together in all of us.


Buy Ballads on Amazon or her official site.

Visit Paula Cole’s official Website here.

Check out Ms. Cole’s Twitter and Facebook.

CONCERT: Kris Kristofferson, A Profound Experience

Last week I wrote about Diana Ross’ nearly perfect show. Although, that was not the only show I saw that weekend. Sunday I had tickets to see Kris Kristofferson as well.

It was sensory overload.

Now it’s easy to see the stark differences in Diana Ross and Kris Kristofferson. I hope this speaks to my diversity or mental instability. I went from turning upside down to hanging with Bobby McGee within 48 hours. That’s quite a stretch.

I received an email from a friend a few weeks ago with a link to Kristofferson’s show at The City Winery in NYC. Now I’m not a Kristofferson expert, but the tickets seemed irresistible. Oddly, I grew up watching A Star is Born, and I knew some of his songs. He reminded me of home, so I decided to buy.

Kristofferson left me speechless. I didn’t know what to say about his show, and I still don’t. The only word that I can find to describe his set is profound. Every note he sang, every lyric he wrote, every look he gave the audience was simply profound.

He sang a staggering 28 songs. These songs ranged from his hits like “Help Me Make It Through The Night” and “For The Good Times,” while also touching on some minor musical milestones. From the moment he began to sing I could not take my attention away from the stage.

During his show, he seemed to profess wisdom while singing the same songs he has sung for years. Instead of coming at them from just experience, his demeanor also led to advice. This concert was set in a winery and I felt like it was my grandpa and I having drinks together. Kristofferson wanted to give me advice so that I could have a better tomorrow.

The entire show told a story. It was a concept show. Although, I don’t think Kristofferson meant it in that way at all. Each song was a chapter. Every topic he sang about came to a head at the end of the show with the songs “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” “Jesus Was a Capricorn,” and “Why Me.” I believe these 5 songs, some of Kristofferson’s best, describe both the high and low of his life and the topics he struggles with. Life may be tough, but he is just happy to be alive.

It was a simple show. The stage was just adorned with Kristofferson, his guitar, and harmonica. What struck me the most in retrospect is how relevant his songs are today. They have passed over generations and he is still writing. He finds a way to explain timeless truths in a language that will never be antiquated.

Seeing him live is surreal and truly a profound experience.

 

PLAYLIST: Let’s Keep Walking

It’s been a while since I’ve posted, but it isn’t for a lack of spinning. My life season is beginning to speed up and I have been enjoying music with no strings attached.

I’m also attempting to listen to EVERY vinyl in my collection and it’s taking a while. I’m discovering new jewels while relishing in favorites. I’m listening to my collection by artist.  By not writing about what I am listening too, I am sparing you 50 posts over Judy Garland.

Although, a theme has risen through the music I have been listening to at home and work. I have been gravitating towards songs and artists that I feel empowered through. I’m listening to songs that tell me “I’m worthy.”

I am not necessarily going through a depressed stage of my life, but it isn’t my happiness by no means. I need a pick me up. Here are some of the artists that have inspired me to keep walking lately.

As with all my lists, they are in no particular order.

1. John Legend

I have been a fan of Legend on and off for many years now. Recently I have been intently listening to his latest release, Darkness and Light and his first release, 2013’s Get Lifted. What I love about Get Lifted is its straight honesty and how Legend styles hip hop. Darkness and Light has become special to me as I have become more socially aware. Although I am a white male, when legend sings “There is power in the color of my face” in “I Know Better,” it not only brings awareness to problems our society is still facing, but it also reminds me that we are all unique and contribute to God’s vast world.

2. Beyoncé

Sorry B, couldn’t wait for an official release of Lemonade on vinyl.

Beyoncé strives to provide empowerment for women and African-Americans on her albums, especially with her last two releases Beyoncé and Lemonade, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have a universal message. As a by-product of her mission, I have also seen that I can be comfortable in my own skin. I just feel pumped to be me when I hear the likes of “***Flawless” and “Formation.” Again these are songs that speak to me as I have begun to dissect my surrounds and become aware of our society. I am not discrediting this, I just think it’s beautiful that she can speak to anybody in any circumstance through her music’s message.

3. Reba McEntire

Now it is not everyday you see Beyonce and Reba in the same list, but my versatile ear is unpredictable from hour to hour. Reba’s latest album, Sing it Now: Songs of Faith and Hope has spoken to me in a way an album hasn’t in many years. Reba is very special to me (read about that here) and this album has helped me as my faith has been growing lately. There is not a more poignant message then her latest single “Back to God.” This world would be a better place if we just gave it back to the Creator and lived the true message of what it means to be like Christ (I will have a full post on this album soon). For unbelievers, I think the universal concept here is if we only would love each other and lay ourselves down for the goodness of others and the world, we could create a better place one action at a time. Below is my favorite lyrics and Reba’s conviction gives me chills.

“You gotta cry, rain tears of pain

Pound the floor and scream His name

‘Cause we’re still worth saving”

So although taking steps into the hurdles of our days may be burdensome and heavy, we have to realize we all have something to contribute to this world, we are all-powerful, and we need to love each other more. If we could realize these simple truths we would truly give this world back to God, and serve a higher purpose than ourselves. We would serve others.

Basically there is power in all of our faces, we must sing and act on faith and hope, and slay while we do it. This world is worth saving.

 

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Dusty Springfield, Dusty

Another week is upon us which only means one thing…it’s another week to celebrate female musicians for Women’s History Month!!

For my second installment to celebrate women’s history, I bring you the blonde haired, blue-eyed soul of Dusty Springfield.

Dusty is consistently on my list when I record shop. I discovered her a few years ago when I was in a job that was not personally fulfilling and I desperately needed an out. I can not even remember what brought her to my attention, but thank goodness for neglecting my duties!

img_1617Tonight, years later, I find myself sitting and listening to the first Dusty Springfield album I ever purchased. It was her second album she released in the United States, but it was really her first record she released in Britain. In the United States, this album is known as Dusty and in Britain, it is known as A Girl Called Dusty.

Although this album was not met with as much praise as her first release, Stay Awhile/I Only Want to Be with You,it is still filled with some of my favorite Dusty tunes. For starters, it has her modest pop hit “All Cried Out.” This song blends 1960’s soul and pop seamlessly, which is exactly what Dusty did perfectly.

The album possesses some great covers of Dusty’s soulful contemporaries including “Can I Get a Witness” by Marvin Gaye and “Don’t You Know” by Ray Charles. There are some great Dusty originals here as well like the mysterious “Guess Who” and “Nothing.”

Then there is the commanding and dramatic ballad, “Summer is Over.” This song has some of Dusty’s best early vocals. It shows how she isn’t merely a little singer, but that she can belt and deliver a song with the best of them. This song was co-written by her brother Tom Springfield.

dusty_springfield_youngWhat I found extremely interesting was the elegant soul she brought to this album with the songs “My Coloring Book” by the famed Fred Ebb and John Kander, and “I Just Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Both of these writing combinations have become staples in today’s cabaret, ballad, and American Songbook ethos.

“My Coloring Book” was originally recorded by Barbra Streisand and Dusty’s version differs drastically. Where Barbra sang it proficiently, Dusty’s vocals brought a childlike perspective to the song while maintaining its sad tone. Dusty’s version of “I Don’t Know What To Do With Myself” is by far my favorite. It is the impeccable mix of classic vocal style with 60’s pop.

The album Dusty began to truly shape her future recording career, while providing an innovative style in a time when music desperately needed to find itself.

As if Dusty’s music wasn’t enough, she also created an iconic image with her bleach blonde bouffant style hair and her excellent showmanship. Add on a lot of eyeliner, and you have one of the biggest influences on popular music. She is the original Adele and based on their voices, they could be mother and daughter.

Sadly, Dusty left this world in 1999 due to breast cancer, but her influence will continue to live on both in what she was and her innovative image and vocal combination. She pushed the envelope in a doo-wop society and helped bring soul music to the forefront of American and British culture.

To say the least, all my pop and soul vinyl post-1963 is a bit Dusty…

 

ALBUM REVIEW: Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor’s Guide to Earth

I have let Sturgill Simpson fall through the cracks these last few years. I’m not sure if I need to get out more, or if I get out too much. Do I have too much music or not enough?

When they announced the Grammy nominations for Album of The Year I was taken aback by his nomination, mostly for the pure fact that I did not know much about him. I have listened to Adele’s 25 and Beyoncé’s Lemonade and know each of these albums like the back of my hand. These records are some of the most innovative pieces of popular music we have today. So for Simpson to be ranked amongst these solid albums, I knew something had to be up. Little did I know he was the answer I had been looking for.

Sturgill Simpson, A Sailor's Guide To EarthOver the past few years, I have grown increasingly aggravated and perturbed with modern country music. I am not a country music purist, but today’s country is anything but innovative or even remotely country in style. This new wave of “Bro Country” with the likes of Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, and Florida Georgia Line sickens me to my stomach. It’s not that I think these artists aren’t talented. I just believe they are leading country into oblivion and undermining its significance and meaning to our culture. Since having these revelations, I have naturally stopped buying many records that are deemed “Country.”

That could be a large reason why I overlooked Simpson, yet he is the exact opposite. I have always said that country is the “white man’s” soul. This isn’t a racist comment, I am simply speaking of the song stylings that have come out of each race. Both genres have themes that traverse the strands of race. Although, soul has taken leaps and bounds and continues to do so into new territory. Country has largely remained stagnant in recent years.

Simpson has taken country and pushed it forward with his album A Sailor’s Guide to Earth. The album flows like one continuous song while each composition retains its own identity. It’s a concept album, something we don’t see often in country music, and most importantly, its innovative.

One must understand the concept to understand the album. This is a letter to Simpson’s son that he wrote while on the road from the viewpoint of a sailor never knowing if he was going to come home.

This album opens with “Welcome to The Earth (Pollywog).” Simpson directly speaks to his son during a piano melody reminiscent of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” As the song progresses the classical piano stylings begin to intertwine themselves with a string section, and one of my favorite instruments, a steel guitar. The song then goes into a “breakdown” if you will. The song’s tempo speeds up while a soul and big band horn section begin to reconfigure this piece.

Wait, that was just track 1?

This style glides into the easy tones of “Breakers Roar”, before entering into “Keep It Between the Lines.” “Lines” takes on a new identity by turning country into retro-funk with the same kick ass horn section and steel guitar. This song is a father telling his son what mistakes not to make. “It don’t have to be like father like son,” Simpson sings.

Then we come to “Sea Stories.” These are the great stories our fathers and grandfathers tell us that we take for granted. This song has elements of modern rockabilly mixed into the mix of what I’ve already listed. In many ways, this song reminded me of my Grandpa and watching his old slides from when he was in Korea.

Oddly, Simpson then covers Nirvana’s “In Bloom.” I was reading where he said this song made an impact on him during his younger teenage years and how he admired the message of how society’s preconceived notions of being a man aren’t always (if ever) correct. He takes this song and turns it on its head. Nirvana’s style is still distinct, but the song has a new outfit.

Sturgill Simpson
Sturgill Simpson- NPR

Side two opens with “Brace for Impact (Live a Little).” This was the lead single off the album. It is the album’s most commercial song, but it is in no way conventional. Next, the album turns to “All Around You.” The message this song sends is a message that transcends time. It reminds me of a prom from the 1950’s. It has a doo-wap style mixed with honky-tonk piano. Beyond the music though there is a simple fact. Underneath the pains of this world, there is a “universal heart” that beats in all of us. It is “All Around You.” This ode reminds me of the injustices that are still struck upon races, religions, and other’s ways of life. It made me think of the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. Although we have come a long way, we still have a long way to go.

The album closes with “Call to Arms.” This song is one of the most relevant songs I have heard when it comes to our generation. It is a snapshot of our world in 2017.  It talks about wars, bombs, egos, the survival of identity, and the countless distractions we experience every day, but don’t notice. This song defines us and serves as a wake-up call. As a society of immensely different people, with a universal heart built inside each of us, we cannot let the “bullshit” the big guys are shoving down our throats stand. This is 2017’s “Mississippi Goddamn.”

Throughout all the musical stylings though there is one thing that remains constant and it is the driving factor of why this album remains country. Simpson’s vocals are a conglomerate of some of the greatest country musicians including Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, and Dwight Yoakam. He is a less raspy Chris Stapleton and creates a distinct path through his vocal stylings. They’re real and heartfelt. They speak truth. They are country.

This album is quickly making its impact on my life and is becoming one of my favorites. It’s an album that has frozen a moment of my life I will be able to revisit every time I hear the shores roar. Sturgill Simpson is exactly what country music needs, but in larger respect, his innovative musical stylings is what a lot of modern-day music is lacking. Art must keep forming and changing. Art has a responsibility to reflect its time and often the time’s injustices. It’s our responsibility to teach the next generation where to go and what not to attempt.

Although this album is directed straight to Simpson’s son, its messages capture society. He shows through the album’s stylings that not only do humans have a universal heart, but music does as well. This is essential to remember for music defines generations.

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