Paula Cole, Ballads: Uncanny and Reverent

I listen to a lot of albums across every genre. I have found myself jumping from Peter Gabriel all the way to Beyoncé, while hitting every step along the way, during a days time. Some may say I have musical ADHD, I think I’m just well-rounded.

There are two categories of albums I listen to. “Albums I like” is the largest category. This consists of the albums I hear and binge on a daily basis. These albums generally rustle my feathers and often give me goosebumps. Then there are the albums that make me stop and say, “Whoa, that is what music sounds like.” Those are few and far between.

Courtesy of Paula Cole’s Facebook

Recently though, I have found one that has jolted me to a complete halt. That album isPaula Cole’s Ballads.

I can barely express how excited I am about this album. Once I listened to it on Spotify I immediately went to her website, ordered the vinyl version with signature, checked tour dates, and read countless articles on Cole’s career. I have never evangelized for an album, but I want to tell everybody about this masterpiece.

This is a Jazz album including many of the great standards like “God Bless The Child” and “Skylark.” But, then a wrench is thrown into the collection with such songs as “I Wish (I Knew How it Feels To Be Free)” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.” The album consists of 20 songs and was released by Cole independently on her 675 label.

So now it’s a Jazz/Folk/protest album. Also, did I mention it has a hint of Country?

Ok Gabe, breath, regain composure and try to write….too much greatness

The album begins with “God Bless The Child,” the Jazz classic written by Billie Holiday. The only word that can describe the orchestration to this arrangement is “rootsy.” It’s not your typical arrangement of Jazz, yet it completely encompasses everything that is Jazz. This idea stays with the entirety of the album.

Next, Cole goes into the protest song made famous by Nina Simone, “I Wish (I Knew How to Be Free).” Again Cole evokes an emotion that often gets lost in songs, and that is the core meaning. This song has specific historical significance, but she brought the song to me today and made it relevant. While listening to this song I began to question myself on what it would look like to be free.

The song asked a question, like many songs, but I have never wanted to answer so badly.

Courtesy of Rockport Music.

“I Wish” is perfectly coupled with Bob Dylan’s “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” later in the album. “Lonesome” is one of my top 5 of the entire album. The way Cole sing’s a story song is like a movie. The listener sees everything in detail. She talks about the longing for justice that was desperately needed in the 1960’s and needed now. Her voice literally becomes the rag to dry your tears. The movies continue with the songs “Ode To Billy Joe” and “The Ballad of Hollis Brown.”

Cole gives the uptempo jazz greats a new facade as well with songs like “Never Will I Marry, ” Nice Work If You Can Get It,” and “You Hit the Spot.” These songs show Cole’s skilled vocal technique and her accomplished talent as a vocalist. Not to mention her pitch perfect melancholy tones on the great standards like “You’ve Changed” and “Autumn Leaves.”

The greatest feat of this album is how it portrays Jazz music. All of Cole’s vocals are Jazz in style and soul. Jazz doesn’t belong to a certain instrument or vocal method, it belongs to the approach and deliverance of a song. Jazz encapsulates love, heartbreak, and justice in its purest forms.

Cole then adds a second element to this album. Early in this article, I mentioned how the album feels “rootsy,” but I want to go a step further. This album echoes the foundation of music as a whole. It goes down to the very roots that hold music upright today. This album not only covers some of the best songs ever written, it is a tribute to the great musicians that have shaped modern music.

Inherently, I know Cole collaborated, discussed, and had multiple outside influences, but in the end, she was the sole producer of this album. The framework began in her mind, while others added color, yet she filled in the final details. This album is a testament that Paula Cole is a master at the art of music.

The way Paula Cole weaves the themes of heartbreak, injustice, love, happiness, and sorrow seamlessly on one album is incredible. The album is so relevant it’s uncanny, yet so nostalgic it’s reverent.

Don’t wait for your life to be over to hear this one.


Visit Paula Cole’s official Website here. (Buy the vinyl)

Check out her Twitter here.

Check out her Facebook here.

Nina Simone, Baltimore: Still Speechless

Some artists you can’t figure out. These artists are often the ones I skip over when I’m choosing someone to write about. If I can’t emotionally get my mind and heart wrapped around their music and voice, how could I put words to it?

One of these artists is Nina Simone. Her voice is as sharp as a razor blade, as extravagant as a fur coat, yet as innocent and simple as a little girl. It penetrates your being and goes straight for the soul. Listening to her can be a spiritual experience.

From my personal collection

I have many of Simone’s albums and with each album, I find a new gem. Sometimes it could just be the way she stylizes a song differently, other’s it’s her own compositions. On one of my recent vinyl hauls, I found her 1978 album, Baltimore.

This album immediately took me by surprise. Nina Simone was singing reggae? I wasn’t complaining. I liked it. Songs like the title track “Baltimore” and her cover of Hall and Oates “Rich Girl” really show a different tone to her voice. It is different than every one of her previous studio albums and I think it was innovative.

Although, this change was not welcomed by Simone. We all know Simone was a complex lady, but I truly believe she had a beautiful soul. In 1977 famed jazz producer, Creed Taylor, signed Simone to his label CTI. Simone was not one to do what she didn’t want to, yet her comment’s made about this album proves she did just that. The sessions were tense and she eventually recorded the album’s vocals in an hour and a half.

Yet, a master piece was still born.

First, I was immediately hooked to the second song “Everything Must Change.” Simone’s vocals glide over the words of this song like second nature. At this point in her life, both personally and professionally, she had experienced change, while also not experiencing enough change. On this recording, Simone’s melancholy vocals continue to take on different shapes to each listener’s situation years later.

Then there is Simone’s second ballad of the album, “My Father.” The song’s lyrics make a complete circle, but Simone’s vocals fill in all the space between the words. It’s brilliance.

From last.fm

On side B I found Simone’s “melody” of traditional Christian songs intriguing. Through my experience with Simone, she doesn’t often give a higher power credit, but in “Balm of Gilead” and “If You Pray Right,” she does just that. Her voice sounds completely content and joyful in “Balm of Gilead,” which is taken straight from the Holy Bible. “If You Pray Right” takes on a complete gospel spin that really isn’t Simone, but it’s a vocal style that many African-American singers get type cast into. She is the High Priestess of Soul though, so she can preach like no other! It’s nice to hear Simone in these less heavy songs as she brings a new identity to both of them.

When I first heard the album I thought it was an interesting avenue Simone traveled down musically. Then I did the research and found that she was in essence, disgusted with the album, but the listener can’t hear that. She gives 110% to a project she distastes. Why?

Nina Simone both, self-perceived and in reality, lived on the back burner. People knew she was always going to give her all and they took advantage of that. Even this could not mask her genius interpretation of emotion.

I’m just going to have to end here because I simply can’t think of anything else to say. Again, Nina Simone has left me speechless.

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.

 

Diana Ross: A Concert Review: It’s Her House

When it comes to defining superstar look no further than Diana Ross. From the elegance of her smile to her ageless vocals, she is the entire package.

Recently, I saw Ms. Ross’ during her mini-residency at New York City Center. Her final night was Saturday. This was my fourth time seeing Ms. Ross in concert and although my pocket-book feels pain, I feel completely blessed.

Ms. Ross started the concert out with her iconic 1980’s anthem “I’m Coming Out.” The energy in the room was magnetic, drawing all eyes to the stage as one began to hear her fragile, yet demanding voice. The atmosphere turned electric when she stepped on stage.

She quickly followed with a near chronological order of some of her biggest hits and fan favorites. She started out with the timeless tunes from her tenure with the Supremes. These songs have lost none of their splendor with Ms. Ross. It’s nearly impossible not to sing along with her with the likes of “Baby Love,” “You Can’t Hurry Love,” and “Stop! In The Name of Love.” I don’t think she has aged a day since The Supremes 1962 debut.

It wasn’t soon that Ms. Ross turned to her everlasting solo career with some of her top dance/disco hits, “The Boss,” “Upside Down,” and “Love Hangover.” There are no words for the energy she produced in the room. A few lucky fans were even lucky enough to be chosen by Ms. Ross to come dance alongside her during “Upside Down.”

Although Ms. Ross knows how to throw a party with a song, some of my favorite moments of the concert were when she slowed it down and simply sang. “Touch Me In The Morning” and “Theme From Mahogany (Do You Know Where You’re Going Too)” are always amongst my favorite moments from each show I have seen of hers. For this concert, my favorite moment was when she embarked on Billie Holiday’s “Don’t Explain.” No one will ever be able to sing a song like Holiday, but Ross also proved that no one can sing a song like her.

Then Ms. Ross began to close the show. This is a process at one of her concerts. It’s hard to come off the high of Ross. She begins with her first solo hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough.” This song immediately had me on my feet. And yes, she can hit all the same notes she could when the song was released.

Then comes her cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” Again, it’s impossible to sit as she walks the stage in her 5th gown of the evening belting a number everybody relates too. This is her closing number, but there is always room for an encore if the audience properly requests it (I’ve been to shows where she hasn’t returned). She closed the night with another one of her early hits “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand).”

With each show I see of Ms. Ross’ I have always walked away amazed, not only from her pure musical talent, but the atmosphere she creates for an audience. When the music begins and her smile comes to the stage there is immediately a feeling of acceptance. When Ms. Ross sings she immediately erases your background, race, age, sexual orientation, or political affiliation. Her music and presence bring people together. This atmosphere is created through the love she portrays for every fan. It’s seen in the halls of the auditorium and the random dance partners found all over the concert hall.

I had two thoughts as I walked away from this show. First, entertainers just aren’t constructed the same as they once were. Ms. Ross comes from a land where autotune didn’t exist and dancers were not a necessity. She is the fully rounded performer.

My last thought walking away was, “When’s the next show?” I think I could see her a dozen more times and still want to see her again. Not many artists do this for me, and I’m often a tough critic, but it’s not just the music that brings me back. It’s the memories and love that I have wrapped up in her music and celebrity and how she brings this element together amongst everybody in the room. That is what keeps me returning.

Basically, when Ms. Ross enters a room, she makes it her house.

Coldplay: Parachutes; I’m Growing With It

I recently found out a friend is a really big fan of Coldplay, and that may be an understatement. He has seen them approximately 27 times since the beginning of their career.

Again, I am late to the game. I have never given Coldplay a fair listen. It’s not that I don’t like them. In 2011 I did purchase their album Mylo Xyloto and I loved it. I planned on getting into their music more, but then some other artist happened. Which speaks to the mantra of my life; so many artists, so little time!

Since my friend had such a conviction about the greatness of Coldplay, I decided it was time to dive into their catalog. I’m determined not to become distracted again (Well, until the next record sale). So I got on Discogs and purchased their first album from 2000, Parachutes.

On my initial listen I thought Coldplay was boring. It wasn’t anything like the album Mylo Xyloto. The album seemed melancholy and I really didn’t get excited about any of the songs. A few stuck out to me, but nothing I was going to put on repeat. Convinced this must not be one of their best albums, I texted my friend and expressed my feeling of indifference. I asked him if this was a boring album. Maybe there is better things to come? A progression in artistry if you will.

His reply: “It’s one of their best.” Clearly, I was missing something.

I gave it a second listen and read all the lyrics along with the songs. Then I gave it a third listen. Sometimes I find myself hating an album on it’s initial listen, but I fall in love with it on the third and fourth. Yet with Parachutes, I still find myself in the middle.

This album is not my favorite (at the moment), but it has given me a deeper respect for Chris Martin and Coldplay as a whole. I think Martin is a brilliant vocalist and the band writes intuitive lyrics. I do find this album fascinating, because often times the musical tones of the music do not match the lyrics.

As I listen to this album more, I am finding it more appealing and I am beginning to relate to their music. Oddly, I feel it somehow get’s me. The music is alive. Each song is up for interpretation, which gives this album an “I’m here for you” tone.

I may have gone off the deep end here.

My takeaways from this album are “Spies,” Yellow,” “Trouble,” and “Everything’s Not Lost” with “High Speed” coming in very close. These tunes are growing on me more and more, and I’m finding myself liking new songs with every listen.

So really I cannot write much about this album for I cannot figure it out, but I like it. I’m not ready to move on to Coldplay album two because this one has so many facets to it. This speaks to the brilliance of the album. How does an album that is nearly 17 years old speak relevance to listeners today? **Mind Blown**

So I would say that my Coldplay journey is starting out rather interesting. I’m excited about listening to their next albums like I haven’t been for a “new” artist in a long time. Martin’s voice has many layers and together the band makes penetrating melodies. Not to mention the lyrics are like clay and mold to different situations.

Parachutes is going to be on repeat for the next week. Although I feel this album is not going to grow on me, instead I’m going to grow with it.

Feeling a Little Dusty: 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…

 

Sturgill Simpson, “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth:” A Universal Heart

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.

img_0334Over 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-simpson1_custom-1fc997fa740562b360de811454a0f507463b4e9b-s900-c85

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.