Savor and Share The Music. Because Life’s Too Fucking Short.   Leave a comment

Lana Del Rey, Whitehorse, London Grammar, First Aid Kit.

February 1, 2016

In those seemingly simpler days in the 1960s and 70s, the sources for discovery of music were reasonably limited: Top-40 radio, a few television programs (ShindigHullabalooAmerican Bandstand, etc.,) the evolving world of FM Radio, in-store play at a record store, and of course our peer groups. Today there are ever-expanding options. Browsing music sites, or looking for a specific artist or sound, or stumbling upon an artist online. We may be marketed to (or targeted by) an artist, venue, manager, or tour agent based on some social network. The iTunes site may “recommend” an artist based on my prior purchases. In the 1980s six companies (WEA, BMG, EMI, Sony, Polygram, and Universal) controlled the destiny of 90% of the music artists. Our choices have become almost limitless, but today’s artists who chart their own course to success or anonymity recognize that our choices are shaped by an infinitely larger pool of artists and music. We may discover them, but more often than not the artists don’t connect. Like a musical version of an online dating service today’s musicians attempt to be the face—the music—that breaks out of the crowd. “Take me, take me.”  The result is, frankly, that we miss most.

The 1970s was the dawn of the hip record store; a brick and mortar place where the aesthetics spoke to a generation of record buyers. Beyond Tower, that music Mecca on the west coast, there were the Harvard Coop in Boston, Flip Side in Chicago, Licorice Pizza in Los Angeles, Music Millennium in Portland, Mainstream in Milwaukee. One could shop in a music-friendly environment. In 1971 I walked into Lake Street Station, a store with a name that evoked the subways in Chicago rather than the latest music. In reality, this Lake Street Station was a smaller but comfortable record store in Madison, Wisconsin that catered to music enthusiasts from the mega-campus known as the University of Wisconsin. While browsing through the LP bins, the music on the store’s turntable slowly and inevitably penetrated my brain, and like a creature from Zombie Apocalypse I lumbered toward the manager and asked what was playing. In a manner as if I were in a 1930s speakeasy or on some street corner looking for a tab of LSD, he leaned in and half-whispered “it is great man; want some?” I returned a silent nod and he proceeded to tell me I was listening to “River Man” by Nick Drake. I bought the precious vinyl album and took it home. Drake was mesmerizing, and his untimely death a few years later only increased his importance to me and many other fans. Thinking this week about my discovering “River Man” reminded me of the various influences on my road to music discovery and discoveries that I’ve made this past year.

I’m a fan of The Graham Norton Show. Norton’s hour-long program (seen on BBC America here in the colonies) is refreshing in so many ways. First he eschews the American talkshow model of trotting guests out one at a time and instead brings his guests to the couch together for the entire hour, forcing or enabling them to interact with one another. Then there’s his penchant for musical talent across a broad spectrum. Performing in one eight-week stretch of shows last year was George Ezra, Lenny Kravitz, Neil Diamond, U2, Maroon 5, Sia, Annie Lennox, and Olly Murs. And most of the musical guests perform live (or at the very least they sing live to tracks.) In early 2015 I watched a repeat of a February 2014 episode. Norton’s musical guest was London Grammar. Who?


London Grammar: (l-r) Dot Major, Hannah Reid, Dan Rothman

Exactly. Never heard of them. Yet the British trio—Dan Rothman, Hannah Reid, Dot Major—was on its way to platinum in the UK with the album If You Wait. Their performance of “Strong” demonstrated the group’s cohesive yet ethereal sound, and the lead vocal by Reid was a stunner. (If it matters to you, she’s a stunner visually as well). Reid’s voice has a depth that belies her age. Her octave-plus range (occasionally aided by a transition to falsetto) moves between smokey and clear, always with emotion apropos of the lyric, and never losing the mood. This is a fabulous track. Compelling music.

Then there was an interview one Saturday morning on NPR where I heard, quite by accident, music by the band Whitehorse. The “band” is Melissa McClellan and Luke Doucet recording alongside some talented side musicians. While the interview itself was worth my time, discovering “Sweet Disaster” from the album Leave No Bridge Unburned, was an unexpected treat for the ears. Like Eurythmics 30 years ago, here’s a duo with the woman leading the way, ably supported by Doucet. McClellan’s vocals are a pure delight. And the performance of, and lyrics for “Sweet Disaster” will suck you right into the world they’re creating.



Galileo was bluffing
It’s just a mess out here
There’s no compass to guide us
Through the flashes of violence and fear . . .

. . . Birthmark on a crow’s foot
Kilimanjaro or bust
There are no mountains to move here
You just do what you say what you must

You will get the best of me
Worlds collide into recipe, for disaster,
Sweet disaster

Reflecting on life it’s easy to agree that “It’s just a mess out here [and] there’s no compass to guide us.” Listening to Whitehorse makes the journey a little easier.


Lana Del Rey

Last summer my discovery went old school. Browsing the CDs inside Dig! Music (a record store in Ukiah) the sound system delivered a most compelling treat. I could only turn to the store owner and ask, “Mike, who the hell is that?” What I was listening to was the title track from Lana Del Rey’s 2012 Born To Die. As provocative as anyone these days (i.e., Liz Phair in her prime, Patti Smith, etc.) Lana Del Rey gets your attention rather quickly. For me it was the production values that first hit me, and then the lyrics, delivered solidly by Del Rey. This is a love song with potentially tragic consequences. And oh those lyrics:


Feet don’t fail me now
Take me to the finish line
All my heart, it breaks every step that I take
But I’m hoping the gates, they’ll tell me you’re mine

Walking thorough the city streets
Is it by mistake or design
I feel so alone on a Friday night
Can you make it feel like home, if I tell you you’re mine?

Come and take a walk on the wild side
Let me kiss you hard in the pouring rain
You like your girls insane.
Choose your last words,
This is the last time.
‘Cause you and I, we were born to die

The album is uneven. I would have preferred 12 tracks that were similar to or clones of the title track, at least in tempo, imagery, and production giving me 40 or 50 minutes of atmosphere. To her credit, Del Rey takes chances and I applaud her for that. And purchasing the CD, if only for “Born To Die”, my investment was made with no regrets.

The final entry from my 2015 discovery tour is The Lion’s Roar, by First Aid Kit. The music, FAKwhich fits easily into the genre of Americana, has external origins and yet needs to be appreciated on its own. I was introduced to this duo by Fred Wooley, a programmer at KZYX radio in Mendocino County, California. His Sunday program—Audible Feast—is always just that. A feast for the ears, and for the gray matter between them. He played “Emmylou” and I was toast. There was no slow deliberative thinking to consider this album. Instead I wanted the whole thing. Now. Once my CD arrived it spent weeks in the CD player in my car. Track after track it’s a delight, but I warn you. One listen to “Emmylou” and you too will fall under their spell. In a week when a massive snow storm has hit the east coast, the lyrics speak easily to any listener:

Oh the bitter winds are coming in, 
And I’m already missing the summer. 
Stockholm’s cold but I’ve been told 
I was born to endure this kind of weather. 
When it’s you I find like a ghost in my mind, 
I am defeated and I gladly wear the crown. 

I’ll be your Emmylou and I’ll be your June 
And you’ll be my Graham and my Johnny too. 
No, I’m not asking much of you 
Just sing little darling, sing with me.

Relationships are not easily distilled down to one or two words, but First Aid Kit does just that, if you’re paying attention or know a little music history. Emmylou Harris and Gram (from his given name Ingram) Parsons had a thing, as did Johnny Cash and June Carter. If one knows the history of either couple (or both) no explanation is needed. For anyone oblivious to the history, the simple explanation is parts love, affection, emotion, and infatuation. With Cash and Carter it was a long term thing. With Harris and Parsons it was a passing thing. The duration doesn’t matter. The passion does. First Aid Kit is sisters Johanna and Klara Soderberg. They were not born and raised in Nashville, but the music, in some fashion, clearly was. The pedal steel work of producer Mike Mogis adds some Americana authenticity, but the sisters sound as if they were born and raised next door to Cash, Carter, Harris, and Parsons. Consider their phrasing of “Stockholm” in the track “Emmylou”. A casual listener might hear “Stockton” and assume their roots are California Country instead of Tennessee. In fact their roots are in Sweden. But who cares. The reality is “Emmylou” is like artisan popcorn. You can’t stop after one bite.

I love music. And I still love discovering music from radio stations, in-store play, NPR, or the BBC. When you find something worth savoring, don’t hide it or treat it like “the precious”. Treat it like something good you hope happens to a good friend. Music is like that. It can soothe the savage beast, become a backdrop to an evening, or make a drive from here to there much more pleasant. Don’t hoard your discovery. Share the music.

David Steffen

© 2016 David Steffen



Posted January 29, 2016 by Jazzdavid in Uncategorized

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