The world of the singer-songwriter is much like that of comedians who traverse the Earth. Since you are often a solo performer, you travel light and work where you can just change, adjust and improvise on a whim. In addition, night after night of holding an audience in the palm of your hand for an hour or two is followed by the passage of time, while those you entertained shuffle back to their mundane lives.
Justin Townes Earle was brought on to this Earth to write. The son of Steve Earle and named after the great Townes Van Zandt, a lot of his mystique was in filling those big shoes. So, he did what every second-generation songwriter should do: he bucked convention.
Earle experimented with Blues, Folk, Soul, Bluegrass and Americana. He took Song of the Year in 2011 from the Americana Music Association for “Harlem River Blues.” The next year, he moved to London and delivered the homesick Soul of “Nothing's Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now,” and it felt like he could do no wrong.
Earle added a band and further built his sound while digging deep into his own feelings about parents and love on “Single Mothers.” The songs began to feel like therapy sessions, and, as a fan, you were always at first affected by what he said and then hopeful that this would be the release of that burdensome weight. Its follow up “Absent Fathers” slices as deeply as its title.
“Kids in the Street” incorporated Rock into the mix (“Champagne Corolla”) and flirted with a reevaluation of mythic Blues (“Same Ol’ Stagolee.”) To say he was in pure voice at this time would be an understatement. His habit of drawing out words and spinning his lyrics around the chords of the song made them stand out from the rest. This discovery and the settlement of mixed feelings led to a sparkling record born from the Blues but as much of a middle-class testament as his father would make on “The Saint of Lost Causes.”
It felt like he had finally achieved his sound and while it was like his father’s, it was only reminiscent, not derivative. Rolling Stone wrote, “The son of Steve Earle has grown into a songwriter to rival his dad.”
Now, he’s gone, another artist lost to the chain of events that most suffer through: passion on paper, music to the ears, giving up their heart and soul for those minutes you actually listen to another voice who you don't know what they are saying – but you know what they are saying. The dichotomy of that is the finest line of all. Justin Townes Earle tightrope-walked above it for us all. The loss of him is a loss to all of us.
The importance of Metallica cannot be overstated. In the Eighties, as America is in its self-absorbed polychromatic haze of MTV post-New Wave Pop and Hair metal, the four horsemen planted themselves firmly in the monochromatic blistering Metal that would lead to the myriad of subgenres we have today.
Inspired by New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands (whom they covered almost perfectly on “Garage Days,”) their first four albums remain heavily played blasts of raw power and Metal's forced growth into Thrash and Hardcore and more as it absorbs Punk. “Kill Em All” still pounds like a jackhammer. “Ride The Lightning” cracks the NWOBHM sphere to expose their songwriting acumen. “Master of Puppets” begins their incorporation of extreme musicianship, while “And Justice For All” continues that growth into well-orchestrated parts.
Their 1999 collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony (S&M) was so successful that they decided to do it again. Over two nights last year, Metallica ran through a large swath of their catalog that largely goes unheard. Beginning with “The Call of Ktulu” (the closer on “Ride The Lightning”), the band and symphony quickly head for terra incognita blasting out favorites old (“For Whom The Bell Tolls”) and new (“Moth Into Flame,” possibly the best of the recent crop).
Following the symphony's thunderous performance of Prokofiev’s “Scythian Suite,” Metallica returns to help with the abstract “Iron Foundry.” Other high points include the principal bassist of the symphony handling the late Cliff Burton’s bass solo on “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” and hard-charging trio of classics in “Wherever I May Roam,” “One” and “Master of Puppets.”
Finally, you may have seen Metallica perform before. However, the arrangement of the symphony around them really brings home how much this instrumentation helps the band continue to serve as an exemplar of the importance of Metal.
When one hears the singles from the latest Katy Perry, one wants to draw attention to it as different Katy. “Smile” actually incorporates more of her confident personality in its songs. The track “Smile” confesses that “Had a piece of humble pie/That evil trick saved my life.” While we know Perry went through a bout with depression and is now expecting her first child, “Smile” is a little too manufactured to maintain that hitmaker sound. Since Perry’s lyrics have grown so personal (“Daisies” incorporates “took those sticks and stones/showed them I could build a house/They tell me that I'm crazy/I’ll never let them change me”), they may have outgrown the “bursting out of your airbuds” style of production. “Smile” passes on personality and her songwriting skill, but it still leaves me thinking that the next album is the one to watch.
RECORD STORE DAY FAVORITES
This weekend marks the first of three Record Store Day observations. The first drop is this Saturday at T-Bones. While the technical efforts will be different, the excitement is the same: over 200 releases just for one day. Here are several highlights.
The History [LP]
Women and their place in the history of Rock continue to gain steam in 2020. Thanks to a new documentary about Suzi Quatro, look for more attention to her career, including this 1969 Rock record where Suzi and her sisters defied record company conventions to revise their band “The Pleasure Seekers” as this hard-rock quartet that was years ahead of its time.
Seventeen Seconds/Bloodflowers [PICTURE LP]
After their tour of the UK last year ended with a triumphant show in Edinburgh, Scotland (their first time there in 27 years), music stores sold out of guitars and other musical instruments. In 1980, after the terse start of “Three Imaginary Boys,” The Cure laid the groundwork for Goth on the heavy atmospheric “Seventeen Seconds.” In 2000, after a small break, The Cure returned to heaviness on “Bloodflowers,” released here on wax for its first time ever.
RAMS: Original Soundtrack [LP]
Eno, the son of a postman, should really be a household name. His music is enlightening but rarely imposing. His special score for this documentary is as smooth and sleek as the industrial designer who is the film’s subject. These 11 tracks have never been released until RSD.
The Essential [4LP]
Glass is the classic minimalist: beautifully constructed arpeggiated runs, the low bellow of horns and a lyrical (but wordless voice) on top. Given how similar all of his music can seem, these 4LPs reassess his career and bring his emotional compositions together.
On his American debut, Elton John was a piano master still searching for his best voice. His 1970 album brought him together with lyricist Bernie Taupin and producer Gus Dudgeon, both knowing that this was no longer Pop music but a far larger statement telling everybody that this is their song. This 2LP edition contains a wealth of bonus tracks never issued on LP before.
British Steel: 40th Anniversary [LP]
Important to both British and American Heavy Metal, while a precursor to NWOBHM (their first album was released in 1974), “British Steel” brought them commercial success on both sides of the Atlantic. As they absorbed the simple, straightforward influence of AC/DC, “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight” became radio standards still heavily played to this day.
The Kink Kronikles [2LP]
Success almost spoiled the Kinks. After three transatlantic hit singles, they saw their first American tour in 1964 lead to a four-year ban from playing here again. Without shows and their live fervor to worry over, Ray Davies became one of our greatest songwriters. These tracks recorded from 1966-1971 paved the way for American success in the Seventies. However, more importantly, over time, they have grown into the music most identified with the hallowed English rockers.
Peur Sur La Ville [2LP]
(We Want Sound)
We lost the great film composer Ennio Morricone this year. His scores were groundbreaking. He made Spaghetti Westerns into a genre. He installed the chills and thrills in Giallo suspense and horror films. This 1975 crime drama really shows Morricone’s gift for tailoring his compositions to a scene. Even without seeing the film, you get everything on here from huge wailing crime themes, dissonant moments of suspense and even groovy jazzy music for the film’s quieter passages.
Ace of Spades [SHAPED 12"]
Metalheads, punks and rockers can no longer deny the overarching influence of this Rock N'Roll Hall of Fame-bound bunch of miscreants. This very special pressing of the clarion call “Ace of Spades” seals its place as one of the hardest-rocking, most-revered clarion call singles of all time.
Jazz at Midnite [BLUE LP]
Charlie Parker’s recording career is one big puzzle. However, these live recordings that continue to be unearthed are doing their part to draw the disparate threads of his history back together. Recorded in 1952 and 1953 at the Howard Theatre, this is Parker as bandleader and foil to all who play with him.
The Atlantic Albums/The Kentucky Sessions [4LP/7"]
Think of these as the bookends of the legend of John Prine. Signed to Atlantic in 1971, he made four brilliant albums with the label that defied the “singer-songwriter” label traveling around and even threw Folk, Blues and Bluegrass into the mix. His self-titled debut is a necessity. “Paradise” from that album is then covered by Prine and Kelsey Waldon on the single, where they also offer their rendition of Merle Travis’ “Kentucky Means Paradise.”