Album Review: Ron Pope & The Nighthawks – Ron Pope & The Nighthawks

I’ve listened to Ron Pope off and on for several years. I like his Americana roots sound and I think he’s at his best singing over a single guitar in front of a crowd.

Ron Pope & The Nighthawks was released on January 8, 2016. It’s his first album with his new band, after a decade long solo career. Ain’t No Angel is the first single off the album. Videos for Bad Intentions and Hotel Room have been released as well.

I wanted to like this album a lot more than I did. There is some really nice Americana/folk pop on this album . I loved tracks like Hotel Room and Lies and Cigarettes. But then I get hit with songs that I really don’t like, like Bad Intentions.

Also, I felt like Pope hit kind of a rut at some point when writing this album. It felt like there were too many references to cocaine, to the point where I started wondering if this was a Johnny Paycheck album.

Overall, this is a stream it album for me. I’m going to take the songs I like and put them in a playlist and revisit the ones I don’t like again in six months to a year and see if I still feel that way.

 

Recommendation: Stream It

Songs I have a Playlist For: Hotel Room, Lies and Cigarettes, Leave You Behind, Take Me Home

Clunkers I will thumbs down: Bad Intentions, Ain’t No Angel

Album Review: Blackstar by David Bowie

Blackstar (the album just uses a black star symbol) is the latest album by David Bowie. The 69 year-old rocker is still or maybe, more accurately, once again doing some decidedly experimental work. The album is relatively short, at 41 minutes, and only has seven tracks.

The title track starts off with what, to me, feels like a heavily jazz-influenced approach that carries all the way through the album. On the stronger tracks, Bowie’s vocals stand up to the strength of the occasionally frilly instrumental performances behind him. On the weaker tracks, it is a reminder that sometimes you lose a little voice as you age.

I think this is his most experimental album since probably “Heroes”. Only science fictions are likely to understand this reference, but I feel like much of this album could be playing in a middle Eastern cafe in a George Alec Effinger novel.  It feels futuristic in a way that I haven’t heard much outside of EDM lately.

That’s not to say that I don’t think this album has weaknesses – I feel like some of the music is a little overwhelming to Bowie’s vocals in places, and I had trouble understanding the lyrics from Bowie’s strained tenor in places. But this has always been true of me for Bowie’s music.

I think it is a testament to Bowie that he would write something like Blackstar at this point in his career. Blackstar doesn’t feel like an album of a musician looking to rest on his laurels. Fans of Bowie in his prime might be heartened of his return to greater experimentation.

After considerable thought, I would recommend this album as a buy. Certainly, if it’s available on your favorite streaming service give it a listen, but I think there’s more to this album that deserves to be discovered on regular relisten.

Recommendation: Buy it

Tracks I think I have a playlist for: Blackstar, Lazarus, Sue (Or a Season of Crime)

Clunkers I would thumbs down: Dollar Days

Song Spotlight: The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton by The Mountain Goats (John Darnielle)

 

The Mountain Goats is a band centered around singer/songwriter John Darnielle. They are an indie folk rock band with a reputation for lo-fi, heartfelt music, which in this case means music that they actually feel something about, rather than the cultural appropriation of heartfelt meaning maudlin.

“The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” is a wonderful story song about 2 guys who dream of stage lights and music and have their dreams crushed by the people around them and resent it, because they weren’t allowed to try and fail, they just weren’t allowed to try at all. And the anger of the protagonists in this song is what makes it wonderful to me. Because it’s an honest human reaction in a song from a day and age of songs about people who react out of expectations rather than out of what they genuinely feel.

Release Friday – new albums being release on January 8

Jan 8

Blackstar – David Bowie
Leave Me Alone – Hinds
Where Have You Been All My Life? – Villagers
Spilt Milk – Pete Astor
A War Against You – Ignite
A Través Del Espejo – Federico Durand
Big World – Stevie McCrorie
Mark Bishop & Forget The Sea – Mark Bishop & Forget The Sea
Star Wars – The Ultimate Digital Collection – John Williams & London Symphony Orchestra
In Ruin – Cauldron
The Order of Elijah – War at Heart
Paramount – It Lies Within
Walking Up the Giants – Grizfolk

Jan 10

SeeFu Lical – Black Moth Super Rainbow

Jan 12

Don’t Look Back – Robby Johnson
The Book of Daniel – Danny!

Song Spotlight: Loud by Matt Nathanson & Ingrid Michaelson

Matt Nathanson has 11 studio albums. His songs have been featured on many a television show. His most well known album was Some Mad Hope, off of which four songs had chart success. “Come On Get Higher” peaked at #2 and was certified platinum.

It’s hard to remember that Borders used to host a lot of these singer in the store events. And some of my favorite performances can be found among these little videos.

I like interplay between Nathanson and Michaelson on this song, and the simple twelve string accompaniment.

Album Review – Wildfire by Rachel Platten

Wildfire by Rachel Platten was officially released on January 1, 2016. Which is, if you ask me, a strange day to release an album, but there was no New Years Day competition for new albums, in any event.

Wildfire is a straightforward pop album with some catchy tunes. Rachel Platten has a nice, clean voice and she sings clearly (hey, I love a clean singer in the modern world filled with mushmouths).

There are no songs on this album that are exceptionally edgy. Platten sings catchy, danceable pop tunes that will individually appeal to a wide spectrum of pop fans. “Fight Song,” which was released in April 2015 on the EP of the same name, seems to resonate particularly with the teen-aged girls it feels aimed at went to #6 on the Billboard charts and was nominated for a Teen Choice award. “Stand By You” also had some chart success at #61.

On the whole, I like Wildfire but is an album that I’m more inclined to listen via streaming services than to own.

Rating: Stream it

Songs I have a spot in a playlist for: Hey Hey Hallelujah, Better Place, Astronauts

Clunkers I will thumbs down: Lone Ranger

Shadows in the Night by Bob Dylan

Let me preface this by saying that I am admittedly not a giant Dylan fan. I like individual songs (Boots of Spanish Leather is a particular favorite, for instance), but Dylan isn’t someone I play when I just want to sit around and listen to music. Not even folk music.

I thought it was weird that Dylan released what is essentially a Sinatra tribute album when I came across it. The crooner sound is not something you would associate with Dylan for purely aesthetic reasons – he doesn’t have a crooner’s voice. I will allow that it’s perfectly reasonable for Bob Dylan to be fond of that music. It was very popular in his formative years. Heck, I like a lot of Sinatra’s music. But it wouldn’t occur to me that Dylan would try and make a crooner album. But he did. And honestly, it’s probably the least successful thing I’ve ever heard from Dylan. And remember, I’m not a giant Dylan fan.

The orchestration and music production of the album is fine. In fact, Dylan and his musicians play excellent backing music for these songs. The problem is entirely in the singing. Dylan is not a great singer to begin with. I didn’t think the phrasing on these songs was very well done. And I didn’t feel that Dylan’s limited vocal range was appropriate to the music.

I guess Dylan aficionados will accept anything he does. There are certainly a lot of reviews on the internet that were appreciative, even gushing for this album. But I just didn’t like it. If Dylan had done this album as instrumental, I would have liked it a lot more. As I said, the musicianship was excellent. But his weak singing, poor phrasing, and limited vocal range simply didn’t work on this album for me. I like Dylan best when the material can hide his vocal limitations, and this album contains nothing in that works for me.

On Criticism

“It stinks!” – Jay Sherman

I’ve been thinking a lot about criticism lately; art, music, movie, literary, theatre – the litany of demesne for the modern critic. Now, it is fair to say that criticism has been a deeply contemplated field since not long after someone developed the written word. I’m sure there were raucous debates about the epics of Homer in the meeting places of ancient Greece. But of late, there has been a renewed interest in the place of the critic in art.

I have noticed two fronts of debate but they are both centered on what the purpose of the critic is. The first, and perhaps most vociferously argued about, is about the critic as taste maker. There is a long history of this. Indeed, the critic as taste maker  is the primary cause of the slow uptake in popular culture of new forms of art. It seems now that the thought that the critic should not be an arbiter of taste is, rightly in my opinion, being strongly pushed back against. Taste is a highly individual thing and I don’t feel it is the place of the critic to impose their taste upon their readers.

The second front of this debate then focuses on what the critic should be doing, namely whether criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, or whether criticism is really about giving an evaluation about artistic achievement. That is, is the importance of the thing about how we read the work in question, or is it really about how well the the work is made/performed/written/executed. You can probably guess where I fall in this argument.

If criticism is about interpretation and contextualization, I’m afraid that we return to the place of critic as taste maker, with the even more pernicious undertone of the critic being the only true arbiter of meaning for art, a stance I feel is patently silly. Jay Lake often said, “The story belongs to the reader.” The same sentiment can really be expanded to all art. The painting/film/television show belongs to the viewer. The music belongs to the listener. While the creator of work can intend to infuse meaning into art, they can not control what meaning the consumer takes away. Sure, there are many techniques that any artist, any producer of art, can use to guide the consumer to their desired interpretive objective, but every consumer will necessarily bring his own experiences to that experience. Those unique experiences color how the consumer views the world around them, and thus color the way the consumer inevitably views the work.

Thus we have to look not to interpretation and context as the primary role of the critic, but rather, to a reasoned evaluation of the quality of the making of that thing being reviewed. With a little training, and a fair bit of experience, most of us can learn to discern the quality of something upon close examination. I’ll grant you, it is more complicated as works include more elements to examine. In fact, what makes most critics stumble, in my honest opinion, is that they leave out one more elements of the work in their evaluation, leading them to a foreshortened view of the quality of the work. Perhaps that film is not artistically successful because the camera angle is distracting. But maybe, it’s distracting because the critic didn’t process the story as he was processing the rest of the film. Maybe the camera angle is utterly necessary in service to the story. And we won’t know if the person doing the criticism doesn’t tell us.

Let’s face, being a really good critic is hard. Even good critics miss things that they should be evaluating. And, the reality is that there aren’t a lot of good critics anymore. It’s a thankless job for the people who aren’t critics because they want to be taste makers. It’s especially thankless for those people when they are accused of only wanting to be taste makers (an accusation that is constantly thrown about, usually be people who have had their work evaluated to be less good that they themselves think it to be). What’s worse, the readers of critics tend to cling to those critics whose perceived tastes match their own, whether consciously or not, and that will limit their exposure to art they may challenge them, that may open their horizons. Not that art has to have such grand aspirations, but even humbler art may have a broadening effect.  And people who get into the field to simply be taste makers are, in my experience, not very good critics. Rather they are simply cheerleaders for their own form of taste, strongly reinforced by the echo chamber they surround themselves with.

So, you might ask, where does that leave us. Well, my answer is that I don’t much look for critics anymore. Rather, I turn to reviewers. Now, in truth, most reviewers think of themselves as critics, but I don’t believe they are. Their purpose isn’t really to evaluate the artistry of what they’re reviewing. Their purpose is to evaluate the entertainment value. It takes us back to that elusive matter of taste again, but it’s simpler then because you aren’t trying to find the quality of the work, but simply whether you might enjoy it or not. And, it perfectly fine to regularly read reviewers whose perceived taste mirrors your own, because, after all, you are trying to find things that you are likely to enjoy, not things that are artistically meaningful.  You will have to decide for yourself what is artistically meaningful.

On My Prolonged absence

Everyone has trouble getting into habits that they want to acheive. The habit of writing regularly was something I was aiming for, I’ll admit.

However, there was a time shortly after my last post in 2014 that my world suffered some severe upsets and I lost my equilibrium. I certainly lost the impetus to write or even think about things. I’ve been in the mindless state of reacting to need, doing work, and going home to sit restless but uninterested.

I think that time is now coming to an end. At least, I have interests again. I will once again try to aim to make writing a habit, which is the reason I maintain this space.

Here’s to a world with fewer upsets for a while.

Herbed Potato Salad

I made a dynamite potato salad for supper tonight. Served warm, it was a delight to the taste buds, and made up the main portion of my supper (I had a lot of steak left over).

The key to this salad is to use fresh herbs. They have a brighter taste than their dried counterparts and make the salad really dance on the tongue.

Herbed Potato Salad

56 ounces golf-ball sized red or white potatoes, scrubbed
1/3 cup good olive oil
1/3 cup finely diced shallots
3 tablespoons sherry or champagne vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon of kosher salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh parsley
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh dill
3 tablespoons finely chopped fresh tarragon

Place the potatoes in a large pan filled with heavily salted water. I used 1/4 cup of salt to 3 quarts of water. If the water is well salted enough, you won’t need to add more salt at the end. Bring the potatoes to a boil over high heat. Lower heat to medium and boil for about 15 minutes, until a paring knife can be easily inserted into the potatoes.

While the potatoes are being boiled, whisk the oil, shallots, vinegar, mustard, salt, and pepper in a non-reactive bowl and set aside.

When the potatoes are ready, drain them and layer in a single layer on a baking sheet. Set aside until cool enough to handle, but still warm, 15 to 20 minutes. Slice the potatoes into half in rounds and put in a large bowl.

Pour the vinaigrette and herbs over the potatoes and toss to combine. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as needed.

I really loved this potato salad, which has a great contract between the acid of the vinegar and the brightness of the fresh herbs. It’s especially good still warm.