An Eclectic Gastronomy of Sound
I write that blog title in a joking way because I’m approaching middle age myself. Who am I kidding? I’ve approached it, poked it cautiously with a long stick and it’s welcomed me into its lair. So far it hasn’t turned on me, but I’m keeping an eye on it.
There’s that expression “in the September of their years,” meaning the person in question is past middle age, but not elderly yet. This September saw the release of a multitude of albums by artists in the September of their years, and some well into the October, November or beyond. Coincidence or some kind of weird convergence? A quick rundown of some includes:
–Gregg Allman: Southern Blood (Age 69 before he passed away in May)
–Stephen Stills and Judy Collins: Everybody Knows (Ages 72 and 78, respectively)
–Chris Hillman (of the Byrds): Bidin’ My Time (Age 72)
–Cat Stevens / Yusuf: The Laughing Apple (Age 69)
–Van Morrison: Roll with the Punches (Age 72)
–Bruce Cockburn: Bone on Bone (Age 72)
–Leon Russell: On a Distant Shore (Age 74 before he passed away in Nov, 2016)
–Michael McDonald: Wide Open (Age 65)
–Ringo Starr: Give More Love (Age77)
–Chris Rea: Road Songs for Lovers (Age 66)
–Lee Ranaldo: Electric Trim (Age 62)
–Linda Perhacs: I’m a Harmony (Age 75)
And that’s not even counting Neil Young’s (Age 71) archival Hitchhiker release and Steve Winwood’s (Age 69) Greatest Hits Live and Steve Miller’s (Age 73) Ultimate Hits.
All issued in September, 2017!
Now, of course, you’re only as old as you feel and 60+ isn’t necessarily “old,” but it is the other side of middle age. I find it interesting how each of these artists has approached their latest work and how it fits into their discographies. Do they still sound engaged and involved with their craft? Are they looking to the past in their material or not? Are they still striving for something and still moving forward? Or have they become content to do the same kind of stuff they’ve been doing for a long time (which is okay too – one can always refine one’s art)?
A broad and generalized grouping based on type of album results in Allman, Hillman, Stills & Collins, and Cat Stevens/Yusuf more in the nostalgia camp with albums of mostly covers and/or older redone material of theirs (though you wouldn’t necessarily know Cat Stevens / Yusuf’s contains some older songs of his without being very familiar with his career). Van Morrison occupies his own unique ground in that his album is largely covers, but not with a nostalgic or “looking back” approach. Cockburn, Russell, McDonald, Ringo, and Rea each have albums of mostly new material, each with a smattering of songs addressing age, but not focused on it. Ranaldo’s is not identifiable by age, except for his trend of at least one song on each of his last three albums about a crazy experience in his youth involving drugs. Perhacs doesn’t have age as a reference point in her work at all.
A few more thoughts on the individual albums (and to be honest, I haven’t listened to all of them in depth) and some of the critical and fan consensus:
Gregg Allman’s Southern Blood stands apart a bit from the others, as it was his final work. And reportedly, he knew it would be his final work, due to his declining health. As such it functions as a sort of intentional summation and closing statement. Even though he was only involved in the writing of one track, the scene setting opener “My Only True Friend,” the song choice is very thought out, with tracks representing various facets of his career and playing to his strengths. Blues and ballads; the road, the wild life, and coming to peace with things. A very classy album, skillfully played and put together. He sounds very involved, not rushed, and it’s a fitting closure to a long discography. It’s also gotten near unanimous acclaim.
Leon Russell’s On a Distant Shore is made up of tracks recorded in the months preceding his 2016 death, however it wasn’t intended as a career caper (as far as we know). In fact, the Allmusic Guide says his previous, Life Journey, works better as that. However, he does sing in one song “Sounds like a funeral here for some person / And I might be the one.” The album covers a lot of the styles Russell is known for and all the songs are self-penned. Mostly positive reviews on Amazon.
As to be expected, there’s a lot of nostalgia in this crop of new albums. None more so than on Stephen Stills & Judy Collins’ Everybody Knows. As everybody knows (hence the title) the two were an item back in the late 60s and CSN’s “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was inspired by her. Making the hearts of old folkies everywhere swoon, the two have reunited in the autumn of their years to do a duet album. They resurrect other old songs written for each other – “So Begins the Task,” “Judy,” “Houses,” plus nuggets from the usual suspects including Dylan, Sandy Denny, and Leonard Cohen and a small smattering of new songs. According to the comments on Amazon, the fans love it, but the critics have given it very mixed reviews, mostly singling out Stills’ vocals as not up to par and some of the arrangements as sluggish. The review on Paste is especially negative, saying the album is an “unpleasant reminder that even the greatest singers and songwriters are sometimes unable to age gracefully” which seems a bit over the top to me.
Similarly, Chris Hillman of the Byrds’ new album, Bidin’ My Time (produced by Tom Petty, another been-around-the-block a few times guy) looks back through the years with reworked versions of older songs mixed with some new tracks. Like Allman’s Southern Blood, it’s been called a summation of his career – only Hillman is still very much with us. Like the pairing of Stills and Collins, Hillman brings in old friends David Crosby and Roger McGuinn to help out. Mostly positive reviews all around for this album, even if it mines the past to an extreme.
Cat Stevens/Yusuf’s The Laughing Apple is basically an album for kids of all ages, constructed as a collection of gentle folk songs, the CD booklet illustrated with a storybook drawing for each. It’s an intentional return to his most well-known early 70s sound with his producer and guitarist from those times accompanying him. Lauded as his best album since his return to music a decade or so ago.
Van Morrison, even though most of the songs on his new album Roll with the Punches are vintage blues covers, delivers an album that has little to do with nostalgia and finds him still raring to go. A lot has to do with the delivery, which in some cases means the songs are reinterpreted enough to give them a freshness. Combined with his enthusiastic performances here, it’s another entry in the long and continuing discography of the singer. One which could have been made 10 years ago or 10 years from now.
Bruce Cockburn, the same age as Morrison, has also given us a bluesier album than he’s ever done before. Yet, this sounds like an album made by a 72 year old, at least lyrically, with tracks such as “States I’m In,” “40 Years in the Wilderness,” and “Mon Chemin.” But then, he’s been writing about aging for at least 20 years, going all the way back to “Pacing the Cage”. Nothing wrong with that, he’s just singing about what’s on his mind. And his audience is aging too and they (we?) presumably have the same concerns. He sounds invested and involved in the material, though he doesn’t really do much that would be considered a departure from his usual modus operandi in any way (unless you count his vocals which are sometimes a bit more gritty). He’s got a 5 year old daughter, so he probably just doesn’t have time to explore something radically different in his sound. He’s said in interviews that he called the album Bone on Bone in reference to his arthritis. In another interview he says about his latest, “It’s about having lived this long. I think of it as a kind of darkly joyous exercise in noticing where you are. At this point, what’s ahead of you is shorter than what is behind you.”
It’s not just joint pain that plagues Chris Rea, as he’s had a litany of health problems the last 20 or so years. It was those health problems that instigated his career switch from pop musician with occasional blues touches to blues musician with occasional pop touches. He lost a lot of fans in the process, but is reportedly doing what he wants to with no concessions. His dive headfirst into the blues, including but not limited to an 11 disc box set of new material – all blues – in 2005, has been criticized as having a lot of samey-ness (and let’s be honest, it would be difficult not to repeat yourself with that quantity of new stuff all in the same genre). His new album, Road Songs for Lovers, continues his long running themes about, well, the road…and lovers. Interestingly, the album cover art seems to feature photos of him taken during the 90s, not current ones. The album won’t be officially released until a few days from this writing, but there’s been disappointment on discussion forums with the pre-released tracks. Still, most of what Rea does is quality work overall.
Ringo Starr: Give More Love – Along with his dyed hair, Ringo is still giving it a go and producing new music. As usual, he surrounds himself with a lot of famous guests/friends including Paul McCartney, Peter Frampton, Joe Walsh, etc. The songs are pretty much all co-written with these talented friends, but the result feels a bit formulaic overall. As with Stills & Collins, critical reviews haven’t generally been too good, but the fans on Amazon seem to love the album. The deluxe edition contains reworkings of four of his old songs, showing that even Ringo is not immune to that practice. It ends with a new, very relaxed version of “Photograph” – “I want you here to have and hold / As the years go by, and we grow old and gray” takes on new meaning now.
Michael McDonald’s Wide Open is his first album of original material since 2000. He mixes things up a little stylistically and it’s gotten quite good reviews all around. The Allmusic Guide says “there’s not much of a feeling of pandering nostalgia here. Instead, McDonald seems to be integrating all his personas — the soul true believer, the godfather of smooth — in a record that not only feels true but, song for song, is sturdier than nearly all of the albums he recorded at his popular peak.”
Electric Trim, besides being something you get at the barber shop, is the title of Lee Ranaldo’s (Sonic Youth guitarist/songwriter) entry into the September album release bonanza. This one injects a dose of adrenaline, but even so this is one of Ranaldo’s mellowest records. Acoustic guitar figures prominently, but it’s balanced with his trademark beat-style poetry/lyrics and alternate tunings and unusual song structures. Another album that’s received mixed reviews – some seem to want a repeat of the loudness of the Sonic Youth days, others fault his vocals. Personally, I think he’s one of the most inventive musicians currently working and he always sounds so enthusiastic in his music that you can’t help but be drawn in.
Having well known guests on your album (as many of the aforementioned artists have done) is a smart move, but it may be an even smarter move to bring in guests who are much younger to give things a freshness, as Linda Perhacs has done on her latest (I’m a Harmony) with Julia Holter, Pat Sansone, Devendra Banhart, Fernando Perdomo, and cutting edge musicians like guitarist Nels Cline. Perhacs issued her first album in 1970 at the age of 28 and this is only her third, but she sounds positively invigorated compared to most of the other veterans releasing new works in September. There’s no dwelling in the past or much nostalgia, just a continuation of the new agey experimental folk she’s always done and it sounds more focused and stronger than her previous album from three years ago. There’s even a bouncy song about giddy infatuation (“Crazy Love”) that sounds like it could have come from the pen of a teenager.
In the end, even though I may sound a bit anti-nostalgia, I think there’s room in art for that as well as new, trailblazing things (and everything builds on what’s comes before in some way). As listeners, we’re lucky we have so much music to choose from and we’re lucky that so many “older” artists are still releasing music worth exploring.
“Everybody’s talking ‘bout a new thing…” sings Lee Ranaldo…even if the new thing is an old thing.