Poem

Listen

to the rain

it is the voice

of spring

sweeping

winter’s ashes

revitalizing everything

listen

to the rain

another day

is coming

its fingers

on the windowpane

nervously drumming

listen

to the rain

it is not always sad

do not listen

to me

i have nothing

more to add

Fiona Apple – Fetch the Bolt Cutters

Fetch the Bolt Cutters, Fiona Apple’s first album in eight years, feels pent up.

You can hear it in the chorus of the title track.

You can hear it in Shameika’s buoyant beat and whiplash lyrics that reach back to her childhood to work out the bullying she encountered at school.

And you can hear it in the stories she tells – hers and those of others – that have shaped the #MeToo movement.

That said, Fetch the Bolt Cutters couldn’t feel more of the moment.

An album articulating societal pandemics for our pandemic times recorded entirely at home with little embellishments that are the equivalent of your cat jumping into frame during a Zoom meeting.

In that way, it is a bracing work, and one that COVD-19 has made it possible to really spend time with, having shut down society in so many ways.

Even so, I suspect I’d be sitting with it quite a bit under any circumstances.

Although Fetch the Bolt Cutters plays, at times, like a catharsis, it is surprisingly bouncy and energetic.

In an interview with Vulture, Apple noted that walking and hiking have been constants in her life, not just for rumination but also for her craft.

And you can really hear that here.

Songs wind like mountain paths.

It’s all somewhat bumptious, but once you find your footing, the album is forgiving, in part because her melodic sense is still strong.

Listen close enough and you can still hear echoes of early work like Shadowboxer, a song that suggested she could be a torch singer for our times.

But that torch is being wielded here in a different way.

Apple is shining a light on lovers real and imaginary, the ways we hold ourselves – and others – back, and the way that men pit women against each other, or just destroy them through manipulation and violence.

It should feel claustrophobic, but it isn’t.

In part because the music is so kinetic, so elastic, so restless.

But also because Apple sounds like she is in a good place after troubled times.

Every song, every line, feels like hard-won wisdom.

A testimony of survival.

All of it suffused with a sense of adventure and playfulness.

That comes through in the last song, when she not only shrugs off an error but announces she moves not to prove anything but just for the sheer joy that she can move.

It’s a notice that she is living on her terms, something that comes through in every note and word.

In that way, it feels healing, like a balm for all of us who are cut off, shut away, trying not to get sick in a world that is very, very sick.

Each rollicking, wordy song, as evocative in some ways of Scott Walker’s lyric-driven approach to music as it is to Laura Nyro’s fearless refusal to hold fast to conventional song form, acts very much like a set of bolt cutters, in that it has the potential to liberate you from your situation if you listen long enough.

And I’ve listened long enough that it feels like the year’s best album.

 

John Prine

Last week, John Prine passed away.

I had feared that would happen the moment I heard he had been diagnosed with Covid-19.

His passing is enough to make your heart feel like a bruised orange.

There’s a reason why so many singers and songwriters sang his praises in the days that followed.

He was one of the most sharp observers of the human condition, be it that encroaching loneliness of growing old, the toll of war, or just the fact you could get fired for being scared of bees.

He articulated our hopes and fears better than most songwriters you can name.

For that, he got branded with the term ‘New Dylan,’ a lazy shorthand that forgot he was the one and only John Prine.

I can’t help but feel that his work as a mailman contributed mightily to his evocative writing.

After all, when you are out there on your own, doing the same thing day after day, your mind has plenty of opportunity to wander, and I am glad his did.

It resulted in a debut album that was like a cookie jar, in that it was raided several times by other artists who were captivated by the likes of  Sam Stone, Angel From Montgomery, and Hello in There.

You can find many great covers of his work, but they did not always have that spirit, that modest self-amusement that Prine brought to this work.

That sense he was as tickled by what he came up with as you were.

And yet, Prine could break your heart when he articulated lives in disrepair, lovers in despair, or any other shortcomings you care to mention.

It’s kind of odd how what will now stand as his final album, 2018’s Tree of Forgiveness, ended with a song about what he was going to do when he got to heaven.

It demonstrated he hadn’t lost a step in the near-five decades since he first appeared on our collective radar.

It contained all the humor and tenderness that denoted much of his work, only this time married in a way that hadn’t quite been done before, suggesting he had many more ways that he could surprise us, had there been more time and opportunity.

All that had changed was his voice was more gravelly, the result of a bout with cancer.

It’s a surprisingly lively number for one concerned with mortality, so if there is a heaven, then I hope that Mr. Prine is there making short work of that nine-mile cigarette.

Human League – Don’t You Want Me

 

The first thing to know about Don’t You Want Me is Phil Oakey hated it.

So much so, he fought with the producer over it, had it slotted as the last song on side two of Dare! (or Dare, depending where you live) to essentially bury it, and tried to stop it from being released as the fourth UK single from that album.

The sticking point for Oakey, who cowrote the song, was the mix, which he thought lost the allure of the original version.

But then, the song had evolved considerably from how he originally envisioned it.

It was not intended to be a duet.

Inspired by A Star is Born, Don’t You Want Me became a Svengali-protege song with Susan Ann Sulley playing off of Oakey’s stentorian self-importance.

A kind of he-said-she-said that cracked open how men see women as objects to possess and groom and then destroy.

But it is clear that Oakey is being destroyed by his own obsession.

Ironically, Oakey had picked  Sulley (and the band’s other backing vocalist Joanne Catherall) out of a crowd at a club, which makes the song’s lyrics almost meta.

I have always thought it fascinating how dizzying the song’s phalanx of synths sound, much like being on a carousel at a carnival.

There’s a certain splashy iridescence to it that approximates flashbulbs and spotlights that strafe celebrities on the red carpet.

Although Oakey thought UK audiences were likely soured on the band after three back-to-back hit singles, Don’t You Want Me was the Christmas #1 there in 1981 – a highly coveted prize – and it stayed for five weeks at the top of the charts before hitting number one on Billboard in July 1982.

Oakey still has reservations about the song, but he seems to have warmed to it over the years.

It’s kind of hard not to enjoy it not just as a relic of its time but also for how perceptive it remains about sexual politics.

Even so, every time I hear it, that opening line makes me think Oakey is talking about a missed connection on Craiglist.

 

Keep or Cull – Jonah Jones’ Along Came Jonah

Born in 1909, Jonah was nearly sixty when he landed at Motown for a couple of LPs in the late 60s, starting with this one.

IMG_20200318_130341You might think, based on that title, that he does Along Comes Mary, a top ten hit for The Association.

He does not.

Instead, the jazz trumpeter does a mix of then-contemporary pop hits, jazz standards, and a couple of Motown songs.

And the results are… well, pleasant enough.

For example, here’s his take on My Girl.

 

Nice, but not revelatory.

The same is true for the rest of the songs.

IMG_20200318_130405On For Once in My Life, Jonah (who sings it) and the backing musicians slow the tempo down a bit, leaning more into the reflective nature of the lyric, and thus giving it more of a lounge sound.

On Love is Blue, Jonah does his best impersonation of Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass.

On I Say a Little Prayer, the band starts with a little allusion to Walk on By before he comes in for a measured take on the Bacharach classic.

And on The End of Our Road, he and the backing musicians, likely the Funk Brothers, very nearly veer into the kind of funk that Jr. Walker traded in, although the results here are cleaner and brighter.

In many ways, it is the epitome of a sixties album in that it gives you a survey of the current scene in a way that is clearly meant to appeal to nearly anyone.

But despite the sweetness of Jones’ tone, which does hearken back to the swing era, and the 60s arrangements, not much really stands out.

And what does is more for novelty sake, such as the string laden stroll through the Beatles Michelle, which closes out the set.

You get the sense that someone wanted Jones to be hip, but not too hip, and faithful to his legacy, but not really draw on it to his benefit.

So it never really comes on.

And that makes it a cull for me.