Recommended Albums #76

Nanci Griffith: One Fair Summer Evening (1988)


Sweet-voiced songstress Nanci Griffith straddled the folk and country genres, enjoying modest success with her own recordings and having her songs recorded by country hit makers such as Suzy Bogguss and Kathy Mattea.

Before courting a wider audience with the more pop-oriented releases that followed–much the same way that Mary Chapin Carpenter had done more successfully a couple years earlier–Griffith’s August 1988 Anderson Fair (Houston) performance neatly encapsulated her career to that point with a combination of originals and well-chosen covers

She even made Julie Gold’s “From a Distance” a top ten hit in Ireland prior to Bette Midler taking the song to stratospheric heights.

The sympathetic, restrained accompaniment of the Blue Moon Orchestra gives this live release an organic feel throughout. Compared to the original studio versions, which often seem over produced, these recordings feel like the definitive versions of these songs.

Despite only modest success on its release, this album feels like a classic today.


Listen to: “Once in a Very Blue Moon”


Listen to: “Looking For the Time (Workin’ Girl)”


Listen to: “The Wing and the Wheel”


Listen to “From a Distance”


Listen to: “Love at the Five and Dime”

Recommended Albums #75

Steven Wilson: To the Bone (2017)

Prog god Steven Wilson (some of you want to stop reading right there but I implore you for your own sake to resist the urge) has created, on his fifth solo record, an homage to progressive pop records that captivated  him in his youth.

Echoes of ambitious works such as Peter Gabriel’s So, Tears for Fears’ Seeds of Love and works by Talk Talk and Kate Bush permeate a diverse collection that is more about songs than the album. It’s almost like ABBA meets David Bowie–and how awesome would that have been?

Wilson eschews complex time signatures and paints with brighter colors than on much of his past work. The possible risk? Losing a few of the hardcore proggers from his Porcupine Tree days. The probable reward? Growing his newly multi-gendered audience by throwing them more sonic thrills than challenges. Steven Wilson can make any kind of album he wants. He wanted to go pop-rock. And it’s glorious.

The slow-building “Nowhere Now” hearkens to Wilson’s work with Aviv Geffen in Blackfield, with its dark ruminations on ruination colliding with an uplifting harmony chorus.

“Pariah”, featuring guest vocals by Israeli singer Ninet Tayeb, ricochets between hope and hopelessness, determination and despair:

I’m tired of Facebook
Tired of my failing health
I’m tired of everyone
And that includes myself
Well being alone now
It doesn’t bother me
But not knowing if you are
That’s been hell you see

“The Same Asylum as Before” is simply a thrill ride and the best rock song I’ve heard this year, period. Falsetto vocals. An anthemic and cathartic chorus that may inspire you to explore your car’s volume dial limits. A searing, channel-panning metalesque solo that drops off a cliff into a quiet, almost jazz section…there’s a hell of a lot going on here. But this kind of ambition and dynamic interplay are the particular forte of the many-hatted Wilson. Guitar god, producer extraordinaire, songwriter par excellence…it’s amazing to think prog rock’s current leading light is actually getting better.

“Permanating” puts the exclamation point on Wilson’s foray from dark introspection to buoyant populism. It’s unapologetically joyful–a description I can’t believe I’m applying to Steven Wilson.

But hey, if Steven Wilson wants to make pop prog, or pop rock, or whatever you call this, he will. And he’ll do it better than virtually anyone else can.


Listen to: “Nowhere Now”


Listen to: “Pariah”


Don’t miss: “The Same Asylum as Before”


Listen to: “Permanating”


See also:

Recommended Albums #74

Ron Sexsmith: Retriever (2004)

Ron Sexsmith’s 2004’s Retriever LP is the ideal primer on the work of the Canadian singer-songwriter, and certainly among best work of his career.

Delivered with his trademark McCartney-esque melodic knack, his insightful takes on (as he puts it) “the business of the heart and of the soul” come across as earnest, honest, and emotionally compelling.

“Hard Bargain” is a tribute to a stubbornly determined love that refuses to accept failure. In the hands of another–or lesser–songwriter, the self-loathing touched on here would have been the song’s focus. But in Sexsmith’s hands it is merely given proper proportion in the greater context of a remarkable love affair:

Each time I’m headin’ for nowhere/Doomed and determined to go there/Seems I never get far/’Cause you drive a hard bargain

How’s a guy supposed to fail/With someone like you around/I’ve tried, I’ve tried to no avail/You just can’t seem to let me down

“Imaginary Friends” is a cautionary ode to friends who “meet you when your ship comes in, but never meet you eye-to-eye”. “From Now On” is radio-friendly and had a topical feel in Iraq-War 2004. “Whatever it Takes” channels Bill Withers, adding another color to the album’s palette. And “How on Earth” extolls the amazement of finding a “love divine” in this vale of tears.

Unabashed romanticism is splashed across this album; it seems to come from a place of domestic bliss indeed. But Sexsmith’s understated style is always engaging, never cloying.

Sexsmith is a consummate song craftsman, combining the lyrical precision of Motown or Tin Pan Alley masters with an honesty that rings true. The songs sound lived-in here, as if the work of a man either revealing his own relationship status updates, as it were, or proving to be a talented illusionist. And that’s what a true songwriter does: either finds the universal in the personal, or makes the universal sound personal enough to feel real.


Listen to: “Hard Bargain”


Listen to: “Imaginary Friends”


Listen to: “From Now On”


Listen to: “Whatever it Takes”


Listen to “How on Earth”

Recommended Albums #73


Walter Martin: Arts & Leisure (2016)

Ex-Walkmen singer-songwriter Walter Martin has an easy, whimsical, tongue-in-cheek way with a song that calls to mind people like Jens Lekman and even Paul Simon.

walter-martinArts & Leisure is a travelogue of sorts. With wry specificity Martin takes the listener on a tour of places he’s seen, jobs he’s had and people he’s been, with a love of art at the forefront of much of the album.

I don’t know what’s more of a kick here, the lyrics or the playful, kooky arrangements. Percussion like the sound of coconuts takes you “Down by the Singing Sea”, and “Amsterdam” throws bass harmonica and various whistlie and tinklie things into a rollicking mix that may bring Jacques Brell to mind. Fun!

His solo debut, 2014’s We’re All Young Together was a children’s album for adults–something like They Might Be Giants might offer. But on Arts & Leisure, Martin’s childlike playful high-spiritedness is still intact as he explores a wider world. Truly this is an artist with a refreshingly unique world view.

Listen to: “Down by the Singing Sea”

Listen to: “Jobs I Had Before I Got Rich and Famous”

Listen to: “Amsterdam”

See also:

Recommended Albums #72


Oh Land: Wishbone (2013)

Danish ballet dancer-turned singer Nanna Øland Fabricius (Anglicized as Oh Land) turned in her strongest album with her third effort, 2013’s Wishbone.

A schizophrenic blend of Scandinavian electropop, this frothy funfair of a record reaches in many directions but ultimately lands squarely in smart pop territory consistently enough to make for a satisfying listen.

oh-land-2Fans of artists such as Goldfrapp and Robyn may have ears better acclimated to the chilly electronic sound collage that frames the tunes–it’s not the most organic-sounding music.

And in fact the busy, idiosyncratic electronic sound palate here has cost Wishbone more favorable reviews from some critics who seem to see it as distractive, overdone, more sheen than substance.

Yeah, I remember rock critics panning the first Boston album in similar terms. And that one found a bit of an audience if memory serves. The point being, if any artistic work delivers the hooks, well, guilty pleasures are no less pleasurable.


And there’s no denying that the dizzying lyrical spit of “Renaissance Girls” and the perfect pop/funk of “Pyromaniac” are a blast to listen to.

And for change of pace, “Love You Better” will hit you in the feels with an almost too reflective acoustic guitar ballad:

I will love you better
Better when I’m blind
I will love you better when I’m blind
‘Cause you’ll always be a beauty
Living in my mind
I will love you better when I’m blind

If radio didn’t embrace songs like these (and it didn’t) it was more a statement about the state of radio than the quality of this music.


Listen to: “Renaissance Girls”


Listen to: “Bird in an Aeroplane”


Listen to: “Pyromaniac”


Listen to: “Love You Better”


Listen to: “Cherry on Top”


See also:

Recommended Albums #71


Lonely Robot: Please Come Home (2015)

A broad appreciation of music often requires the effort of shedding certain personal prejudices we may have acquired, whether it’s a dislike for soft rock, an aversion to steel guitar, an intolerance for unpolished vocals, or simply the lack of interest in a particular genre.


Of course, if you’ve decided you really don’t enjoy the blues, for example, it’s valid to stop trying to like the blues. Appreciation shouldn’t be work.

The prejudice Lonely Robot’s Please Come Home helped dispel for me was against female vocals in progressive tock. Weaned on Pink Floyd, Yes and Jethro Tull like so many my age, I’d had a deep-rooted belief that this genre just didn’t work with pretty female vocals out front.

But Lonely Robot is indeed a prog album–though it’s more proggy in terms of its atmosphere and aesthetic than by virtue of any compositional complexity or lyrical impenetrability. And it does feature prominent female vocals on several songs. And it works.


Lonely Robot is the nom de plume of singer/songwriter/guitarist/producer John Mitchell, one of the busiest and most prolific figures of the British progressive rock scene. As a member of bands such as Arena, It Bites, Kino, Frost and The Urbane he’s seemingly always either recording or touring the work of one or another band.

This time he decided to step out on his own, although many modern prog notables appear as support. This concept album, inspired by Mitchell’s love of science fiction, is similar to the work of fellow Brits Steve Thorne and Dave Kerzner, who carefully craft albums of thoughtful and melodic crossover prog and record them with the help of an impressive cast of luminaries of the genre.

Please Come Home‘s eleven tracks are linked lyrically by certain motifs and phrases, and Mitchell describes its arc thusly:

“The concept is about the way in which some ancient civilisations – for instance, the Mayans, the Egyptians and the Chinese – had technology way beyond what they should have had at the time. And I’m talking about the millennium up to 1000AD. It’s as if some people had been transplanted onto the planet from another world and time.”

As for project name, in addition to saying Lonely Robot sounded much more interesting than releasing an album under the name John Mitchell, he says:

“It represents the human condition. I’m not suggesting that human beings behave like robots, but so many people lead regimented lives and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not realise or know how to get out of it.”


Although the record contains enough uptempo tunes to maintain rock cred, ballads such as “Why Do We Stay” and “Humans Being” are some of the most alluring and affecting compositions here. Gilmouresque guitar solos add to the gloomy Englishness of the album.

If the feel of Please Come Home appeals to you, check out the above-mentioned Steve Thorne and Dave Kerzner as well as perhaps this blog’s most oft-recommended band, Blackfield.

Accessible melodies are a strong suit for Mitchell and he plays to that strength here. Although fans of Frost and It Bites may argue, I think this is his best work yet.

Listen to: “Why Do We Stay?”

Listen to: “Lonely Robot” (edit)

Listen to: “Oubilette”

Listen to: “Construct/Obstruct”

Listen to: “Humans Being”

See also:

See also:

Recommended Albums #70


Phosphorescent: Here’s to Taking it Easy (2010)

While listening to the perfectly-titled Here’s to Taking it Easy by Matthew Houck, who records under the nom de plume of Phosphorescent, I can’t shake the feeling that this guy could be headed for Elliott Smith status someday.


With lilting, haunting melodies and simple, evocative lyrics sprawling lazily across relaxed, country-tinged arrangements, his songs have the effortless feel of Lucinda Williams’ best work.

When the layered harmonies join in on “Nothing Was Stolen” and “Mermaid Parade”, perfect unison is eschewed in favored of a sloppier, singalong feel that evokes The Band. This isn’t about perfect takes or instrumental virtuosity. It’s all about the feel, and the feel is reflective, forlorn, world-weary and somehow soothing at the same time.

The London Evening Standard praised Houck as “the most significant American in his field since Kurt Cobain.” And one Amazon reviewer observed:

“Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck is probably one of those American writers and singers who knows that in ten years time a coterie of very hip young bands will record a huge tribute to his songs…and they will name check him as an influence”

If you wander through a Pro-Tools world with a 70’s vinyl heart, songs like “Mermaid Parade” will break that heart–in a good way.

Listen to: “Nothing Was Stolen (Love Me Foolishly)”

Listen to: “We’ll Be Here Soon”

Listen to: “The Mermaid Parade”

Listen to: “Tell Me Baby (Have You Had Enough)”

Listen to: “Heaven, Sittin Down”

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