I don't know what the hell happened...I've been moaning about quality albums, you know, with great songs top to bottom, and then bam! I get 28-year old singer/songwriter Willy Mason's excellent new release Carry On, Bob Dylan's Another Self Portrait - The Bootleg Series Vol. 10 and newcomer pop-rock crooner Jay Stolar's More Than We Think (image above). Maybe it's my state of mind, maybe it's the state of the world, maybe it's the state of universe. Regardless, this simple, evocative music cuts through all the bullshit that seems destined to drag us down into the abyss of life's giant cesspool.
I loathe listening to new artists' self-released CDs. Most of these well-intentioned singers/songwriters/bands and their new music leaves much to be desired. In dire need of A&Ring, editing, refining, road testing, et al.
Then every so often, something works its way into my life and catches me off-guard. So it was last month with Jay Stolar's infectious, soulful pop single "Like You Do." Instantly it become one of my favorite songs of the summer. And I completely get why it was featured on the CW Network's teen drama 90210. I was satiated. Some fresh music from a fresh new talent. All was good in his and my world. But the young man wasn't finished. He had a grander vision. Bigger fish to fry. More songs to share. More ears to sizzle. He was not to be denied. Nor was his publicist, who kept on me until I promised to give it my full and proper attention. (Thanks, Amanda). Thankfully it didn't take too much arm-twisting. But I was skeptical. I didn't think he could sustain the excellence over an entire album's worth of material. Boy, was I wrong. This New Yorker and former lead singer in Julius C writes and records and plays just about everything on his brilliant, sophisticated, soulful, pop-rock debut. Can't deny the emotional depth of his music either.
Think Todd Rundgren's early R&B excursions. Hall & Oates circa "She's Gone" (off of Abandoned Luncheonette). More organic than Bruno Mars and Prince. No autotune or obnoxious wonky synth beds or big dumb beats, or sub-sonic bass. Just superb vocals, acoustic guitars, pianos; real instruments, real human voices.
Songs that you can sing along with. Harmonize, too. Play night or day. Over and over. Glad all over that you did so. No guilt, no shame. Share it with the kids, your wife, your co-workers, friends, lovers, enemies, everyone. Tweet it, Facebook it, brag it. Use it, abuse it.
Just about perfect. (I've listened to it about 12 times already.)
Damn is he good!
As is often the case as of late, I missed badly on this Martha's Vineyard native. Certainly I knew that Mr. Mason was critically lauded, having read his glowing reviews in numerous U.K. periodicals, but I somehow failed to get any of his music imported into my iTunes shuffle playlist. Too bad for me. I overlooked his first two releases, but not his latest. And I had the good fortune of catching him live with a trio (Willy on guitar and vocals with a drummer and female lap-steel/fiddle/vocalist) at Rockwood Music Hall in August. He makes it all seem so easy. His baritone voice clear and strong. His songs simple and direct. Like Hemingway's writing. No need for hidden agendas and cryptic messages. Perhaps not surprising that Mason is a direct descendant of the 19th-century philosopher William James, the brother of novelist Henry James. His influences seem pretty apparent; the Dylan comparisons were flung at him after his very first release in 2004. He's not released his Blonde on Blonde...yet. Lofty company, for sure. But on the single "Talk Me Down" with its industrial Tom Waits-like boho clanking -- courtesy of Hot Chip producer Dan Carey no doubt -- that keeps things percolating along quite nicely, you sense that something grand is imminent. Here he collects 11 Americana folk-country songs that inspire repeated listens; ruminations about pickup trucks, shadows, love, "painted glass" and the meaning of life. I'll say it again, we need more music like this, all the time. Acoustic guitars, tremolo guitars, drums and Carey's quirky little sonic embellishments. Three albums in and it's safe to say that this 28-year old man is a musical marvel. And he shows no signs of burning out before his time.
Redemptive, simple, folk songs. Earnest. Hearts and souls worn on rolled-up, dusty sleeves. This is the world of Woody, Hank and dozens of unheralded folk artists before them. By now, Mr. Zimmerman's 1970 debacle known as Self Portrait has been written about ad nauseum. How he thumbed his nose at his fans, and decided he'd revisit and record the music of his youth. Shaking off the heavy chains of his generation's artistic expectations, waiting for him to deliver his sermon for the '70s. Nope. Sir Bob would have none of it. Critics and fans howled -- "This is shit!" Greil Marcus in Rolling Stone echoed the sentiment. Where was the next Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61? But Bob needed to distance himself from those insane expectations of strangers. Thumb his nose at them. One listen to the very last track on Another is the demo version of "When I Paint My Masterpiece." It pretty much sums up that sentiment. Just voice and piano.
"Train wheels are running through the back of my memory
When I ran on a hilltop following a pack of wild geese
Someday everything is gonna sound like a rhapsody
When I paint my masterpiece..."
Poignant, prophetic. It didn't get recorded until 1971. The Band released it first on Cahoots; Bob would release on his Greatest Hits, Volume II shortly after. For now, future masterpieces would have to wait to be written by our Knight in Shining Armor.
But his output in 1970 and 1971? Self Portrait and the more palatable New Morning bore witness to the false prophets. Zimmerman was merely a troubadour, carrying the songs of his fellow singers, songwriters and jacks-of-all-trades. No masterpiece, indeed. Just a man playing his songs, and other people's songs, some new, some old, some like the Gold Rush tale of broken men seeking fortune in "Days of '49" -- just him on acoustic, David Bromberg on acoustic, Al Kooper on organ. Nothing fancy, no added muscle like on the final version of Self Portrait. Rendered like this, it may have been met with more favorable respect. But probably not. The hippies were waiting for a new shoe to drop, or the war to finally end or for Sir Bob to write the next great anthem to usher in the next decade. A call to arms and to action. But Bob just wanted to write and record and play songs, for himself. And if any one else cared to listen, cool. If not, that would work, too. Listening to Another Self Portrait affords one that vantage. And what a vantage it is and shall ever be.
Did Joe Public really needed another Dylan bootleg record? Not unless it's this insightful. Kudos to Mr. Marcus's liner notes, too.
There is hope for new music, even with heritage acts like Mr. Zimmerman. Looking backwards, one can borrow to move forward. Clearly all three of these releases look backwards. With Dylan, we all know his legacy. I hope Mr. Mason and Mr. Stolar can have half the career of that poet laureate.