I will resist saying it’s been a year like any other – that goes without saying. But there was a tremendous outpouring of stellar music – pandemic-centric or not:
Kathleen Edwards - Total Freedom
About damn time, quitter.
The former critics darling, then abandoner of the music business (she started her own shop called ‘Quitters Coffee’ in Stittsville, Ontario) returns after a near decade absence.
Ruing… at least coming to terms with oncoming middle age (‘Options Open’). The sense of second guessing; eternally present self-doubt and severed relationships lie at the heart of this record, from her romantic obligations to her living with and within herself. “Fool’s Ride’ outlines the brutal financial and emotional collateral damage of codependency. The lovely “Birds on a Feeder” hints at almost, almost solitary bliss.
Sturdy and insistent interwoven electric and acoustic guitars buoy mid-tempo folk rock. Her short, dry overlaid harmony vocals crackle. This is a short, tuneful, acrid and reflective folk-rock treatise. It’s also a brutal year to try to come back and make it in the music economy – here’s to hoping she is rewarded and sticks with it.
A Girl Called Eddy - Been Around
There may be a theme to several artists on this year’s list. “Been Around” is only the second solo release by A Girl Called Eddy, and it comes a decade and a half after her debut; also quite excellent.
Erin Moran, a British singer-songwriter offers up a facile lesson in songcraft, lithe yet world-worn voice and crack production for a welcome return to recording. And the opening title track gets right to the point – “I've been around enough to dry some tears; Been around enough to trace the years upon my face; This is the place I'm happy to be”. Well, so are we - happy you are singing in 2020.
The string-leavened “Charity Shop Window” floats with her contemplating a past lover while spying the former’s old coat in the song title establishment. Her soft, slightly bluesy voice couples lovingly with guest vocalist and producer Daniel Tashian (The Silver Seas) on the wistful and plaintive “Pale Blue Moon”.
And the sophisticated yet unfussy instrumental accompaniment is crackerjack; a spray of horns bolster a chorus here and there; fulsome piano driven accompaniment throughout; nary a misplaced lyric or note. Honest and reactive to each composition. Sweet, retro-harmonies- some that wouldn’t be out of place on a late 70’s Steely Dan album (“Jody” & “Come to the Palisades”).
Let’s not wait another decade for another collection, eh Eddy?
Haim - Women in Music – Pt 3
Hey Male Trolls, let’s declare a moratorium on dragging Estie, Alana and Ariel - the Haim Sisters (rhymes with ‘time’). The three faced ‘real’ crises preceding the recording of this album, including a death, a cancer diagnosis and health challenges in their family and friendship circles.
All the more reason that the Haim’s reflective powers force an examination of one’s own life in tuneful and unflinchingly honest songs. Stylistically, the songs represent the broadest palette yet by the trio. Folk-Pop; 80’s R&B and 70’s soft rock.
Dig the 70’s vibe of “The Steps”, with its flat and slappy snare drum and tremolo guitars and smooth harmonies. Sequenced rhythms underpin the 80’s tinged “Now That I’m In It”. There are the gorgeous three-part harmonies of “Leaning on You” with simple strumming and reverbed drenched guitar leads.
And Nightsounds fans know how I fell for the charming bonus track “Summer Girl” – with its recurrent baritone sax figure encircling the melody like a wafting smoke ring. And like the record itself, it is a deceptively light approach to darkness lapping at the shores of their lives - appreciate each minute - “Walk beside me, not behind me!”
Black Pumas - Black Pumas - Deluxe
The duo of throaty and soulful singer Eric Burton and multi-instrumentalist Adrian Quesada combined talents and released quite a few singles and a song collection in 2019. I am crediting them with a 2020 release as the “Deluxe’ designation comes with a slug of outtakes and live in-studio sessions and came out early last year.
It only took me about eight bars of “October 33” to be hooked. Burton’s gritty R&B crying moan and the unadorned, chiming guitar figure hooks you straightaway. This song cycle includes an aching, stripped down-guitar & voice rendition of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car”.
“Black Moon Rising” certainly nods to 60’s and 70’s R&B and funk. Throughout there are hints of Bill Withers, Stylistics, Spinners, Sly & the Family Stone - a kit-of-parts of reverence and updating of the golden days of funk & soul - chopping guitar chords; percolating Fender Rhodes and dry punchy, clackety percussion.
And despite being labeled as ‘retro soul’, the songs created by the duo are somehow fresh, organic and inviting in a thoroughly modern and unique soundscape.
Emma Swift - Blonde on the Tracks
Here is a woman with a daunting task – a whole album of bard tributes. Covering the anointed poet laureate of the left is a fool’s errand. And if you research this Australian, she often plops into “New Age” bins. And cut her some slack for working in Nashville with venerated Brit Robyn Hitchcock and Wilco’s Pat Sansone for production and backing instrumentation.
Emma Swift is not overly inventive nor fussy in her versions of Dylan on this outing. And purists will bristle at the soft folk-rock approach, but I defy a listener from enjoying the earthy, twelve-string pleasure that is her talky “Queen Jane Approximately”.
“A Simple Twist of Fate” floats on open and echoey twanging guitar and a smooth organ grounding. And even though the whole affair is stuck in mid-tempo, her rendering of “The Man in Me” is lithely muscular, as is the burbling, shimmering “You’re a Big Girl Now” with tasteful guitar riffs gliding atop a smooth Hammond B3 bed.
Her voice is a thin, light thing, but here I find a vulnerable and respectful fit for Mr. Zimmerman’s often hummable, yet lyrically sophisticated, impactful songs.
Also Noted: Individual Albums and Songs of 2020 that I believe you will enjoy:
John Moreland - “Thoughts Just a Passing Train” – Slow rumbling groove – a slo-mo boogie with processed laid-back vocals; wah-wah scalding keys, and electrocuted guitar licks.
Keb Mo - “Oklahoma” – Rocking paen to his home state.
Leon Bridges and Khruangbhin - “Texas Sun” – A sunny travelogue with the Houston trio’s springy reverb twang and Bridges warm retro-soul.
Rose Cousins - “The Agreement” – Understated elegance and dread………..
Absynthe Minded - “Easy” – Blythe Belgian pop masters – lilting and melodic acoustic guitar figure drives this effervescent pop-rock gem.
Chuck Prophet - “Nixonland” – Prophet captures the paranoia and political unrest of this 2020 zeitgeist….
Alec Benjamin - “Six Feet Apart” – The national anthem of 2020. This acoustic gem with facile wordplay was on repeat on Nightsounds throughout the year.
Old Sea Brigade with Luke Sital Singh - “Call Me When You Land” – Relaxed folk rock single from the underrated Georgian, Ben Cramer.
Dirty Projectors - “Overlord” – This the most tuneful I’ve ever heard the enigmatic Projectors. Welcome adherence to simple and lovely melody.
James Elkington - “Nowhere Time” – Brooding shuffle with keen finger-picked acoustic and curling lead guitars. He’s a great accompanist and producer to boot.
Aidan Knight - Houston, Texas – Trademark somber, Beatlesque, molasses paced and cute quoting of Neil Young make this a late-night staple.
Dave Leonatti, Nightsounds