First off, I want thank everyone for the kind messages I've been getting about this column. I am so grateful that you are taking the time to read it, and I really appreciate hearing about what albums you are playing to lighten your day. Adding more music to our lives right now is obviously improving our collective states of mind.
Before I get started with my listening notes, I want to share a story. Between me and my wife, we have three sets of parents. Her parents are still happily married, and mine have each found new love. All were recently out of town visiting relatives or vacationing out of the country. It's been stressful getting them back home. But now that everyone is safely back, I am extremely relieved. Glad to be done with airports and travel. The entire extended family is talking every day, and trying to help make sure everyone has food, medicine, or anything else they really need. I feel very grateful. Please feel free to share your thoughts.
A Quick Cut: Ray Charles The Genius of Ray Charles
A customer wrote me a nice note, mentioning he was listening to Ray Charles sing "Come Rain or Come Shine" and finding the tune very apropos for the times. So I dug through my Charles albums and pulled out this gem from 1959. Side one is all big-band arrangements, side two is strings. "Come Rain or Come Shine" is the last tune on the album. It is not the best-sounding recording, but when Ray sings, "I'm gonna love you like no one loves you…come rain or come shine/Happy together/Unhappy together/And wouldn't it be fine," you can't help but feel it. Thanks for the recommendation, Charlie.
First up: Elton John Tumbleweed Connection
I have turned to this under-appreciated Elton John gem throughout my life. It always seemed crazy to me that a couple of Brits could put together a definitive picture of the American Wild West in such vivid detail. Elton was 23 years old when this masterpiece was recorded. Bernie was only 20.
The reality of the recording world is such that there are few albums that stun you from the first needle drop all the way to the second lead-out groove. Every song here is so well written, arranged, produced, and sequenced (a lost art, to say the least). I could call out something special from every track. Tumbleweed Connection is good ol' country comfort for me, and getting transported out West is just what I needed to decompress.
Sonically, the record is very complex. The drums are recorded extremely well. There are funky electric guitars. Rich, ringing acoustics. Foot taps. Great harmony vocals. Elton's piano sounds fantastic. My copy is a U.S. original UNI pressing—with not a single tick after hundreds of plays. And the jacket? Wow. Located inside the textured gatefold, there's a vintage-looking booklet glued into the inner spine. You get lyrics, illustrations, old-timey photos, and pictures of all participants. Please spend time with this one. It will reward you with repeated listens.
This one really fills me up. And as Elton sings on "Love Song": "You say it's very hard/To leave behind the life we once knew/But there's no other way/And now it's really up to you."
Next Up: Michael Hedges Aerial Boundaries
I first saw Michael Hedges play acoustic guitar in 1988 in an auditorium in Champaign, Illinois on the campus of my alma mater. To say the performance left an everlasting impression would be a serious understatement. All told, I was fortunate enough to see him play about half a dozen times, my favorite being at the Park West in Chicago, around 1989. The way he put his whole body into the instrument. The way his hands were all over the body of his Martin. The way he amplified his instrument. I had never seen anything like it.
On LP, Ariel Boundaries is specular, and features chill-inducing sonics. Live, when Michael hit a harmonic on the neck with his right hand, you felt it. Sure, his guitar sounded bigger than life, but his playing was as well. I like to play this album LOUD. "Rickover's Dream" proved masterful live, but on this LP, it's romantic, bombastic, and alive. The same holds true for "Ragamuffin." And for me, the end of side one delivers a real treat. A Neil Young cover performed with Michael Manring and his fretless bass playing melody. In my head: "There was a band playing in my head, and I felt like getting high." It's a super-slow version of "After the Gold Rush." I heard stories Michael worked his way through music school by playing Neil covers in bars. I wish I could have seen that!
I could go on, and on, about every song on this LP, but I'll let those of you who are unfamiliar discover it for yourselves. My European pressing is from Alto Analogue, done in the mid-90s, I believe. It's a great 180g pressing, with quiet surfaces and a wide soundstage. It was also one of the first LPs I bought from Music Direct before I saw a letter from the company—asking local customers if they knew any salespeople looking for work—that would change the direction of my life in 1999. Ariel Boundaries takes me back to a much simpler time, and that is what this exercise in listening is all about. It's time for me to clean my stylus and put the 'table to sleep. I'll retire, as well.
Please stay safe and healthy!