Monday, October 24, 2016

Leonard Cohen – You Want It Darker

You Want It Darker

You Want It Darker, following rather quickly on the heels of Popular Problems, released in 2014, and Old Ideas, from 2012, is the third in a series of remarkable and deep late-career albums from Leonard Cohen that followed in the wake of his equally remarkable years of late-career tours and live albums. Like the previous two albums – in fact, like most of Leonard’s recordings dating back to Songs of Leonard Cohen from 1967, almost a half-century ago – You Want It Darker is a masterwork filled with conversational and hypnotically mesmerizing song-poems layered with meaning that both reveal more every time they are heard and suggest new avenues of meaning and interpretation rendering them ever mysterious.

The album begins with the title track, which Leonard released on Internet on September 21, his 82nd birthday. It is a song that only an older man could have written; a song from the perspective of someone who has lived long and is prepared for death.

Much was made of Leonard having released the song on his birthday. I think, though, what’s much more significant than his birthday is that he released the song during the Jewish month of Elul, a time when Jews prepare for the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.

It is a song Leonard sings directly to God. “Hineni, hineni, I’m ready my lord,” he sings in the chorus, echoing the words of the biblical patriarch Abraham as he prepared for the near-sacrifice of his son Isaac. But, while Abraham might have been ready to face the death of his son, Leonard, here, seems prepared to confront his own mortality; something Jews traditionally think about during the High Holidays.

The melody – despite having been composed by collaborator Patrick Leonard – seems like it comes directly from the synagogue music Leonard heard growing up at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim in Westmount (a city within the city of Montreal). And, indeed, he turned to Cantor Gideon Zelermyer and the Shaar choir to sing with him on the song. The choir’s haunting harmonies are heard from the beginning of the song, Leonard himself sounds like he’s singing from the depths of his soul, and the final minute of the song is devoted to Zelermyer repeatedly, and seemingly distantly, singing the word “hineni.”

It is a stunning performance from Leonard, the choir and the cantor. And I must extend kudos to Adam Cohen, Leonard’s son and a talented singer-songwriter himself, who produced this track and much of the rest of the album.

The Shaar choir appears again later in the album to sing haunting harmonies that contrast beautifully with Leonard’s recitation-like singing on “It Seemed the Better Way,” another song – also with a melody composed by Patrick Leonard – in which he muses on the possibility of death.

One of the most affecting songs is “Traveling Light,” which I think may be a farewell song for Marianne Ihlen who died in July. The song can be interpreted as look back to Leonard’s times with Marianne – that inspired such songs as “Bird on the Wire” and, most notably, “So Long, Marianne – as well as an affirmation of the affection that remained after 50 or more years had passed since that time.

Some of the other songs reflect on love, or broken love, but always from a perspective of maturity and with possible layers of interpretation of the kind of love Leonard is referring to.

As I have noted before about Leonard’s songs, they are always open to interpretation and layered with ideas: ideas he had when he conceived the songs; ideas that continued to grow over the days, even years that he worked on them; and the ideas that each of us hears and develops from listening and re-listening to the songs. What I hear in these songs is not necessarily what you will hear, or, perhaps, not even what Leonard Cohen – part Jewish mystic, part Zen monk – might himself have intended.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Caroline Doctorow – Dreaming in Vinyl

Dreaming in Vinyl
Narrow Lane Records 

Music, for a lot of baby boomers like me, was big deal when we were young (and remains a big deal for some of us). Acquiring a new LP from a favorite band or solo artist was often a major event. The songs meant something to us and so many have stayed with us over the decades.

Caroline Doctorow’s new CD, Dreaming in Vinyl, is a reminder of those days. Eight of the 10 songs are seemingly timeless interpretations of songs that first came out between 1965 and 1970 while the other two – Caroline’s originals – evoke that period.

Almost all of the covered songs on Dreaming in Vinyl were instantly familiar to me as they were drawn from LPs I owned back in the day (and most of those I now have on CD reissues). And the only song I didn’t really know, “Hard, Hard Year,” was because it wasn’t on one of the Hollies’ LPs I did have back then.

Caroline’s versions of these songs remain quite faithful to the original versions. Her always-lovely voice is well served by her own guitar playing and overdubbed harmonies, by violinist Chris Tedesco, and by the layered accompaniment of producer Pete Kennedy on all other instruments. Among my favorites are Bob Dylan’s “Time Passes Slowly,” Paul Simon (Simon and Garfunkel)’s “Dangling Conversation,” which chronicles a couple’s growing alienation from each other, and Richard Holler’s poignant topical song “Abraham, Martin and John,” an iconic hit by Dion after the assassinations of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy.

The versions of the Lou Reed and John Cale (Velvet Underground & Nico)’s “Sunday Morning,” Randy Newman’s “I Think It’s Going to Rain Today,” Donovan’s “Turquoise,” and John Lennon and Paul McCartney (Beatles)’s “Across the Universe” are all also noteworthy.

As mentioned, Caroline’s two original songs evoke that period when we were buying vinyl LPs. “To Be Here” is a beautiful love song and travelogue. “That’s How I’ll Remember You,” is a lovely farewell written for Caroline’s father, the acclaimed novelist E.L. Doctorow, who died last year.

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--Mike Regenstreif

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Jenny Whiteley – The Original Jenny Whiteley

The Original Jenny Whiteley
Black Hen Music

I first met the Original Sloth Band Chris Whiteley, Ken Whiteley and Tom Evans – in the early-1970s. They had a wonderfully eclectic repertoire of songs gathered from old-time jug band, jazz, blues and folk sources.

Chris had an infant daughter back then who would grow up to be – like her father, uncle, brothers and cousins – an excellent musician, singer and songwriter and who now has five solo albums to her credit. Jenny Whiteley’s first recording projects – long before she started making solo albums – were in the 1980s when she sang with dad and uncle on their Junior Jug Band LPs.

Jenny’s fifth solo album, The Original Jenny Whiteley, is a homage to her dad. Whether on songs like “Stealin’, Stealin’” or “Things are Coming My Way,” which were on Original Sloth Band LPs back in the ‘70s, or on other vintage songs, or even her own original material,  they were all, she notes, “influenced in some way by his music.”

The Original Jenny Whiteley is a delightful 11-song romp. Among my favorites are the already mentioned “Stealin’, Stealin’” and “Things are Coming My Way,” the latter featuring harmony vocals from Chris and Ken; her own songs “Banjo Girl,” reprised from Jenny’s 2006 album, Dear, and “Higher Learning”; the traditional classic “In the Pines”; and Uncle Dave Macon’s “Morning Blues,” a favorite I first heard on the Jim Kweskin Jug Band Jug Band Music LP in the ‘60s.

Aside from Jenny’s own vocals and guitar, most of the backup on The Original Jenny Whiteley is by multi-instrumentalists Sam Allison, who produced the album, and Teillard Frost, who, as Sheesham & Lotus, are highly reminiscent of the Original Sloth Band.

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--Mike Regenstreif