Here are my choices for the five best albums of the year so far.
1. Tess Henley - High Heels & Sneakers
Listen to "Daydreamimg"
A Perfect Storm: Before we go any further, I've got to say that "Daydreamimg" completely knocks me out. It's a perfect storm of exquisite songwriting, singing, instrumental performance and production. Tess was already having some success in her native Seattle with a solid album and an EP, when Dice Raw from the Roots entered the picture. "After Dice Raw heard her music, he took an immediate interest in the young talent, taking Tess under his wing. He brought her to Philadelphia – the epicenter of a soul sound all it’s own – and introduced her to fellow-producer Khari Mateen (The Roots, Jill Scott, J*DaVeY). Dice and Khari signed on to produce" (from her bio).
When I listen to Tess, I hear a little Aretha, a bit of Stevie Wonder, a touch of Minnie Riperton, and even some Corinne Bailey Rae, and when she burns it down like on "From The Get Go" or "Heartless Queen", I hear the great Valerie Carter, singing with Earth Wind & Fire on her first album. The tuneful wordplay in "Gonna Fall In Love " brings Lily Allen to mind. While I'm at it, I'll also say that Tess reminds me more than a little of longtime blog favorites Chrissi Poland ("Going Back") and Annekei ("You Are The One"), high praise indeed. In the last decade the multi-talented members of the Roots, along with their producers and friends have made Philadelphia once again the center of the soul, R&B, and hip-hop universe. How fortunate then, that the supremely gifted Tess Henley could come out of the Seattle music scene, connect with the Roots, and come to Philadelphia to make High Heels & Sneakers with them. Tess Henley's voice blows me away and I totally love this record. Read the full review.
2. Courtney Jaye - Love and Forgiveness
Listen to "Ask Me To"
Fierce Optimism: When you hear Courtney Jaye's third album, Love And Forgiveness, you may well think "I didn't know they made records like this anymore." Every track is so full of memorable melodies, sweet vocals and unstoppable guitar lines that the result is unquestionably the soundtrack for summer (or whatever season it happens to be), and the first album you'll want on a road trip. Produced by Mike Wrucke (Miranda Lambert), every song has the goods to be a hit single.
Love And Forgiveness pulls off the neat trick of sounding fresh, original, and new, while evoking the big pop and country rock albums of the seventies, Bounce around the web and you'll see comparisons ranging from Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles, to Sheryl Crow and Jenny Lewis, and everyone in between. I'll add my proverbial two cents to the comparison game and say that I am occasionally reminded of Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Mindy Smith. The real bottom line is that Courtney has used the trials and hard times she's experienced as seasoning and she's come out the other side with a fierce optimism that infuses every track with a real sense of, well, Love And Forgiveness. I love this album, a pure delight.
3. Kacey Musgraves - Same Trailer Different Park
Listen to "Merry Go 'Round"
An Irresistible Combination: After ten years in country music during which she gained some success as a songwriter (her songs were recorded by artists like Martina McBride and Miranda Lambert), and three self-released albums, Kacey Musgraves made her major label debut this spring with Same Trailer Different Park and she's ready to be country's for real next big thing. It may sound like mainstream country music, the kind you hope to hear whenever you tune in country radio, but Kacey has a slightly subversive edge to her songwriting that says this isn't your father's CMT. That Kacey injects some new, non-traditional ideas into a music industry that normally embraces a steady diet of guys, girls, trucks, beer, and the military, is grounds for celebration. It almost didn't happen.
The week of the album release, the New York Times ran an excellent profile of Kacey in their Sunday magazine. It was touch and go when she performed for the country music establishment at the Ryman Auditorium in February. Read what was at stake, then watch that performance of "Follow Your Arrow" at the Ryman. The moment when the audience embraces her is electric and it will make you want to cheer.
"Follow Your Arrow" is a wonderful song and I guarantee you've never heard anything like it on country radio. Kacey has mastered the art of writing the sort of clever lyrics that makes country the last bastion of imaginative and creative songwriting in popular music aimed at a mass audience. The reason that the establishment had to support her career (she is currently opening stadium concerts for Kenney Chesney) is because the album is so damn special. Every track is loaded with melody, sharp lyrics that are laced with humor and topicality, perfect production and hooks you could drive a pickup through. On top of all that is Kacey's voice, so irresistably pure, fresh and sweet that those red-state leaning industry bigwigs never had a chance. I really love this record, that's three out of three.
4. Boz Scaggs - Memphis
Listen to "Rainy Night In Georgia"
Like Fine Wine: Boz Scaggs just gets better with age. For his first album since 2008's Speak Low, Boz pays tribute to the rich history of Memphis soul music. One listen to "Rainy Night In Georgia", his cover of the Brook Benton classic, penned by Tony Joe White tells you everything you need to know. The rest of the salient details are nicely spelled out in the press release.
Produced by Steve Jordan (John Mayer), Memphis was recorded at Willie Mitchell's legendary Royal Studio in Memphis, where the late Mitchell recorded Al Green and other hit music artists. Joining Scaggs on MEMPHIS are Willie Weeks (bass), Ray Parker Jr. (guitars), Spooner Oldham (keyboards), the Memphis Horns, Lester Snell (string arrangements) and Steve Jordan (drums). The originals are excellent, but the covers positively kill me, in addition to the above, songs like "Love On A Two Way Street" and "Can I Change My Mind" add volumes to the Memphis soul tradition.
5. Texas - The Conversation
Listen to "The Conversation"
Without Pretension: I fell in love with Texas' lead singer Sharleen Spiteri's voice back in 1989 when they came out of Glascow, Scotland with their debut album, Southside. They played quality rock, utterly without pretension. This year Texas returned from an extended layoff with The Conversation, their eighth album and their first new material since Red Book (2005). The title track open the album with a bluesy guitar riff that recalls the straightforward guitar rock of that first album, The Conversation (the album) has the pop/rock sophistication that drove so many Texas singles to the top of the UK charts.
The band sounds tighter than ever now, and while there's none of the northern soul that they came to be known for, Sharleen's vocals have an innate soulfulness that makes every track a treat. The songwriting is consistently good with all tracks written by Sharleen Spiteri and Johnny McElhone, collaborating with Richard Hawley and Bernard Butler. Writing for PopMatters, Alex Ramon said "The Conversation is a welcome return, then. This isn’t the album to convert the cognoscenti to the Texas cause, but those willing to listen without prejudice will find in these warm, well-crafted songs a perfectly seductive soundtrack to their summer." I couldn't agree more.
Thursday, June 20, 2013
This may be straight from the PR department, but I totally love this description of Lissie: "She's a straight-talking midwestern girl, all flaxen hair and big blue eyes, and this girl is smart and gutsy and tough, with a big old voice to match it: Laurel Canyon prettiness stewed in campfire and bourbon." So true, read the complete text at the end of this article. Lissie came to Philadelphia on June 7th to play Union Transfer as part of her current tour. It had been about four years since her last time here, which she mentioned when she thanked everyone who had come to see her at the Church on that snowy night.
Maybe it was her midwestern charm, or maybe she is just an engaging, appreciative sort, but Lissie spent a lot of time thanking the crowd, after every song in fact, and it sounded completely genuine. Lissie talked quite a bit about her songs too. Foremost on her mind was the new album that she recently completed, Back to Forever, coming September 10th. She offered up a generous preview, doing seven new songs, about half the set. It's tough for some artists to debut songs from a new album in concert, especially when the record isn't out yet. The new songs were all really good and the crowd seemed to enjoy them as much as the familiar tunes. With some well chosen crowd favorites, plus a cool cover in the encore, it was a very satisfying, good rocking, 75 minute set.
Lissie sings and play electric rhythym guitar and is accompanied by an excellent band, as below.
Lissie - Guitar, Vocals
Eric Sullivan - Lead Guitar
Lewis Keller - Bass, Drums
Jim Stephenberg - Drums, Keyboards, Lap Steel
They get a good full sound and the rhythm section of Keller and Stephenberg propels every song with a combination of drums and bass. Lissie provides the melodic backbone with her guitar, on top of which comes her magnificent vocals; seeing her sing live is one of the wonders of rock and roll. The icing on the musical cake is the superb lead guitar work of Eric Sullivan. In the following performance of "In Sleep", Sullivan takes a really sweet solo about halfway through the song which leads into the whole band rocking out to the finish. It's a thing of beauty.
Setlist & Video: Here's the setlist. The songs marked "new" are all from the new album except "Shroud" which was one of the best songs in the set. She said that she wrote it six years ago and it was nearly forgotten until the album was done and the label asked her for another song to use as a b-side. Use the watch links to see nine of the songs live at Union Tranfer.
1. It's the Habit - New
2. When I'm Alone (Watch)
3. Sleepwalking - New
4. They All Want You - New
5. Little Lovin' (Watch 5 & 6)
6. Shameless - New (Watch 5 & 6)
7. Shroud - New (Watch)
8. Further Away (Romance Police) - New (Watch)
9. I Don't Want To Go To Work - New (Watch)
10. Everywhere I Go
11. In Sleep (Watch)
Encore: (Watch Complete Encore)
12. Oh Mississippi
13. Pursuit Of Happiness (Kid Cudi cover)
Bonus Video: One of the things I really like about Lissie is that she seems to be completely natural, one of us, like someone you might run into at your neighborhood coffee shop. She's refreshing in that she is not at all trendy, either in her music or her look; jeans, t-shirt, no nail polish or makeup. For a bonus video we have the official video for "Shameless", the first single from the new album. Lissie's lack of pretension leads directly into the subject of "Shameless", which, according to her press release, "bluntly"addresses those who let hype dictate their opinions, but ultimately emerges as an anthem for individuality. "It isn't every day I feel like I need to have an opinion on popular culture, but that day I definitely had an opinion," Lissie says with a laugh. "'Shameless' was written just as much about my insecurities and me feeling defensive as it was about making a statement against what I don't want to be."" This is a song I just can't get enough of and they gave it a dynamite video.
Bio: Here is the complete text of Lissie's bio, from the event/ticket page of Lincoln Hall in Chicago. Lissie was born in Rock Island, Illinois, one of the Quad Cities on the banks of the Mississippi River. It's the city that inspired Rock Island Line and that bore Bix Beiderbecke; it's the stuff of spring floods and pick-up trucks and bona fide blue-collar country music. She's a straight-talking Midwestern girl, all flaxen hair and big blue eyes, and this girl is smart and gutsy and tough, with a big old voice to match it: Laurel Canyon prettiness stewed in campfire and bourbon.
Lissie was always musical. Inspired by her Grandfather, a former international barbershop quartet champion, she would sing along at her Lutheran church but she was never a choirgirl. She scored the lead in an 80-date production of Annie for the local dinner theatre at the age of nine. "I was always humming," she says, "making up these little songs and melodies, writing these poems and putting them to music. I know if I'm feeling bummed out just the vibration of singing is kind of soothing to me."
Sunday, June 16, 2013
Howard Stern has always been a better interviewer than he gets credit for. As his broadcast radio show grew from a local into a national show, he began to get more and better guests, but he was and is very selective about bookings, he doesn't interview everyone with a book, movie, or CD to sell, like the TV talk show circuit. He only interviews people who interest him or who he thinks his audience will want to hear.
Since moving to satellite radio in 2006, Howard has grown into one of the best interviewers in the business. There are a number of reasons for this. Without the time pressure of commercial radio, and without having to stop for commercial breaks, Howard's interviews can and do go deep, routinely lasting an hour, often longer. Free from the censorship limitations of terrestrial radio, Howard can have natural conversation with his guests, and very often they open up like in no other medium.
In many of his best interviews it sounds like two friends having a conversation, both totally engaged in topics of mutual interest (and of equal interest to the millions of listeners); recently his sessions with Quentin Tarantino, Zach Braff, and Jimmy Kimmel were like that. With Braff, the discussion flowed so effortlessly and interestingly, that the time flew by, and by the time they wrapped, about two hours had passed, and I had decided to back the Kickstarter campaign of Braff's new movie, Wish I Was Here, the long-awaited follow-up to Garden State; I wasn't the only one.
Howard's musician interviews can be amazing, and he's had epic sessions with Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Roger Waters, Joe Walsh, and Stern Show Superfan, Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks, to name a few. His recent interviews with Roger Daltrey and Rod Stewart showed the difference betwneen a great interview, and a merely good one. With Daltrey, Howard seemed to be orchestrating the conversation with prepared questions and even though the topics varied widely, many received the same answer, "you'd have to ask Pete (Townshend)." Stewart's interview took place the same week and by contrast, the conversation flowed and we learned lots of interesting things not commonly known about Rod's long and fascinating career.
On the day of Katie Couric's interview, Howard had already taped an episode of her daytime TV talk show and it was scheduled to air that afternoon. Even though her show is only an hour long, they had taped about three hours worth. When Katie sat down in Howard's studio, it didn't take long to tell that they are friends. After all the years of grousing that he didn't have any show-biz friends, it's nice to see Howard (with his wife Beth), socializing with folks like Billy Joel, Jimmy Kimmel, Matt Lauer, etc.
The Katie interview was great, not only because it flowed effortlessly for almost an hour and a half, not only because Katie is uniquely qualified to discuss one of Howard's favorite topics, TV news and talk show hosts and how they are treated by their networks. He especially loves to talk about NBC (where he works on AGT, America's Got Talent), and their (mis)handling of the Tonight Show, twice (Jay Leno/Conan O'Brien and again with Leno/Jimmy Fallon), and the Today Show (Ann Curry, Matt Lauer).
The big reason this was a great interview is that Katie is intelligent, articulate, and she doesn't hesitate to to tell you what she thinks. That, plus Howard gets out of the way and lets her talk, more so than he usually does. That combination is why the 78 minutes goes by in a flash, and it is why this is Howard's best interview yet. Howard TV has made the interview available, in its entirety, on Youtube, so here it is, enjoy it.
Bonus Video: Here is a clip from Howard's appearance on Katie's show, 5/28/2013.
Katie Couric's Website
Katie Couric's Facebook
Katie Couric's Twitter
Howard Stern's Website
Howard Stern's Twitter
Stern Show's Twitter
Sunday, June 02, 2013
Meet Tess Henley, Sweet Soul Singer and Songwriter with an Amazing New Album, High Heels & Sneakers (2013)
Every once in a rare while a voice comes along that not only sounds completely irresistible, but connects with you in ways that you are not even totally aware of. A few months ago, I had the good fortune to find myself on Tess Henley's Soundcloud page. I really liked what I heard there and opened a browser tab with her contact information to serve as a reminder that I needed to hear and write about her forthcoming album. The weeks flew by and before I could get in touch, something extraordinary happened.
The album was released and Kari Mateen who co-produced, engineered, and played on it, wrote at length about the making of the record. He said in part, "So yesterday Tess Henley put out a record that took 3 years to make. 3 f$&@ing years. that’s a long time. In today’s times when you might see 4 mix tapes from an artist in one year, she made a record. 3 years without a label. 3 years with money collected from gigs, contests, day shifts at a restaurant, and family friends that believed. I don’t know many people with that type of hunger. People are tested time and time again in the music industry. I have seen this girl go through most of what the music industry has to “offer”. And really it’s never going to stop. I don’t think life is ever easy. It just has these moments of peace." Read his complete post at the bottom of this article.
When I read the post (to borrow a phrase), every one of those word rang true, and it all made sense based only on what I had heard in her voice. Now it's your turn. Meet Tess Henley.
Tess Henley - High Heels & Sneakers
Before we go any further, I've got to say that "Daydreamimg", completely knocks me out, I can not get enough. It's a perfect storm of exquisite songwriting, singing, instrumental performance and production. Tess was already having some success in her native Seattle with a solid album and an EP, when Dice Raw from the Roots entered the picture. "After Dice Raw from The Roots heard her music, he took an immediate interest in the young talent, taking Tess under his wing. He brought her to Philadelphia – the epicenter of a soul sound all it’s own – and introduced her to fellow-producer Khari Mateen (The Roots, Jill Scott, J*DaVeY). Dice and Khari signed on to produce" (from her bio).
Tess says "Working with Dice Raw in Philly was an amazing experience. He brought together a great team of incredibly talented musicians, engineers, and fellow producer/arranger, Khari Mateen. Dice and his crew spurred my love for Philly. It has a special place in my heart now and it was the perfect home for this album...I wanted to kick things up a notch and take the steps to create something that really encompassed my creative vision...In general, this album is very personal and real to me. It’s hard for me to pick a favorite song because each song holds a different memory or meaning. I just hope my stories connect with and relate to listeners."
Here's who did what:
Tess Henley: Lead Vocal, Piano, Rhodes, Organ, Background Vocals
Khari Mateen: Cello, Guitar, Percussion
Joe Baldacci: Guitar
Spencer Doren: Bass
Jeremy Grenhart: Rhodes
David Thomson: Organ
Chris Stevens: Trumpet
Korey Riker: Saxophone
Ernest Stuart: Trombone
Michelle Bishop: Violin
Radji Mateen: Saxophone, Conga
Joe Baldacci: Drums
Anwar Marshall: Drums
Khari Mateen, Carson Henley: Snaps, Claps, & Funky Stuff
Music and Lyrics by Tess Henley
Horns arranged by Christopher Michael Stevens for Signs Of Life Music, LLC
Strings arranged by Khari Mateen
Background Vocals arranged by Tess Henley and David Thomson at Soul Sound Audio
Produced by Dice Raw, Khari Mateen, Tess Henley, Carson Henley
Co-producer: Tess Henley, Carson Henley
Time for some more music. This is the other single, the ultra-funky joint with horns, "From The Get Go".
When I listen to Tess, I hear a little Aretha, a bit of Stevie, a touch of Minnie Riperton, and even some Corinne Bailey Rae, and when she burns it down like on "From The Get Go" or "Heartless Queen", I hear the great Valerie Carter, singing with Earth Wind & Fire on her first album. The tuneful wordplay in "Gonna Fall In Love " brings Lily Allen to mind. While I'm at it, I'll also say that Tess reminds me more than a little of longtime blog favorites Chrissi Poland ("Going Back") and Annekei ("You Are The One"), high praise indeed. In an interview with the Seaspot Blog. Tess talked about her influences. "She recalls her parents introducing her to many types of music growing up: Carole King & James Taylor to Sade & Steely Dan. The introduction of Motown artists, Stevie Wonder, the Jackson Five & Donny Hathaway touched her musically & lyrically and when the Neo-Soul movement came about, the styling’s of Brian McKnight, Lauren Hill & India Arie sunk into young Tess."
One of the best things about High Heels & Sneakers is the songwriting. I've long held that songwriting is the most important factor of all in the making of the greatest records, because even if you assemble the world's best singers, musicians, and producers, you'll never make the world's best record without amazing songs to sing. And that's exactly what Tess brings to the table along with her wonderfully expressive voice and a real feel for soul and R&B music.
High Heels & Sneakers has a couple of ballads which show Tess's fantastic range with some super soulful songs that just overflow with emotion; "I'd Do Anything (A Song For Carly)" and "Going Back", which is another song that is totally stuck in my head (in a good way). You don't have to hear Tess say it to know that her songs are born of personal experience. Listening to "Going Back" you just can feel the loss, the vulnerability, the regret, but the sense of sadness is nicely laced with hope, even optimism as she resolves that she will love again, and that next time it will be better. That's some major league songwriting (and singing).
You can’t always get it right,
With even the best advice,
Sometimes you gotta find out for yourself.
My failure to recognize
What now seems so black and white
Is blamed on an anxious heart I know well.
I had never been so confused,
Feeling loved, then feeling used,
It was never right enough before it was wrong,
Asking questions deep down I knew
Date nights ending in sour feuds,
What took me so long?
And somewhere I lost it,
Lost sight of me,
This ain’t who I am or who I wanna be.
I’m going back to where I started,
Back to when innocence was open hearted and,
I’ll love again, I’ll love smarter,
But I’m gonna love the next one,
I’m gonna love the next one harder.
Listen to "Going Back"
Tess has been recognized for her songwriting with numerous awards and competition wins. Again from her bio: "Henley’s single “Boy In The Window” from her 2010 EP, The Appetizer, earned a 2011 Independent Music Award for Best R&B Song, won the 2011 International Song Competition for SoulTracks.com (the largest soul site in America), was awarded top 3 honors in the prestigious John Lennon 2011 International Songwriting Competition and was featured on the soundtrack for 2012’s Hello I Must Be Going...Opening for Jill Scott & Anthony Hamilton as the winner of Budweiser’s Dallas Superfest Contest, Tess went on to win the $25,000 Grand Prize as the contest’s overall winner, beating out thousands of vocalists (September 2011), including the eventual 2012 winner of NBC TV’s 'The Voice'."
Let's hear one more from High Heels & Sneakers.
Listen to "You Are The One"
In the last decade the multi-talented members of his Roots, along with their producers and friends have made Philadelphia once again the center of the soul, R&B, and hip-hop universe. How fortunate then, that the supremely gifted Tess Henley could come out of the Seattle music scene, connect with the Roots, and come to Philadelphia to make High Heels & Sneakers with them. Tess Henley's voice blows me away and I totally love this record.
I had already written the first sentence (at the top of this article) before I saw the following. In an excellent interview with the Seattle based website, Another Rainy Saturday, Tess said "I hope my music is something they can listen to and don’t get sick of. (laughs) I hope it’s something they can connect to. Music inspires me and it helps me when I’m going through a tough time, or it’s really emotionally-driven to me. I hope my music can do that for other people." Mission accomplished.
Bonus Video: Here is a live version of the song that won so many songwriting awards. This is "Boy in the Window" - Live at The Showbox Market, recorded in June, 2011.
Photos courtesy of Tess Henley
Khari Mateen's Complete Facebook Post, 5/08/13: So yesterday Tess Henley put out a record that took 3 years to make. 3 f$&@ing years. that’s a long time. In today’s times when you might see 4 mix tapes from an artist in one year, she made a record. 3 years without a Label. 3 years with money collected from gigs, contests, day shifts at a restaurant, and family friends that believed. I don’t know many people with that type of hunger. People are tested time and time again in the music industry. I have seen this girl go through most of what the music industry has to “offer”. And really it’s never going to stop. I don’t think life is ever easy. It just has these moments of peace. I don’t like to walk in other people shoes. But it's good to look at the facts. She is really talented. I don’t like comparing people- we all have our own experiences that make us who we are. Now if your reading this and your saying - awwww khari there are a bunch of people out there that have taken a long time to make a record and struggled to "make it". Well I would have to say to that...Here is one more person. One more person that can be appreciated, given a chance, respected as a artist in a time when most artist need a co-sign to feel like a real artist, or even have a chance to make it.
See the first time I saw her she was in the studio in Philly, Larry Gold's A room. I was checking out what they were cutting and I was like, she can sing and I left and got back into my world. Now- when your working on a record things are not just smooth and easy- there are some bumps in the road. And one day I find myself in the room with Dice, Tess, and her brother Carson (dope singer as well) and I'm about to take over this project. Why? Because there is no way a artist can leave Philly without getting something dope. And at that moment I knew there was an opportunity to bring people together, and make something thoughtful. You have to understand it's not life or death for some people. For me music is my life, if a person likes what I do or not. Music makes me feel alive. I saw in Tess that she wanted her music to live. So I worked on the record with some of Philly's finest musicians. Not all of Philly's talent but the people that played and were apart of this record are the back bone of this rich culture of Philly music. Check the credits and look some of these people up, you will see.
In life sometimes you have to take less to feel more. Sometimes you take a chance. If you don't, well that's just another thing you didn't do. There isn't a lot of answers, and the world turns and people forget, move on, find the next best thing. I know when I listen to this record, I will remember the time when. When Tess was just crying one day about how many times she was singing this one part. over and over, wanting to get it right- and me wanting it to be RIGHT. About her family member that took her life, and out of something so devastating she wrote a song that stops your heart, it makes you just want to go hug someone. Going crazy and making a video dancing in Questlove's studio because we were cutting for 16 hours everyday. Me editing sessions for hours, me at the top of my lungs - DICE!!! We got to finish this fucking record. AND MAKE IT GREAT. I don't really give a shit how much money we don't have! Sometime you cross a threshold where nothing else matters but to see it through. Yes, now I'm working on new projects and going through new struggles... But like I said it never stops. So I want you to do something. Listen to this moment of peace.
It's called "High Heels & Sneakers" by Tess Henley.
Tess Henley's Website
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