I’ve waited for a long time to share this bounty of music from the second quarter of 2021. The simple reason being that I wanted to savour each new song and memorise every minute rhythm, aural texture and vocal feat like I usually do before writing about them.
I’m elated to present them to you as legendary artists like Barbra Streisand, Tony Bennett, AC/DC, Eric Clapton and Bruce Springsteen continued to make substantive records while the younger batch bolstered its always sublime creative output with melody and refined songwriting in tow. Lana Del Rey, Lady A and The Lumineers, familiar favourites, come to the picture hence.
I’m also happy to announce that the release of three album cycles by the likes of Bennett and Gaga, The Killers and Brandi Carlile was worth the wait and greatly impressed me.
So here is the gold standard for the second half of this year in which spirits and our souls seem to recuperate with the promise of hope. Music, then, is its befitting salve and companion.
1) PRESSURE MACHINE by THE KILLERS
Just less than a year ago, the Brandon Flowers fronted iconic outfit released the ebullient and uplifting IMPLODING THE MIRAGE. Among its coterie of standouts apart from CAUTION, MY OWN SOUL’S WARNING, BLOWBACK and MY GOD, all bathed in the synth soundscapes so beloved to its oeuvre, one song became my very own favourite. That is LIGHTNING FIELDS. I remember how it played in my head as I frequented my preferred riverside park for morning walks in the latter half of 2020, with guest star K. D. Lang’s verse especially becoming resonant. The yen for effective storytelling continued with the 2020 version of LAND OF THE FREE, with modified lyrics and a spare piano accompaniment to the vocals. Of course just a few weeks ago, the update of one of their signature songs DUSTLAND featured Bruce Springsteen, in a clever nod to its idol whose aesthetics has influenced the group as a composite whole. So all members have been turning in a prolific collective output to prepare us for PRESSURE MACHINE, their latest album of original material.
This one hews closer to an autobiography and portrait of frontman Brandon Flowers’ upbringing in the isolated pockets of Utah. That very personal sense of belonging to a place, its inhabitants and a past seen through the prism of one’s adult history makes for compelling songwriting and rootedness in humility of expression. NOMADLAND came to mind to this writer, given protagonist Fern’s insulated life in rural Nevada, quite close to the geographical and emotional space portrayed here.
Interspersed with dialogues coming from different members of the community, a whole gamut of emotions, from a small town’s suffocating mores, opioid crises, young deaths courtesy the passing railway line and even one’s affinity to the natural world ( in this case, to the horses one grows to raise and deeply love) are covered.
Tracks like WEST HILLS and QUIET TOWN acknowledge those multiple strands, the former beautifully employing a muted vocal slowly building to an inner churn and the sonic textures of the guitar while the latter has the mouth organ and a rhythmic beat instantly capturing our attention. They begin the album on a solid note. I also liked the simplicity in the next batch comprising of the hummable CODY and SLEEPWALKER.
DESPERATE THINGS is the real deal here, a spare ballad, acoustic by nature, that contemplates the ways of people who mean well but end up committing actions that come their way on account of a closed-off social structure and inner void that even stereotypes of family and community cannot fill up. Brandon Flowers’ haunting vocals are up to the mark here but his excellent use of the falsetto on title track PRESSURE MACHINE makes it a highlight of this coherent album cycle towards the closing passage. It’s such a supple, delicate vocal performance despite the fact that most of the latter songs have an identical 80s style synth sound. The violin instrumental towards the end portion too is poignant and effective.
However, this album’s centerpiece is, hands down, RUNAWAY HORSES featuring PHOEBE BRIDGERS, the current era’s phoenix of sorts whose own album PUNISHER saved us from the pall of a pandemic year. The sparse, acoustic sound on this beautifully sublime track is again rooted in the reality of a young girl’s life within small town ethos and abandoned dreams and the melodic whole makes it universal. One listen and it registers in the mind. Multiple listens lodges it in the heart.
Listen, hence, to PRESSURE MACHINE. It is an evolved step in the right direction for this consistently prolific group. The title track, DESPERATE THINGS and RUNAWAY HORSES give it a special tinge.
2) LOVE FOR SALE by TONY BENNETT and LADY GAGA.
Oh it was a joy to listen to CHEEK TO CHEEK seven years ago. To behold and be beguiled by a legendary collaboration between two consummate artists sixty years apart but so intrinsically united in the service of redefining the Great American Songbook. For me, still in the initial years of college, it was a wake up call and a profound celebration of music transcending eras, boundaries and expectations of popular taste. The album proved that you don’t need to be just a veteran to bring the bounty of classic pop to the forefront.
LOVE FOR SALE is the second chapter to that collaborative journey and it sparkles and comes to life as expected. I love the fact that most of the songs begin sparingly with just the vocals, almost a capella, and then the bass, saxophones and jazzy aura take over for bursts of wonder and joy. The title track, I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU, I CONCENTRATE ON YOU comply with that standard. As is the classic flagbearer DE-LOVELY.
I personally feel most enthused when Gaga goes solo for one of legendary singer-songwriter- composer Cole Porter’s best known songs LET’S DO IT( LET’S FALL IN LOVE), the original still ringing in my ears from the first listen almost six years ago. On this one, she maintains the naughty and loveable streak central to the innocent lyrics. This individual moment for the ever-versatile vocalist also takes me back to her warm rendition of LUSH LIFE from Cheek to Cheek.
Then, the duet partners give I’VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN, a paean to burgeoning love with its tangents of wonder and practical wisdom, a wonderful take. Note how Gaga improvises the word ‘tattoo’ here.
So this one is for all afficianados of the classic songbook, of the two singers and good music. It is a treat in these times of recovery from a blanched era.
3) IN THESE SILENT DAYS by BRANDI CARLILE.
RIGHT ON TIME, a song I instantly connected with, is clearly the reason to savour the latest batch of songs from BRANDI CARLILE. A soaring chorus and vocal alignment is preceded by piano balladry. The melody is unforgettable and clearly a signature, given that she rose to stratospheric heights based on these aspects on the breakout BY THE WAY, I FORGIVE YOU (2018)
I’ve listened to three other tracks out of a total ten on this album and they made me listen again and again till I had committed the arrangements, the melodies and amalgamation of notes to memory. This within a single day.
BROKEN HORSES, taking its title from her own memoir published few months ago, is classic Americana iconography suffused with great soaring vocals from her, effective harmonies and guitars. It’s a track I went back to more than twice. Then there’s SINNERS, SAINTS AND FOOLS, tipping its hat to the origins of a nation. The way she effortlessly balances a sense of restraint along with the mid-point high note stays with the listener. The final track THROWING GOOD AFTER BAD is another melodic stunner, a piano ballad and hence relays points of distance, farewell and hope beautifully. I will listen to the other six songs soon and I am sure they will be just as immersive.
Trivia Alert: the video for RIGHT ON TIME was directed by none other than our beloved Monica ala COURTNEY COX from Friends.
Done with the album cycles, now we shift our focus towards the singularity of individual songs and it is an eclectic and exciting mix.
BARBRA STREISAND takes the lead with her world class delivery on BE AWARE, off her latest collection of standards RELEASE ME 2. Smooth, crystal clear in her enunciation and bursting with empathy as also characteristically persuasive, she shows us the mirror of our world, contrasting the things we take for granted with the yearning for those same luxuries by have-nots eking out difficult lives. In a post-pandemic world, we need to take note of her exhortations because her eloquence is undying, timeless.
Brian Johnson and Angus Young take the mantle forward with their fifth single off the explosive new AC/DC album POWER UP which has already produced such fireworks as DEMON FIRE, SHOT IN THE DARK, REALIZE and WITCH’S SPELL.
THROUGH THE MISTS OF TIME is actually all about celebrating the legacy of this iconic band and tipping its hat to a dedicated, often frenzied fandom. After all, the music is on fire as is the case with the vocals and guitar, trademark elements barely distinguishable from the common riffs the band deploys so often. It still works. I guess deja vu and a sense of getting in the headspace of a new generation endears these legends. This one is no exception.
Following suit, the original smooth operator is back with THIS HAS GOTTA STOP, an angry plea to let sense prevail amid persistent chaos. It’s vintage Clapton and the second iteration with Van Morrison under the nom de plume of SLOWHAND & VAN has an added appeal by way of Morrison’s saxophone solo. As is the norm, the prolific artist brings to the center the elegance of blues and jazz, in the end amalgamating them in a cohesive musical whole.
Ditto his latest take on AFTER MIDNIGHT, off his LADY IN THE BALCONY: THE LOCKDOWN SESSIONS stint, an album to be released soon. What stay true and unwavering are his signature crisp, mellow vocals and the band’s fine-tuned instrumental gifts. It’s always a pleasure to come home to these greats within our immediate era hence.
To round out this class of songs by veritable icons, Bruce Springsteen rises to the occassion to pay his obeisance to the legacy of 9/11 with a live performance of I’LL SEE YOU IN MY DREAMS off his 2020 set LETTER TO YOU. Each word and the unvarnished, acoustic ethos are somberly attuned to the value of lives lost and their reverberating historic echoes through time and individuals who remember them with a heavy burden in their hearts. Only the Boss can add such poignant dignity to this elegy.
Then at last, we hail songs by modern artists of agency and repute.
ARCADIA by Lana Del Rey is another gem, a piano ballad with supple textures and her heartwarming vocals . This is one artist who keeps her word when it comes to artistic and more so lyrical integrity. The poetic palette of Arcadia attests to that steadfast, restrained spirit which has been prolific this year on her part with two albums to boast of. I’m proud to call her one of my many inspirations till date. Arcadia continues that lovely trajectory.
WHERE WOULD I BE? by Lady A plays to its strengths, with a supple and simple melody buoyed by relatable lyrics. Of course, the trademark harmonies are always appreciated and the members come up with aces on that front. Overall, this latest from the upcoming second part of their album WHAT A SONG CAN DO is winsome. This consistent arc makes a difference.
YOU’RE NOT HERE- I urge all discerning listeners to listen to Cynthia Erivo’s heart-wrenching new song post Harriet’s Oscar nominated showstopper STAND UP. Her own history of abandonment by a parental figure is lyrically stirring and backed by just a piano, the starkness of that personal station arrests us. The composition is simple, stripped down and lets one think about the traumatic impact of a lifetime of emotional emptiness. At first, I thought it’s about her mother (who was there by her side at the Oscars a year back) and a possible mortal premonition for the older lady. But thank God, Cynthia has her pillar of support by her side.
I highly recommend YOU’RE NOT HERE for its brilliant distillation of a personal narrative that becomes universal. The sighing and sobbing at the end captures that poignantly. Erivo’s live performance on Jimmy Fallon is further proof of her uncompromising artistry. She is a consummate vocalist, that’s for sure.
BRIGHTSIDE by THE LUMINEERS is a brand new song and suffice it to say, the quality of this band’s musical affinities to love and its profusion is absolutely appealing after the complex cycle of its excellent last album 3.
I’M NOT A WOMAN, I’M A GOD(LIVE)
Halsey’s vocals, especially on the second half, in this live version of the intense single from her latest album is a standout.
So this diverse mix should keep us occupied and expecting further riches from the world of music.