My 30 Top Albums of 2015 — A New Approach

I created the draft for this entry before the 2014 edition was published. At one point it seemed like a daunting task to catch up and something I’d never pick back up. But alas I keep going. The dangers of stopping this project are too great, if not unclear and un-present.

Why you still doing this daddy?

But this one’s different, and I’ve detailed why in previous posts. Because of Apple Music, no one is counting my plays, so I need to pick the albums based on importance to me. They weren’t necessarily the best albums of the year, that’s a pompous statement to make. But, they’re the albums I’m choosing to talk about now, and play a song on the piano from. The order is meaningless, and numbered for convenience only.

1) Stricking Matches “Nothing But the Silence”

The parallels to The Civil Wars are almost too obvious to note. The main difference is that they probably hate each other less. The title track “Nothing but the Silence” repeats the line “There’s nothing but the silence in between that hasn’t already been broken”. It’s reminiscent of The Civil Wars song Poison & Wine. Both sound like they were written by a teenage girl in her room on her iphone. While she won’t admit it, and doesn’t fully realize it, she’s full of angst in part because her dad’s working late in order to afford the iPhone she’s angst-ing on.

2) Della Mae “Della Mae”

Seeing Della Mae at the Sinclair in June made me appreciate this album as it puts new visuals on the music I was already becoming familiar with. Kimber Ludiker jolts from out of nowhere to rip into a fiddle solo, followed by an awkward, sideways smirk. Celia Woodsmith storms up to the microphone, channeling a Steven Tyler size grin. Jenni Lyn Gardner approaches the microphone with a southern-bell two-step. Courtney Hartman just sticks around the microphone, conveniently.

The album starts with the redundantly-titled “Boston Town”, which is their best attempt at a radio hit if there were any radio stations that would play Della Mae. It’s an easily digestible and fun song and makes a perfect introduction to the more complex and interesting songs coined by Courtney.

3) Barnstar! “Sit Down! Get Up! Get Out!”

My banjo career is full of peaks and valleys. At the time of this writing it’s sitting pretty in the Red River Valley, with two small kids to blame. But I feel like I listen to banjo playing with the ear of a banjo player, whether deserved or not. Charlie Rose is the banjo player for the people. While I would never compare myself to him as a player, I understand what he’s doing. If forced to sit in a room with this recording I could eventually pick out his playing. I like my prog metal to melt my mind, but I want my bluegrass music approachable. It’s the reason Noam Pikelny and the Punch Brothers loses me at times. I have no clue what he’s doing and never will.

Jake and Mark used to put out consistent solo material. Mark hasn’t had a solo release in a few years, while Jake seems to be rebelling against his pop-singer/songwriter past. It’s nice to get both of them back together every few years for Barnstar!

4) Robert Earl Keen “Happy Prisoner: The Bluegrass Sessions”

I had the same thoughts regarding this one as I did the Barnstar! album… banjo that I can actually understand. Rob’s not trying to make these Bluegrass staples his own in an intentional sort of way. His laid-back, southern draw does the work for him.

5) Nora Jane Strutters & the Party Line “Wake”

Do I love this album as much as meat loves salt? Probably not, but it’s hard not to like anything the Nora Jones puts out.

6) Brandi Carlile “The Firewatcher’s Daughter”

I expect artists to change with the times, especially those that have been around for a decade. But for singer-songwriters that emerged a decade ago there’s a risk that the times will them. Brandi’s song that attempts to keep up with the times is “Blood Muscle Skin & Bones“, and the low point of the album. It falls into the modern trend of cranking the reverb up to 11 and layering non-harmonizing vocals. In general her music is timeliness, but this song will date this albums in 10 years.

7) Garfunkel & Oates “Secretions”

These gals are tacky at the surface, but after continued listens, there is some depth to it. It’s often predictable and overly-scripted humor, but it’s strong points out-weigh the weak. I especially liked Go Sports Go for bluntly describing my current apathy towards professional sports.

8) Neal Morse “The Grand Experiment”

Neal can’t do prog wrong in my book. The grand experiment, in this case, was the fact that the “album was composed and recorded over a short period of time, with no preparation work before entering the studio.” But in the end it still sounds like Neal Morse, which is always a good thing. I don’t know why he decided to consider the last few tracks “bonus tracks”. To me they are simply a continuation of a great album.

9) Steven Wilson “Hand. Cannot. Erase.”

Steven Wilson is the face of modern prog today. He’s a household name in those households where prog is worshiped. If the face of modern prog was a democracy my vote goes to Neal Morse, but I’m happy with the current regime.

10) Ghost “Meliora”

The best thing about this Ghost album was it could be listened to at loud volumes without sounding hot. The sound quality was much improved over “Infestissumam”, and the song-writing was on par. It’s nice that the Grammy awards are recognizing a rock artist that isn’t Dave Grohl, but it seems a bit meaningless without acknowledging any other rock/metal artists on this list.

CONTINUE with 11 – 20 by clicking page 2 below

The Great Rick Springfield Distraction of 2016

Every year my piano endevours are focused around my top-30 project, but there’s always a distraction. Most are related to the minor inconveniences of work, sleep and children, but other piano projects often get in the way. A few years back it was my need to shove pop songs into Christmas classics. Other distractions were Teen Beach Movie, Teen Beach Movie II, and the classic Dennis the Menace cartoon theme. It is moot to ask the question of why. I do not have a good answer. As I write this I have recorded 28 of the necessary 30 songs for my yearly project for 2015, but Rick Springfield has gotten in the way.

Teenagers enjoy their lunches, but not each other’s company. I assume because they are watching the Jesse’s Girl video.

Apple Music makes it easy to pick music to play while cooking dinner. I see what’s in the “For You” section and pick an appropriate album or playlist, often letting it run on repeat as I cook and clean for hours. On the evening of April 29th, Apple Music recommended that I listen to Rick Springfield’s album “Mission Magic!” from 1973. At the time my knowledge of Rick’s career was limited to Jesse’s Girl which I knew to be from the 1980s, but I was surprised to see something from a decade prior. Those details alone peeked my interest and the album ran on repeat throughout the evening’s chores.

The album was fun, which is the best review I could give it. It immediately reminded me of something from The Partridge Family, which was fitting since on further research I learned that this album is a collection of songs featured on the kid’s cartoon show of the same name that ran from 1973 – 1975. I have no idea its level of obscurity. So far no one I know has heard of it, but I don’t know a lot of people who were kids in the early 70s. It’s a generation between my parents and mine. The album itself is one of the only albums in Rick’s discography on Wikipedia without its own page, which tells me the interest in the album today is quite limited.

That night I spent a few hours playing along to the album. I do not believe my wife and kids shared my new-found affinity to that album but for an evening I was smitten by a teenybopper for whom I was too young to know in his prime, and far too old to proclaim my attraction for today. For an evening we had a moment. I knew I had to record some of the songs and picked my favorite 7 songs from the album. It has no competition on YouTube, which also means it has no audience. It’s the best-of selection of piano covers from the best-of album of songs sung by a Cartoon Rick Springfield in the early 70s. Here is the recording:

But the Rick Springfield distraction didn’t end. I then learned that Rick had an album that just came out in February of 2016, just a few months ago! It was the cooking and cleaning soundtrack a few nights later, and of course, I played along with the album for an evening. It had elements of modern pop-country, but for some reason less nausiating. It often sounded like 3rd Eye Blind or Foo Fighters, or modern Christian rock (Matt Redman came to mind). While shorter, here’s that recording:

While I’m a new Rick Springfield fan, I’m one that is supplemental to what I imagine the typical fan to be. Rick has been making music for over 40 years, though I’m only familiar with his newest album, and a collection of bubble-gum pop songs he made in his early 20s. I know Jesse’s Girl, but can’t name a single other song from his prime. I also now understand he’s been on General Hospital too.

He’s currently touring but not coming to Boston. He’s coming relatively close (to Rhode Island), but unless he only plays songs from Mission Magic and the new album, I’m not going to make the drive.

Somewhere in Czechoslovakia with Grandpa

I visited my grandfather in late February of 2016 in Springfield, MA. He was 93 years old, and while a part of me thought he’d still outlive me, I knew this was the last time I would see him. During this final visit he was surprisingly lucid. After I reminded him who I was, and how I fit into the family tree, he jumped into stories about the war and the logistics and reasoning behind moving the family. The visual aid of pictures on an iPad helped.

Thoughts of my grandfather fall into 4 separate categories: the old-man who can barely walk, the old man that appeared on holidays with gifts of various usefulness, the young(er) husband and father that moved around a lot, and the soldier. The last 2 categories were delivered to me in the form of old photos and accompanying stories based on my increasing curiosity. The thoughts of him as a soldier are the most astonishing and served as the inspiration for the song I wrote following this final visit.

I wrote the themes the night I returned with the idea that I’d play the music at the funeral. What music is appropriate for a funeral? That question never crossed my mind. I wrote a lullaby for my two daughter’s, Carmela and Valentina, and there’s no way that either piece of music would be categorized as a lullaby on their own. No one would ever be critical to this definition since the intent was in the right place, and I’m not exactly asking for money or approval. This is even more so for original music played at a funeral of a family member. I could have smashed my head on the keys for 90 seconds and I would have received the same feedback as I did for my actual piece and performance. The intent is more important than the quality or appropriateness of the composition.

It’s easy to say that a piece of music was inspired by an event after the piece was written for the sake of convenience, and it’s unlikely that someone would ever question it. But in this case the music was completely new to me with visions of his WWII heroics fresh on my mind as I wrote it. I wanted it epic and old-timey at the same time, just like the real WWII. At this point I assumed the funeral would be in a week or so, which didn’t give me a lot of time.

With the themes in mind I wanted to find an appropriate title, and possibly incorporate some actual WWII music into the song. I scoured the 101 Songs that Won World War II list and the song “Somewhere in France with You” (SIFWY) by Joe Loss & His Band caught my eye. The song itself is somewhat forgettable but it grew on me. My piece was thus far in 4/4 time while the Joe Loss tune was a waltz in 3/4. It’s hard to say if the song really inspired my piece, but it did cause me to add a section of 3/4 in the middle, only to return to the theme in 4/4 at the end, and then move back to 3/4 to tag my song with the actual “Somewhere in France with Me”.

Somewhere in Czechoslovakia, probably.

But Grandpa didn’t spend much time in France, as far as I knew. There’s this picture he took in the Palace of Versailles, but the title of “Somewhere in France…” implies a bit of mystery regarding the location. Google Maps can tell me exactly where he was in France around 1945. So many of his stories and pictures come from Czechoslovakia, hence my clever title change of forcing a 6 syllable word where a 1 syllable word once was; “Somewhere in Czechoslovakia with You” was the official title. The 20 second chorus taken from SIFWY at the end of my song concludes (unsurprisingly) with the lyric “Somewhere in France with You” and I made it clear that I’ve changed the title by playing the note 6 times where a single note makes far more sense. I’d like to think that the audience was in on the bit with me and it was obvious to everyone why I stuttered the note 6 times. Even if the song wasn’t beyond obscure today it’s a long-shot. In reality it’s an inside joke between me and my memory of my grandfather’s WWII days.

I wanted to record the song to preserve it in my catalog. I have the tendency to quickly forget songs I’ve written if not played often. I first attempted to record the song about 2 weeks after it was written as I had the equipment out to record songs for my annual best-of project, but it wasn’t successful after about 6 tries. Normally I’m not a perfectionist when it comes to piano recordings, or live performances. I can quickly recover from mistakes but I wrote this song a specific way, and for better or for worse, I wanted the recording to match the version in my head. I tried it record it again about a week before he actually died and I was again unsuccessful.

This is where I began thinking of the song’s fate. It was meant to be heard at my grandfather’s funeral, not by YouTube or anyone else, yet. I even thought that grandpa would like to hear the song as he lived several more weeks than expected, but I decided against it. It was meant for his funeral. I jokingly thought that a force greater than my piano playing was making it impossible to record it and after the second failed attempt I gave up trying until after his then-unscheduled and then-unnecessary funeral. As I had these thoughts of fate I did reflect on the arrogance surrounding the situation. I was using the stage of a funeral to premier a piece of mediocre music that I self-described as having a “fate”. I asked Reddit for their thoughts, and it was concluded that my intentions were in the right place.

My grandfather died on April 15th at around 4:15AM. I had woken at around 4AM and couldn’t fall back to sleep and ended up going downstairs and watching the re-make of National Lampoon’s Vacation. My dad called me with the news at around 7AM, when he thought I should have been waking up, not realizing that I’d already watched a full length movie. Something woke me up at 4AM that wasn’t a 4 year old. It’s wasn’t the death of my grandfather either, that’s nonsensical, but it’s an interesting coincidence.

Last night I sat down to record the song, again because I had the equipment out working on another project. In the Hollywood version of this story I would have played it brilliantly on my first attempt after the funeral. A 22-year old hologram of Grandpa would float down in his army uniform and shake my hand and tell my it was all worth it. But no, the first attempt wasn’t successful, but the second play-through was acceptable. It’s still an interesting story. Here’s the video from the second playing, post-funeral, premier:

The video is now destined for its second fate; to receive 100 views in 3 years and earn $.30 via Google Ads.

A Rambling Review of Dream Theater’s “The Astonishing” Tour: Boston’s Orpheum Theater — April 19, 2016

On the road to revolution, Our salvation’s never free. There’s a price for liberation when you stand for your beliefs. When the man in the mirror, Takes a long hard look at me. Will the person staring back, be the man I want to be?

When a band tours on their greatest hits material my desire to see them for a second time decreases significantly. Def Leppard provided the soundtrack to my Middle School carnival days, when I’d look over my shoulder suspiciously as I attempted to win a Samantha Fox poster by throwing a dart at it. I’ve seen them once and that checkbox is checked. I don’t feel the need to see them again. Guns N’ Roses and Metallica were my introduction to the metal genre but I would only pay $150 to see them again if they were playing a small club in LA, and in 1986.

There are only a handful of rock and metal bands that I would continue to go see live year-after-year. Rush and Iron Maiden stand-out as bands that I’d (virtually) line-up for whenever they’re announced to be within driving distance of me. The difference is that these bands continue to put out new music that their audience actually cares about. Each tour is unique and the fan base doesn’t buy a seat to the show with an expectation of what the set-list will look like. Dream Theater fits into this latter category as well.

Dream Theater played the Orpheum in Boston on April 19th, and while I purchased my 2 tickets within seconds of them going on sale, I promptly walked up 2 flights of stairs to my seats in the upper balcony. Something seems rigged when buying tickets online, but that’s not a fight I’m going to win.

Continue reading

Jason McGorty