We reviewed the Ed Dupas album “A Good American Life” in August 2015 and Allan was extremely impressed, picking out “Flag” as one of his top five songs of the year. Our good friends at Gpromo asked Ed to contribute to the High Fives feature and he pulled out all the stops with this insight into his most listened-to albums. Many thanks to Ed for this great piece and a wonderful album.

 

An Evening with John DenverJohn Denver – “An Evening with John Denver” (Vinyl)

It was the mid-to-late seventies and we had a Curtis-Mathes television with a turntable and two speakers that flanked the screen on either side, all built into a (sort of) fancy wooden cabinet. It was a simpler time for me and, I suppose, pretty much everyone living back then. I’d slide the large wooden living room door closed whenever I had the chance and listen to records hour after hour. “An Evening with John Denver” was my first album of choice; my first favorite. It was the album I reached for again and again at the tender age of seven.

The album faced stiff competition as my parents had pretty good tastes in music. Don McLean’s “American Pie” and Simon and Garfunkel’s “Concert in Central Park” were just a couple of the others in our collection, and they exerted a strong gravitational pull. Although I loved those records, “An Evening with John Denver” captured my imagination in a different way. My favorite song was “The Eagle and the Hawk” and I would listen to it over and over again.

I still have the album on vinyl…man, John Denver was in his prime when the record was recorded. I’ve always considered this album to be the zenith of his career.

 

Exit Stage LeftRush – “Exit Stage Left” (Cassette Tape, Hi-Res Digital)

I bought this album on cassette as a teen, it was such a random purchase, so careless really. I couldn’t have known then--they had me before I even saw them coming--one minute I was a normal teen and the next I was a Rush fan. Alright, I suppose that’s not quite honest…normal teens don’t become Rush fans. Suffice to say, one minute I was something other than a normal teen and the next I was a Rush fan.

I’m not hyper-crazy or anything, sure I can probably recite most lyrics pre-1992 by heart, but I’ve only seen the band play live nine times, which in the Rush-world makes me a seasoned fan. Those Canadians, there’s gotta be something in the water, or maybe it’s something not in the water…?

Exit Stage Left” was my first and has remained my favorite Rush record. My top track is “Red Barchetta”…but you gotta let it play through to the end of “YYZ”, that’s the trick.

 

Bring on the NightSting – “Bring On the Night” (Cassette, Compact Disc)

When I honestly consider the five records I’ve listened to over and over again--and still listen to—“Bring On the Night” has to be on the list. And why not? Branford Marsalis, Omar Hakim, and on and on, the band is grand down to the man (or woman). It was a double-cassette album, somewhat rare in that respect…and I wore those tapes out.

Bring On the Night” is a hypnotic collection of jams disguised as songs. When you listen closely to the record it’s almost as if the band is breathing, their energy ebbing and flowing. I remember one particularly tragic night in college when I was beyond sleep, I just lay awake all night with “Bring On the Night” record repeating. Thankfully I’d upgraded to CD format by then.

I Burn for You” is my favorite song on the record, to me it’s a great example of what can happen when a group of individual musicians gel and temporarily evolve into one, albeit short-lived, entity.

 

PassionPeter Gabriel – “Passion” (Compact Disc)

Originally recorded as the soundtrack for Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ”, I’ve gotten more mileage out of “Passion” than any other album. In college it would play over and over again as I was writing papers or reading those God-awful tomes they call textbooks. Sometimes I would be lost in thought for hours with “Passion” dutifully playing in the background, never demanding too much attention, but when I’d stop to listen there was always something amazing to hear. I love that aspect of this record. I don’t, however, recommend it for sleeping.

I worked full-time at a cafe in college (a barista in the grunge era, no lie) and I’d let “Passion” play as the house music from time to time. It consistently got more interest than anything else. It’s a righteous record, a seeker’s record, and it’s my “going deep” album to this very day. It is my goto soundtrack when I want to power up the world-wide-web and crawl down some esoteric or scientific wormhole (and seriously…that does happen a great deal…if I wasn’t writing this right now that’s totally what I’d be doing). I set the album to repeat, press play, and let it flow together as an unbroken circle.

My favorite track is number 7, “A Different Drum”. A predictable choice, but unavoidable, really.

 

MetamodernSturgill Simpson – “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” (Vinyl, Hi-Res Digital)

Alright, so this is a new record and, admittedly, it’s not one I’ve listened to for decades, but it’s a classic record; it was the day it was made, the world just didn’t know it yet. It’s a record that I will listen to for decades to come, so it rounds out the top 5 nicely.

Something tells me this record was a hard-fought accomplishment for Sturgill. It’s a striking concept album (with love being the concept). “Metamodern…” is a work of shared introspection in which an honest guy--a self-described ‘van driver who plays music’--gets into some seriously weighty areas of science, evolution and mysticism. With references to Stephen Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s “The Phenomenon of Man”, and numerous esoteric traditions, Sturgill shows himself to be an interestingly learned man (and it’s not the kind of stuff they teach in school). You can’t just write an album like “Metamodern…”, you have to live it, become it. As the record states, ‘you have to let go so the soul may fall’.

“Metamodern…” is a masterpiece recorded on a $4000 working budget. In the music industry that’s not a shoestring budget, that’s a fraction of a shoestring budget. There are some of us out here that need to believe that kind of thing is possible…that a true artist, motivated by inspiration and his or her desire to share their unique gifts with the world can find a way to do that, despite all the obstacles. If this sort of thing appeals to you like it does me I highly recommend “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music”. Nashville has consistently ignored Sturgill, but the people love him. I’m OK with that, and I’d guess that Sturgill is too. I don’t think he had Nashville in mind when he made this record.

I highly recommend track 8, “Just Let Go”. ‘Woke up today and decided to kill my ego…’

And the people love it…it’s an interesting time to be alive.

 

It’s not so long since this feature would have been ‘Top Five Singles’, but the concept of a single seems almost irrelevant outside the Radio 1 bubble and my friends in real radio call them ‘lead tracks’ now, so I’m picking my own lead tracks from some of the albums I’ve reviewed this year. These are five songs that grabbed me at the first listen and left me either elated or emotionally drained. If you don’t listen to anything else I’ve recommended, give these a spin; they all come from good or great albums, but they’re standout examples of superb songwriting, performance and production. They aren’t in any particular order, so where do we start?

Simon Murphy Title“Not in My Name” – Simon Murphy

Simon Murphy’s debut album, “Let it Be”, was released in September of this year and it’s packed with songs that are well-crafted musically and lyrically. “Not in My Name” stands out as one of the simpler songs on the album, but it packs an emotional punch made even more potent by the events of the last few weeks. It could easily be a very angry song, but Simon’s delivery has a much more world-weary feel, hinting at fatigue rather than anger. This is a song that could easily be an anthem but works so well because it doesn’t go down that route.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Parchman” – Hannah Aldridge

This is another song from a debut album. Hannah is from Muscle Shoals, Alabama and her stunning debut album, “Razor Wire” is packed with autobiographical, emotive and often harrowing songs; “Parchman” is an exception. It was inspired by a TV documentary about a woman on death row in Mississippi State Penitentiary (or Parchman Farm) awaiting execution for the murder of her abusive husband. For the first time, her life has a structure and she knows how it will end. I won’t pretend it’s an easy listen, but it’s a superb song. When Hannah played it live at Green Note in July, she told the audience the back story and went on to say that she would probably have taken the same way out of the situation; how many of us would say exactly the same?

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Union Square” – Pete Kennedy

Pete’s much-anticipated masterpiece “Heart of Gotham” was released this year; the album took about ten years to make as Pete worked on it between various other projects, including albums by The Kennedys, his own guitar album “Tone, Twang and Taste” and work with Nanci Griffith’s Blue Moon Orchestra. The entire album is a fabulous piece of work, and “Union Square”, as the opening song, is a perfect example of Pete’s work. If you can imagine The Byrds fronted by Springsteen, then you probably have a good idea how this sounds. Pete’s crystal-clean guitars contrast beautifully with his rasping vocal delivery as he sings a song packed with literary and historical references to his favourite city. Although the song has an immediate musical impact, each subsequent listen will reveal a lyric that passed you by originally; I can listen to this again and again.

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - Title“Flag” – Ed Dupas

From the album “A Good American Life”, this is a classic example of a turnaround song (I’m going to admit here that the final two songs will both pull on your heartstrings if you have a heart). Musically, “Flag” is pretty straightforward and the lyrics appear to tell the story of an idyllic American town overlooked by the flag and a hint of patriotism with the refrain ‘red, white and blue till their dying day’. The sting is in the final verse; as soon as Ed sings about the flag being folded, the tone changes and you know that it’s about a dead serviceman and a bereaved family. It still brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it.

Into the Sea“Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra) – Dean Owens

Dean’s latest album, “Into the Sea”, is an intensely personal and nostalgic piece of work, looking back to more innocent times and plotting the erratic courses (sometimes happy, sometimes tragic) of old school friends. “Sally’s Song”, over a Pachelbel’s Canon-style backing, uses the demolition of an old housing scheme as a trigger for memories of old friends doing well and badly. It’s a particularly Scottish song, making references to Billy Mackenzie and Michael Marra and it pushes all of my buttons, every time.

I’ve picked out individual tracks from five albums, but, honestly, you should have a listen to all five albums as well.

 

Ed Dupas - 'A Good American Life' - TitleNow, here’s an interesting debut. Born in Texas, brought up in Winnipeg and now based in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Ed Dupas has definitely paid his dues, as we oldies say, and he’s released a cracking album. He’s spent years playing acoustic covers in bars around Detroit while writing his own material and the efforts he’s made in writing and performance are evident in the quality of “A Good American Life”. This is an album that doesn’t need any production gimmicks to get its message over; the songs are strong and the simple arrangements and understated vocals are much more effective than any amount of studio tricks.

Two-thirds of the songs on “A Good American Life” have the personal themes that you might expect from an Americana singer-songwriter; “Remember My Love” and “Too Late Now” are about the singer’s perspective on broken relationships, while “With Love You Never Know” (a duet with Tara Cleveland) looks at a breakup from a female point of view and “You Don’t Get to Explain” talks about the kind of betrayal so complete that it leads to total ostracism. Ed skirts around the nature of the betrayal in an oblique style that is used in several songs on the album; it’s a particularly effective device because it reflects the way we tell our stories and it gives the songs a very human touch.

Without You” and “Whiskey Bones” are love songs, powerfully and beautifully underplayed, while “Home in Time” is the story of someone who has escaped being dragged back home by a major event. Again, it’s an oblique reference, but the song isn’t any weaker because the event is unspecified; and it’s a very powerful story. “Until Blue Comes ‘Round” is a look at the cycles of life using a colour metaphor, which is, again, highly effective.

As good as those songs are, and they’re very, very good, it’s the remaining third, including the title track, that really do it for me. It’s acceptable to be a political singer-songwriter these days: Jackson Browne’s been doing it for years, the Boss’s “Wrecking Ball” ripped in to the bankers and Shakey now has the world record for mentions of Monsanto and Starbucks on one album (and a great album, at that) but Ed’s a bit more subtle than that. “A Good American Life” (with a sneaky piano fill reference to the Bangles’ “Manic Monday”) opens the album with a look at the way we come to accept the treadmill of everyday life while “This Old Town” and “Train” explore the themes that Springsteen used on “Wrecking Ball”, the death of towns when industry vanishes and the ubiquity of bankers in modern society.

Flag” is an absolute gem of a song. Ed uses a bit of lyrical sleight of hand with a refrain of ‘red, white and blue till the day I die’ to suggest a gentle song about American patriotism then delivers the knockout punch as the flag’s folded and handed to someone’s widow. It’s a song that’s beautifully put together and incredibly moving; easy to listen to, hard to forget. All of the songs are all perfectly crafted little stories that don’t need any frills, just a gentle delivery and a willing audience. You should join that audience.

Released in the UK August 28 2015 on Mackinaw Harvest Records.