A Week in Spins, vol. 3

Down in Florida now for a couple, maybe a few weeks, to visit my parents and retrieve our car to drive back to NYC. We expected to be on the road back already, because Cat’s latest job on Amazon’s The Peripheral has enough scripts locked to shoot a few episodes, despite the WGA strike. Thursday, however, the show’s producers put a pause on everything, as the DGA and SAG-AFTRA contracts expire on June 30th, and no one knows if there will be resolution on any fronts.

People who listen to music across the widest variety of styles are not only more accepting of marginalized and suppressed ideas, but also more aware of the absurdity in societies split across arbitrary lines. Voltaire would have a field day with the modern world lol.

In any event, enough sounding off into the void. Here are a few spins from the week before I left. Sounds of breaking out, through, up, or down – all of which add up to breaking away. Home is home, but travel expands perceptions, because physical movement through the world is how you gather stories and style.


Speed and quickness are not the same. Quickness is about decision making and dexterity, even at the slowest rates of movement. Speed is brute force – horse power, as it were. Moon Safari is one of those records that’s agile and glacial all at once. Sometimes the most fantastic journeys only happen when you sit still.

Sturgill Simpson does no wrong for me. I cover Time After All at almost every show I play now. Metamodern Sounds of Country Music is just transcendent – something I spin for people who are stuck in a typical loop of thinking about “country” music.

In 2020 into 2021, he set about reimagining his back catalog in bluegrass, after tiring of people telling him he wasn’t “country enough.” He then released 2 volumes of bluegrass interpretations of himself in early 2021, within 2 months of each other.

Cuttin’ Grass, Vol. 1 will convince you of Sturgill’s songwritingvision, and I still spin it more than vol 2. That record contains re-recordings of Time After All, I Don’t Mind, Turtles All the Way Down, and most of my other fav tracks of his. Volume 2, though, is more focused and plaintive. His Merle Haggard co-written Hobo Cartoon, is reverent, elegiac, and proves that country – like hip-hop – is a lived experience, distinctly American, and a statement of purpose. You don’t have to have lived the life described in country music to sing it (trust me), but you better respect it as a tradition – a continuum – if you dare venture into the style as a performer. Sturgill’s characters are as real as they get, and his character is their perfect vehicle.

The big rock covers are what draw people to this set – Fitzgerald’s live Hey Jude rivals any cover ever of that track. There’s an undercurrent of urgency in her version that even the original track pulls back on, and Ella just leans into it to slap Jude on the butt for being down on himself. Fwiw, Wilson Pickett’s elegant scrawl over his Jude is on a parallel track to Ella’s.

The highlight for me here, though, is her rendition of the standard A House is Not a Home. That song always hits me in the same place as I’ll Be Seeing You, and Ella’s understated and affecting reading of the track steers clear of any cloying sentiment, and conjures all your favorite memories with people you love.

You may find yourself singing along for years to every song on Excitable Boy before realizing the title track describes a psychotic kid who rubs pot roast on his chest, bites ushers in the leg, and kills his junior prom date, only to exhume her 10 years later after prison release to “make a cage from her bones.” Zevon’s 3rd record is the one for me that captures his range and playful inventiveness. As it unfolds into the truest evocation of Los Angeles’s paradoxical seductions, the song cycle becomes kind of an expansion pack for his sublime track Desperados Under The Eaves off his self-titled second (and arguably more influential) record. Metaphors at every turn, just like Sunset Blvd itself.

As “sunny darkness” is my songwriting wheelhouse, Zevon was a crucial and pivotal discovery for me as an teenage aspiring storyteller in the 1980s. YRock & Roll can be sarcastic, irreverent, wicked, cutting, and incisive, yet also tender, comedic, insightful, and melodic all at once. His act, unlike, say, Tom Waits, never collapses under its own gravitas. But man, is it deep, and just as much of a high wire act. You fucking try to sing “Dad, get me out of this!” (Lawyers, Guns, & Money), and still sound like you own yourself.

Elvis’s transition from 60s to 70s Elvis was only tragic in retrospect. Everything – not just music – had moved away from him. How could someone who commanded such influence get so little credit, and still be searching for meaning and legacy in his work?

Elvis is the primary link between blues, country, and rock, and this unearthed session from 1970 demonstrates how much culture collided in his act. He was as dangerous in his day to status quos as The Clash or Iggy Pop or NWA were in theirs. Maybe more. I only learned about Leadbelly or Sonny Boy Williamson because of him, so there’s that.

There are amazing extended jams here where the band just kicks, humanizing and insightful studio banter left in between stopped and started takes, and some insanely euphoric and celebratory channeling of iconic songs that just bend to Elvis’s will. He was an interpreter and a bridge – almost a Rosetta Stone. His Bridge Over Troubled Waters is an exercise in restraint and power that shows how large his heart was. My raison d’être for seeking out this album was his cover of Willie’s Funny How Time Slips Away, completely unexpected and a perfect “buzz off, ex” moment. His scoops and growls throughout the track presage Al Green’s by a few years, and just prove how much soul true country music has.

This is Elvis’s peak, at least for me. He loves these songs, he loves his band, he loves your listening, and most important, he seems to love himself in these sessions, probably for the last time in his life. This isn’t the Elvis you know, but it’s the one that was there all along. We’ll just leave it here in the muddy water.

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