One of my favorite spins of 2022 was Pigments, a collaboration between neo-classical composer Spencer Zahn and electro-funk-soul artist Dawn Richard. Zahn and Spencer’s interplay unfolds with each listen, and escalates tracks like Cerulean and Saffron into time-stretching cosmic slurries, with not a shred of bombast, ennui, or self-consciousness. Different parts will recede or dominate depending on your context. It’s lush and spare all at once, avoiding all gravity. This record sits in the same sonic space as a rushing brook behind your house that can sit behind your thoughts, clear your thoughts, or form your thoughts.
The music’s not really danceable, hummable, cover-able, or categorizable. But it’s indelible. All the colors all at once here in a swirling post-storm cloud-flecked golden-hour sky.
A year before Pigments, on 2021’s Second Line, Richard offered her vision, straight up, of an “electro” New Orleans second line. “I didn’t want to necessarily do the traditional brass band,” she said in an interview with NPR. “I chose to do it in a different way. And what you get is this really cool melting pot of dance cultures put into one record.”
Later in the interview, she says, “I grew up loving Chris Cunningham, Aphex Twin, Portishead, Bjork, Imogen Heap.” Her first concert was Green Day. She’s proof that if you cast a wide net for your listening, you become a better writer. You hear all of these influences here, layered in-between global conscious beats, vocal snippets of her mother talking of love and life, and analog and digital textures.
This is tenacious music. Nothing to pretend here. No artifice. No pretense. Just all the joy and pain and confidence in “this is who I am, where I’m from, and where I’m going.”
In this three-disc collection from 1979 that employed over 200 musicians and unfolds across 100+ minutes, Sinatra produced a concept record designed to move us through time and space. The first record (“The Past”) gives us his first recordings of standards since the ‘60s, and showcases everything that made him him. The second disc (“The Present”) lets him loose on contemporary material from The Beatles’ Something and Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are, to Kris Kristofferson’s For The Good Times and Neil Diamond’s Song Sung Blue. The cycle closes with Theme From New York, New York, and time always stops here in NYC for that track.
When I found this record at a Housing Works thrift store a few years ago, I scooped it up for the 1st and 2nd records. I spun it this week upon my return to NYC after a month away, to hear Theme from New York, New York. The now-iconic track is kind of like a Christmas song, wherein it dreams of heaven and peace in the face of a cold, dark world. The lead character’s arrival is at some point in the future, so the song isn’t even really about NYC – it’s about the pull of the city’s mythology. He has “vagabond shoes,” needs a “brand new start,” and the City is only a vehicle for his dreaming. Not only is he not there, he’s not even in control – “It’s up to you, New York,” he says, “if I can make it.” Luck be a city tonight in this case.
That said, this track is teflon to cynicism. In Sinatra’s delivery, there are no unrealized dreams here, only those yet-to-be fulfilled. The rest have come true. The observations aren’t caustic like with Randy Newman’s I Love LA, but both wink at the truth with hook upon hook, until everyone’s singing along.
The third record, though, is a 100% unexpected “operetta” (as he called it) that has Sinatra taking us on a literal spaceship ride into the future. The disc’s official title, The Future: Reflections on the Future in Three Tenses, further enumerated as A Musical Fantasy in Three Tenses for Frank Sinatra, Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra, and Mixed Chorus, is testament to its ambition. He planet-hops, befriends computers, and prevents nuclear armageddon in a melody-less, relatively unstructured romp that’s short on conclusions, but long on optimism that humanity will solve its problems through technological advancement.
Sinatra’s attempt to interstellar transport his style on disc 3 teeters on the edge of disaster in every track. He & his co-writer Gordon Jenkins thought it was great – but that doesn’t mean I have to. A space-age dream fleshed out in a sort-of “cosmic big-band” style, there’s a lot of theremin where I wish it had Moog. The lyrics are awkward and sometimes leave you thinking the future will be the most saccharine distillation of now you can imagine. The more poignant moments, however, have Sinatra looking back at himself, reflecting on his career, past loves, and all of human folly while staring out a spaceship window, Earth receding in the background.
It’s only “experimental” in the context of Sinatra’s style, though. Ultimately it makes the mistake of thinking the future will sound exactly as we envisioned it in the near-past. So it’s more George Jetson than George Clinton, but Sinatra’s never going to go psychedelic. Still, it’s as close as we’ll ever get to seeing Ziggy Sinatradust or Ground Control to Major Frank.
In the end, novelty can be high-concept, too.
The Aretha record that contains the most number of her own compositions. The purpose of a “soul singer” is to bare the soul. Soul isn’t an adjective in that phrase, but rather a noun. In the style’s perfect state, the soul sings.
The songs here reflect moments of universal spiritual connection, like when a tiger makes eye contact with you from behind their glass enclosure, and your instinct is to smash the glass. Depending on your mood when listening to this album, Aretha is the tiger, and you’re smashing the glass; or she’s smashing glass to set you free. Either way, it’s the sound of the soul liberated.
In 1985, Willie Nelson released Me & Paul, and also put out Highwaymen with Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and Johnny Cash. The latter record is sublime as supergroups go. The title track and their cover of Bob Seger’s Against The Wind are the anchors, elegiac celebrations of the outsiders walking in silence among us.
At the end of the titular Highwayman, Johnny Cash sings his verse:
I’ll fly a starship
Across the Universe divide
And when I reach the other side
I’ll find a place to rest my spirit if I can
Perhaps I may become a highwayman again
Or I may simply be a single drop of rain
But I will remain
And I’ll be back again, and again and again and again and again…
It’s not so far off from what Sinatra was trying to do a few years earlier on The Future, but here its about the endurance of ourselves in spite of ourselves. Trying to discover what never dies is way more compelling (to me) than constantly trying to guess how we’re going to change.
Nelson’s Me & Paul, lives in the shadow of The Highwaymen, but it sits for me as my fav 1980s Willie record. The songs frame Willie’s musical adventure through time as a buddy movie with his drummer Paul English. The title track recalls a show in which he drank so much whiskey he doesn’t “remember if we went on at all.”
We’ve all been there, are there, or will go there (at least once). The past, present, and future as a simultaneous, a temporal happening. That’s the week I had.