Album review: Amanda Palmer “There Will Be No Intermission”

“The role of a writer is not to say what we can all say, but what we are unable to say.”
+ Anaïs Nin

Amanda Palmer’s latest album “There Will Be No Intermission” comes out on March 8 which coincides, by design, with International Women’s Day.

I’ve had it since February 9 and as I figure out what I want to say about it I can tell you -and I’m not making this up – that I’ve easily listened to the entire album (all 74 minutes) at least 50 times.  Paraphrasing my own comment that I made on Palmer’s Patreon page (I’ve been proud Patron of hers since  2017), I feel spellbound, hypnotized and pretty obsessed with “There Will Be No Intermission.”

I hear the songs in my head even when I’m not listening to it.  That’s the thing about art, sometimes it’s like being struck by lightning and it changes you. Sometimes you’re ready for this and sometimes you’re not and you have to kind of take shelter and hide from its impact. Art can hurt. Art can be traumatic to experience. It can stir shit up for you in a way that you never knew was possible. Art can do a real knife-twisting number on you if you let it.

Such is the case with “There Will Be No Intermission.” It has turned me inside-out. It’s like Amanda Palmer performed open-heart surgery on every emotion I’ve got. “There Will Be No Intermission” has challenged me to contemplate some pretty heavy things in my life. It has made me uncomfortable and caught me off guard. It has made me feel deep sorrow. But, and this is the biggest but I’ve uttered in a long time, “There Will Be No Intermission” has also made my heart grow about 17 sizes bigger. It has filled with me immeasurable joy. It has loosened some things up for me, kind of like a deep tissue massage for the soul. God forgive me for the “Jerry Maguire” reference but TWBNI had me at hello, from the first few strains of the Jherok Bischoff-helmed instrumental track “All The Things” that opens the album. And it kept me enthralled until the final nano-second of the closing track “Death Thing.”

My initial thoughts after the first listening of the record was a combination of “what the fuck did I listen listen to?” and “this is my favorite album of the year without question.”

When the album ended after that first time hearing it, I needed to hang back  for a bit and collect myself, like, say, after a particularly intense therapy session.  When that feeling dissipated enough my next move revealed itself: I needed to listen to the album again (and again, and again and again). And that’s exactly what I’ve done over these past few weeks at home, at work and in the car. Sure I’ve listened to other things as well of course but if too much time passed between listenings I’d feel myself get a little twitchy and would dive back in. I’m still doing that.

As a longtime fan of Palmer’s, I’m well aware that no topic is off limits and there’s rarely a filter. But nothing could have prepared me for “There Will Be No Intermission.” It was, in a sense, like agreeing to a trust fall. Would I be caught by loving hands or dropped on the ground like a bag of old bones, wounded and alone? The answer is of course both. But, like my friend Nina said to me many years ago, if passion brings pain, that is the price of living well.  And for every emotional cut and bruise I endured with these songs, the salve was always Palmer’s sincerity with her lyrics, vocals and playing. Said another way, I was made to feel safe and bathed in light as she led me over and through some dark and formidable terrain. Amanda Palmer has laid herself completely bare (both literally and figuratively as she’s nude on the album cover) with this album. “There Will Be No Intermission” is a no holds-barred manifesto that has eaten me alive and spit me out feeling better – and stronger – than I was before I heard it.

“There Will Be No Intermission” has twenty tracks. Ten of them are gorgeous inter-song instrumentals with the brilliant Jherek Bischoff on double-bass, sub bass synth, cymbals and bass drums. And there’s also, cellos, violins, violas, vibraphone and glockenspiel from a wondrous cast of players. The album opening “All The Things” is delicate and haunting with an air of suspense. It has a calming effect like a cup of chamomile tea. But it’s like you’re feeling your way around the back of the wardrobe and light starts to pour through the cracks and you’re not really sure if you’ll end up in Narnia or the ninth ring of hell.  All of the inter-songs reference other songs on the album. They’re the intricate embroidery that not so much hold the album together but add another layer of grace and beauty to it.

Amanda Palmer
“There Will Be No Intermission” album cover.
Image courtesy of the artist

And then there are the ten songs…

It took me several days to figure out how to talk about them. Then I gave myself a frustration headache because still, after all these years on this planet, I still get “objective” and “subjective” confused no matter how many times I try to get it through my  apparently quite thick skull. Writing 101. And yet here I am.

So I’m going to do the only thing that makes sense:  I’ll tell you how the songs made me feel and will throw in some other relevant info as needed. But before I do that, I’ll also toss it out there that Palmer’s vocals and playing (both ukelele and especially piano) are the best they’ve ever been.

So here’s this:

Aimsel’s Unofficial Field Guide to “There Will Be No Intermission”

“The Ride.” Palmer. Wait. Hold up. Screw the conventional journalistic style of using last name after the first reference. That rings hollow in this context. We cool? OK. Amanda wrote this one in 36 hours after spending several hours reading comments on a Patreon post what were in response to her asking her patrons to tell her what they were afraid of. And, long (and super incredible) story short, a couple of days later she recorded the song in one take and sent a private link to the video that was filmed of her playing it to her Patrons.  I remember being absolutely leveled by it. In fact, I just watched that ten-minute clip again. Yep. Still leveled. And I was leveled again when I saw that the she decided to tackle it again when recording TWBNI.

“The climb to the crest is less frightening with someone to clutch you
But isn’t it nice when we’re all afraid at the same time?”

Amanda uses a roller-coaster metaphor to talk about fear and life and connection and “The Ride” infuses me with hope, especially in this time of an insane White House occupant among other more-than-I-can-bear things going on right now. We’re all alone in this world. Except when we’re not. “The Ride” reminds me of the latter.

“Drowning In the Sound.” Amanda wrote it during a two-day songwriting exercise and she drew some of its inspiration from solicited comments on Patreon. “It wound up being a response to the insanity of internet politics melded with the recent total eclipse and the devastation of Hurricane Harvey and, you know, other stuff,” wrote Amanda on her site about the track. I’ve had my fingers crossed from the moment I heard it that it would end up on the album.  “If you can hear/If you’re around/I’m over here/I’m over here/I’m watching everyone I love/drowning in the sound.” The version on TWBNI is bigger and better which I feel  weird even saying because that original take is so, so good.

“The Thing About Things.” This one first surfaced, at least in a recorded version, in 2015 yet somehow managed to slip through my cracks (and I call myself a fan!).  So it was new to me and although I’ve now gone back and listened to that first version, I fell in love with the TWBNI one. Amanda, playing her ukelele, sings about the complexities of certain possessions, in particular a stolen, lost and then found ring that belonged to her grandfather. “The thing about things is that they can start meaning things nobody actually said/and if you’re not allowed to love people alive then you learn how to love people dead.” This one hit me hard because I cling to certain objects with an irrational sense of nostalgia and have slowly started to loosen my death grip on them. (But don’t anyone mess with the monkey doll named Bosco that my grandfather gave me when I was five). The song is heart-rending and yet  cathartic, a hallmark of my favorite Amanda songs.

 “Judy Blume.” Amanda wrote this one about one her writer heroes, Judy Blume! This one first saw the light of the day last year and the video to it, is well, shit you GOTTA see it so here click here. Judy Blume’s books were most certainly in my childhood wheelhouse but even if you’re not familiar with Blume’s work, the song is a lovely and certainly painfully accurate portrait of being a pre-teen (I can’t bring myself to officially say the word “tween”) and teenage girl.  Amanda’s vocals capture that anguish and her words make several Blume book references. “I don’t remember my friends from gymnastics class/but i remember when Deenie was at the school dance/Buddy feeling her up in the locker room/Margaret bored counting hats in the synagogue.”

“Bigger On The Inside.” I think this one kills me the most of all the songs on this album. This is the cry ugly, uncontrollable tears song. It’s also the first song Amanda ever released on her Patreon, back in 2015 and it featured cellist Zoë Keating.  The song is about a TON of stuff that had been going on in and around Amanda’s life, most of which was extremely difficult. There’s also a live version from 2013. The TWBNI version clocks in at 8 minutes and 29 seconds and it’s exactly as long as it needs to be. “You took my hand when you woke up/I had been crying in the darkness/We all die alone but I am so, so glad/That you are here.”

“Machete.” Amanda originally released “Machete” as a demo in 2016. There’s a compelling backstory on this one that’s worth diving into (as is the case with many of Amanda’s songs) so dive in when you can.  “Machete” is frantic and huge  and Amanda’s vocals  damn near reach caterwaul level as she sings the line toward the end of it “So I took your machete and I sliced off your hand!” Strings come crashing in all around like they’re on acid and it’s goddamn glorious. I can’t wait to hear this one live in Boston next month.

“Voicemail For Jill.” Amanda has written a song about abortion that offers understanding, empathy, compassion, support and solace to any woman who was gone through the experience of having one while also giving the rest of us  women, or for that matter humans, some insight into that private world. The song has a quiet urgency to it. It puts words to the fact that support can be hard (if not impossible) to come by for women who have had abortions . Several women have already shared online how much this song means to them.

“You don’t need to offer the right explanation
You don’t need to beg for redemption or ask for forgiveness
And you don’t need a courtroom inside of your head
Where you’re acting as judge and accused and defendant and witness

There’s a video dropping for “Voicemail For Jill” on album release day (March 8) and I’m going to have a lot to say about that in a separate post so stay tuned for that.

“A Mother’s Confession.” This is one of the most intimate songs I’ve ever heard from Amanda. Amanda and her husband, writer Neil Gaiman, have a three year old son named Anthony (Ash for short). “A Mother’s Confession” at nearly 11 minutes long is a fiercely honest portrait of parenting fuck-ups including unintentional shoplifting, speeding tickets and accidentally leaving the baby in the car. But it’s not just that. “A Mother’s Confession” also bursts with little moments of human connection and there’s a multi-voiced chorus at the end of the track singing a line that’s repeated throughout the song: “At least the baby didn’t die.” It gives the song just a pinch of levity, enough to make it all the more accessible and real.

“Look Mummy, No Hands” is the only song on the album that Amanda didn’t write. It was written by British actress, singer and comedian Dillie Keane.  Keane is part of the comedy cabaret trio Fascinating Aida and “Look Mummy, No Hands” is on their 1997 album “It, Wit, Don’t Give a Shit Girls.” The song is a melancholy tinged and is about, I suppose, the shifting dynamics between mother and daughter. Palmer has been playing it live for several years and there’s also a version on the 2013 album “An Evening with Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer.” I’m pleased as punch that “Look Mummy, No Hands” was recorded for TWBNI because there’s an ache in Amanda’s voice as she’s singing it that gives me chills and has me picturing the song being sung by a woman at a piano in a dingy bar that she thinks is empty. But unknown to the woman, there’s someone in the corner sobbing into their long empty whiskey glass. Is that someone me? Is it you? Is it all of us?

 “Death Thing.” I said that “Bigger on the Inside” kills me more than any other song on “There Will Be No Intermission” but now I’m not so sure because I’m sitting here crying (again) while listening to “Death Thing.”  If  death is a hard topic for you to think about (it’s brutal for me) this song might take your breath away, as it does mine. The song builds and builds upon itself.  I am not going to quote any of the lyrics, my instinct is telling me not to. “Death Thing” closes out “There Will Be No Intermission” because it had to. It was the only one that could. Sometimes we, as humans, are able to hold it all in and keep our emotions at arms length where they can’t do any real damage. There have been several times over the past three weeks that I’ve been able to maintain that distance when listening to “Death Thing.”  But there have been a few times, like tonight, when the song rips my heart wide open, not to destroy it, but rather to hold it close.

Final thoughts…

I don’t know if you’re an Amanda Palmer fan or if you’ve never heard of her. I also don’t know if “There Will Be No Intermission” is going to resonate with you like it has with me. Some of these songs might take you to places you don’t want to go with their unflinching lyrics. But they’re also some of the most provocative, beautiful, honest and empowering songs I’ve ever heard. Do me one favor and promise me this: If this album isn’t your bag, go out there and find one that is. That is my wish for you: To find some music that touches you in the way that this album touches me.

“I want you to think of me sitting and singing beside you,” sings Amanda in “The Ride.”

I love that line. I love this album. Go get it.

Ponti out.


“There Will Be No Intermission” album notes:
Produced, mixed and engineered by John Congleton.
Recorded at 54 Sound in Los Angeles
Mixed at Elmwood West
Mastered by Greg Calibi at Sterling Sound in New York
All songs written by Amanda Palmer, published by Eight Foot Music with the exception of “Look Mummy, No Hands,” written by Dillie Keane

The English Beat is back with ‘Here We Go Love’

That’s right people, THE ENGLISH BEAT IS BACK!

They’ve just released their first new album since 1982. It’s called “Here We Go Love” and you are going to LOVE IT!

Before I dive into it, here’s a quick discography reminder:

The debut album was 1980’s “I Just Can’t Stop It,” then came “Wha’ppen?” in 1981 and “Special Beat Service.” in 1982.

A snapshot of  some of the songs we know and love from these records includes “Mirror in the Bathroom,” “Best Friend,” “Can’t Get Used to Losing You,” “Doors of Your Heart,” “I Confess” and the mother of all English Beat songs…. “Save It for Later.”

First just a a quick note to avoid any confusion:
“Here We Go Love” is The English Beat starring Dave Wakeling.  Dave, originally from Birmingham, England has been living in California for several years. Dave’s former Beat band mate,  Ranking Roger, is based in England and is  doing his own thing under the name The New English Beat featuring Ranking Roger and they put out an album called “Bounce” in 2016.

One more thing, lest ANYONE forget, when the original Beat broke up in 1983, Dave and Roger formed General Public and as much I’m trying to stay focused here, let’s take a minute to listen to “Tenderness” because I love that song immensely and so do you:

NOW WHERE WERE WE?

Ah yes, it’s  2018 and BAM! “Here We Love Love” is out in the world and it’s a FANTASTIC record. As  I write this, I’ve probably listened to it start to finish no less than 25 times.

From the bouncy rallying cry of “How Can You Stand There” to the edgy “Here We Go Love” to the politically charged “If Killing Worked,” the poignant “Never Die,”  the uplifting “The Love You Give” and the supremely catchy “The One and the Only,” I dare say they haven’t missed a beat. I’m 100 % standing by that pun so don’t give me any side-eye.   And once you listen to “Here We Go Love” you’ll be right there with me.

english-beat-here-we-go-love-album-art-701x701

Let’s listen to “How Can You Stand There?”

“How Can You Stand There?” pulls you off the couch to not only dance but to pay better attention to the world around you with lines like “Warning signs all around this town/Something’s up, something’s coming down. Made aware by the plagues and quakes/We’re wound up tight like it’s gonna break now.”  With signature Beat horns,  fabulous ska rhythm and Wakeling’s vocals sounding sensational, this song is fresh and lively but also maintains that Beat sound we fell in love with in the first place.

Dave Wakeling
The English Beat’s Dave Wakeling
Photo by Eugenio Iglesias

A couple of months back, I sat with Dave in his tour bus in a motel parking lot on the outskirts of Boston and hit record on our conversation. Here’s how it went:

When was the last time The English Beat has released something new?
That’s a question for the ages. There’s a best of record every 18 months. The last one came out just a few months ago in England called “You Just Can’t Beat It.”

What’s different when those come out?
This wasn’t anything new, this was more like a condensed Reader’s Digest medium level. It’s a cheaper release. You’re trying to sell it to people who didn’t buy the records in the first place. It’s one of those. Now next year it’s going to be a bit more of a deal I think. There’s going to be some television advertised stuff.

Here and in England?
I think so. It’s heading toward the 40th anniversary .

Of the band forming?
Of first playing and all of that yes. It’s going to be a big deal.

Who plays on the new album? People you have hired? People you’ve been working on off and on for years?
It’s a great combination of both. So there were a few people that had been in and out of the group over the last 20 years while I’ve been in California. Particularly some backing vocalists that I’ve enjoyed the most singing with; Kevin Williams and Jillarney Jones. I only sang with them a couple of times. They were in the group overlapping but at different times and just two of my favorite voices so I got to do the harmony vocals with them which was really nice. I’ve got some people from the (current) band on the record and then I’ve got some people from previous lineups on the record.

Tell me, because you haven’t recorded new material in quite a while, are these songs that date back from many years? When were they written?
It’s a combination.  We started with 40 songs, a mixture of ones that were burning hot at the moment, new ones that had made the live set at the moment, oldies that had somehow slipped the net and that could be because perhaps a punky song wasn’t fashionable if things were terribly ska at the time or a ska song wasn’t so fashionable if ska wasn’t fashionable now or it was more 80s pop now. So there were a couple of songs that had slipped through the net a long time ago and then there were some that were probably as good if not better but they’d only just started recently and they’d still got quite a ways to travel before they were finished composing. So there are two or three now that are already starting that process for the next one. I let a small circle of people listen to the demos and I polled them; different congregations of votes from men or women around different songs, certain songs, a mixture of both and we whittled it down to a really well-balanced collection. There was one of everything at least. I didn’t rig the votes or anything but it turned out a decent spread and balance and now we’ve got 13 and they fit together really well. They tell a good story thematically and now they want to know if you want 10 or 12 on the record.

 What does it mean to you, after all this time, to have a brand new English Beat record out in the world?
There was some trepidation and that’s turned into resolution. The record sounds as good as we can get it.

What can you tell me about your songwriting process?
I have to go through some deep manic depressive state and then I start walking in circles, talking and rhyming couplets which turns into a poem which then ends up being good enough to turn into a song which then gets worked on for about nine months.

While I have you, let’s talk about the ultimate, iconic English Beat song “Save it for Later.” I want to know, when did you say to yourself, ‘OK, I’ve got something really special here with this song?’
It’s special for me. I would play in on the guitar. I was about 19 or 20 when I wrote it and I would just play it round and round and then on my 21st birthday I got a National steel dobro and I couldn’t stop playing it, I just played it over and over.

On a dobro?
Yeah. It rang like a bell. Then when we started the group I ‘d say  ‘Ooh, I’ve got one’ and then it didn’t make the cut. It didn’t make it until the third album. For the first album “I Just Can’t Stop It” 1980) it was deemed too old wave. Then the second record, I knew it was bound to get on it. Nope. We’d gone kind of world beat by then and that was too rock. So we didn’t do it then. At the time we sort of had a veto, there was five of us. If one of us went “that’s vile,” then we couldn’t do it which is why we never had any songs on TV commercials because one person thought it was vile.

You’ve been playing the hits like “Mirror in the Bathroom” and “Twist & Crawl” for a very long time.  Speaking as a fan, I still very much love those songs and I love hearing them live. Do you feed off of that when you see how the crowd reacts?

To play the “Save it for Laters” or the bigger hit songs, it fills the room with a nice ambience and time sort of stands still for a second and everybody’s very jolly and the opportunity comes up that you can play a new song and you sort of paid for the entrance fee.

And the new songs are great!
That’s the luckiest part of it. People can be funny about wanting to hear new material. You’ve got to be careful, especially because there’s a list of 40 songs they want to hear of which you’re going to do 20 so they’re already 50% pissed off. There’s something about concerts that are meaning more to people. There are few places left where you can go somewhere and have an experience, you can judge it yourself, you can trust your own ears and eyes and intuition and share a space with common songs. You can’t really do what watching TV. I like it that concerts mean more and it’s what I do anyway and so it means that if you get it right and you’re willing to be a bit open and connect and have some general mirth and fun with it you can generate a terrific atmosphere in a room; warm and more reaching out from the audience to the crowd and the audience between themselves as well.


Want in on some of that mirth Dave speaks of? Click here for the current tour schedule! And needless to say, pick up a copy of “Here We Go Love” because it’s a brilliant record whether you’re an old-school Beat fan or they’re brand new to you.

Here’s where you’ll find complete album credits for “Here We Go Love”. Take a minute to check it out because it these musicians put their hearts and souls into the album and there are a lot of them.

Dave Wakeling
Dave Wakeling and yours truly in Boston.

Ponti out


Aimsel on the Record is sponsored in part by LB Kitchen in Portland, Maine.

LB kitchen logo

Please contact me if you’re interested in sponsorship opportunities.

REVIEW: Brandi Carlile’s “By The Way, I Forgive You”

I’ve been trying to write this Brandi Carlile album review for a few weeks now and I’m still struggling with what exactly I want to say. The album  (produced by Dave Cobb and Shooter Jennings) has such an emotional hold on me that I’m a bit of a mess.  I wasn’t sure if I could string my thoughts together enough to even attempt a review. Then it came to me; Conventional album review wisdom (if it even exists) be damned! This is what I’m going to do instead:

AN OPEN LETTER TO BRANDI CARLILE & ‘BY THE WAY, I FORGIVE YOU”

Brandi Carlile
Brandi Carlile performing at Ryman Auditorium. 4.25.17
Photo by Aimsel Ponti

Dear Brandi Carlile and your album “By The Way, I Forgive You,”

Holy hell, what have you done?

You’ve made an album that has called open season on my heart.  You’ve torn it out and put it back together nine ways to Sunday. You’ve made an album that has made me take a LONG look at the notion of forgiveness. You’ve made an album that, with each listening, permeates my bone marrow, my soul and everything I thought I knew about music.

You and the Twins and everyone else involved have made an album that is nothing less than brilliant.

So to simply say THANK YOU doesn’t seem enough. It doesn’t seem nearly enough.

Permit me to unpack “By The Way, I Forgive You” song by song,  so as to tell you the impact each song continues to have on me. Know that I’ve sung these songs at the top of my lungs on the highway. I’ve listened to them while walking my dog. I’ve listened to them at work. I’ve listened to them at home on my turntable (hell yeah, I have it on vinyl too.” I discover something new each time.

I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like hearing these songs live in the coming months.

Ready?

ONE: “Every Time I Hear That Song.” I don’t keep a journal. I wish I could. But I don’t because I’m too afraid of it being read by anyone. And I’m too afraid, I’ve realized, of documenting my deepest secrets.  This is one of the reasons why music is so important to me. Certain songs I adopt as journal entries and no matter how much time has passed, every time I hear that  a certain song, there’s an emotional charge. This makes “Every Time I Hear That Song” something of a song within a song. This song gives me permission to revisit past experiences, past relationships, past moments of connection, past pain, sorrow and all the rest of it. And you’ve packaged this all in a gorgeous song. And when you and Tim and Phil sing the lines “By The Way, I Forgive You/I never will forget you for giving me what I found/Without you around I’ve been doing just fine/’Cept for anytime I hear that song,” it’s profound. And speaking of forgiveness, you’ve asked us to look at forgiveness under a microscope. Goddamn it. I have found myself budging on things I never thought I’d budge on. I have found myself slowly starting to forgive myself for past mistakes. You have made a song into something of a movement. And you’ve asked your fans to document moments of forgiveness with a contest you ran and I saw some of the entries and people are baring their souls and it’s beautiful. Dear Brandi and ‘By the Way, I Forgive You,” this song is everything. It really is.

TWO: “The Joke”

When this single was dropped last fall I, like many other people, fell outta my chair. The song is HUGE and lush with strings and crescendos and Mount Everest vocals. I’ve been swooning over this song for a while now. But I’m going to share with you part of a Facebook post (with permission) by a friend of my named Ryan. He’s a new fan and this is what he posted the other day: “Sorry everybody, it’s another Brandi Carlile post. I can’t tell you how rapt I am with her. As I previously offered, I am glad I don’t have a song on the radio right now because it would sound foolish if it came on after “The Joke”. We’re all playing checkers. She’s playing chess. I haven’t liked music this much in years.” Then a few days later Ryan shared this: “As we’ve covered here previously, I recently was floored by hearing the new Brandi Carlile single on WCLZ. I finally found some solely listen- to-music time tonight, and am just now listening the whole record. This is a jaw dropping startlingly gorgeous and extremely visceral piece of art. It is astonishingly beautiful. Anyone who is not listening to her has got to stop and take a look at least. I am so mad at myself for having never given her time these past few years. This is my favorite record of the year so far, by miles.” Ryan’s discovery of Carlile reminded me of the scene at the end of “Field of Dreams” when Kevin Costner’s brother-in-law could finally see the ballplayers and was floored by it. Welcome, Ryan, to the party. Here, have a Jameson’s.

THREE: “Hold Out Your Hand”

This is is a barn burnin’ foot stompin’ feel good tune, complete with a sonic boom of a chorus. It’s an outlaw’s anthem and a redemptive, devil defying proclamation of faith all wrapped up into one gigantic song that makes me want to both dance around in a cowboy hat and go running up the stairs of the nearest church. And yet Carlile also slips in some not foolin’ around lyrics in the form of “Here is a license for killing your own native son/For a careless mistake and a fake plastic gun?”

FOUR: “The Mother”

I’ve been hearing  this one live for at least a year (maybe two) and am so glad it landed on the album. “Evangeline” is the name of Carlile and her wife Catherine’s three-year-old daughter. The song is one that mothers – and parents- will surely identify with. And for non-moms like me , it let me into a world I know I’ll never fully understand. And Carlile does  so in such a sweet, playful,  gentle and wise way.  “She’s fair and she is quiet, Lord, she doesn’t look like me/She made me love the morning, she’s a holiday at sea/The New York streets are busy as they always used to be/But I am the mother of Evangeline.”  I haven’t heard such a wonderful snapshot of parenthood since Bowie’s “Kooks.”

FIVE: “Whatever You Do”

This song’s first line is everything. “If I don’t owe you a favor, you don’t know me.” God I love that.  That said, this is among the most heavyhearted songs on the album. “There’s a road left behind me that I’d rather not speak of/And a hard one ahead of me, too/I love you, whatever you do/But I’ve got a life to live too.”  The only things that allows me to hold it together listening to it is how resplendent the song is. The strings come in slowly then build and then Carlile’s voice floats up to the sky like a soul escaping a body it no longer needs.

SIX: “Fulton County Jane Doe”

If I’m Dolly Parton , I’m putting a version of this on my next album. Call me crazy but I can hear her singing this one  in my head. And that, my friends, is very much meant as a compliment.  The song seems to be about second chances. And maybe third of fourth ones too.

SEVEN: “Sugartooth”

Not since K’s Choice  released the song “Not An Addict” more than 20 years ago has a song about addiction hit me so hard.  The addiction struggle is sadly very real everywhere, even here in  Maine. Carlile has painted a portrait of it that explains the disease in an understandable way and with empathy rather than judgment. “He wanted to be a better man/But life kicked him down like an old tin can/He would give you the shirt on his back/If not for a sugartooth.”

EIGHT: “Most Of All”

If you’ve ever lost anyone important to you, this song is going to make you cry.  “Most Of All” is heart-rending but it’s also bursting with love and hope and gratitude. It’s also full of kind-hearted inspiration.  “But most of all/She taught me how to fight/How to move across the line between the wrong and the right.”  Prepare to feel all the proverbial things with this one. But don’t you love songs that do that? I sure do.

NINE: “Harder to Forgive”

This is a  knee slapping gem of a song that had me at the first line because it’s so true! “I love the songs I hated when I was young/Because they take me back where I come .” Word, Brandi, word. The song is upbeat and snappy but with brooding lyrics; a perfect combination in my book. Plus the electric guitar and wailing vocals toward the end are motherfuckin’ spectacular.

TEN: “Party Of One”

This was the only song the album could have ended with and it is a reminder that the best way to listen to an album is all the way through, in the order in which they were intended to be heard. In other words, this is not an album to be listened to on shuffle play. Trust me on this. “Party Of One” is one of the saddest Carlile songs I’ve ever heard but it’s also stop-you-in-your-tracks stunning. At just under six minutes, it opens with a piano that sounds like its weeping. “Waiter send this to the table, the party of one/The only other lonely soul in this place” are the opening lines. From there the song speaks of love at first sight and a love that is without end. But also of a defeated love. It doesn’t matter what is happening in your life, this song’s gonna kill you. And just when you think you’re going to survive the song, in come the strings and then the drums and you’re swept up in a whole other layer of emotion. This song is a self-contained symphony of feelings, a relief map of longing and a timeline of a love that despite all the bullshit, won’t ever really be extinguished. Amen.


The holy trinity of Brandi Carlile, Tim Hanseroth and Phil Hanseroth have collectively written ten songs that are going to touch a TON of people both as they listen to them and see and hear them performed live.  “By The Way, I Forgive You” has touched me in a way I didn’t know an album could. I didn’t know  I could love a Carlile album as much as “The Story” but upon hearing this one, the code was cracked and another compartment of my heart was accessed.

Ponti out.

P.S. I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing Carlile on three occasions for the Portland Press Herald/MaineTodaycom. 2012  , 2015 and 2018.

SHEL absolutely dazzles on UNDERCOVER.

Being a fan of the band SHEL is like being Alice in Wonderland. I just hope the rabbit hole is without end because it keeps getting better and better. I should probably just rename this entire blog The SHEL report because just when I think my fandom has gotten as big as it can get, they do something spectacular and I’m at a loss for words with my jaw on the floor as my ears fill with wonder.

Left to right: Liza, Hannah, Eva and Sara Holbrook of SHELPhoto by Joe Dudeck
Left to right: Liza (drums, beatbox) Hannah (keys, accordion) Eva (vocals, mandolin) and Sarah (violin, guitar) Holbrook of SHEL Photo by Joe Dudeck

Lest there be any doubt about how much I love this band, you can see my declarations here, here, here and here. Now where was I? Ah yes, Friday the 13th! As in 10.13.17. This is the day the new EP from SHEL called ‘Undercover’ was released and on it are seven covers. But not just ANY covers. These are seven covers that clearly were chosen when the clouds parted and the angels appeared and spoke to these four women and said “these are the songs you should do.” Actually, what really happened was that they have incredible taste in music and chose incredibly well what songs they wanted to re-imagine.  In fact,  Eva Holbrook wrote in an email that went out to fans the other day. (And you can and should sign up for said mailing list by clicking here.) that during a visit with her mentor Paul Kennerley, an important conversation took place during which he asked if she knew any covers which at the time, she didn’t. He advised her to “study the masters. The artist spends half their time in the library.” He sent her home with some of his favorite obscure and essential country and blues artists of early American music and encouraged her to learn great songs when she heard them. And guess what? She and her sisters did just that. The songs on ‘Undercover’ are Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” “Blue on Black” by Kenny Wayne Shepherd, “Enter Sandman” by Metallica, the traditional spiritual “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies.” If that’s not an eclectic collection of songs than I don’t know what is.

But before I get into the actual review part of this let me just say for the record, SHEL doesn’t need to do covers. Their originals kill me. Gorgeous, flowing, mesmerizing, impassioned, inspiring, haunting, emotional, catchy,  musically arresting, breathtakingly arrangedhopeful, playful, vocally rich and have an overall sound that has had me spellbound since I first heard them in July  of 2016.

They do however have two covers in their previous discography. The first is Led Zeppelin’s “The Battle of Evermore” on their self-titled 2012 album and the second is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” from last year’s “Just Crazy Enough.” I especially love this live version of “The Battle of Evermore.” As for “Enter Sandman,” check out this video they made last year in Alaska. It has racked up more than a million plays because it’s that good. And now hold that thought on the song because there’s a second chapter to that story.

And with no further ado, here are my thoughts on the UNDERCOVER EP which, as of a few moments ago, is out in the world. Do right by them and do what I did; buy it from iTunes. It’s a digital only release for the moment. Supporting independent artists is SO IMPORTANT.

SHEL UNDERCOVER Art
UNDERCOVER image courtesy of the band

OK. Ready?

  1. “Crazy.” This is the song penned by Willie Nelson in 1961. Patsy Cline took the song to no. 2 on the country music charts in 1962. Her version is a classic. You already know this. I knew before I even heard it that SHEL was going to do two things: keep the song recognizable because the melody is so perfect but also cast their spell over it. And indeed this is what they’ve done. Hannah’s stark piano pulls you into a kind of trance and Eva’s vocals have never sounded so lovely. If it had stayed along this path I would not have minded, for this path was indeed lovely and the sentiment of the song remains timeless. But then at about 52 seconds in, Eva’s mandolin is heard, softly and surely, giving the song texture. Further in, Sarah’s violin comes into the song and then some percussion from Liza and a whole bunch of hushed vocals and the song takes an exquisite, sinister turn. It slips into madness. And then it lands softly like a daisy petal on the grass. It’s nothing like the original. This is an entirely new thing. I listened to it five times in a row and each time it grew a bit darker and all the more gratifying.

2. “Blue on Black”  by Kenny Wayne Shepherd. This song is 20 years old and is from Shepherd’s “Trouble Is.” I remember hearing it on the radio a whole bunch back then and still hear it from time to time. Vocals are by Noah Hunt. Entirely solid bluesy rock song. I just gave it a fresh listen and was reminded of what a good song this it and realized, perhaps for the first time, how good the lyrics are. SHEL put the song in their cauldron and stirred it slowly. They added a heartbeat of backing vocals and when Eva sings the lines “whisper on a scream doesn’t change a thing/It won’t bring you back/blue on black,” they take on a mood of their own. The song is a smoldering slow burn with Sarah’s violin stabbing into it. Liza’s drums are like another set of fists swinging at the song. Read= they’re perfect. And don’t quote me on this, but I *think* I’m hearing Hannah’s accordion in there; another accuser, another match on the fire.

3. “Enter Sandman.” SHEL decided to re-visit this one for UNDERCOVER. Their first cover was already from another planet and I wondered why they chose to mess with it. And then I heard it and understood. The first version walked to the edge of the cliff. This version jumps off into the abyss. It’s bigger, bolder, darker. By the time it’s over you’ll be looking over your shoulder to make sure that shadow in the corner didn’t just move.  I hear bass. I hear echoes. I hear three minutes and twenty seven seconds of insanity that’s chained to a bed but has just found the key and is coming for you. Holy hell this is brilliant.

4. Wayfaring Stranger. Only SHEL could go from a Metallica song to a traditional folk song that dates back to somewhere around the beginning of the 19th century. Actually, it makes perfect sense because both songs have haunting themes. “I know dark clouds will gather round me/I know my way is rough and steep.”  At times there’s a bit of a quiver in Eva’s voice adding to the depth of the song’s spirituality. There’s an authenticity to a song this old. You have to wonder that was happening in the life of the person who wrote it so, so long ago. SHEL’s take on it sure has me wondering. With acoustic guitar and violin, they’ve served this song up in enthralling fashion. Update, SHEL released this AMAZING video in March. Behold:

5. Somewhere Only We Know” by Keane. This song is from Keane’s 2004 album “Hopes and Fears.” I went through a pretty big Keane phase back then and even saw them perform this live several years ago here in Maine. I love this song. I was so excited when I saw it on the list of songs on UNDERCOVER. I’m glad SHEL loves this song too.  It deserved the SHEL treatment and they did right by it. There’s a lot going on; a sea of sounds and vocals;  it’s a lush interpretation. Hannah’s keys, Eva’s mandolin, Sarah’s violin and Liza’s percussion (I think she’s playing a few different things on this one) come in and out the song seamlessly and it rises and falls like a summer storm deciding how strong it’s going to become. But it’s also a sunrise that gets brighter and more beautiful by the second.

6. “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin. UNDERCOVER ends with this optimistic gem. I just learned it’s from a 1926 musical called “Betsy” which was something of a flop but the song b more than survived, it became a classic in a hurry. At a few seconds over two minutes, SHEL’s take on the song is  playful, cheery, bursting with their signature harmonies and is THE EXACT SONG THE WORLD NEEDS RIGHT NOW.  It’s a sweet-as-pie love song and if you ever see me skipping down the street whistling it’s because I’m listening to it. The song also shows off SHEL’s versatility. They can pretty much take any song and make it into something unique and dazzling.


SHEL has made an exceptional record with UNDERCOVER. With a collection of songs hitting so many eras and genres, they’ve proven that they’re an unstoppable force. They’ve made a real thing of beauty.  It will take you on a journey with many stops along away and many emotional crossroads. Their musicianship is first-rate. The music business is a strange one these days and the competition is brutal. So many acts vying for our time; our ears. SHEL is worth it, I promise you. UNDERCOVER is yet another example.

UNDERCOVER was recorded at The Blue Room in Nashville. It was produced by Brent Maher, Charles Yingling and SHEL.

Ponti out.

The Wailin’ Jennys strike gold with “Fifteen”

Remember that scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey had to pretend to paste the petals back on his daughter Zuzu’s flower? Well I sure could use Jimmy Stewart right now to paste the pieces of my heart back together because it’s on the floor in pieces having listened to the new Wailin’ Jennys’ covers album about 20 times over the past week.  But don’t get me wrong. My heart is happy. It’s overwhelmed and glowing and doing cartwheels clear across the floor.  The album is called “Fifteen” and on it are nine extraordinarily well-chosen covers. In fact, here’s the list:

  1. “Old Churchyard” (traditional)
  2. “Wildflowers” (Tom Petty)
  3.  “The Valley” (Jane Siberry)
  4. “Light of a Clear Blue Morning” (Dolly Parton)
  5. “Loves Me Like a Rock” (Paul Simon)
  6. “Boulder to Birmingham” (Emmylou Harris)
  7. “Not Alone” (Patty Griffin)
  8. “Keep Me in Your Heart” (Warren Zevon)
  9. “Weary Blues From Waitin'” (Hank Williams)
wailinjennys-photo-mortenfog
The Wailin’ Jennys are Ruth Moody, Heather Masse and Nicky Mehta. Photo by Morten Fog

“Fifteen” is their first new album in six years and it’s named after the fact that they’re celebrating the 15th anniversary of their musical partnership. All three of the Jennys have young kids and they live in different cities so making this album presented special challenges. But they did it in five days and produced it themselves. It was engineered by Joby Baker and guest musicians on some of the tracks are Richard Moody (viola, violin and mandolin,) Sam Howard (upright bass,) Adrian Dolan (violin) and Adam Dobres (acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin).

I wish you could have seen the look on my face when I realized the Jennys had covered a beloved Jane Siberry song called “The Valley.”   Siberry is one of my lifelong favorite artists and should be more well known. Hats off to the Jennys for choosing this song. They’ve made it their own and when they sing the lines “You will walk, you will walk, you will walk in good company” I can a barely hold it together the harmonies are so beautiful and pure. “Sometimes you feel all that you wanted has been taken away/You will walk,you will walk, you will walk in good company.”

I wish you were there to hand me the tissues I so desperately needed when I heard The Wailin’ Jennys sing Warren Zevon’s “Keep Me in Your Heart.”

You know that torturous feeling of really wanting to hear from someone and it just doesn’t happen? If that feeling had a song to go with it,  this would be it.  “Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house, maybe you think of me and smile. You know I’m tied to you like the buttons on your blouse/Keep me in your heart for a while.” Fuck. But I love it. So much.

The Wailin’ Jennys have been playing Tom Petty’s “Wildflowers” live for a number of years now and I hope they keep on doing so. Needless to say, I still can’t believe that Tom Petty’s gone. Can you? But listen to the Jennys’ take on the song and let its warmth and love and everything else rush over you.

 

 

“Boulder to Birmingham” is a song I didn’t know until August and I discovered it when I put together a special Spotify playlist to get ready for my first ever trip to Colorado. A trip specifically to cover the Rocky Mountain Folks Festival. One of the bands I saw was The Wailin’ Jennys. True story. But I digress. The song is from the mid ’70s and was written by Emmylou Harris. It’s sad and sweet and spiritual. Ruth, Heather and Nicky do right by it with sweeping harmonies and exquisite instrumentation. “I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham/If I thought I could see your face.” Goddamn.

Then there’s the cover of Patty Griffin’s “Not Alone.” It’s the last song on her 1996 debut album “Living With Ghosts.”  The song aches with need and sorrow and if you let it in, it’ll hold your heart close and tell you that everything is, somehow, going to be OK.  The Wailin’ Jennys shoulder the pain and the hope of “Not Alone” and carry it forward. “You are not alone laying in the light/Put out the fire in your head/And lay with me tonight.”  The song floats through the air, carries over the ocean and lands softly at your feet. Perfection.

Oh and hey, want to stop the world and melt with a song? Here’s the Jennys’ take on Dolly Parton’s “Light of a Clear Blue Morning.” I can’t even…

I can’t wait for you to hear “Fifteen.” Every song is exceptional  and meaningful and you’ll experience a thousand different emotions as you listen to them. The Wailin’ Jennys are playing some shows in November and December and again in February.  Keep tabs on them here and here.

Here’s their entire discography because I’m darn handy and thorough:
The Wailin’ Jennys (EP) 2003
40 Days – 2004
Firecracker – 2006
Live at Mauch Chunk Opera House – 2009
Bright Morning Stars -2011
Fifteenout on October 27, 2017 on Red House Records

Fifteen

Ryan Montbleau drops stirring, stunning ‘I Was Just Leaving’ album on March 3. Catch special FACEBOOK LIVE performance of every song on Feb. 16

I’m late to yet another party but now that I’m here I’m going to stay until it gets awkward.

This time it’s the Ryan Montbleau party. I’ve known his name for a couple of years for sure but I’m just now getting hip to how great he is.

screen-shot-2017-02-09-at-7-53-06-pm

I was sent an advance stream of his upcoming album “I Was Just Leaving,” but before I dove into it, I was told about the  the cover he did with Tall Heights of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car” and how  it has gotten more than 12 million plays on Spotify. Yeah so there’s yet another party I’m late to and one I was a little shy walking into because I’m a big fan of Chapman and that song is pretty sacred. However any concerns I had were quickly erased when I gave it a listen which I suggest you do now and then we’ll get into the beauty of his new album.

Be someone…be someone…be someone…

Right? I almost started crying. For real. Not only is this version glorious and emotional it let me know right away what a terrific voice Montbleau has. It’s a voice that’s full of emotion without being over the top. It’s honest.

I listened to “Fast Car” (also, hello, the Tall Heights harmonies situation…so much yes) three times and then moved into the new record. BTW, Montbleau’s discography dates back to 2002 and includes several studio and live albums.

“I Was Just Leaving’s” title track opens the album in heart-rending fashion. “The sun came up and the sun went down/ Looking for reasons in my head again/ Where are you now, where you’ve  always been, far from where I am?/ Did I keep you there or did you run? Was it what I didn’t do or was it what I done?” It continues on that trajectory of marrow-deep heartache. Yet it’s also a gorgeous tune with a sturdy acoustic guitar and a poetic admission of someone trying to hang onto something that’s unravelling like the weather-worn frayed end of a clothesline.

The journey of self-discovery continues with “Bright Side.” “I was looking for a bright side mama ever since about the day I was born/Always headed for a bright light wondering what it might have in store.”

Take a listen to “Bright Side”

I have no idea what “Warning Bell” is about but it makes me want to drive all night on backroads. “But tell me, of the people you’ve known how many passed on were ready? How many heard the shot? How many got a warning bell?” Hmmm. Maybe it’s about regrets.

Tucked at the end of “I Was Just Leaving” is the last song I’ll talk about. It’s called “Cue the Majesty.” “Why pour myself out if it’s all down the drain? Why cry in the mornings? Why laugh in the rain? Why did I let her go? Why can’t I let her go? I need something that won’t go away? Cue the majesty, cue the majesty/Open up the skyline and show me the sea.” You’ll be singing along before you get to the end of the first listen. Also, cue the harmonica. Just the right amount.

ALL of this is to say, “I Was Just Leaving” is a fantastic record that I’m pretty addicted to at the moment and I’m placing my order with the universe now that Montbleau swings through Maine when he hits the road in support of it.

So…do you wanna hear EVERY SINGLE song from it performed live by Ryan via Facebook live? I know I do. Suffice to say, hop on Facebook post haste and *like* his page.

The Facebook LIVE performance is happening on Thursday, Feb. 16. at 9 p.m. (e.s.t.) If you’ve never seen a Facebook live performance, trust me, they’re super cool and a unique way to engage with the artist via real-time commenting. AND…you get to hear all of the new record’s twelve songs two weeks before the record’s released. Cool! So like his page and set a reminder on your phone because although typically a notification will pop up telling you that an arist has started a FB live thing, it’s good to also set an extra reminder because you want to be sure not to miss this.

Ryan, I’m sorry it took me this long to find you. But I’m here now and am an official fan. “I Was Just Leaving” is a hell of a record. And fun fact, we’re both from Massachusetts. #bonus

Ponti out.