Two Speeds: Ronnie Wood or David Berman. Everything Old Is New Again 2022

I have two speeds. I like Chick Webb’s big band swing orchestra or Black Sabbath. It’s The Grateful Dead or the Saturday Night Fever (1977) OST. Bjork or Dylan. My husband is a more exaggerated version of this; I once came home to find him playing Fallout to Joanna Newsom’s Have One On Me (2010). We started joking about having two speeds but it was the day we watched the original Disney Bambi (1942) (after reading an insightful, eye-opening New Yorker article about the original German novel and how grotesque it is) and then immediately turned on Richard Pryor’s Live in Concert for the first time. We didn’t realize what had done until it was happening. Two speeds. We’re watching The Sopranos right now (my second, his first) and we’ve been balancing it out with Diners, Drive-ins, and Dives. I’ve found a new love in Guy Fieri’s ability for every burger and fish taco and weird mountain of grease to be “something he’s never seen before!” If you’ve seen one episode Triple D, you’ve seen them all. “This is killer, dude.” Again, two speeds. Two speeds plays in to what I’ve been listening to this year that isn’t new but’s new to me. Let’s go.

I am a personnel junkie and live for the life of a session musician. It’s how I found Nicky Hopkins, an English piano player known for working with The Kinks, The Who, but most frequently with The Stones. He played on every Stones record from Between The Buttons (1967) to Tattoo You (1981) (except Some Girls (1978)). (Hopkins died in 1994 after long complications with Crohn’s.) My favorite Rolling Stones song is “Loving Cup” from Exile On Main Street (1972). I came late to Exile after years of writing it off as over-indulgent, thanks for my Beatles-elitist dad who will tell anyone that Keith Richards could spend a lifetime working and never write the riff on “Tax Man.” (That is a sentence he has said aloud to me.) But after enough years of harping, my friend Paul pushed me to the limit. So I put Exile on shuffle on my 160 gig iPod (that’s a phrase) while waiting for a plane to take off and there it was, the piano intro on “Loving Cup.” I can still feel the bulge of my eyes in the cabin pressure. I had never heard it and I spent the next few years listening to it constantly. I love the piano. It is my favorite instrument, melodic and percussive. (Here is my piano/keys playlist.) Nicky Hopkins put out one solo record, The Tin Man Is A Dreamer in 1973. I put it on my vinyl white whale list and suddenly, out of nowhere, after almost two decades of vinyl collecting, there it was at my local shop five blocks away. I had never seen it or heard it and now it’s mine.

The Tin Man Is A Dreamer couldn’t be weirder. Obviously it is a piano record but it skews instrumental, and is like a bizarre fairy tale where the tree comes alive and eats the princess. David Briggs produced it and George Harrison plays on a track (credited as George O’Hara) along with a lot of other cool cats. The cover is bizarre and it wasn’t until I brought it home did my husband point out that his hands are turning into the keys; they are one. It’s piano and Wulitzer; keys are the driving force. I love to see it.

A Nod Is As Good As a Wink… to a Blind Horse (1971) came into my life via the Spotify Discovery playlist (more on that later) and I found Faces and I found Ronnie Wood. What was I doing with my life without Ronnie Wood? Reader, I was wasting it. Their 1974 live album Coast to Coast: Overture and Beginners popped up at my record store but I only noticed it because of the cover. Sometimes that’s how it happens. Rod Stewart’s voice is horse at times on this record which makes it all the better. This version of “Angel” captures a lot of what I love about music. It’s magical when you can point to a song and go: here’s why. That’s happening here.

Bluesy rock and roll is a preferred sonic wheelhouse of mine. I know it’s a stolen genre. I’ve written about it and continue to dance with those demons. And since discovering Exile I’ve been discovering The Stones more and more. (Ronnie Wood has been a member of The Stones since 1976 but I’m living for Faces.) During lockdown I read Keith Richards’ autobiography Life. I had always wanted to. It was a real If Not Now situation. While there’s lots to say about Keith Richards and Mick Jagger (and their life-long relationship as friends, creative partners, and business co-owners) let’s just nutshell it: this is a Keith Richards household. (I’ve quizzed my husband on it and he knows what to say should the time ever come.) After reading Life I found myself seeking out The Stones, combing through the discography like a sixteen year old boy in 1978. And you know what, it’s because of all my rooting around in the Stones-Faces-Jeff Beck Group sonic family that I discovered the pleasure of personnel lists. I’d used them before, but now it’s the first thing I look up when I look up any record. This lead me to Goat’s Head Soup (1973).

Goat’s Head had crossed my path once before, ironically enough because of my dad. When I was growing up and downloading music on Napster, Limewire, and BearShare (you heard me), dad would have me download him a song he heard and put it on a CD alone so he could listen to it ad nauseam in his car everywhere he went, over and over. Just the one song. Yea. Dad loved “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker).” The man loves a hook, forever and ever. When he asked me what album it was on, both of us said we’d never heard of it. The Stones started writing and recording Goat’s Head the same year as Exile. Sticky Fingers (1971) is the first in this trio. I’m not really sure why I’m doing a whole Stones thing right now. But the pen leads where it leads. Fingers was a previous favorite, I discovered it as a classic rock DJ in college (Classic VIC forever!) It’s hard to go through adolescence as a classic rock radio nerd without hearing “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” several times a week. Finding Goat’s Head Soup this year completes that prolific, landmark era for my brain and soul, and when I look at it that way, it makes sense. “100 Years Ago” is my favorite. I love the way Jagger’s words marble together on “and the world was a carpet laid before me.” Billy Preston plays keys on it and it’s just perfect.

OK let’s move on to something completely different: The Silver Jews’ American Water from 1998. Two speeds.

My first interaction with The Silver Jews was through an elder college radio friend, and life-long friend, Colleen, who loves them. I can say now with confidence that when I first sought out their music I wasn’t ready for it. American Water entered my cosmos this year by way of the infinite scroll. It plucked me out at random, I put it on, and I’ve been listening to it ever since. I don’t remember where it came from but it found me.

On the umpteenth listen, out of the purple fog, Malkmus’ voice spoke to me while I was making dinner. I realized where I had heard this sound and voice before. I went to American Water‘s personnel and discovered what you already know: David Berman formed The Silver Jews in 1989 with Pavement members Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich. (I’m a Crooked Rain Crooked Rain (1994) woman and I’ve dabbled heavily in their EP Watery, Domestic (1992).)

I’ve been putting off writing this segment because if you listen to American Water enough it really fucking bums you out. But if you’ve read this blog over the years, or just these past few weeks, you know another preferred sonic universe of mine is the one that turns my volume down. It helps an organic numbness creep in. Honk if you’re lonely tonight. Dissonance is the new dopamine. I love a melody that is slung so low on my shoulders it drags me down with it. I want heavily narrated shoegaze muted but thrashing on the dirty channel. Berman’s shaky voice is held up by his writing: sharp and absolutely knowing. His lines are skin pulled back so you can see its muscle.

And because I find supplemental reading and research to benefit all listening experiences: Berman formed Purple Mountains in 2019 and they released one album, a self-titled. I listened to it because I try to read, or at least skim, about all new music, and it was buzzy so it was everywhere. It hit all my favorite notes: sad, barely-upbeat-at-times rock music performed by someone who is too smart, sounds uninterested, but is overly committed despite what their tone says. “I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion.” Perfect. I didn’t spend time with Purple Mountains this year but for me one record always leads to another. I need to know the larger scene’s sound. Berman took his own life about a month after Purple Mountains was released and the album took on more meaning, and only got sadder. I spent a lot of time with it but then had to put it down. That’s kind of where I’ve ended up with American Water. It’s so good. Go listen to it. Or don’t. I’m just a blog and I can’t tell you what to do.

I spent almost every Sunday morning this year listening to the Live/Dead (1969) version of “Death Don’t Have No Mercy.” The eerie electric folk and oozing goo of Jerry’s guitar on that track melts my brain in all the right places. I crave it on quiet Sunday mornings. It centers me.

Ever the Dylanologist I find myself aging with his records. I bought New Morning (1970) without question because I didn’t have it on vinyl and didn’t really know it. He was 29 when he wrote it. I am 34. That’s not the same age but I presume when I am older I will understand Infidels (1983) and Oh Mercy (1989).

I also spent a lot of time with the back half, or Side B, of Paranoid (1970), specifically “Hand of Doom” and “Rat Salad.” 2022 is the year I finally declared a favorite drummer: Bill Ward. The fusion drumming groove on “Doom” swings itself between jazz and heavy metal, but like the original actual meaning of metal: Sabbath in 1970. Neither Paranoid or Live/Dead are new to me this year, but they’re new again every time I turn them on.

Do you see what I mean by Two Speeds? Here are other artists I need to keep exploring: Julian Baker, Lucy Dacus, Weyes Blood, and wow I’ve spent all this time not listening to the new Titus Andronicus record The Will To Live released this year. There’s always more!