It was easy, over the smallest-ever Thanksgiving table, to think that nothing like this has ever happened before. The cacophony of news – pandemic, election, natural disasters – is overwhelming.
But consider “November 1963,” as Anni Clark does with a track on her recently released pandemic album, “Will It Ever Be the Same.” That was quite the month, as well. Surely, the veteran performer speaks for many of her generation when she sings, “I lost something deep inside/ When JFK was shot and died.”
It was the same month Malcolm X delivered his “Message to the Grass Roots,” the Beatles released “With the Beatles,” the FBI first wiretapped the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and, it turned out, the future Laura Bush killed a man in a hit-and-run accident at the age of 17, when she ran a stop sign on the way to a drive-in movie with a friend. She owned up to it in a book she sold after her husband was out of office.
Sometimes we notice history being made; sometimes it gets made behind our backs, only to unravel itself decades later. Clark’s folk-rock release, her first in 18 years and the latest in a career that goes back to 1985’s “Maine-ly Original,” forces us to consider whether we’ll allow the pandemic to unmake us, to pull us out of ourselves. Or will we still be able to enjoy the simplicity of a 12-bar blues song, like “Experimatin’,” about having sex?
“We’ll do a little that, do a little this,” growls Clark in the style of Bonnie Raitt or John Hiatt, “let’s experimate, starting with a big kiss.” It seems uncertain times can also lead to a reduction in inhibitions.
There’s a reason “The Times They Are A-Changin’” came out in January of 1964. But “Another Side of Bob Dylan,” a more personal and introspective album, was soon to follow, and before the year was out, Joan Baez had taken that album’s closing track, “It Ain’t Me Babe,” and slowed it down, stripped it bare, in a way that magnified its generational world-weariness: “Everything inside me is stone/ There’s nothing in here moving/ And, anyway, I’m not alone.”
The heir apparent to that sentiment and delivery can be found in Lisa/Liza’s new “Shelter of a Song,” eight tracks that might as well be whispered in your ear. Written as a treatise on the joys that can break through a battle with chronic illness, it operates as a battle with the realities of our contemporary struggle.
The opening, “Dark Alleys,” is jarring in its intimacy, with each squeak of her fingers on the guitar strings, each closing of her mouth to end a line. “The field was dressed in robins,” she sings of rediscovering the world. “How could I have forgotten?”
Later, in the lilting melody of “I Am Handed Roses,” she echoes the quiet introspection of Jason Molina, of Jose Gonzalez: “We were so young/ I didn’t know it was possible to break the light inside yourself.” And each hammer-on of her increasingly loud strum is a wavering flame of hope.
It’s quite the contrast to the cynical and robust response to the pandemic former South Portlander Britta Pejic has put together from her new home across the pond in the Basque region of France. Her “Latitude Bera” (“same latitude”) is quite literal – she’s still at 43 degrees north – but it’s also easy to hear “same attitude,” in that the pandemic has only crystallized for Pejic the world’s absurdities.
“You have your heart there in your backpack, but you cannot commit,” she sings on “Between the Tines,” a cross between “Hotel California” and “2112,” “You stand there waiting at the crosswalk, but that button does shit.”
In the funky, spacey “Spring Roll Skin,” Pejic just straight-up unloads on folks in a way that will draw knowing nods from any musician thinking longingly about what looks to be more than a year of empty concert venues: “You flounder in a foolish mentality … You act and rage as if your head and your heart were incontinent.”
She also seems to capture a new kind of universal sentiment when she encourages you to “keep your entrails together.”
If there is one thing the year has taught us, it’s that holding on is enough. When the days bleed together, erasing family gatherings and momentous occasions, whatever mechanism you employ to get by is just fine.
Try to place this moment in history, like Clark.
Focus on the smallest of worldly details, like Lisa/Liza.
Laugh, because it feels better than pure rage, like Pejic.
And if you’re feeling like you’re the only one feeling whatever it is you’re feeling, know there’s an album out there somewhere to mirror your thoughts.
Sam Pfeifle can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2 weeks, 5 songs
• Joseph Gallant, “Lovin’ Every Minute” — Gallant continues to perfect his contemporary Nashville sound, with injections of banjo in the tail end of his soaring chorus, “I never thought that I would fall like this, lost in time with your midnight kiss.” Stay for the finish, where an electric guitar solo gets backed by a dobro.
• The Worst, “Yes Regrets” — A great, grinding rock track, featuring all kinds of low end, thanks especially to Morphine’s Dana Colley and his bass sax. But the big attraction continues to be Brooke Binion, who sings like she’s being turned inside out. Hot damn.
• Joel Thetford, “If You Don’t Mind” — The symphonic heart of Thetford’s new country-rock album, “Jacksboro Highway,” a personal and pointed group of reflections that also includes last year’s “The Truth,” about what Thetford says is his sister’s unjust imprisonment.
• As Real, “Undid” — This new video release for a track off the summer’s full-length “Marveless” is an invitation to revel in the lugubrious grind of what may be Portland’s heaviest current three-piece.
• Chrome Roses, “Hell Hound” — Some straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll off their five-song EP, released in August, this is part of a larger revival of loud guitars, analog inclinations, and yelling into the mic.
— Sam Pfeifle