learning love songs

est. 2008


November 2016


From the low and rumbled opening tones, Miranda Lambert’s “The Weight of These Wings” is one of the best country offerings of the year, and I’ve been losing myself in its beauty daily.

A double album is a rare and risky move, as who can put out that much work that merits attention all at once? It seems like you’re asking for filler. But here, every song offers a little bit more of the unfolding story, and it’s solid start to finish. After hearing the lead single “Vice” earlier this year I looked forward to what kind of soul-searching Lambert would offer up. I love the tones, topics and narratives she shares, the kind that clearly raise her from the radio country throne she once occupied into a higher plane of performers.

The opening track “Running Just In Case” is a slow burn, the kind that color most of the album. “I guess no one ever taught me how to stay,” she says, just one of the many poignant observations to come. “Getaway Driver” struck me as an instant favorite, with its harmonies and cyclical chords and ballad-style perspective. Then I found out it was a newly anticipated collaboration with Anderson East — I would say there’s some magic brewing in that pairing.

Lambert is bluesy and bold, and as assertive as we’ve come to expect, but she’s not just belting for its own sake. To the contrary, there’s more soft tones than there are loud ones. While this record is fueled by heartbreak (songs like “Tin Man” chronicle the pains of love) it doesn’t feel like a break-up album as much as come-back-together one. It’s Lambert’s spine, strength and vision for her life to come that ebb and flow, and she filters her many relationship reflections through a lens of moving forward as a whole person. It’s so much more motivational and introspective than maudlin or mushy as one might think “country” to be. And it’s not all bad news. Our narrator is a girl-about-town who travels and creates and believes in herself, and even love, despite its failings. “Pushin’ Time” is the romantic peak of the album, and it’s taken the mantle of my favorite Miranda track (previously held by “Bathroom Sink”).

While it’s the slow jams that steal the show, the upbeat tracks are still miles beyond what we heard on “Platinum.” They embrace lots more instrumentation and a folksier sound that’s more Willie Nelson or Bonnie Raitt than the radio country mainstays like Jason Aldean or Kenny Chesney that Lambert usually shares the charts with. Musically, there’s excellent choices and production on this album that keep it elevated but accessible. Acoustic guitars, horn sections, pedal steel, muted drums…it’s a very Americana lexicon paired with Lambert’s confessionals that make for a mature, full-fledged sound. She lets her voice crack and fall in very natural ways, instead of belting out pop-star style, though there’s tons of power in her voice seen on tracks like “Good Ol’ Days” and “To Learn Her.” At a time when excellent folk and country has captured modern audiences through the likes of Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton and Sturgill Simpson, Lambert looks to pivot from an established female artist who can command those same indie, picky audiences. To be fair, Kasey Musgraves and Ashley Monroe have done this too, but from a different angle, as Lambert already has a big following. Bottom line: “The Weight of These Wings” has eternal qualities that will appeal to listener beyond her core audience.

Lyrically, there’s plenty of moments that are either heartbreaking, cutting, comforting or inspiring. “I don’t have the nerve to use my heart,” she sings on the closer of the first album, just one example of many well-crafted lines in a song flooded with gorgeous steel guitar parts. I think I read somewhere that this is the most co-writing Lambert has done on a record, and it speaks beautifully to her self-aware and poetic. “I was born a bull in a China cabinet,” she says on “Things That Break,” kicking off 3:48 worth of metaphor and vivid imagery. “Keeper of the Flame” is a rallying cry to all those who has ever been called to be the kind of somebody who accomplishes something. Then there’s the bookend songs about highways that start and finish the album, with plenty more journeying in between.

Spout off her name to high-minded listeners and it might conjure up images of flashy sequined dresses, songs about trashing cheating ex’s cars with baseball bats and celebrity romances. But with all its beauty and poetry, “The Weight of These Wings” shows us a version of of Miranda Lambert that’s a far cry from the reputation or stereotypes. Instead of any trope, she’s simply herself, and as authentic, true, powerful, talented and strong as a woman, artist or woman artist ought to be.

“I didn’t plan on fallin’ fast;
I didn’t know I could be kissed like that.
No I’m tradin’ miles for minutes.
This bed’s too big without you in it.

Sometimes love acts out of spite,
And good things happen over night.
Can’t take it slow cause you and I are pushin’ time
You and I are pushin’ time.”
~Pushin’ Time
Miranda Lambert, The Weight of These Songs


It’s the kind of week where I’m playing music on repeat, just getting hooked on one song and playing it over and over again in my headphones until I make it home. It’s “Look At Miss Ohio” from Gillian Welch, a modern folk ballad for the lost girl if there ever was one.

I stumbled across it a few years back as a Blind Pilot cover, then again this week after giving “Soul Journey” a few listens in an attempt to get to know Welch better. Her discography is big enough to be intimidating, as it seems to me she’s one of those artists where you either know her name and not her music, or obsess over the entire catalog. Put me on the path toward the latter.

“Look At Miss Ohio” jumped out at me not only because I was familiar with the melody and the hook, but man, that voice. The way Welch lets her voice drawl and fall and fade away is mesmorizing, hyponotizing, laying raw truth and feeling to what she’s singing. As I continue to familiarize with her work I see she does this with every song, and her raspy tone can go low or high, loud or soft, with equal intensity. But in “Miss Ohio,” she breathes life and lust and dreams into this character with her tone that pairs perfectly with the feeling.

It’s not hard to know what this song is about, even though about half of it uses the same words and phrases. But you know that rag-top and can see it clear as day, maybe something old and busted and chipped baby blue. You know she’s as a fierce as her mamma but nothing like her. You know what running around means, all dates and late nights and dreams that maybe come true for a glimmer of a minute. “I want to do right/but not right now” is such a beautiful uses of repetitive language, turning the word in on itself with its multiple meanings. But listening to this song, you know what right is — it’s following the rules, it’s playing by the book, it’s meeting invisible expectations for what a life ought to look like — and you can hear the push and the pull and the dissatisfaction with having to abide by it.

“Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio
She a-runnin’ around with her rag-top down
She says I want to do right , but not right now
Oh I want to do right but not right now.

Gonna drive to Atlanta and live out this fantasy
Running around with the rag-top down
Yeah I want to do right but not right now

Had your arm around her shoulder, a regimental soldier
An’ mamma starts pushing that wedding gown
Yeah you want to do right but not right now

Oh me oh my oh, would ya look at Miss Ohio
She’s a-runnin’ around with the rag-top down
She says I want to do right but not right now

I know all about it, so you don’t have to shout it
I’m gonna straighten it out somehow
Yeah I want to do right but not right now

Oh me oh my oh, look at Miss Ohio
She a-runnin’ around with her rag-top down
She says I want to do right , but not right now
Oh I want to do right but not right now.
~Look At Miss Ohio
Gillian Welch, Soul Journey


“I may know the word
but not say it
this may be the time
but I might waste it
this may be the hour
something move me
someone prove me wrong
before night comes
with indifference

If I’m on my knees
I’m begging now
if I’m on my knees
groping in the dark
I’d be praying for deliverance
from the night into the day
but it’s all gray here
but it’s all gray to me

I recognize the walls inside
I recognize them all
I’ve paced between them
chasing demons down
until they fall
in fitful sleep
enough to keep their strength
enough to crawl
into my head
with tangled threads
they riddle me to solve
Again & again & again…”
~I May Know The Word
Natalie Merchant, Tigerlily

In a serious throwback to my childhood introductions to alt-rock and female songwriters, I’ve been listening to Natalie Merchant with a fervour. It came back to me when people were afraid of a giant earthquake hitting LA and I remembered what a great song San Andreas Fault is (really great!), but the rest of her work is also spectacular.

The 1995 solo hit album “Tigerlily” has something quintessentially SoCal about it, with willowy, atmospheric keys and floating guitars. Merchant has an ethereal quality, but she’s hardly delicate, and the meanings and messages she tackles on “Tigerlily” certainly resonate with me more at 28 than they did at 10 or 12; this album is so full of heartbreak and thoughtful observations about those who struggle.  This track in particular, “I May Know the Word,” looks inward, and it has a bluesy feel to match its self-reckoning.  As a girl I may moved with this these themes, seen something in them that mirrored my own little loneliness, but these words now have a weight to them that they didn’t before, and I know just how heavy it can be. But the beauty of the album that drew me in back then is just as moving, and just as mysterious.

Thanks to YouTube playlists, I’ve also been really into “Life Is Sweet” which is a wonderful, haunting song for pondering the highs and lows of life. It begins with a mournful piano and builds to close with a string symphony, and there’s exquisite details about the perils of family fortune and a call to individual action. It’s a good song for today, when the world feels unsafe and uncertain and fuzzy around the edges.

“But don’t cry
Know the tears’ll do no good
So dry your eyes

They told you life is hard
It’s misery from the start
It’s dull and slow and painful

I tell you life is sweet
In spite of the misery
There’s so much more
Be grateful.

~Life Is Sweet
Natalie Merchant, Ophelia


Tonight I woke up feeling lighter, having exorcised some demons with four hours of pop punk bands at The Fonda last night. The show featured one of best touring lineups of the year – Seaway, Knuckle Puck, Moose Blood, Real Friends and my all-time faves The Wonder Years. I’m pretty familiar with all these bands to some degree (and the new Moose Blood is easily in my top 10 AOTY so far) and I recently gave the Real Friends a spin as it had passed me by this May. But it was TWY that led me here, and also helped me unload a spare ticket for $30 as the show had sold out the day before. Demand was hot, and the crowd was young and hungry.

I loved the set from Moose Blood, the first that I caught for the night. I unfortunately missed most of Seaway while waiting in the line that wrapped the corner off of Hollywood Boulevard, but I could see the set streaming on a projection screen at The Fonda’s (very awesome and friendly) rooftop bar. When I got in, grabbed a beer and found my way to the middle of the pack for Moose Blood, I waited for about 60 seconds before they took the stage to cheers to play “Bukowski,” the song that made me love them. I sang along, so did most of the crowd, and their British accents made the whole thing that much more charming. It was one of the tightest pop punk bands I’ve seen in awhile, on par with The Menzingers, with every guitar solo and counterpoint riff nailed to a tee.

I caught the members of Moose Blood mingling with some fellow Brits at the upstairs bar during Knuckle Punk. They seemed like friendly and fun people. I meandered a bit before catching Real Friends downstairs, positioning myself in the back of the room to get a full view of the crowd losing their shit. Scenes like this fill me and thrill me in ways I cannot fully describe — there’s some nostalgia there, for sure, but I also just love seeing people let go. I love it when we drop our facades. I love the mysterious, symbiotic energy between a performer and an audience, a necessary ingredient for a killer shower.

As for Real Friends, I’m so glad I circled back to them — “The Home Inside My Head” is straight-up pop punk with loud guitars and evocative lyrics, but a really melodic sensibility. It’s more aggressive than other counterparts in the new school, such as Moose Blood, but not venturing too far into screaming territory like some of their label mates. There’s a lot more maturity in these tracks compared to their past songs, and they’re at their best when they are grappling with inner turmoil in triumphant, move-forward fashion. Their show channeled this torment, and frontman Dan Lambton is a ball of energy capable of commanding an audience through a long set with his vulnerability on his sleeves. They opened with “Mess,” which is probably my favorite track from them to date. He sings: “Last year I was a trainwreck, now I’m just a mess/I’m letting go so I don’t lose myself/I’m starting to be where I need to be.”

But of course, it was The Wonder Years who kept me captivated. I spend the first three songs of their set (the acoustic title track “No Closer to Heaven,” then the upbeat “Local Man Ruins Everything,” and “I Don’t Like Who I Was Then”) about six rows back, shouting and being thrashed about with other fans I probably had a good six to 10 years on. God it felt so fucking good! I tossed any notions of age-appropriate behavior out the window and got right in the pit, at least until my shitty right knee started acting up (Don’t get old, kids). I spent the rest of the show near the right side of the room with reasonable amounts of personal space, and while I jammed and danced and jumped and sang where appropriate, sometimes I just had to stand in awe and let the performance take over.

“Cigarettes and Saints,” which is probably my favorite track of NCTH, was a stunning, emotional performance, proving Dan Campbell’s frontman abilities are only growing with time. He pushed through the screaming of the bridge and let his natural cracks and shake channel the message of a generation lost in the margins with ferocity and aplomb. Campbell is still playing around with his “choreography,” swinging mic cords this way and that, fumbling with the stand, conducting the audience when they’re singing along (not an exclusive move but a good one nonetheless) and repeatedly standing tall with arms outstretched. The band brought their A-game, and the drumroll of the “Patsy Cline” chorus gave me thrice the chills it did in the recorded version. The harmonies and back-up vocals were emphatic and clear and aggressive, and the occasional bursts of fiery-looking smoke accompanied a stellar light show from the touring lighting manager. I screamed real hard to “Dismantling Summer,” a song from 2013’s “The Greatest Generation” that pulled me through a tumultuous 2015 season.

By the time they closed the set with “Palm Reader” and “Passing Through a Screen Door,” I was too tired to mosh and lose it, so I just sort of stood their gaping and mouthing the words. Giant balloons were released from sidestage, and they bounced around the crowd to the stage and back again, as the players hit them back toward us. Some of balloons popped on top of their gear. It was weird and magical and perfect, I felt lost and utterly found. The show met my expectations musically but pummeled me with unexpected purpose, a necessary salve to wounds I thought had long ago healed. I sort of wanted to cry. Maybe I did and don’t remember. But that is the power of live performance and evocative art and stellar poetry — it will unlock the things you are too scared or too numb to feel anymore in the light of the dull, boring, ever-numbered days.

“The future feels bright
Like the glow of a city
Out across the Great Plains,
Where the closer I get, the further I feel away.
I could stay here in the darkness.
Feels like I’m wandering in circles for days.
I may never reach the gates.
I’ll keep walking anyway.
I’m no closer to Heaven.”
~No Closer To Heaven
The Wonder Years, No Closer To Heven

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