Paul Heinz

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Springsteen on Broadway

You gotta hand it to Bruce Springsteen.  The guy can compose a great tune, his stage performances are unparalleled, his autobiography is one of the best I’ve read by a musician, and now he’s completed a sort of companion piece with his autobiographic Broadway stage show, no small feat for this aging rocker.  I looked forward to checking out the Springsteen on Broadway release on Netflix a few weeks ago, and while I enjoyed aspects of it, I’m thankful I didn’t shell out $500 to see it in person, and it’s unlikely that I’ll view it again.

Pulling off a two and a half hour stage show with extensive narration is impressive, and the sheer volume of prose Springsteen had to memorize and deliver with conviction is to me no less admirable than, say, the one-man show on Hemingway that I saw Stacy Keach perform last summer at the Goodman Theater in Chicago.  I couldn’t tell by watching the film whether or not Springsteen used a teleprompter, but it wasn’t apparent, and aside from some initial narration that seemed a bit canned and rehearsed, he does a fine job of delivering the material as if for the first time.

It’s the first hour or so of the show that’s particularly hard to watch for me, and I found myself ready to press fast forward through some of the moments that felt routine and self-serving, as of course an autobiographical show must be.  It takes a tremendous ego to think people want to hear your story, but it takes skill to mask that ego enough to appear relatable, and there are times when Springsteen fails at this tightrope act.  Fortunately things begin to turn about mid-way through the show, as if the Boss needed a little time to gain his footing and truly immerse himself in the material, and I found his soliloquies on Vietnam, his father and mother, and the current political climate to be the strongest parts of the show.

His narration would hardly be a matter of critique if Springsteen’s musical performances – there are something like sixteen songs in all – provided their usual redemptive force, but absent the E Street Band, Springsteen’s pedestrian musicianship is glaringly obvious.  Bruce is not an accomplished guitar player, even less so as a pianist, and it’s woefully apparent throughout the show, as his three-chord songs provide no variation or upward lift in the hands of a limited instrumentalist.  Like Melissa Etheridge who I saw perform in Waukegan last month, Springsteen is a great songwriter and gifted lyricist whose music is bolstered by the skills of surrounding musicians, but alone is a strum and hum performer with a limited musical palette.  The Boss also sabotages his own works by reinventing the melodies in uninspiring ways, pausing and slowing things down at times when the song requires lift and momentum, and insisting on singing in his faux-western voice that he’s grown accustomed to using during the past decade and a half or so, summoning his inner Arlo Guthrie that some may find endearing and heartfelt, but I find to be as artificial as his blue-collar lyrics, which he refreshingly admits early in his show, “I made it all up.  That’s how good I am.”

Three songs do rise to the occasion: his stripped-down, dour take of ”Born in the U.S.A.” and the two songs performed with wife Patti Scialfa: “Tougher than the Rest” and “Brilliant Disguise.”  Having a partner to harmonize with and – perhaps more importantly – to play off of, is exactly what the show needs.  Springsteen has made a career out of interacting with his fellow musicians – the joy and sweat shared between his comrades on stages is half the fun of watching him perform – and it’s lacking for most of this Broadway show. 

Still, I can’t think of many artists who could pull off a relatively sincere theatrical show for 236 performances, sell the hell out of it, and still have demand to showcase it on Netflix.  I’m glad it exists, and it isn’t a bad legacy for the old man to leave behind – that of a great storyteller with love for his country and its people, and concern for its future.  I wish there were more artists – and hell, more people  - like the Boss.  Check out the entire show on demand on Netlfix.

20 More Albums I Can't Live Without

A quick recap from my last entry: this list of albums I can’t live without is limited to rock/pop albums, no greatest hits or typical live albums are allowed, and double albums count for two picks unless only two sides are chosen. So far, I’ve chosen 10 albums, in no particular order:

Kean - Hopes and Fears
Aerosmith - Toys in the Attic
Innocence Mission - Umbrella
Jackson Browne - Standing in the Breach
Lyle Lovett - The Road to Ensenada
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 1 and 2)
Fleetwood Mac - Tusk (sides 3 and 4)
Radiohead - The Bends
Company of Thieves - Ordinary Riches
Stevie Wonder - Songs in the Key of Life (sides 1 and 2)

Without further ado, here are my next twenty picks in detail:

The Pursuit of Happiness – Love Junk (1988).  Probably not a perfect choice in the midst of the #MeToo movement, as much of this album could be categorized as misogynistic or at the very least demeaning to women, but for fun, angry and edgy melodic power-pop, you can’t get much better that this gem of a debut album by this Canadian power pop group led by Moe Berg.  Pop songs like “She’s So Young” are countered nicely with the bitterness of “Hard to Laugh” and playful “I’m an Adult Now.”  Solid throughout, and a perfect selection when you’re feeling angry or joyful alike, as long as you don’t practice what the lyrics preach.

Big Country – Peace in our Time (1988).  Another release from ’88, this album produced by Peter Wolf of J. Geils fame was regarded negatively at the time.  True, the opening track “King of Emotion,” with its heavy cowbell and a cheesy chorus, has Wolf’s fingerprints all over it, but it’s still fun, and there’s plenty of deeper, socially-conscious songs that one expects from this Scottish quartet, and the musicianship is impeccable.  With sharp, clean production – as opposed to, say, the muddied sound of their sophomore effort, Steeltown – this release still sounds in the present.  The song “In this Place” absolutely kills me.

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Pink Floyd – The Wall, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  Funny, because I know Pink Floyd fans who shell out big money to see The Australian Pink Floyd who could take or leave The Wall.  For me, it is quite simply the greatest achievement in rock and roll history.  Yeah, you heard me.  More universal than Tommy or Quadrophenia, with its theme of isolation even more relevant today than when it was first released, it’s a moving, heart-wrenching journey.  Favorite track: “Mother” in addition to the seminal “Comfortably Numb.” Among my biggest regrets is not seeing Roger Waters’s initial arena tour of The Wall in 2010 (I also failed to see the stadium tour, but with less regret).  That’s another release 1979.  There are more to come.

Randy Newman – Little Criminals (1977).

Randy Newman – Bad Love (1999).  When reviewing top albums lists by various publications, three other Newman albums are often mentioned: 12 Songs, Sail Away and Good Old Boys, but I think the best of Newman was still to come when those early 70s albums – as good as they might be – made a splash with critics and fans alike.  Newman’s Bad Love is his masterpiece, a perfect blend of sardonic, witty, funny, poignant and heartbreaking songs (“I Miss You” absolutely kills me).  You simply can’t do better.  Likewise, Little Criminals has it all, (and even has Newman’s one and only hit, “Short People”) and sounds fresher and more urgent that his preceding albums of more notoriety.

Bad Examples – Kisses 50¢ (1995).  This Chicago band led by Ralph Covert, who later went on to quite a successful career writing music for kids, is one of those unsung power pop bands that recorded in the wrong decade, as grunge was in full-force in the 90s, when subtlety in composing and production wasn’t exactly in vogue.  The band’s second album is a great listen, full of melody, wit, changing moods and excellent guitar work.  My favorite moment is the second half of the chorus for “Trying to Prove that the Earth is Flat,” when the energy picks up a touch with a fabulous double octave guitar line, but the whole album is solid, with “Every Poet Wants to Murder Shakespeare” and “The Mask of Mona Lisa” standout tracks.

Paul Simon – Surprise (2006).  When looking back on Simon’s consistently strong output, I kept coming back to one of his lesser-known albums, Surprise, a project that gave Simon a reinvigorated sound thanks to the sonic landscapes created by Brian Eno.  This album sounds fresh, exciting and fun, and there’s so much going on here lyrically that it warrants repeated listens.  I find much of Simon’s earlier output to sounds tired these days.  Even Graceland lacks the energy I’d expected to hear upon revisiting it recently, and aside from the title track, none of the lyrics speak to me.  Simon is one of those rare artists who’s managed to put out high quality recordings even into his 70s, though I find his last two studio albums of original material to be good, not great.  If I have to pick only one Paul Simon album to listen to these days, it’s Surprise.

Off Broadway – On (1979).  Another entry from 1979, this may be the best power pop album ever, fulfilling all the requirements of the genre: captivating melodies, tight arrangements, heightened energy, crunching guitar and slick harmonies and production.  The B section of “New Little Girl,” the chorus of “Bad Indication,” the verse of “Money’s No Good,” the unique voice of Cliff Johnson (except when he channels Buddy Holly) – it’s pure pop perfection.

Joni Mitchell – Court and Spark (1974).  I like a lot of Joni Mitchell’s output between 1968 and 1976 or so.  After that, she loses me, but I know people who feel that’s when her music gets really interesting.  For me, that middle period when she became a little less folky and a little more jazzy and bluesy is the sweet spot, and Court and Spark is a perfect melding of those genres, with her lyrics still self-reflective but more universal: who hasn’t been at a party feeling a little insecure?  Who hasn’t wondered whether the rat race in the U.S. is too much and who longed for an easy life in Paris?  Side one of this album is spectacular; side two gets a little bogged down, but not enough not to choose this as my favorite Mitchell album.

Lloyd Cole – Don’t Get Weird on Me Babe (1991).  I had no clue who Lloyd Cole was when I found this cutout at Musicland, and although I’ve investigated his music before and since this release, nothing else reaches the heights of this album.  Divided into two parts – a rock side and a more romantic, melodramatic side (with orchestral parts arranged by Paul Buckmaster) – track after track offers great grooves with Cole’s infectious baritone cooing acerbic wit and melancholy, and Blair Cowan’s tasty organ parts really stand out.  My favorite track is “Pay for It,” whose riff is so simple but oh so irresistible, I could listen to this one happily for hours on end.  The intro and outro of “Half of Everything” also stand out, a beautiful blending of rock and orchestra.

Phil Collins – Hello, I Must Be Going! (1982).  Yeah, I know.  I suspect that of all the albums I pick this will be the one I get the most flack for.  This album is notable for being the very first album I ever heard on CD.  My brother set up the player in our basement in Brookfield, Wisconsin, and we watched the CD spin through the semi-transparent door with hints of a green laser reflecting off the mirrored surface, and soon began the opening tom rhythm of “I Don’t Care Anymore.”  Fantastic.  It’s this track and two other dark songs that really make the album work for me: “Do You Know, Do You Care?” and, especially, “Thru These Walls” which highlights an angry and creepy side that’s fun to explore in music as long as it’s not overbearing.  Collins does a nice job of intermixing moods, whether sinister, fun or sappy.  Yes, “Why Can’t It Wait ‘Til Morning” goes a bit over the top with its schmaltz, but it’s a well-crafted song, and I especially like “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away.”  Cheesy?  You bet!  But I’ve always been a fan of cheese, as long as it’s good.

The Who – Quadrophenia, sides 1 and 2 (1973).  This is without a doubt The Who’s magnum opus, their musicality and storytelling reaching new heights, with all four band members making stunning contributions.  The first two sides are pure perfection, with the title track and “The Punk and the Godfather” my favorites.  The second two sides never held together quite as well for me, though they certainly have their high points, but when I’m being (self) forced to limit my selections, that disc has to go.

Gabriel Kahane – Where are the Arms (2011).  A short Sunday morning segment on NPR clued me into Kahane, and it was a lovely bit of happenstance for me, because this album is utterly captivating.  Not unlike Elvis Costello’s The Juliet Letters and Rufus Wainwright’s All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, this album builds off the heritage of classical song, but unlike Costello and Wainright (and Kahane’s more recent efforts), this collection infuses more modern elements into the songwriting and production, including some kick-ass guitar and drum performances that keep the album from getting bogged down under its own weight.  The upshot is a song cycle of moving, complicated and mysterious tunes with beautiful melodies and infection grooves.  The brass breakdown on “Calabash & Catamaran,” alternating between 7/8 and 4/4 is absolutely brilliant.

Supertramp – Crisis?  What Crisis? (1975).

Supertramp – Breakfast in America (1979).  I can’t overstate how important this band was to the young version of me, insecure and creative, the youngest child of separated parents.  Hodgson’s lyrics were the empathetic voice I craved, though I can’t say for sure that I understood them all at the time.  Listening to Supertramp nearly forty years on, the band’s output still holds up.  I’ve always loved the juxtaposition of Davies’s and Hodgson’s respective oeuvres, one cynical and cranky, one spiritual and nurturing, and together they were greater than the sum of their parts.  Crime of the Century might be their most revered album, but weak production, overexposure and a so-so second side keep this out of the top for me (for today, at least).  Crisis? What Crisis? still excites me.  Back in the day I learned the piano solo to “Another Man’s Woman” note for note, and “A Soapbox Opera” and “The Meaning” are Hodgson at his best.  Davies only has four songs on the album, but they provide just enough edge to keep the album from sounding overly saccharine.  As for Breakfast in America, Davies raises the stakes to match his writing partner’s output note for note.  “Gone Hollywood” is the perfect opener, “Child of Vision” the perfect closer, and just about everything in between reaches the same level.  Another fantastic album from 1979.

R.E.M. – Automatic for the People (1992).  One year after their enormous Out of Time, the band wisely changed directions again, releasing a quirky yet moving collection of melodic tunes with lush string arrangements provided by John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.  Like other semi-experimental albums such as The White Album and Tusk, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  “New Orleans Instrumental No. 1” and “Star Me Kitten” may not be brilliant, but in the context of the album they work effectively. Then you add some dark, intriguing songs like “Monty Got a Raw Deal” and “Try Not to Breathe“ and some truly exceptional tracks like “Nightswimming,” Everybody Hurts” and “Man on the Moon,” and, well, you’ve got yourself a gem. R.E.M.’s best.

Yes – Close to the Edge (1972).  This is where things get a bit tricky, because I could easily add five Yes albums to my list, but I probably have to limit it to two.  I’ll continue to struggle to determine what else cracks my top albums list, but one I know that has to be on there is the band’s fifth studio album, the last with drummer Bill Bruford and the second effort with Rick Wakeman on keys.  Close to the Edge probably gets my vote for the best prog-rock album ever.  From the side-long title track with distinct movements, to the bombastic climax of “And You and I” and the blistering “Siberian Khatru,” you just can’t get any better.

Elton John – Madman Across the Water (1971).

Elton John – Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy (1975).  Elton holds a special place in my memory, his music lingering in the background for much of my childhood.  When I was twelve I finally purchased his greatest hits album and a piano book of his music, and they were both life-altering, allowing me to finally start enjoying playing the piano instead of trudging through yet another Michael Aaron book.  Elton John could do little wrong from 1970 to 1976, but there are two albums that stand out.  Although I’m really tired of “Tiny Dancer,” Madman Across the Water is an excellent LP, consistent, with not a bad track to be found.  Even songs titled “Razor Face” and “Rotten Peaches” hit the mark, and the closing song, “Goodbye,” is so marvelously melancholy, it’s rivaled only by the bittersweet finale of what I consider to be Elton John’s best album, Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy.  The highs on this album are very high – “Someone Saved My Life Tonight,” “Tower of Babel” – and even the lesser tracks are excellent.  My only gripe about this autobiographical album is the insanely overpowering drum track with slap-back echo on “Better Off Dead,” an otherwise great track.  I have no idea what producer Gus Dudgeon was thinking. The last song, “Curtains,” is tear-inducing and happened to finish off season one of Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Whoever chose that song for the series deserves a medal.

That’s it for now! Next week I’ll add twenty more selections.

Albums I Can't Live Without (part 1)

Ever since Rolling Stone began compiling various “best of” musical accomplishments, I’ve often thought of my artistic affinities in terms of lists, much like Nick Hornby’s character Rob in High Fidelity.  Lists are in some ways the stupidest things imaginable, but they can also be really helpful; it’s nice upon being asked about your favorite bands/albums/songs/movies/books to actually have an answer.  Yes, lists may be a bit contrived (who’s to say what my favorites will be next week), but they provide a lot better answer than “Um…I don’t know, I like a lot of stuff.” 

As long as you approach them as temporary, fickle things, then creating lists can be a healthy and enjoyable endeavor.  They may encourage you to reinvestigate that album that you remember loving, having claimed for years that you loved, but upon further review doesn’t speak to you the way it did twenty years ago.  Just recently I put on the Tori Amos’s Little Earthquakes, and although I remembered it being one of my favorites, it didn’t rise to the level I expected it to.  Back in 1991 it really grabbed me; now it just calls out politely for my attention.  Paul Simon’s Graceland is another one that no longer excites me the way it once did.  Some art sounds old when it’s old.  Some art never ages. On the flip side, making lists might inspire you to recall an album you’d forgotten about.  In preparation for this blog, I became reacquainted with K.D. Lang’s fabulous 1992 album, Ingénue, and I’ve once again enjoyed listening to her caressing croon.

A few months back I decided to make a list of one hundred albums I can’t live without, but I quickly realized that picking a hundred albums was a bit too easy, allowing me to choose that 1984 Elton John release that really has no business being on anybody’s top anything, but I still kinda dig.  Ten or twenty albums would be far too restrictive, so I settled on fifty, a nice compromise that would allow me to listen and reevaluate each selection without feeling overwhelmed, yet still include a bunch of albums beyond the usual suspects.  But then I struggled with that, so I’m probably going to end up with something like seventy albums. I know, I’m failing at my own self-induced endeavor!

When compiling lists I like to abide by various rules to narrow things down and really home in on what’s important.  Here are mine for the top albums I can’t live without:

1)     I have to listen to all the albums I choose to confirm their inclusion.

2)     I’m sticking with rock and pop. Jazz and classical would be included on my all-time desert island list of records, but I don’t want to go down those rabbit holes right now. It’s hard enough just sifting through my rock records.

3)     No compilation albums of any kind are allowed unless they contain mostly previously unreleased material, which therefore excludes all greatest hits albums and most live albums.

4)     Double albums count for two picks with the following exception: I can choose only two sides if I’d like, allowing me to get dinged for only one selection. The rule is a little silly, because many single CDs released over the past thirty years are long enough to qualify as a double album (say, Rush’s Snakes & Arrows), but I’m sticking with the rule: if it was originally released as a double album, it’s a double; if it was originally released as a single CD, it’s a single.

As I go through my selections, I acknowledge the following:

1)     I’m afraid that my choices are going to be mostly male and almost exclusively white.  What can I say except that this is the narrow lens through which I’ve come to know pop music.

2)     I’m going to seek out variety to accompany me on my desert island.  So, for instance, I’m going to want to have a few angry, edgy albums, a few emotional, weepy albums, a few fun, poppy albums, etc.  I could easily pick five albums each by Yes, Genesis, Ben Folds, Elton John, Randy Newman and Joe Jackson and kinda call it a day, but what fun would that be?

3)     There are many exceptional albums that I acknowledge are among the best ever recorded, but I simply don’t need to hear anymore.  You’ll get no argument from me that Rumours, Purple Rain, Dark Side of the Moon and Led Zeppelin’s fourth are great albums.  I just never want to hear them again.  Like, ever. 

4)     There’s also a bit of a recency effect going on, where albums I was only just turned onto – even if they’re old – sound fresh and exciting to me, though they may one day sound old and stale.  Such is the capricious nature of musical taste.

So there you are.  To get the ball rolling, here are my first ten selections, in no particular order:

Keane – Hopes and Fears (2004).  Wow, what a great pickup at the used CD store.  I’d heard the track “Somewhere Only We Know” on XRT in Chicago several times and liked it, and spying the CD in the “new arrivals” rack for $5 made this purchase a no-brainer.  The album is amazing, with melody overdrive, rich production, and flawless vocals by Tom Chaplin.  The band’s second album, Under the Iron Sea, is terrific too, but the debut still wins the prize for me.  Hard to pick favorites on this one, but “She Has No Time” and “Bedshaped” are among the best.

Aerosmith – Toys in the Attic (1975).  I listened to this album recently along with Rocks and Get Your Wings just to make sure my instincts were correct, and sure enough, the band’s 1975 release continues to be their best.  I like the hits off of Rocks better (“Back in the Saddle,” “Sick as a Dog” and “Last Child” vs. “Toys in the Attic,” “Walk this Way” and “Sweet Emotion”), but the deep cuts on Toys are so damn good, this album wins by a landslide.  What allowed Aerosmith to stand out from other rock bands in the 70s – Foghat, AC/DC, etc – was their willingness to compliment a great rock riff with a significant mood or harmony change.  Case in point: on the song “Uncle Salty,” the band offers a good mid-tempo shuffle with an exciting chorus.  All good.  And then they throw in a surprise – the “ooh, it’s a sunny day outside my window” section, a hypnotic half-time feel with a very interesting sharp 11 in the melody.  This makes all the difference.  There isn’t a bad track on the album, and “You’ve Seen me Crying,” – one of those songs I was too cool to admit liking back in middle school – is a beautiful, heart-wrenching closer.

Innocence Mission – Umbrella (1991).  I fell in love with this band after seeing them on Late Night with David Letterman and attending a concert a few weeks later at the Memorial Union at the UW-Madison, and their debut album accompanied a trip to the east coast and back with my friend Todd in March of 1990.  I was really taken with the vulnerable lyrics, the rich, subtle guitar work of Donald Peris, and of course the vocals of his wife, Karen.  When I first listened to their sophomore effort, Umbrella seemed to lack the energy of the band’s debut, but oh how the tracks on this album grab me now, twenty-five years later.  Among my favorite songs ever is “Now in this Hush.”  I listened to it on repeat maybe fifteen successive times while painting my son’s room five or six years ago, and I’ve never tired of it.  Lyrically, the band’s oft-repeating themes of embracing the simple joys of life and eschewing the pursuit of wealth and status speak to me now as much as they did nearly thirty years ago.

Jackson Browne – Standing in the Breach (2014).  Running on Empty may be his biggest seller and Late for the Sky may be the critics’ darling, but after reviewing his catalog once more just in case I was off my rocker, I stand by my decision to include Browne’s latest release in my top fifty albums.  I’ve written about this album before, a gem packed with solid melodies and superb musicianship, but what makes this collection of songs stand out are the lyrics, timely and moving, desperate yet hopeful, political yet transcending politics.  I’ve listened to this album more than any other in the past four years, and it will likely be the most recent album I include in my list.

Lyle Lovett – The Road to Ensenada (1996).  This Grammy Award winner for Best Country Album is a masterpiece, one of those rare instances where voters got it right.  The musicianship on this collection is so pristine and tasty – there’s not a note out of place – that the album could have ended up sounding contrived were it not for the songwriting craftsmanship, infused with wit, humor, heartbreak and resignation that gives it universal appeal.  The final song on the album, “The Girl in the Corner,” still gives me chills.

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 1 and 2 (1979).

Fleetwood Mac – Tusk, sides 3 and 4 (1979).  You won’t get me to claim that this is a better effort than Rumours, but Tusk provides a richer listening experience for me, partially due to it not being overplayed the way its predecessor was (and is), but also because of its unique and varied content. From the opening track, a very subdued and beautiful “Over and Over,” you know this isn’t doing to be Rumours 2, a wise decision by the dramatic quintet, though I recall seeing cutouts of the double album when it didn’t sell as well as Warner Bros. expected (it still sold 4 million copies).  I’ve often compared this album to the Beatles’ White Album in that it’s experimental and quirky with some terrific pop songs and a few rockers.  My favorite is McVie’s “Brown Eyes,” a hauntingly beautiful song that’s even more hypnotic than the band’s 1973 hit, “Hypnotized.”  This will not be the last album I choose from the amazing musical year of 1979.

Radiohead – The Bends (1995).  My buddy claims that 1995 was when music went bad, but how could this be with Ben Folds Five making their debut and Radiohead releasing this masterpiece?  Critics may worship the band’s subsequent effort, OK Computer, but for my taste it’s their sophomore effort that strikes gold.  I recall exercising on my NordicTrack in fall of 1995 listening to The Bends and being completely blown away with its melodic landscapes.  It still holds up, from the emphatic opening of “Planet Telex,” the spellbinding “Fake Plastic Trees,” to the aching “Black Star,” this album is a tour de force from start to finish, unlike OK Computer, which for me loses steam 2/3rds of the way through.

Company of Thieves – Ordinary Riches (2009).  When I first heard ”Oscar Wilde” on XRT while driving down Roosevelt Avenue in Lombard, I was enthralled, and I was soon thrilled to learn that the rest of this Chicago-based band’s debut album was equally strong.  With Genevieve Schatz’s quirky and mesmerizing vocals and lyrics and Marc Walloch’s superbly tasteful guitar work – with just enough edge when warranted – their first effort really stands out.  I wasn’t the only one who took note of this band; Daryl Hall invited this relatively unknown act to appear on his show, Live from Daryl’s House, in 2009.  “Even in the Dark” gets my vote for the best track on the album.

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life, sides 1 and 2 (1976).  Seeing Wonder in concert three years back, when he performed this album from start to finish, helped me appreciate a release that I’d forgotten about save for the amazing one-two punch of “Sir Duke” and “I Wish.”  From the opening of choral “oohs,” the album is one of those gems that deftly switches moods without sounding disjointed.  You have Stevie doing is prog-rock fusion thing in “Contusion,” social commentary (and cool sparse arrangements) in “Village Ghetto Land,” a beautiful ballad in “Knocks Me Off My Feet,” and – thanks to Coolio and, subsequently, Weird Al Yankovic – a timeless tune in “Pastime Paradise.”  The album loses steam on sides three and four, but those aren’t too shabby either.

So there you have it. Ten down, many more to go. I hope you give a some of these albums a listen, and of course, if you have any that you think I’m crazy not to include, send them my way and I’ll give them a concerted listen.

My Half-Year of Streaming Music

Denying for years to join the 21st Century, I indulged as recently as last summer in purchasing CDs, pulling the trigger on albums by Esperanza Spaulding, William Shatner, Bright Eyes, Paul McCartney and Field Music.  But last November I took the plunge and joined a streaming service – first Napster, whom I was told paid artists more but whose service I determined was inadequate, and then Spotify, a company vilified by some and praised by others.  Since then I’ve delved into scores of albums I’d never taken the time to investigate before, and for this reason alone, music streaming has a new fan.  I still love having physical CDs in the car, where I can immerse myself into an album and listen the way I used to, but for hanging out at home and investigating unexplored musical territory, streaming services can’t be beat.

I’m not much into playlists and haven’t utilized this aspect of Spotify more than a handful of times.  Instead, I’ve listened to albums and bands I hadn’t given attention to in the past.  Since November, I’ve fallen in love with the following albums:

  • Manifesto, a brilliant release by Roxy Music, surpassing what some claim to be their crowning achievement, Avalon.
  • Underneath the Colours, the debut album by an almost unrecognizable INXS.  Angry, edgy, melodic.  Fantastic.
  • Sit Down Young Stranger (or, alternatively titled, If You Could Read My Mind) by Gordon Lightfoot, heartfelt folk-rock from start to finish.
  • Odessey and Oracle by The Zombies, an amazing album recorded around the same time as St. Pepper, but – in my mind – surpassing it in some ways.
  • Grand Hotel by Procol Harum, a collection of wonderful melodies with gravitas

I've delved into so much more that I never would have done without the aid of a streaming service.  I checked out releases by Cat Stevens, Van Morrison and James Taylor.  I finally listened to the Rolling Stones of the 1960s, and concluded that aside from Beggar’s Banquet, much of it falls flat for me (and that Their Satanic Majesties Request may be among the worst albums ever recorded).  I learned that I’m not as fond of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions as I am of Lloyd Cole’s solo work, and that I'm not as fond of Jethro Tull and King Crimson as I am of other prog rock bands.  I discovered that early Chicago albums are padded with really bad, lengthy tracks, and that each of Esperanza Spaulding's releases are worth my attention.  I gave the last half-dozen releases by Elton John a chance, concluded that Aimee Mann continues to put out quality material, but without the punch of her first three releases, and that the J Geils Band is a great party band with some standout tracks, but ultimately doesn’t grab me.

I also listened to classical guitar by Ryan Walsh, Latin music by Natalia Lafourcade, Mansieur Perine, and Vicente Garcia, fusion by Snarky Puppy, jazz by Chet Baker, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, and newer releases by Empty Pockets, Young the Giant and Lake Street Dive.

And on and on.

Now, the question remains: can artists make a living making music when people only use streaming services?  That remains to be seen, but for a guy in his 50s who sometimes has difficulty keeping up on music, streaming can’t be beat.

Of course, of the five albums I highlighted above, I’ve purchased four of them on vinyl. 

So yeah, I’ve still got the disease.

New Album is Available for Streaming/Purchase

The Great Divide by Heinz and Wrobel is complete!  To stream or purchase this ten-song album, check out the following locations: 

The album will be added to several other streaming sites shortly.

Heinz & Wrobel are:

Julian Wrobel – Bass
Sam Heinz – Drums
Paul Heinz-  Keys and Vocals

Tracking by Brad Showalter at Kiwi Studios, Batavia, Illinois
Overdubs engineered by Paul Heinz
Orchestration on “Cold” and “End Game” by Jim Gaynor
Mixed by Paul Heinz with the help of Julian, Sam and Anthony Calderisi
Mastering by Collin Jordan of The Boiler Room, Chicago, Illinois

All songs written by Paul Heinz, except “The Unexamined Road,” music by Sam Heinz and Paul Heinz, lyrics by Paul Heinz

Cover art by Sarah Heinz, based on a concept by Sam Heinz
Photograph by Sam Heinz

We’d like to thank Brad for his easy-going nature and diligence, Collin for his expertise Anthony for his objective listening skills, and Jim for giving two songs the lift they required.  We think “End Game” is the best song on the album thanks to you.

********************************************************************

After completing The Palisades in August of 2016 I wrote the following on my website: “I’m toying with the idea of doing my next project in about two days – all in the studio with a live band. A guy can dream, can’t he?”

Well, The Great Divide didn’t exactly take two days, but it was a hell of a lot faster this time around, for which I’m grateful.

In Spring of 2017, I began to ponder the next project, and Sam and I decided that we should record together in the studio and pound out the entire album in a day or two.  The issue was I didn’t really have any songs – only half-written melodies or a refrain or a verse that didn’t go anywhere.  It wasn’t until the summer when Sam was at camp for seven weeks that I began to diligently evaluate which half-written pieces of music were worth pursuing and which should be scrapped.  It took a while. 

That summer, I initially decided to create a thematic album called “Confessions and Confrontations,” with several instrumental interludes and a few musical themes that would repeat throughout the album, a pretty bold idea for someone who didn’t really even have any songs completed.  I worked hard on songs called “Eat Crow,” “Shouldn’t I Get Some Credit,” “Stretched Too Thin,” “I Once Fell in Love with a Girl,” “The Line,” and “Something Lost.”  Alas, none of these made the cut. 

Instead, a few other songs with working titles of “What Are You Going to Do” and “I Don’t Want to Talk About It Now” began to take shape, along with some very old ideas, such as one called “Same Old Shit,” which originated in the summer of 2013.  I also resurrected two song that I had, in fact, completed: one called “Cold,” which I’d written in 2001 and even recorded a demo of in maybe 2006; and “Put You Away,” composed sometime around 2009, but it never felt right with previous projects.  This time, it fit perfectly with the minimal instrumentation we were providing. 

One of the pieces I worked on in July of 2017 was a little chord intro that Sam had composed prior to leaving for Wisconsin.  This eventually evolved into a rather intricate little ditty called “The Unexamined Road,” a song that was known as “Untitled” up until November because I wasn’t happy with the lyrics.  Eventually this song sounded so darn good that it became the album’s opener.

I wrote most of the music for what became “Lies of the Damned” in April of 2006, but there it sat until 2017.  I needed an idea to help drive what I knew was an angry song.  Eventually, I came up with a sketch of a type of person I’ve met over the years: an odd combination of extreme self-centeredness, yet monstrously insecure.  I’ve known three or four people who fit this mold to a “t,” and once I knew the object of my angst, I was able to pound out the song very quickly!

“What is True” developed from a tune that came to me in a dream in December of 2016.  I was meeting my friend Scott Baldwin at an outdoor bar tended by none other than Rufus Wainwright, who was suffering badly of a cold.  He said that recently the “juices were flowing,” meaning he was composing a lot lately.  I asked him to fix me a sandwich, and he began singing his latest creation, “You say, I don’t want to talk about it now…”  I woke up and wrote it down and eventually developed it into a tale inspired by a friend of mine.  Similar to “I Can’t Take You Back” from Warts and All, it’s the heartbreaker on the album.

“Are You Gonna Fight For Her,” was nothing more than a verse and unfinished chorus in April of 2016, but in the summer I managed to write the bridge and instrumental sections that really made the song work.  I was the least confident that this song would work on the album, but once drums and bass were added, it all came together beautifully.

“Your Mother’s House” started once again with just a verse in May of 2014, and in April of 2015, as I was trying to write a chorus for the song “The Palisades,” I came up with a chord progression that eventually fit perfectly as the second half of the chorus for the former.  But I still had to write the first half of the chorus, which I finally completed at the end of August, along with the middle bridge.

I wrote the first several verses of “End Game” in September of 2016, just after completing The Palisades, but I didn’t finish this tune until over a year later, when I composed the build-up leading to the end of the song.  The “bombastic” section of the tune came in July, written originally as an instrumental theme to insert between songs, but then I recognized it would fit in the actual tune with a lyric.  How this all came together is a bit miraculous, and I’m grateful that it came off as well as it did.  By October I had to come up with a title, and “End Game” came to me in a flash. 

Little by little, songs were completed, while others were discarded.  Sometime in the summer, Sam asked if Julian would be up for recording with us, and he was excited to join the project.  On August 21 I drove Sam and Julian and a friend of theirs to Missouri to watch the total eclipse, and along the way I mentioned the name of the upcoming album and the concept.  They were both rather unenamored with the idea of “Confessions and Confrontations,” so I took this under advisement until I finished the song “Diverge,” a tune I’d written the first verse for back in 2012 but didn’t complete until October of 2017, the last tune written for the album.  I was so happy with this song that I was certain it would lead it off and that it should spawn the title for the album.  Eventually, “Diverge” gave way to “The Unexamined Road” as the opening track, a song which remained untitled and which I struggled mightily to come up with a different refrain, but none fit as well (An Energizing Trail?  A Uninspired Path?)  This is one of those instances where the lyrics don’t quite reach the same level as the music.

I liked the idea of The Great Divide as a concept and considered viewing the new album as a collection of songs about conflict.  I remember that the band Big Country had a song with this title off their Steeltown album, and after scouring through the lyrics of this song I came up with a list of possible titles for the album: “Sighs and Youth,” “Fire Away,” and “The Token Door.”  Eventually I thought, “Screw it.  Just call it The Great Divide.”  So there you are.

Once we knew the title of the album, Sam came to me with a concept for an album cover and I shared it with my daughter Sarah on January 8th at 3:38PM.  I wrote: “The drawing would be in the simplistic style of The Far Side comics and the Duke album by Genesis, and it would be a close-up of a inexpressive guy holding a baggy at eye level filled with water and containing a gold fish, and the gold fish staring back at him.  Hence, ‘the Great Divide.’  Get it?”  At 4:29PM she sent me the cover of the album.  Tell me she wasn’t looking for a reason to procrastinate finding an internship!  Sam and I looked at the cover after his drum lesson and immediately fell in love with it.

On October 26, I met with Sam and Julian and went through the whole album and how I wanted to approach things.  We discussed recording in February or March and decided not to record vocals at that time; it would be difficult enough to get the instrumental parts down.  We began rehearsing in November, and I was amazed at the parts that Sam and Julian created, producing a much better product than I ever could have managed on my own, and because we had so much time to rehearse, it ended up sounding better than if I had outsourced things to professionals.  Sam and Julian created “parts” for the songs; they didn’t just play along to a chord chart.

On February 17 we spent thirteen hours at Kiwi Studios in Batavia, Illinois, where I had recorded basic tracks for The Palisades, and finished piano, bass and drums for all ten songs.  Pretty impressive.  Brad Showalter engineered this time, and he was laid back, unhurried and flexible, making the whole experience very enjoyable.  Once again, Sam and Julian played like pros, punching in seamlessly, playing to click tracks for some songs and others on the fly.  The most difficult tune to record by far was “Lies of the Damned.”  By some minor miracle, “End Game,” which we recorded without a click track, we achieved on just the second take.  It is our favorite on the album.

I recorded vocals over the next few weeks into March, and then added a few backup vocals, percussion and synthetic strings, but what I really wanted was for composer Jim Gaynor to record orchestration for “Cold” and “End Game.”  In late March he was ready to add some tracks, and the results are superb. 

After several grueling rounds of mixing (an art form I still struggle with mightily on every album), I finished things up and set a date to master the product at The Boiler Room in Chicago, where Collin Jordan put the finishing touches on the album.  It helped that we had set an album-release concert for May 5th, which required me to wrap up the album quickly, whereas I’d normally spend another few months mixing everything to perfection (but never achieving it). 

We sent things off to Diskmakers and made physical CDs for the first time since my album in 2003, The Dragon Breathes on Bleecker Street.

All in all, a very satisfying and enjoyable project, made all the more meaningful by having my son and his friend, along with my artist daughter, involved.  And my vocalist daughter is able to join us on stage for the record release concert, so all three of my kids were involved in some meaningful way.  Now, if I could only get my wife involved somehow on the next project!

Join us on May 5th at 7PM, as Heinz & Wrobel host a record release party to celebrate the completion of our new album.  Email me for details. 

Copyright, 2017, Paul Heinz, All Right Reserved