Tuesday, June 15, 2010

5 Records that Changed My Life

I'm not a big list guy, but there is something compelling about distilling a thing of infinite proportions down to a few representative elements. I was inspired by Kim Ruehl's blog post on the same topic as this one -- she has such a great list.  Like most artists, in my youth I took great offense when asked who I sound like.  How could I sound like anyone but me? I am the center of the universe after all.  Now, the older I get the more I realize how little I really know and how profoundly I have been influenced by other artists.  In an attempt to better understand where I come from and how the music I make fits into the larger world I've spent a lot of time lately thinking about my musical DNA.

There are so many other albums I would have liked to included in this list but I think the ones I've chosen here frame me nicely when you step back a few paces. If you get right up close to the canvas, you would see a lot more brush strokes, some old like Sam Cooke and some new like Iron and Wine, but then you might miss the bigger picture. So here they are: 5 records that changed my life.

James Taylor's Greatest Hits (1976) - I'm not too proud to reference the elephant in the room here. Maybe not as hip as Dylan's "Blonde on Blonde" but JT is my earliest memory of music. I remember being 10 years old in my older brothers' room with a pair of enormous brown headphones - the kind with the curly cord, singing every song through over and over again. I don't think I chose him anymore than I chose my own mother and father. He was just always there and his voice made a deep imprint on me.

Jackson Browne - Running on Empty (1977) - I liked the Eagles, like every other red-blooded American, but I think the part of their music I was really drawn to was the part that was Jackson Browne and he was never a real band member - just a dude who hung out with them and co-wrote some songs. I was working my first summer job in a restaurant at the age of 16 and I wore out this old cassette that I stole out of my brother's car. This record was for Browne probably a tosser, a whim and certainly not filled with the "serious" songwriting he's known for, but I romanticized this account of life on the road. I loved the pedal steel and the sound of the crowd and of course the ridiculous falsetto Browne does on "Stay." There's an honesty and genuine sense of fun in this record that spoke to my adolescence.

Bring on the Night - Sting (1986) - I was a huge Police fan and anxiously watched as Sting made the left turn that was his solo career. At 17 I was not a jazz fan and knew nothing about it. Looking back, I can't think of a better introduction for me than the insanely talented band Sting put together for the Dream of the Blue Turtles record and tour. This live album does not have a single weak link. I learned how to play every song on it and memorized Brandford's solos - my two best friends and band mates at the time must have watched the documentary on the making of this record about 25 times the summer of our junior year. I think "Consider Me Gone" and "I Burn for You" are still my favorite tracks off this double album.

Solitude Standing - Suzanne Vega (1987) - In the sea of hair gel and synthesizers that was the 80's, I was taken in like everyone else by the parade of bands like Duran Duran that dominated MTV, but there was always something about these hollow calories that left a film in my mouth like eating a bowl of Captain Crunch. When I heard the song "Luka" on the radio, there was something substantial there that made me go down to the local record store (remember those?) and buy the cassette. Every song on that album spoke to me - Vega's breathy, innocent voice and her wonderful gift for words awakened me and made me feel like there was a whole world of possibility in songwriting that I had yet to discover.  I think my enduring love for the minor 9 chord began after I heard the song "Night Vision."

John Gorka - Temporary Road (1992) - I don't think I ever studied a record like I studied this one during the summer of 1992 in that first tiny apartment that Catherine and I shared on Hill St. in Boone, North Carolina. The lyrics on this album are so thoughtful and intricate. After every listen I would hear something that I missed before -- peeling back the layers of meaning in a simple line I discovered John's mastery of language and his playful approach to sometimes use words for their own sake. His phrasing, delivery and the warmth and complexity of his voice were a revelation to me.  I had never heard someone sing so plaintively and somehow deliver such an emotive performance. Actually getting to interview John for my Take Me to the Bridge podcast a couple of years ago and hearing him perform "Gypsy Life" just for me was a watershed moment.

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