Personal Top 30 – Part 2

Part one (and the explanation for the context) is here.

25. Rock Me On the Water – Keb’ Mo’. First you take the Jackson Browne classic, then add some Kevin Moore, and an almost horizontally relaxed vibe. Back in the Caroline days, I had a peripheral awareness of Jackson Browne. In 1979, I knew that he was involved in the same No Nukes campaign as Bruce Springsteen, and I may have seen some clips on Whistle Test. But while I kind of sort of knew I might like some of his stuff, I deliberately held him in reserve. In fact, I waited until I was in my 40s before buying his first album (aka Saturate Before Using), and heard Rock Me On the Water for the first time. I recommend doing this if you can. Hold off on something so that you can enjoy it later on, and hear it fresh. That first Jackson Browne album is a little like Born to Run in that, whatever you were thinking it might be like, it wasn’t. And what it was might have taken a little longer to grok, but  eventually you get it. I’ve got a version of this recorded by Linda Ronstadt, but it’s this Keb’ Mo’ version I love. He takes the gospel innards of the song and lays them out, substituting his blues licks for the pounding piano of the original and making it sound new again. Jackson Browne was 23 when he wrote this.

24. Jenny of the Roses – Hiss Golden Messenger. More gospel, more recently discovered music. MC Taylor is the heart and soul of all this, and his gruff sincerity lends itself well to this rolling folk rock. There’s always something restful about this band, it’s exactly the sort of thing you want in the background when you just want to relax. Like Dylan, they trade in straightforward chord progressions which are pleasing to the ears, and the arrangements are based around piano, guitars, and drums, nothing fancy. That all said, this music has heart and soul, and this combination of straightforward elements has real beauty.

23. It Makes No Difference (Live) – The Band. This contains possibly the most sublime musical moment ever captured on film. This is a late-period number, from their 1975 album Northern Lights – Southern Cross. And it is one of the best tracks on that album, but this live version from The Last Waltz is supported by clever camera work and storyboarded lighting changes as the song reaches its emotional peak. Even without the supporting visuals, however, Garth Hudson gives me the chills every time I hear this. It’s a heartbreak song, fairly standard stuff, lifted by Rock Danko’s plaintive vocal, and performed here with a kind of desperate sincerity. Then, after the verses and the choruses, comes Robbie’s guitar solo. One of the great players, Robbie, like George Harrison, Mike Campbell and Vince Gill, always plays for the song. Here, his solo is spiky and awkward and slightly disjointed: this on an evening during which he has played incredibly throughout. But then, cutting in on the choppy guitar comes the sweetest sounding saxophone you’re ever going to hear. Garth Hudson was known as the proper muso in The Band, and here demonstrates that he wasn’t just a keyboardist. In the movie, you see him step up to the microphone just as Scorsese pulls focus, and the smooth melody cuts in to Robbie’s solo and settles it down. When it comes back, it’s less choppy, less awkward, and then back comes the saxophone to finish off. This is not just someone who can “have a go” on a saxophone, but someone who can really play. Trigger Warning: the film edits two minutes out of the track.

22. No Next Time – Allison Moorer. I’ve bought several Allison Moorer records over the years, but really it all condenses down to this one song from her 2000 album The Hardest Part. It’s a terrific heartbreak number, lifted by the co-vocal on the last chorus from someone billed pseudonymously as Lonesome Bob (think his real name is Bob Chaney). The genius of this moment is that, while he sings the apologetic chorus, she echoes him and also begins to anticipate him, because of course she’s heard it all before. The other special thing about this recording, which again no live version can do justice, is the string arrangement on the coda, which cuts against the guitar solo. You have to stay to the end to hear it. On the one hand, the sweetness of the (arranged) strings, on the other the just-breaking-to-distortion (improvised) guitar. It’s what love is.

21. 24 Frames – Jason Isbell. You thought God was an Octopus, is what I always sing when this is on. Not so much a misheard lyric as a helpful alternative. From his 2015 album Something More than Free, this is one of those songs that has a certain mystery about it. It’s a song about memory, and regret, and the past you can’t remember without pain. And how everything you love can be lost in a second. God is sitting in a black car ready to go and your life is about to go up in smoke.

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