Nick Waterhouse, Time's All Gone. Too often retro gets a bad rap. When the music of the past can inform and inspire someone today to reach for the sky and try and pull down a few planets to help them glow, well, why not? Nick Waterhouse seems like he lives in his own universe. There is no doubt he digs all the instrumental and soul greats of the '50s and '60s. It's all over his music, adding cool curves and sharp edges to songs like "Say I Wanna Know" and "(If) You Want Trouble." This is a man who don't take no mess, right down to the fact he uses only Ampex tape recorders. Take that, Pro Tools. Luckily, Waterhouse doesn't stop there. The present is where we are today, and that's what this sound captures.
What's important is the undeniable fire on every note that's played and sung, right down to the booming tom toms and steaming saxophones—all four of them. Waterhouse's voice has the kind of edge you wouldn't want to meet on a dark corner at midnight. He is strictly business, ready to push you up against the wall to pay attention. In a time of the Alabama Shakes, Gary Clark Jr. and, yes, even Adele, this is someone who can walk those mean streets right there with them.
It's not easy today to grab the brainwidth of the masses in our overloaded world of Internet-everything. YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Rhapsody, whatever—music seems to be spewing out of every pore in our modern culture. Good, let it spew, but don't forget there comes a time when it all gets down to whether what we hear has the power to move us, to take us somewhere we haven't been even if it reminds us of the glory of what's come before. Nick Waterhouse can do that with his four-eyes closed. He's gone to a lot of trouble to make sure every detail is carefully covered, right down to a folded poster that looks like the back of a classic vinyl album. This man cares. And so should we.
Rufus Wainwright, Out of the Game. On the cover of his new album, the High Priest of Style sports a pink and black plaid jacket and a skull-topped walking cane as he studies his obviously manicured fingernails. Naturally, Wainwright seems quite pleased with himself, as he should be as he is set in a room with fine art and cool curtains. Maybe he's a man out of time, but to him time exists only in his own mind. On the back cover, he strikes an even more regal pose with the cane and some fairly suave chainery hanging on the side of his very tight black pants. All this is to say the stage is set for music that better deliver. No worry there; Rufus Wainwright is back in the game all the way.
The title song which starts the album is one of those single-listen wonders that feels like the world is ready to open up in a brand new way. While this isn't really what Wainwright is known for, it's such a refreshing jolt the song takes a few listens to realize it's really him. From there the album goes on a serpentine journey through all kinds of alluring styles, from Elton John-ish emotional weepers to fully arranged pop opuses. Needless to say, the supremely talented man raids his ample bloodlines to rise to every occasion, making the end result feel almost like a travel guide of music, with no corner left unexplored.
Rufus Wainwright is someone who defines himself over and over, and just when it looks like we know who he is the channel gets changed and everything starts up anew. But realize that right now he is high-stepping and ready for action. If further proof is needed, the bagpipes ending the album let it be known the parade has begun and the band has come to play. Producer Mark Ronson throws everything he's got into the fray, with an unerring ear and marksman's aim in a way few can equal right now. Let the games begin.
Kevin Avery, Everything Is an Afterthought: The Life and Writings of Paul Nelson. There are only a handful of rock journalists who could have a collection of their work seem like a necessity, and Paul Nelson would be at the very top of that list. He had an exact but absolutely expressive way of approaching music that gave his words heaviness and warmth, not always the likeliest of combo plates. Probably the reason this Minnesota son could accomplish such understanding was the huge heart he always had, and the first name basis with loneliness that never let him go. The man had ghosts.
Kevin Avery's book gathers many of Nelson's finest pieces, most for Rolling Stone magazine, ranging from long and insightful studies of Warren Zevon and writer Ross MacDonald to the writer's undying fascination with Neil Young and Jackson Browne. In the early '70s, Paul Nelson plunged into the world of record label professions of publicist and then A&R man for Mercury Records, signing the New York Dolls among others, and compiling reissues on everyone from Doug Sahm to the Velvet Underground. Now there's a true sonic stretch. That career sideline didn't last long, but to show he could do at all is a definite plum in Nelson's ever-present cap.
As amazing as all those stories are, it's also Avery's riveting biographical chapter on Paul Nelson that really takes a sledgehammer to the soul. Weaving together the recollections of many of Nelson's peers, the portrait we're left is of a man that struggled to maintain a hold on reality, finding higher enjoyment in the world of the mind. To say that the last decade of the writer's life is pretty much a mystery is an understatement. Nelson quit writing completely, listened almost exclusively to old bluegrass recordings, and was a night clerk in a video rental store, subsisting pretty much on hamburgers, barbecue sandwiches, Coca-Cola, and the ever-present Sherman cigarettellos.
Once his mind started to seriously slip he had to write himself notes about how much money he had on hand to eat, having cut off contact with all of his many friends from years past. Nelson lay dead for a week in his apartment before the smell of decay brought in the police. None of this takes away from the soaring life that this man brought to the world of music. Paul Nelson took what was already life-changing, and the way he saw it and could speak about it, made it even more thrilling. Now we can celebrate him all over again.