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Music Review: Divide by Ed Sheeran

For clear, powerful pop music, and I am an admitted fan of pop music, Ed Sheeran’s new album, Divide, adds, multiplies and satisfies. From the first listening to the most recent, its lyrics, melodies and ranging styles sound better and better.

Beginning with a lament about his early pop fame, “Eraser”, Sheeran sings about “friends and family filled with envy when they should be filled with pride.” Then, he croons what I regard as a songwriting masterpiece, “Castle on a Hill”. This propulsive tune contrasts various pauses, pleas, percussion and steady repetition of guitar playing with an easygoing but deceptively shrewd, wry and progressive observation about earning one’s wisdom. Sheeran spins it into an exultant if exhausted embrace of the facts of reality.

Buy Ed Sheeran’s “Divide” (deluxe version CD)

In “Dive”, Ed Sheeran (who co-wrote the songs) delivers a polished paean to lovesickness with the right blend of vulnerability and affirmation. The lustful, sexually themed “Shape of You” applies an irresistible lyric to undulating rhythm in electronic soul. With a scratchy, old recording sound as prelude, his love song “Perfect” is truly perfect. With Sheeran’s clear vocals lavishing its rhyming lyrics with sincerity, with seriousness fueling the soul of his talent, as with the best of England’s new wave of soul singers—James Blunt, Adele, Sam Smith, all of whom are evoked in the brightest sense on this exceptional album—in a song you’d expect to hear on oldies radio. “Galway Girl” is a jaunty mix of hip hop and regional music that stands on its own. “Happier” is the most haunting heartbreak song since Blunt’s “Beautiful” or Adele’s “Hello”.

“New Man” offers another modern beat, with a nod to social media and digs at kale, overspending and plucked eyebrows. All of Sheeran’s 16 songs are meticulously created and recorded, with memorable, piano laden melodies. This is especially true of the lullaby “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here” and a few other favorites, including Sheeran’s ironic upbeat ode to his brand of self-made music “What Do I Know”. “How Would You Feel” is lovely, too.

Sheeran saves the best for the deluxe album’s last five songs, though “Castle on a Hill” remains sensational. How sad that it has to be considered refreshing to hear a man sing a simple proclamation of love for his mother in “Supermarket Flowers”. “Barcelona”, which neatly evokes a summer night along Las Ramblas in that Spanish city, and “Bibia Be Ye Ye”, tease and dare you to not want to dance. Ed Sheeran’s tribute to his parents’ love, “Nancy Mulligan”, toasts the best of one’s legacy in values. Finally, the reflective and prayerful “Save Myself” plays like young, successful and rich Ed Sheeran’s egoistic answer to his album Divide’s first song, “Eraser”—intentionally or not—promising with a solemn vow to remember that, before he loves someone else, he’s “got to love myself.”

Clarity, melody and sincerity unify the elements of Ed Sheeran’s intimate and triumphal Divide.

Music Review: Rosanne Cash

Last night, I had the pleasure to meet Rosanne Cash backstage after her Santa Clarita, California, concert. She’s as earnest in person and in performance as she is on her recordings. The show was as unique an experience as I’ve had at a live concert.

I do favor singer/songwriters, such as Melissa Etheridge, Bob Seger and Melissa Manchester, so I was looking forward to attending the Rosanne Cash concert, which started on time. Having fallen for her excellent 2014 The River and the Thread (especially the deluxe edition with “Biloxi”, which she did not perform), I expected a relaxed show and it was suitably subdued. Even better, Cash, whose memoirs I reviewed six years ago (read my book review here), is confident and authoritative on stage. Not once did she invite the audience to sing along, though a lady behind me insisted on singing along. Never did Cash encourage hand-clapping, not that it stopped fans from doing so to her rockabilly tunes.

Rosanne Cash, daughter of the late Johnny Cash, was active and happy to dance to the music, and she was in her own world as she sang songs she wrote and strummed a guitar beside her husband, producer and guitarist John Leventhal. The Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center concert played as if Cash sang for herself.

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The result was a muted sense of detachment from the audience that enhanced the songs’ intimacy and impact. Remembering her life as a girl growing up in Ventura County, visiting the American South or the impetus or motive for each song, she performed a whole original album, her Grammy-winning The River and the Thread, in sequence. The voice is in fine shape and she phrases and times each vocal succinctly, letting the bluegrass/roots songs settle into a musical rhythm that frames more than overpowers the lyric.

“Ev’rybody ’round here moves too fast,” she observes on the wise “Modern Blue”, a song I requested in advance on Twitter (she replied: “you got it”). And everything she did with an accomplished, skilled band slowed the night down to near perfection. Cash took a break and returned with songs from her 2009 album, The List, and Black Cadillac and her many popular country and blues, folk and rock songs and chart hits, including “Seven Year Ache”, which set Cash on her way in 1981 to earning respect in popular American music. Cash’s husband/co-writer/producer and arranger John Leventhal did an impeccable guitar solo during “Tennessee Flat Top Box”.

After crooning “500 Miles” and other tunes, the Carnegie Hall creative partner and Nashville Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum artist-in-residence left the stage. Cash returned to acknowledge her suburban Los Angeles audience during a warm ovation as being “small but mighty”.

Rosanne Cash proved herself last night as a musical-philosophical storyteller in good form. The Tennessee native grumbled about an encore her husband nudged her to do, which worked out great. She talked about kids, her dad and tales of the Delta. But my favorite moment of candor was when she granted herself a triumph as she acknowledged, shared and celebrated that she’d recently recovered the copyright to a song she wrote as a young woman, “Blue Moon with Heartache”, which she then performed. Affirming her property rights was an unguarded and welcome admission which put the whole show in perspective; Rosanne Cash works hard to make it on her merits. The one-night return to her homeland Southern California gave fans a sense of Cash’s composed and honest pride.

Sample and buy The River and the Thread Deluxe edition.

Music Review: Pat Benatar at the Greek

Stepping on stage with the knowing confidence she has exuded throughout her career, Pat Benatar took to the Greek Theatre with ease. She opened with her hit song, “All Fired Up”. This anthem is the ideal initiation to her summer performance of rock, ballads and blues. The tune captures the essence of Benatar’s best work.

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Husband Neil Giraldo’s guitar roared before his wife let loose her vocal power in expressing the buoyantly, defiantly crying optimism which distinguishes this singer and her operatic rock band. Whether in the strong but tender “We Belong”, dramatic “Love is a Battlefield” or The Legend of Billie Jean‘s affirmation “Invincible”, each performed with precision last night at the Greek in her hometown Los Angeles, Benatar’s siren-like bellowing has aged with not a trace of cynicism. Each note, guitar solo and drumbeat fell neatly into each song with minor flaws, bringing her hard but positive catalog to life in the hills of Griffith Park.

Telling tales with humor, profanity and a grasp of what makes a good story, Giraldo and Benatar delivered with stage presence and musicianship every time. This isn’t a greatest hits collection, so they indulged in a selective set list after a nostalgic setup video. With “Hell is for Children” as an emotionally stirring transition point, they gave the enthused audience “Heartbreaker”, “We Live for Love” and “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” as well as a powerful version of “Promises in the Dark”, “Painted Desert” and a tribute to the late Prince with an acoustic rendition of his “When Doves Cry”. The energy was sustained, though Benatar seemed ready to call it a night when she did, too. Both artists, who were co-billed as Pat Benatar & Neil Giraldo with Melissa Etheridge, have a naturally seasoned audience rapport.

That they acknowledge the warped, divisive times fits the tour’s love theme, with Benatar introducing the rollicking and underrated “Let’s Stay Together” off 1988’s brilliant and underrated Wide Awake in Dreamland with a statement dismissing political differences while pleading for unity. A hint of resignation and the sense that answers to deep, serious problems aren’t coming doesn’t mar the band’s underlying, almost prayerful idealism. It is tinged with the rage and anger at injustice that made Pat Benatar an early New Wave sensation in the late 1970s. No one can best this artist and duo for melodic rock that drives its theme that peace and love must be won, fought for and earned. The wink and the shrug with which Pat Benatar and her Neil Giraldo perform are optional.

These two ought to write and record more new music. Their rock concert is a rare and entertaining blend of the light and the serious.

Music Review: Melissa Etheridge at the Greek

Belting out her torchy 1990s hits and threading a story connecting her to hometown Los Angeles and its intimate Greek Theatre, where she preceded Pat Benatar and Neil Giraldo, Melissa Etheridge displayed ability and an appreciation for the blues.

Teasing with a rousing cover tune of “Born Under a Bad Sign” from her forthcoming blues cover album of Stax Records songs, the best song performance of the night, singer-songwriter Etheridge impressed on a variety of skills. The raspy voice is deeper yet still strong and, without pandering to her gay female audience base, the outspoken political activism remains. Both are older and, yes, wiser and more restrained. This is the savvy artist who played on Mike Huckabee’s Fox News program, after all, and she says she still lives in the San Fernando Valley (and has an apartment in Manhattan with a view of the Freedom Tower), so she’s hardly the embodiment of left-wing intellectuals. As in the Brave and Crazy beginning of her career, Melissa Etheridge is an independent gay singer on her own.

While nodding to the times she hung out in Long Beach, a lesbian mecca like Minneapolis, Etheridge let her introspective songs of longing for sex, love and happiness—”Bring Me Some Water”, “If I Wanted To”, “I Want to Come Over”, “Angels Would Fall”, “I’m the Only One”, “Come to My Window”—speak for themselves. She tapped the early, granola-folk phase with her plaintive “No Souvenirs” and mastered every guitar she played throughout the night. But she also spoke of her struggling years in LA in chapters of coming to the Greek to see yoga-minded Sting, for whom she would open, and acts with gay male followings such as Liza Minnelli, who had invited the young Etheridge to attend her show, and Culture Club. She referred to the “glass ceiling” and hinted support for Hillary Clinton but she also derided people breaking off into “little groups” and called for Americans to come together.

Melissa_Etheridge_-_Never_Enough

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I’ve always liked Melissa Etheridge—I think Never Enough is a thoughtful album—for the same reasons I like Bob Seger; she’s a musical storyteller. I’ve bought her albums and I would have liked to have seen and heard her perform “Ain’t it Heavy”, “2001” “Christmas in America” and “The Letting Go”. Etheridge’s new song, “Pulse”, about the Orlando massacre of gay men by a Moslem terrorist is not her best. But it’s impossible to deny the cancer survivor’s talent and dedication to writing, playing guitar and singing about life here on earth. And, now, thanks to a terrific show last night at the Greek, I look forward to hearing her new Memphis-recorded blues album, too.

Movie Review: I’ve Always Loved You (1946)

With restoration funded for the UCLA Film and Television Archive by a government grant to the American Film Institute and privately by Republic Pictures and the David and Lucile Packard Program, the 117-minute I’ve Always Loved You recently screened at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. The 1946 picture is filled with romantic notions, scenes and music and it’s as melodramatic as any other mid-Forties romance.

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But something is different about this movie. Based on a Borden Chase (Red River) short story titled “Concerto” about Chase’s pianist wife (and their daughter, the audience learned before the screening, later danced with Fred Astaire), I’ve Always Loved You features two stunning performances of composer Sergei Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto—both played as a duel between a female pianist and her male conductor—by artists entangled in a toxic affair. This rarely seen classic was directed for Republic Pictures, a small studio known for low-budget Westerns, by Oscar-winning director Frank Borzage (The Mortal Storm, A Farewell to Arms, Stage Door Canteen). The $2 million budget bought Technicolor for the first time and Arthur Rubinstein playing the piano.

A fresh-faced young pianist named Myra (Catherine McLeod) falls in love with an alpha male maestro (Philip Dorn) named Leopold Goronoff, who insists that music at its finest is for men to play and women to experience. This does not dissuade Myra either from pursuing her passion for learning music from the master—nor him from tutoring and hiring the young farm woman—or prevent Myra from falling for the handsome but eccentric conductor. Myra knows her talent but utters “yes, master” over and again in order to gain new knowledge and practice, childlike in her confidence that he will see her for the perfect pupil—and devotee—she is. Theirs is a student-teacher storm warning.

This is not completely lost on the strong, wholesome farm hand (William Carter) back home who has a thing for Myra and has no problem expressing himself. Borzage contrasts these two men as counterparts caught between Myra’s escalating unease with her emerging musical skill, her unrequited love for Goronoff and the unrequited affection of the man who runs her father’s idyllic Pennsylvania farm. Maria Ouspenskaya (Dodsworth, Waterloo Bridge, The Mortal Storm) stars as the maestro’s rational, knowing grandmother in one of her last roles before she died.

As Myra, McLeod captures the character’s worship, intensity and confusion, making her most rash or shocking choices more plausible, which is pivotal in a picture this loaded with sweeps, turns and gloriously romantic music. Dorn, too, makes his neurotically masculine master appealing enough to see why women swoon over him. Ouspenskaya, too, as a grandmother tenderly taking to Myra and calling her “Butterball”, and Carter as the simple outdoorsman pining for a woman musician, are convincing. Add the mad, swirling sense of something ominous that seeps into the concerts and I’ve Always Loved You culminates at Carnegie Hall.

Though by the time this picture was released, both The Seventh Veil and Brief Encounter had already used Rachmaninoff’s 2nd Piano Concerto, here performing music is integral to plot and character development and achieve an unusually engaging effect. I’ve Always Loved You manages under Borzage’s direction to be both highly romantic and conflicted without being totally shameless in execution and Rubinstein’s piano playing, however flawed its depiction (so I’m informed by someone who knows about these things), furiously plays into a rewarding final deliverance.