Matthew Ryan’s “Hustle Up Starlings” (Review)

Matthew RyanMatthew Ryan has released a number of consistently excellent albums since is wonderful debut album, May Day, in 1997. While all of his albums are worth seeking out, two decades into his recording career he is garnering growing attention for his two most recent albums, Boxers (2014) and his new album Hustle Up Starlings (2017), which may be the most Matthew-Ryan-sounding album of his career. And that is a great thing.

Matthew Ryan is a poet who rocks, with sounds ranging from the rage of punk to the rasp of a whisper. Music writers have compared him to a variety of artists, including Springsteen and Dylan, but comparisons fall away on the new album. Whether it is the maturing of an artist who recently had a crisis of considering giving up on a career — or inspiration from producer Brian Fallon from The Gaslight Anthem — or the maturing of an artist — or something else, Hustle Up Starlings brings together the best qualities of Matthew Ryan’s talent for music and lyrics.

A number of reviewers have raved about the album.  And Ryan himself has been giving a lot of interviews to promote the album. It is clear that this project is something he really believes in, and rightfully so.

Hustle Up Starlings

When I first heard the name of the album before its release, I wondered about the odd album title and what was a “hustle up starlings.” The title track, though, is a key to the album. It both reflects Ryan’s poetic instincts (who else would coin that expression?) and themes underlying the album.

The album is not about modern politics, but it captures the anguish of our current political climate and underlying angst. “Hustle Up Starlings,” one of the slower songs on the album, is on its surface about what most great songs are about, love (or lost love).  The singer looks back, remembering meeting a woman in a record store in 1991.

But “Hustle Up Starlings” is not so much a song about loss but a song about the fear of loss: “The things we love will one day disappear / First slow and then so quick.” And the title comes from the final lines of the song about seeking safety before something bad happens: ” Hustle up, starlings / The bats are coming / The night’s tuning up /And dusk is humming.”

Other Tracks

This theme of the fear of loss — or fighting against the fear of loss- runs through many songs on the album. The opening song, “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator” begins with the line, “Everything sucks,” but ends with a plea for survival (“Don’t die, don’t disappear/ I swear to God we need you here”).

We previously posted the official video for “(I Just Died) Like an Aviator,” but if you missed it then, it is worth checking out below.

The album’s themes may also be summed up by the closing lines of “Battle Born”: “Screaming hope in the land of the lost / Oh oh ’till the wheels come off.” That is what Ryan is doing here, “screaming hope,” fighting against the fear that one day the wheels will come off.

Of course, these themes underlie all our lives. We all know deep down that — like the aviator referenced in the opening track, none of us are getting out of here alive. But we have to keep hoping for something.  Maybe we all are trying to find that place mentioned in the closing song called “Where Summer Never Ends.”

Another highlight on the album is the song “Run Rabbit Run.” I have read some interviews with Ryan and have not seen any mention of a connection between this song and John Updike’s classic 1960 novel of middle-class angst, Rabbit Run. Maybe the similarity in the titles is a mere coincidence. But it would be a strange coincidence if Ryan was not thinking of the novel at all.  The song revisits themes from the novel, as Ryan sings about working long hours “just to get by.”

Where Ryan’s Rabbit differs from Updike’s Rabbit, though, is that the novel’s “running” cures nothing. But in Ryan’s song — echoing Springsteen’s epic running song “Born to Run” about a “death trap” in a town that “rips the bones from your back” — Ryan’s plea to run still holds out some hope.

It’s a trap,
Always pulling blades
From your back.

And it goes on and on and on;
Don’t get stuck, just run rabbit run.

Sometimes, like in “Bastard,” one can work to convince yourself that you are better off after a loss: “I’m feeling better / Now that we’re apart.”

On that song, and the other songs of the album, Ryan shows he is at the top of his game in not only writing lyrics but in the music. The music is memorable throughout the album and you’ll find yourself singing along and tapping your foot while the lyrics whistle past the graveyard of possible despair.

Ryan has noted that his goal with Hustle Up Starlings was to put together a cohesive album. He explained, “this is what we do though, even when the world feels like it’s about to burn down, we keep leaning for tomorrow in our own lives and stories and families. It’s all hope and perseverance. We get up and we go to work. We believe in tomorrow, even when we’re not sure what tomorrow will be.”

“The Cracks In Your Broken Heart”

One of my favorite tracks on the album is “Close Your Eyes.” The song also works hard to provide the listener with some hope: “Now it won’t always be easy / But it won’t always be hard / Just listen to the cracks / In your broken heart.”

And maybe that is what Ryan is trying to say with this album:  We all need to remember that sometimes you can find some hope in the cracks of a broken heart.

I have introduced several people to the music of this native of Chester, Pennsylvania. I think now I may start encouraging the use of Hustle Up Starlings as a great place to start to delve into his wonderful catalog.

Photo by Scott Simontacchi. What is your favorite song on the new album? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Tift Merritt: “Icarus”

    Icarus painting Today’s song of the day is “Icarus” by Tift Merritt. The song takes the story of Icarus in Greek mythology as its inspiration.

    In Greek mythology, Daedalus created wings for him and his son Icarus to escape a tower where they were imprisoned. Because the wings were made of feathers and wax, Daedalus warned Icarus not to fly too low, where the seas would wet the wings, or too high, where the warming sun would melt the wax. Once in the air, though, Icarus forgot his father’s warning and began flying higher and higher. The sun then melted the wax, the wings fell off, and Icarus fell to the sea and drowned. The story is often used as a warning against hubris (flying too high).

    NPR describes Merritt’s version of the story as “not Greek mythology’s tragic tale of hubris, but rather an expression of the impulse to cradle a fragile spirit and nurse it back to health.” But recently at MerleFest, Merritt did invoke the theme of hubris in describing the song.

    She explained that the song is about dreaming versus hubris. Adding a political note, Merritt added that at least Icarus was dreaming, but certain modern political figures define what hubris really is.  I wonder who she means?

    A rush of breath, a turn of touch;
    The up and down arch of loving so much;
    The way your heart will race and rise;
    A tear handing in long, slow dive.

    Oh Icarus,
    There’s a wing down in each of us;
    Faster than the speed of sound inside,
    Everything flies.

    “Icarus” is from Tift Merritt’s album, Stitch of the World, released in January 2017.

    Image of Jacob Peter Gowy’s The Flight of Icarus painting via public domain. What is your favorite Tift Merritt song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

    I Have to Leave You: Glen Campbell’s Adiós

    Campbell AdiosGlen Campbell, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2011, has given his fans one last gift of a final studio album, Adiós.  Campbell recorded the album after his Goodbye Tour and the filming of the documentary I’ll Be Me.

    The new album features some of Campbell’s favorite songs.  Rolling Stone claims the album “stands among Campbell’s best – heartbreaking and imbued with poignancy, but sung with the same pure, sparkling vocals that are a distinguishing hallmark.”

    Songwriter Jimmy Webb wrote the title track, “Adiós,” along with three other tracks on the album.  Webb wrote several of Campbell’s biggest hits, including “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Wichita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

    Like the song that had been billed as Campbell’s final song in September 2014 — “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” — the lyrics to “Adiós” achieve special meaning considering Campbell’s medical condition.  But it is not a new song.  Linda Ronstadt had an Adult Contemporary hit with it in 1990.

    And “Adiós” is not new for Campbell either.  Webb has explained that he and Campbell used to play the song all the time in various places, including their homes, hotels, and dressing rooms. Check out the recording of the song, produced by Campbell’s longtime friend Carl Jackson.

    Don’t think that I’m ungrateful,
    And don’t look so morose;

    Jackson explained that in order to help Campbell record the songs, he printed the lyrics in big print.  And sometimes they did one line of a song at a time. But, Jackson explained, Campbell had no trouble remembering the melodies and the correct keys.

    Adiós will hit stores and the Internet on June 9, 2017. Other tracks on the album include a duet with Willie Nelson on his song “Funny How Time Slips Away.” Also, the album features Campbell’s interpretation of  “Everybody’s Talkin’.”

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Dolly Parton Covers Brandi Carlile’s ‘The Story’

    Dolly Parton The Story When Brandi Carlile released her song “The Story” on the album of the same name in 2007, the song immediately became a “pullover” song for me.  In other words, the song is so moving that if you first hear it in the car, you have to pull over to do nothing else but listen to it.

    The fact that the song was later used in a television show (Grey’s Anatomy) and TV commercial (General Motors) did nothing to reduce the power of the song.  Other artists, like Sara Ramirez and LeAnn Rimes, have covered the song, although the original still remains the definitive version.

    But now Carlile is revisiting her entire 2007 breakthrough album with other artists covering songs from The Story for a good cause.  The new album with an incredibly long name, Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story – An Album to Benefit War Child, features such artists as Kris Kristofferson, Jim James (My Morning Jacket) and Pearl Jam.   And all proceeds go War Child U.K., which works to help children in refugee camps displaced because of conflicts.

    But who do you get to cover the title song, which is so memorable because of Carlile’s aching vocals?  Well, you find a living legend with a great voice and a heart, which is what Carlile did.  Dolly Parton takes on “The Story” on the new album.  And while she may not make you forget Carlile’s version, Parton does what she does so well.  She gives a powerful and heart-breaking vocal that is an immediate classic.

    Listen to Dolly Parton’s version of “The Story.”

    Cover Stories: Brandi Carlile Celebrates 10 Years of The Story – An Album to Benefit War Child hit stores and the Internet on May 5, 2017.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Crosby, Stills, Nash, Young & . . . Tom Jones?

    Tom Jones Long Time Gone

    On May 10 in 1749, the tenth and final volume of the novel Tom Jones by Henry Fielding was published. Many consider the comic story, whose full name was The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling, one of the earliest and most influential English novel. When many people hear the name “Tom Jones” today, they are likely to think of the Welsh singer with that name.

    Tom Jones, the singer, was born as Thomas John Woodward on June 7, 1940. People know Jones for a number of hits ranging from “It’s Not Unusual” in 1965 and “Green Green Grass of Home” in 1966 to a cover of Prince’s “Kiss” in 1988 with Art of Noise. But from 1969 to 1971, Jones also hosted a TV variety show, This is Tom Jones.

    Jones’s show featured a variety of guests that led to some great pairings that allowed Jones to show off his vocal range, such as an amazing duet with Janis Joplin. Another unusual pairing from 1969 that surprisingly works well is Jones singing with Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young.

    Check out Jones singing “Long Time Gone” with CSNY, which also features great vocals by Stephen Stills. I wonder if Jones and Neil Young ever shared a stage again. But based on this performance, I would buy a ticket.

    David Crosby wrote “Long Time Gone” as a response to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The group, without Tom Jones, performed the song at Woodstock. “Long Time Gone” is a political song challenging authority that remains relevant through the decades.

    And it appears to be a long,
    Such a long, long, long time before the dawn.
    Speak out, you got to speak out against
    The madness, you got to speak your mind,
    If you dare.

    Leave your two cents in the comments.

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