Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Album Review: Yoni Gordon - The Hard Way

One of the things about running a music blog, even a small blog like mine, is that at some point you start getting unsolicited albums. Generally I take a look at the band bio, maybe play a track or two to decide if they're worth the investment of time. The hit-to-miss ratio isn't great, but I've not yet been able to totally ignore someone who took the time to reach out to me. So this spring when I got an email from some dude named Yoni Gordon sporting just a scrappy website and an intriguing email, I wasn't too sanguine on the chances that I'd end up liking the music. Still, I thought it deserved a chance so I grabbed the album, cued up the first track, pressed play and sighed.


It was good. 

Not only was it good, it was really good. Like, I'm gonna be bothering strangers in bars good. I'm gonna be putting these songs on every mixtape I make for the next year good. It was the kind of album that simultaneously fills me with joy at humanity's bottomless depth of talent and passion as well as dread because I know that I will have yet another musical cause to champion that is buried in obscurity and may never get the recognition it deserves.

For those of you unfamiliar with Yoni Gordon (which is assume is most people reading this), he's a New York-based singer-songwriter who has been touring the East Coast for the last decade. Gordon's back catalogue includes both solo and full-band releases that cover everything from Ted Leonian agit-pop to reflective folk, country and even some straight-up indie power-pop. On The Hard Way he takes all those influences, leavens them with a good deal of '60s soul and the result is one of those varied, well-paced, genuinely exciting albums that seem increasingly hard to find in an era of forever-splintering musical niches.

The Hard Way is an album written by a grown-assed man who's in the process of figuring out what exactly that means. Gordon's been doing the indie thing for a while but is still just scraping by. Now he's married and has a kid and has decided to use this record as a way of saying "well, where do I go from here?" Classic soul is a natural musical touch point for these songs because they're filled with equal parts celebration in the face of adversity and grim determination to keep on pushing, as the fella says.

Opener "Blood From A Stone" sets the tone with a heavy piano and guitar intro leading a soulful, organ-splashed verses. Gordon dispenses hard-nosed advice like "you can't draw blood from a stone / because the blood you draw will be your own". This is followed by the a haters-to-the-left anthem, "Used To The Eulogies" that features an almost irksomely catchy guitar riff and "whoa-oh-oh-oh" choruses that seem immediately familiar. Both songs provide templates for similar power pop ("The Big One") and R&B ("Long Time Coming, Long Way To Go") excursions later on in the record which are perfectly sequenced to provide the kind of high-to-low flow between songs and styles that never tempts you to seek the skip button.

It's hard not to go track-by-track on this record because every one has something to recommend itself. "Cecelia Says" is a character piece dripping with slinky, late-night charm while "Guys Like Us" is a goofy singalong that channels golden-era Motown joints. "Victim Of The City" takes the album's rock/soul vibe, and tightens the screws just a little bit to provide a decent impression of what Spoon would sound like if they loosened their ties and untucked their shirts. 

But it's the one-two punch that brings the album home which most effectively showcases The Hard Way's strengths. "Running On The Ocean Floor" is the kind of surging, slash-and-burn guitar jam that, with any sort of luck, would be blaring out of car radios and featuring in last-call singalongs across this great land. I understand that it lacks the bland romantic gesturing of Adele or Carly Rae Jepson which drives actual Billboard hits these days, but why wouldn't anyone with any love for guitar rock and willingness not to dismiss intelligent lyrics NOT champion this song? Sure, Gordon's singing specifically about tour life, ("ten paying patrons / man that would have been enough") and the burdens of fatherhood, but that feeling of struggling as hard as you can and still feeling like you're treading water is about as universal and satisfying as rock songs get.

Closing things out is "Take It Like A Man" which hits just about every line on the "great slow burn song" checklist before grabbing its hat and closing the door. According to Gordon the song was originally written around a faux Tom Petty line that he stole from his brother - "she wanted love, love, love / but she was bad, bad bad" (which, it must be said is damn good imitation). From a slow acoustic opening, he builds slowly, adding a drums one verse, piano the next until finally the whole song is stumbling along like a drunken New Orleans funeral, brass band and everything. Like a New Orleans funeral, it's a celebration of life in the face of death, of humanity's undeniable ability to endure and thrive and of great music helps us achieve those things.

Unlike Yoni Gordon, I'm in my twenties. I'm not married, I don't, nor do I harbor any short or medium-term plans to, have children. I'm trying to find a way to turn a passion of mine into money, but I've certainly not put in ten years of sweat nor amassed a body of unrecognized work as accomplished as his. The thing is, none of that matters. The Hard Way isn't about the pains of being a struggling musician or a father or anything else, as such. It's about one man's ability to take those concerns and make universally resonant art (well, at least universal within our culture - I'm sure people starving in Mogadishu might find the whole thing a bit obtuse) and that is what Gordon has done. 

I'm telling you folks, the album is amazing, it's uplifting and it whitens your teeth and stays crunchy in milk. Download it and see for yourself, if you like this blog, I have full confidence that you'll like this album. I'm excited to announce that I'll also be featuring an interview the man himself, Yoni Gordon on this very site within the next few weeks, so stay tuned.


Running On The Ocean Floor
Guys Like Us
Long Time Coming, Long Way To Go

Get the whole album. Put it on your phone. On your IPod. Burn it onto a CD for your car. Play it at your office or workplace. Annoy your spouse or significant other with it. As always, you're welcome.

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