Thursday, September 25, 2014

Stevie Nicks - In Your Dreams (2011)

To wind-up my series of Stevie entries - leading up to the October 7th release of her new solo album 24 Karat Gold - I'm reposting a version of my original review of In Your Dreams.

30 years after Bella Donna established Stevie Nicks as a force to be reckoned with in or out of Fleetwood Mac, she was still able to command interest from the music industry. That said, the ten years since her last studio album, Trouble in Shangri-La, saw Nicks seemingly headed out to pasture. She'd been touring regularly but without new material and had dropped two compilation albums: Crystal Visions and The Soundstage Sessions. All idea that Nicks was headed for retirement was banished by In Your Dreams. It's that good. Even Rolling Stone, which had panned or downplayed most of Nicks' work since she joined Fleetwood Mac in 1975 gushed about this release.

And for good reason. If In Your Dreams turns out to be the capstone of Nicks' career, then she's going out on a very high note. However, the album ultimately suggests it would be a shame for her to stop recording as she obviously has a lot of great music left in her. Simply put, In Your Dreams is her best album since The Wild Heart and it is the best solo effort of her career in terms of merging her mystical and rock sides.

Lyrically, In Your Dreams is the most open album of Nicks' career, reminding us that Nicks is at her best when her moony mysticism and snaky incantations are married to sassy rock and roll attitude. This marriage is partly achieved by Dave Stewart's melodic and tight production. He rarely ventures into the meandering over-instrumentation that has haunted every Nicks solo album since The Wild Heart, yet he lets Nicks breath and indulge in the drama that has always formed the core of her allure. He 'gets' Stevie, and his production lets her be herself.

Nicks responds by giving tremendous, emotional performances. While there's no question her voice isn't what it used to be, she seems to have accepted that her sultry vibrato is a thing of the past and is vigorously working what she has. The result is she sounds alive, energized, and happy throughout the disk, as if she's really into what she's doing and comfortable with it. In fact, I don't think she has sounded so utterly invested all the way through an album since...again, The Wild Heart.

The songwriting on In Your Dreams is very direct and straightforward, yet full of dreamscapes and flights of fantasy. The sound is lush and full of sonic details that support the mood of the songs. There is really no way to pick a favorite song, as they each touch different emotions. And Nicks masterfully alters her vocal delivery for each of them. There's her always alluring, overgrown romanticism ('Moonlight', 'Italian Summer'), hooky pop tunes ('Secret Love', 'New Orleans'), country twang ('For What It's Worth'), thoughtful ballads ('You May Be The One', 'Cheaper Than Free'), a dirge that verges on slowed down black metal ('Soldier's Angel'), an upbeat take on Edgar Allen Poe ('Annabel Lee'), and straight ahead rock (the title track). Even the to-be-expected loopy tracks ('Wide Sargasso Sea', 'Ghosts Are Gone') work. The only song that suffers by comparison to the rest of the material is 'Everybody Loves You', which sounds like a Eurythmics song.

As on Trouble in Shangri-La, most of the best songs are the ones Nicks writes on her own. So if I were to ding In Your Dreams, it would be for Nicks' continuing reluctance to step up the plate and write more of her own material. She also continues to cull her spellbook for songs from the past (this time, fantastic gems 'Secret Love' and 'Annabel Lee'). But these are minor quibbles. The quality and energy of this album will no doubt go down as one of the biggest surprises of the year. Nicks knocked this album out of the ballpark!

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Mumonkan, Koan 29: The Sixth Patriarch's "Your Mind Moves"

Prayer flags in the wind, Nepal
Photo: Stefanie Buehler
The wind was flapping a temple flag, and two monks started an argument. One said the flag moved, the other said the wind moved; they argued back and forth but could not reach a conclusion. The Sixth Patriarch said, "It is not the wind that moves, it is not the flag that moves; it is your mind that moves." The two monks were awe-struck.

The argument is based on interpreting what one sees with the mind, rather than simply having direct experience in the moment. As such, there is no right-mindedness while the monks argue about what is happening. They are removed from the moment. This is what is meant by "it is your mind that moves."

The argument is one of delusion since it is the debating of interpretations of reality - what each monk thinks about what they see - rather than reality itself. The distancing from reality is actually three-fold. First, there is the interpretation of reality. Second, there is the evaluation of the other monk's interpretation. Then third, there is the comparison of the evaluations against one another. Once we let our minds "move", we are quickly swept out of the moment and away from the moment into an intellectual hall of mirrors that is merely delusion.

The Sixth Patriarch was chastising the monks for their lack of discipline.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

The Difference Between Contentment & Happiness

I'm figuring some of this out as I write, so there's no way this post represents a definitive line of thinking. I only know that the difference between happiness and contentment has increasingly recurred as a theme in my Zen studies and that understanding the difference between the two is important in getting to, and maintaining, right-mindedness.

In various places on Zen Throw Down I've drawn a distinction between happiness and contentment. While I love happiness and joy (and who doesn't?), I've come to understand that it's much wiser to seek contentment than happiness. This is mainly because contentment requires no striving and can be maintained in a world that is full of suffering. On the other hand, happiness constantly demands effort to obtain, disappears all too easily, and/or is merely a mirage on the horizon that beckons without getting closer.

This view of happiness runs counter to how many of us are raised. For example, in the United States the "pursuit of happiness" is inherently woven into our national identity. Cultures may differ, but the desire for happiness seems universal. Zen Buddhism, however, teaches us that happiness is something to cherish when one has it...but that one should never cling to it, mourn when we inevitably lose it, or chase after it.

I suppose what kicked off my thinking about happiness versus contentment was a common thread in the marketing on some book jackets, promotion fliers, or websites about Zen Buddhism, meditation, or self-help. These marketing efforts often contain blurbs or catch-phrases suggesting someone can help us "find happiness" or "achieve inner peace" or something of the sort. Personally I've always distrusted anyone who dangles happiness before me like a carrot, and one of the first things I learned in my Zen studies is that my state of mind is largely (or entirely) of my own making. That includes my happiness and suffering. No one can give me happiness.

Memes are not wisdom
Since we are largely responsible for the reality we face and our emotions about it, that means no one can give of us a path to happiness. Even if such a path existed, a person can't be made to consistently walk it or to keep from straying in response to the distractions faced in day-to-day living. Similarly, we can't be handed or told any knowledge that is a "secret" of being happy. Even if such knowledge existed, it wouldn't help us for the same reason that memes like this one posted on Facebook are nice but useless. We read them, smile and nod at the wisdom they contain, and then go right back to living our lives the way we did before. For knowledge to useful, it must be learned. Even when it is learned, we will not profit from it unless we put it into practice during everyday life. Without practice, knowledge is useless.

Lastly, and most importantly, one can't be taught to be happy because happiness itself is a temporary condition. No one can maintain it no matter what they are taught. In Zen Buddhism we are taught that all beings suffer; it is simply part of life. So it is foolish to cling to happiness or to try avoiding all suffering because we cannot maintain the one or avoid the other. Further, both states are temporary. We are happy until something goes amiss, and then we suffer. We suffer until things start going our way again, and then we are happy.

This circle of joy and suffering drags most people into a deluded mindstate, as they spend all their energy trying to evade suffering or to capture happiness. This is all wasted energy because no matter how happy we become, suffering will always eventually come back to us. In short, trying to maintain happiness as a permanent state is like trying - to quote a lyric from The Sound of Music - "to keep a wave upon the sand." We waste our time and energy running around in this circle.

This is why contentment is a better goal that happiness. While happiness is the absence of suffering, contentment allows for suffering. To explain what is meant by this, imagine a time when you were suffering. It's unlikely you could have said to yourself: "Everything is so awful, but I'm happy anyway!" (If you could say this, then it's questionable whether you were really suffering!). However, it's totally possible - especially from within a disciplined, centered mindstate - to be unhappy and yet to be content on some level.

We can be content even when we suffer because, despite the pain or sadness or anxiety we feel we can look at ourselves in the current moment and know that we're okay. We may not be happy, but we are able to let things slide off our backs and be patient with ourselves.

And this is the crux of the difference between happiness and contentment: while happiness vanishes the second anything goes wrong, contentment can be maintained even in quite averse circumstances.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Stevie Nicks - The Soundstage Sessions (2009)

As the new millennium proceeded, Stevie Nicks found herself increasingly in demand as a rock icon and institution. Little wonder she continued revisiting old material with releases like Crystal Visions and  - in 2009 - this live performance in Chicago entitled The Soundstage Sessions. However, this focus meant it was getting close to a decade since the release of her her last studio album of new material (Trouble in Shangri-La).

Surprisingly, Nicks has never released a live solo album before. Given her strength as a performer and her penchant for reworking her lyrics and phrasing to create fresh versions of her songs when they are performed live, this is a major hole in her discography. The Soundstage Sessions fills this gap but, between Fleetwood Mac tours without new material to support and her lack of new solo material, one begins to wonder if Nicks is winding her career down to coast on her laurels. While I watched and enjoyed the PBS Soundstage airing of this show, I did not buy the CD. I just didn't feel the need to own these tracks or, more exactly, I already own most of them in several versions.

To Nicks' credit, The Soundstage Sessions avoids a too obvious set list. Most conspicuous in their absence are "Rhiannon" and "Dreams", despite their inclusion in the live show. From her solo work, there is no "Stop Dragging My Heart Around", "Leather and Lace", or "Talk to Me" (not sure if these were part of the live show or not). That means most of her biggest hits are not included on The Soundstage Sessions. Despite this, the selection of songs contains several big hits and concert/fan favorites. On the downside, the sequencing of the set feels off. The energy level spikes and then lulls for long periods before spiking again. Keeping more of the spunkier songs from the concert (e.g., "Enchanted") would have made The Soundstage Sessions flow a lot more smoothly and increased its novelty.

The album kicks off with a rocking version of Nicks' most alluring hit of all: "Stand Back". She cooks through this number like a Welsh witch steamroller. Right away, you hear Nicks is letting her voice sail sans her trademark vibrato. Time - and perhaps substance abuse - have eroded her vibrato but she sounds great when she emphasizes energy over holding onto vocal stylings she may simply not be capable of anymore. It's a triumphant kick-off that instantly confirms Nicks still has the goods live.

However, the energy immediately slows down as Nicks covers Dave Matthews "Crash Into Me" and then goes into "Sara". During these songs, especially "Sara", I found myself wanting more presence from Sharon Celani and Lori Perry Nicks'. I felt this many times during the rest of the album/show. It's not that Nicks needs them for vocal camouflage, it's just that her two back-up vocalists have always been a big part of her sound. Their harmonic lushness always contrasted and mixed wonderfully with Nicks' alternately raspy rock and gentle twang. Their efforts could have livened up "Sara" and several other tracks, yet they repeatedly seem to be auto-tuned into a nondescript blob and then pushed way back in the mix.

A sturdy performance of "If Anyone Falls" ups the energy level, despite a cheesy synthesizer, but then the pace slows down again for "Landslide". While the song is a 'must' for Nicks to perform, committing a third live version to disc within the space of ten years is overkill. Another song with less exposure would have been a better choice for this album. "Landslide" is followed by the only weak point of the show: a seven-plus minute, self-indulgent performance of "How Still My Love". This okay song has somehow persisted in Nicks' concert set since 1981, despite dozens of better alternative song choices on more recent albums. "Rooms on Fire" or even "Blue Denim" would have been much more interesting inclusions.

After a nice, but unremarkable, reading of Bonnie Raitt's "The Circle Dance", Nicks finally amps up again for "Fall From Grace" and "Sorcerer" from Trouble in Shangri-La. The disc then coasts through the lovely "Beauty and the Beast" and a ten-minute(!) rendition of "Gold Dust Woman", before finishing up with the obligatory (but admittedly still fiery) "Edge of Seventeen". Waddy Wachtel who, as ever, is the perfect foil for Nicks' though-out The Soundstage Sessions really goes above and beyond on this number.

I never purchased The Soundstage Sessions, despite the obvious gap it fills in Nicks discography and the sheer pleasure of hearing how Nicks remains in fine form. It's a solid album and live performance but, for me, the backwards glancing in Nicks output is simply beginning to wear a bit thin.