Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Can Blue Men Sing the Whites?

In the 1960's, when hundreds of English lads paid tribute to their favorite blues musicians by forming their own bands, some went on to mint millions (Stones, Clapton) but there were lingering questions about one race musically exploiting another. Not that this was a new story or that this won't get played out again and again in the future... Also, it wasn't as if all of these white blues musicians where a bunch of money grubbin' scumbags who looked to cash in on their skin-tone, using the repertoire of slave descendents- some of these bluesmen really did have a genuine feel for the music and were naturally attracted to it. But just as white rappers have to contend with questions about appropriating a musical form developed by another race, so do white bluesmen have to prove themselves too.

I got to thinking about this subject in light of recent albums from a trio of singers/guitarists: John Hammond Jr.'s Push Comes To Shove (Back Porch), Kenny Wayne Shepherd's 10 Days Out (Blues from the Backroads) (Reprise) and Bob Margolin's In North Carolina (Steady Rollin'). Hammond (age 64) and Margolin (age 57) have been around long enough to earn their stripes and respect- the former helped revive the careers of several Delta legends in addition to pursuing his own career where he's put out albums since the early 60's while the later earned his pedigree backing up Muddy Waters for most of the 70's. Hammond doesn't have a remarkably expressive voice but he definitely has the FEEL of the blues, which counts for a lot- no wonder Tom Waits likes his company. The same can be said of Margolin, even if he doesn't get to hang out with Waits.

Shepherd is a different affair. He's not only from a younger generation (age 29) but has also racked up his share of Grammys (well, they do give out blues awards there every year) and even more incredibly, gold albums. It never occurred me to note him as anything more than a relatively-popular curiosity in the field until he traveled the South to record some of his musical forefathers on his latest album. No doubt the fact that though it's his name on the album, the stars of the show are his guests including B.B. King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Hubert Sumlin, Henry Townsend, Pinetop Perkins, who all sound in fine form. Think of it as a great blues mixtape, held together by Shepherd's tribute mission (compare that to Hammond Jr's old days).

And don't get me started about George Thorogood...

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Randy Newman's state of the union

Forget about the lame duck who can't even get the support of his own party- Randy Newman has his own state of the union address. Last year in an interview/performance as part of the New Yorker Festival, Newman previewed a song from his upcoming album. He worried that although he wasn't a hawk, he didn't want to come across with the usual bleeding heart sentiments, even if he agreed with such ideas in principle. Newman is the kind of guy who sees wrenching difficult issues and looks deep at the ugly root of it- think of his 1974 album about racists (Good Old Boys) or his numerous songs where he gets in the mind of murderers (no wonder he's such an Eminem fan).

It's no different for the Iraq War- the way he sees it, it's just a part of history. The lyrics of "A Few Words in Defense of Our Country" were recently printed in the New York Times as an op-ed piece and they deserve to be reprinted.

I’d like to say a few words
In defense of our country
Whose people aren’t bad nor are they mean
Now the leaders we have
While they’re the worst that we’ve had
Are hardly the worst this poor world has seen
Let’s turn history’s pages, shall we?

Take the Caesars for example
Why within the first few of them
They had split Gaul into three parts
Fed the Christians to the lions
And burned down the City
And one of ’em
Appointed his own horse Consul of the Empire
That’s like vice president or something
That’s not a very good example, is it?
But wait, here’s one, the Spanish Inquisition
They put people in a terrible position
I don’t even like to think about it
Well, sometimes I like to think about it

Just a few words in defense of our country
Whose time at the top
Could be coming to an end
Now we don’t want their love
And respect at this point is pretty much out of the question
But in times like these
We sure could use a friend
Hitler. Stalin.
Men who need no introduction
King Leopold of Belgium. That’s right.
Everyone thinks he’s so great
Well he owned The Congo
He tore it up too
He took the diamonds, he took the gold
He took the silver
Know what he left them with?

A president once said,
“The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”
Now it seems like we’re supposed to be afraid
It’s patriotic in fact and color coded
And what are we supposed to be afraid of?
Why, of being afraid
That’s what terror means, doesn’t it?
That’s what it used to mean

The end of an empire is messy at best
And this empire is ending
Like all the rest
Like the Spanish Armada adrift on the sea
We’re adrift in the land of the brave
And the home of the free
Goodbye. Goodbye. Goodbye.

So, yes folks- Bush, Cheney and friends don't look so bad when you add it all up historically. But you do have to go back a few centuries to find them some company.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Critical Metrics- who says the charts suck?

"All the music on the radio and the charts sucks. It's like it used to be back when I was a kid..." Yes, yes, we know... Everything was great when you were young and just starting to get into music and now it's a soulless mass of commercialism. It's time to get rid of the rose-colored shades because you need to get up to speed. It's one thing to tell you that there was bad music in your salad days (or that there's always good and bad music around) or that maybe there's no Aretha now but she was no Billie, who was no Bessie... (you get the idea). No, the best way to stop the lies about today's music being one huge suck-fest is to really immerse yourself in some of the highly regard music out there now and see if your prejudices still hold up.

I can't make any promises though. Some people are so tied to their own time that they'll never believe that good music is still out there now. But, if you do have a little bit of an open mind, maybe some aural evidence will sway you at least a little bit.

There are a couple of ways to experience it for yourself. One obvious way is to turn on the radio and listen to your local top 40 station. If that's too frightening, there's plenty of online music services that offer more personalized access to not just 30 second samples (i.e. iTunes, Amazon, Barnes and Noble) but also streaming entire songs or entire albums (i.e. Napster).

But if you want a good, easy place to sample all the songs that top music mags are drooling over, the best place I've seen is Critical Metrics. From their own propaganda: "Dozens of highly recommended singles appear every day- —Critical Metrics makes it effortless to find them, try them, and to buy your favorites." Yeah, it sounds peachy creamy but what does that mean? They sift through reviews at Spin, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, Vibe, Blender, Stylus, XXL, The Source, Pitchfork, the New York Times and other locales for their own top 20 list. They then provide the songs (full length) to stream and/or the videos accompanying them. Sometimes neither of these areaffablee and right now, the list is heavily weighed towards rap and R&B but as it stands, it's still a good way to get a bead on what's hot and being talked up now.

Thinking that I was going to be a masochist, I went through the entire top 20 list for last month. As it turns out, not only was it relatively painless but in a lot of cases, it was downright pleasurable and eye-opening.

Discounting the stuff that they don't have sound/video for (Ghostface, Clap Your Hands and Say Yeah, LCD Soundsystem, all of which I'm pretty much pre-sold on anyway), they did have sources for the rest of their list. Then there was the stuff I didn't have any use for: top rated Young Jeezy (nice orchestral backing though), Cadillac & J-Money (good that they're minimal but not enough going on), Xzibit (good chanting/clapping background but his bluster sounds like hot air) and Annie Stela (the Spin review is perfect: "tailor-made for VH1 weekend countdown"). Note that the iffy stuff mostly appears at the bottom of CM's top 20 list, which means that they know something about quality.

There were a number of good (not great) offerings too: Pop Levi's bluesy glam-psych, dancehall singer Turbulence, shoe-gazers Beach House, New Young Pony Club's trashy dance-rock, Rich Boy's boasts about his ride (especially like the soulful strings) and Jay-Z's ruminating break-up song ("Lost One").

For the very good stuff, there was the Shins' "Phantom Limb" (who now sound just like the Pernice Brothers, which is cool by me), Fantasia's "Hood Boy" (nice single that I missed but I still love "Not the Way That I Do" more), Lupe Fiasco's "Daydreamin'" (who I didn't have any use for before but here doing a sweet soul turn with Ms. Jill Scott), Amy Winehouse's "Rehab" (another neo-soul entry and again, didn't have any use for her previously but she's definitely got the spirit), Ciara's "Promise" (ditto and it's not immediately obvious what a great, steamy groove record it is), 50 Cent/Eminem's "You Don't Know" (the Source nails it, saying that M's cameo makes the song) and Art Brut's "Nag Nag Nag Nag" (hilariously bitchy rock and as musically self-referential as Hold Steady).

Again and again, I was coming back to songs or albums that I passed off as weak, now discovering nuggets here and there. Isn't that one thing radio was supposed to do? Also, it was kind of a relief to listen past the hype and actually hear if the songs/artists were as good as they were made out to be. CM ain't perfect- I don't agree with some of the choices and it's not just missing out on rock but also country and plenty of other genres- but I know that I'll be back to visit it again.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Skempton by Tilbury- Zen music to adore

As bad as it is to know that you've missed some prime music from last year (I expect to learn about more '06 releases in the weeks to come), it's even worse to hear about a great piece of music from a few years ago that you didn't even hear about.

Thanks to Other Music, I was hepped to a wonderful album by pianist John Tilbury (who you might have heard of from his work as part of famed longtime UK improv ensemble AMM). In 2002, he released Music For You: Skempton Pianoworks as tribute to his friend, composer Howard S. (whose background included studies with Cornelius Cardew). After listening to half of the album streamed at Napster, I was in love with it. It has this wonderful Eno-meet-Satie calm about it and serves as perfect background music for writing or working or just to chill out to. It brings to mind all kinds of placid images like a nice quiet summer's day or the ebb-and-flow of a beach (like on the album cover). Over the last few days, I've gotten so attached to it that I'm copying the music not just to my work computer but also my portable MP3 player so I can summon up its beautiful calm whenever I'm in the mood for it.

Listen to excerpts from the Barnes and Noble site.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Miami Beach- Cuban crossovers and the Beach Boys

Is it '07 already? I was just getting used to the idea of "2006." Oh well... I spent the end of December in Miami Beach, thinking that I'd escape the cold but thanks to global warming, the temp there only beat out Gotham by about 20 degrees.

On the plus side, I got to indulge in some Cuban culture. The Little Havana section of Miami had a wonderful street fare, featuring gallery receptions, arts 'n' crafts and bands playing on the street, sidewalk and make-shift stages. What was also striking were the anti-Castro sentiments that run deep there (witness the picture of the happy gent on the left). I almost wanted to say "Listen, the best way to kill off the bastard is to open the place to U.S. businesses" but it wouldn't do any good, not in a place that had a stone monument to the people who died at the Bay of Pigs.

Another stop was at a "Hear" store. It turns out to be a Starbucks in disguise with the Hear Company setting up listening booths and a mini-record store on the side. The thing is, the place with packed with music junkies (on two weekend nights, no less), including me and my girlfriend. What I didn't notice was a lot of people actually buying CD's though (most of the customers were chugging java). Starbucks has been wise to exploit a music angle at their stores and has led to good sales for some CD's and this was just more proof of that, especially as you could listen to entire songs and not just 30 second snatches. After spending some time in the small world music listening area, I indulged in and then picked up two recent albums, Ali Farka Toure's blues-soaked Savane and Boubacar Traore's gently acoustic African Nights collection.
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In comparison, a record chain store down the street wasn't doing as well. As we walked past it, we weren't even sure it was open because it was so desolate. When we finally went in, we did our usual routine at the listening areas. One thing that caught my eye was this CD you see to your left by the Klazz Brothers (from 2004). It seemed like a cute kitschy novelty, mixing Cuban music with classical, so I had to hear it for myself. To my surprise, it wasn't just a nice novelty but an enjoyable album, especially for anyone (i.e. me) who isn't too familiar with Cuba or old-school classical music (you know, the old European masters). You get Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Chopin, all made into Latin dance music. But it's actually really good. Not only do you know the tunes even if you're not a classical buff but you also get jazzy versions of the songs. Sure, it goes against heresy for some but for us uncouth slobs, it's a delight. The follow-up they did a few years later is a little too sentimental and gloppy though so stick with this one.

And finally, the music I kept hearing around the stores again and again was... the Beach Boys? Granted, Miami bass is more than two decades old now but the place does have some tradition for music. Though most people don't remember, Lynyrd Skynyrd is from FL as is Tom Petty, N Sync, KC and the Sunshine Band, Dashboard Confession, Iron and Wine and of course Gloria Estefan (not to mention Cannibal Corpse). While we did hear some bass-heavy techno pumping from some clubs, it was the Wilson brothers that we kept hearing again and again everywhere else.

How do you explain that? It's simple really. You have the sunny, warm climate and the beach there just like you do in California. That's enough connection to make them musical heros in Florida even though everyone knows that they're from the other coast. Sure it makes sense but it's also kind of sad that all of the other music produced by the state is still eclipsed by this. And needless to say, they're fans of the early BB stuff and not the later arty stuff so you'll hear "Surfin' Safari" endlessly and not Pet Sounds. Even worse, one of the current versions of "the Beach Boys" (this one with Mike Love and assorted younger friends) was touring there and a radio station was promoting the show with free tickets. It's enough to make you fondly recall one of the Jesus and Mary Chain's best songs: "Kill Surf City."