While most kids ran around the park, scrapping elbows and playing Pirates, I sprawled out on my bed and copied the lyrics of my favorite Petula Clark song. My name is Melanie, and I am the oldest 25-year old that ever lived.
I was born with the heart of a 1960s hippie, twenty years too late. I blame my folks for this. My parents spent their youth as bell-bottomed teens with a penchant for the classics, particularly music birthed from Great Britain. In turn, they passed their “peace and love, man” ideals to yours truly. In middle school, I was the musically misplaced ‘oldies fanatic’ during ‘NSYNC mania. I hummed doo-wop songs before I even knew what ‘hip-hop’ was, and Justin Timberlake had nothing on a young Paul McCartney, bowl-cut and all. (To this day, I’m pretty sure I can belt out any Beatles tune if you ask nicely.)
What’s the point of this pretentious anecdote? To showcase the moment I nearly lost faith in contemporary music, upon stumbling across Justin Bieber’s “Baby” video on MTV. Once I had processed the mind-numbing chorus of: “Baby, baby, baby, oh // Like baby, baby, baby, no // Like baby, baby, baby, oh // I thought you’d always be mine, mine,” I could only sit on the sofa, absolutely dumbfounded. I felt as if I had just witnessed the decline of all human effort, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I was the only person in the world who would actively campaign to get his songwriter fired.
To my relief, Bieber soon went bye-bye and a new video emerged like a musical Godsend. A solo artist named Gary Clark, Jr. swooped in to restore my optimism in the modern music industry. For the next five minutes, I was in guitar-riff heaven; captivated by this musician who shredded his way into my heart with a classic Gibson ES335.
Brazenly referred to as the modern-day Jimi Hendrix, Gary Clark, Jr. is the Texas-based crooner making waves with his commanding “cool cat” persona and fuzzy guitar rhythms. Though he has gained some notoriety on the indie-blues rock scene, Gary Clark, Jr. is relatively under wraps. For someone who has harnessed old-school influences to produce a modern blues vibe, this is one artist truly deserving of global recognition.
Listen to his first single, “Bright Lights,” a song chronicling his journey of self-exploration in the unforgiven metropolis of NYC. What’s your take on this up-and-coming artist? Is Gary Clark, Jr. the reincarnation of old-school rock?
For a country smaller than the state of Florida, England incessantly burgeons with musical talent. A modern “British Invasion” has emerged on this year’s music front, with radio charts offering an English mash-up of thumping bass and the thrum of banjos. From Alex Clare’s experimental drum-and-bass to Ellie Goulding’s indie pop melodies, the eclectic range of British influence has made an influential mark on the contemporary music scene.
Another innovative artist climbing the UK charts is twenty-two year old Delilah; a London-based songstress gaining notable praise with her debut album, “From the Roots Up.” The freshman LP skillfully combines ambient, electro-bass beats with sultry, R&B vocals; successfully achieving a bold range of genre-bending tracks.
Delilah’s first single “Go” samples lyrics from the 1983 Chaka Khan hit, “Ain’t Nobody,” while flawlessly incorporating her own edgy, carnal-driven undertones. The provocative track peaked at #21 on the UK Singles Chart, and amassed heavy radio rotation.
“From the Roots Up” is a candid showcase of Delilah’s lyrical versatility, offering realistic – at times haunting – accounts of love and lust. Physical expression is glorified throughout the album, highlighting her frank and unapologetic approach to sexuality.
Delilah is certainly an artist on the rise, presenting a fresh culmination of innovation and talent, but what’s your opinion? Take a peek at the creative video for her single, “Love You So,” and see if this English artist tickles your fancy….
Underground Rapper of the Week is a new feature designed to raise awareness of rappers from all over the world who, if that world were a perfect place, would be more famous than they are. It will be updated every Tuesday before the sun goes down. Feel free to email suggestions of slept-on rappers from your city or wherever to: firstname.lastname@example.org
With the exception of my full-group profile of Solillaquists of Sound a few weeks ago, women have been noticeably absent from this column, which points to a larger problem in Hip-Hop culture and society at large. No female emcee is more important to the community than the Minneapolis-based poet and emcee Desdamona, who has worked tirelessly to make Hip-Hop a better place for women. Her 365 Days of Female MCs blog helps to shed light on many unheralded contributors to the art form of rap, and her annual multimedia festival, B-Girl Be, brings together women from around the world who practice all four original elements of Hip-Hop: graffiti, breakdancing, deejaying and emceeing. She also hosts the long-running Poet’s Groove open mic, one of the very most respected and enduring shows in the Twin Cities of Minnesota.
In addition to such community work and activism, Desdamona is herself a powerful emcee and spoken word artist, having won five Minnesota Music Awards for Best Spoken Word Artist in 2000, and then consecutively in 2003-2006, inclusive. She has also toured extensively, bringing her sound to audiences all over the U.S., as well as Germany and France, where she has built a very respectable following with beatboxing partner Carnage in their group Ill Chemistry. Desdamona has opened for legendary artists such as KRS-One; the late, great Guru; Saul Williams; and Wyclef Jean, among others, and is a frequent collaborator with the equally legendary Sly & Robbie, who produced her 2005 debut album, The Ledge. In addition to her strong, poetic abilities as a rapper, Desdamona is also a skilled singer, and has joined Ursus Minor in both capacities on their third album, I Will Not Take “But” for an Answer, and joining them on their subsequent tour along with The Coup‘s Boots Riley.
Desdamona’s lyrics are thoughtful, personal and resonant with themes of identity, equality and body image, and for this reason it is often best to hear her words over sparse beats or no beat at all. For an example of her emotionally moving poetry, look no further than “Too Big for My Skin,” a poem that has since expanded into a campaign aimed at rethinking societal beauty standards and giving a voice to repressed women all over the world. However, this is not to say she can’t murder beats with the best of them, and her live performances – whether solo or with Carnage as Ill Chemistry – are electrifying, and she wisely used live instrumentation to create her 2007 album, The Source, which features Carnage, as well as remixed tracks by Sly & Robbie. Male or female, Desdamona is one of the Midwest’s most vital talents, and her continued work with Ursus Minor and Ill Chemistry, who just released their first full-length album in France, definitely deserves your attention.
I don’t even know why I’m here, frankly. I think it’s pretty well documented that all I do these days is write about television and interview people ’til the cows come home. Once upon a time, though, I used to be a music critic, dammit…and once you’ve had opinions about music, you’ll always have opinions about music. As such, here are my thoughts on the albums and songs that grabbed me this year. This may be the first time I’ve actually written about most of them, but you can damn well be sure that I’ve spent plenty of time listening to them.
1. Tom Jones: Praise & Blame
It’s a pretty consistent tradition that my #1 slot on my Best Albums list of any given year belongs to an artist whose career I’ve followed for quite some time, but Sir Tom earned his spot fair and square. Kicking things off with a stark cover of Bob Dylan’s “What Good Am I?” which will leave listeners spellbound, the Welsh wonder goes gospel with this record, and while it’s admittedly not the sort of career move that generally results in the shifting of mass units, it’s a creative success, one which befits a man entering his seventies far more than, say, another retread of “Sexbomb.” Having already secured legendary status (not to mention a knighthood), our man Tom can afford to step outside of people’s perceptions, and for those who’ve been paying attention, that’s what he’s been doing for the past several albums, including 2008’s 24 Hours and his 2004 collaboration with Jools Holland. But while Praise & Blame is a continuation of an existing trend, it’s also arguably the first time Jones has made absolutely no commercial concessions. There’s no wink-and-a-nudge cover of “200 Lbs. of Heavenly joy.” There’s no song by Bono and the Edge nor uber-hip production from Future Cut. There’s just Tom Jones, age 70…and, by God, he’s still got it.
2. Glen Matlock & The Philistines: Born Running
It isn’t as though it’s surprising that John Lydon’s the member of the Sex Pistols who’s gone on to have the most successful solo career – he was, after all, the frontman for the group – but it continues to be equally eyebrow-raising that so few of the band’s fans have kept their ears open for the consistently solid material emerging from Glen Matlock‘s camp. It’s not quite as punk as the Pistols – which makes perfect sense if you believe the story about Matlock supposedly getting the boot from the band for liking the Beatles a bit too much – but the songs on Born Running still pack a fierce wallop.
3. Brian Wilson: Reimagines Gershwin
The older I get, the less I allow myself to feel guilty about enjoying an album that I could easily peddle to people my grandparents’ age. All things considered, I’d much rather have a full collection of new originals from Mr. Wilson, but the way he takes these Gershwin classics and arranges them to match his traditional sound is still music to my ears. Then, of course, there’s the added bonus that he’s taken on the task of completing a couple of previously-unfinished Gershwin songs. Unsurprisingly, they sound just like Brian Wilson compositions…not that there’s anything wrong with that. At all.
4. Farrah: Farrah
There’s Britpop, and then there’s power pop, but you don’t tend to find bands who can manage to comfortably keep a foot in both camp; I’d argue that Farrah succeeds at this task, but given that they don’t have a particularly high profile in either, I suppose it really all depends on how you define success. For my part, though, if an artist releases an album which contains a significant number of catchy-as-hell hooks, it’s top of the pops in my book, which means that this self-titled entry into their discography is yet another winner for Farrah.
Throughout their 20-plus-year career, the Indigo Girls have maintained not only their integrity as songwriters, but they have managed to consistently produce music that pierces the hearts of their listeners. While the music industry may have forgotten about Emily Sailers and Amy Ray, their loyal fans have stuck with them as they’ve branched out from an indie folk act to incorporate blues, Americana and straight-up rock and roll into their sound. While the sound may have changed, one thing that has remained intact after all of these years is the Girls’ immaculate harmonies. They still sound pitch perfect and as beautiful as they did the first time we all heard “Closer to Fine” back in 1989.
On Staring Down the Brilliant Dream, the group’s new double-CD live album, those famous harmonies are front and center. Recorded during their 2006-2009 tours, there are 31 songs on this album, each hand-selected by the Grammy-winning duo. Those of you thinking that you could never sit through two CDs of the Indigo Girls, their acoustic guitars, and a concert hall full of their adoring fans, fear not; the Indigo Girls are accompanied by their killer band, with the band members filtering in as needed. Full band arrangements of “Shame on you” and “Fill It Up Again” are lovely examples of Ray and Sailers acting as expert bandleaders, while “Fly Away” and “Watershed” show that the Indigo Girls can still captivate a crowd with just two instruments.
Highlights on Disc One include the haunting “Ozilline,” a rousing cover of Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, “ featuring guest vocals by Brandi Carlisle, and a superb rendition of “Kid Fears,” with Three5Human lead singer, Trina Meade, taking the Michael Stipe solo. This version of the song from their debut album rivals the original recording in it power. Disc Two highlights are the rollicking “Rock and Roll Heaven’s Gate,” the breathtaking “Fugitive,” and the great ‘fuck off’ song, “Become You.” Sound quality on Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is outstanding. The clarity of the vocals and the separation between the instruments gives you the full effect of being at the venue and hearing the Indigo Girls live.
Fans of the Indigo Girls are going to buy this album regardless of this review, but for those of you who’ve never experienced one of the Girls’ concerts, or for those of you who stopped listening to the group after their early ’90s heyday, Staring Down the Brilliant Dream is a fine way to become (re)acquainted with the band. (IG Recordings/Vanguard Records, 2010)