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: email@example.com
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)
RIYL: Leonard Cohen, George Gershwin, deathly seriousness
All musicians should have Rufus Wainwright’s ambition, with a reach that far, far exceeds their grasp the way his does. The only catch, of course, is that there is no guarantee that you will like what he’s reaching for from one album to the next. He’s like Neil Young in the ’80s, only without the whole ‘fuck you Geffen’ thing.
There are two clear phases to his career at this point: the pop years (his 1998 debut, 2001′s Poses, and 2003′s Want One), and the stage years, which is everything he’s released after Want One. Hell, the man did a show as Judy Garland, so Broadway clearly appeals to him more than conventional popular music. And that’s okay: the man is nothing if not melodramatic, so he’s wise to play to his strengths.
This time around, though, the ‘melo’ to ‘drama’ ratio is tilted mightily in favor of the former. All Days Are Nights: Songs for Lulu, Wainwright’s first studio effort since 2007′s Release the Stars, is Rufus armed only with a piano, a stark contrast to the elaborate productions he’s been assembling for the last, well, ten years now. It’s pretty, but hot damn, is it maudlin. Wainwright’s pulse quickens only three times here, and they wisely opened the album with one of them: “Who Are You New York?” has the album’s biggest hooks both vocally and musically, with “Give Me What I Want and Give It to Me Now” not far behind. Someone needs to talk to him, though, about his tendency to draw out the syllables to the point where it doesn’t sound like he’s singing actual words. Entire songs can go by without a single lyric leaving a mark, and when it’s one of the, ahem, many ballads that All Days Are Nights sports, the experience of listening to the album can get laborious in a hurry.
In a business where promising careers get smashed by simple-minded executives who want to put a square peg in a round hole, Rufus Wainwright is one of the few artists who could stand to benefit from a little direction. Unless, of course, Wainwright is actually trying to make albums that appeal to fewer and fewer people, in which case he should continue doing exactly what he’s doing. All Days Are Nights is fine for what it is, but if he doesn’t watch it, Wainwright’s subsequent releases will be given the same fanfare as a new album by Sarah Brightman. (Decca 2010)
Here’s the God’s honest truth about the Broadway cast recording of “American Idiot” – it’s neither as good nor as bad as you’ve heard it is. These kinds of projects serve as a knives-out snarkfest for the more weak-willed music critics, who are then assaulted by the band’s faithful followers in the comment sections. Don’t take sides; they’re both right, and they’re both wrong.
The album features Green Day’s landmark 2004 album American Idiot in its entirety – they even included some B-sides from the Idiot sessions – along with a few tracks from the band’s 2009 album 21st Century Breakdown. The backing tracks are by and large Green Day’s original recordings, though “Last of the American Girls” starts off with a knowing wink to “Eleanor Rigby.” This makes for some smooth transitions from CD to the stage, though “Jesus of Suburbia” sports one of the most jarriing key changes you’ll ever hear when it’s the female lead’s turn to sing.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about American Idiot is the fact that Green Day’s original recordings of these songs are in many ways more musical than the musical versions. Stacked vocals are stripped away for the purpose of building to the big choral effect, though they don’t do that big choral effect nearly enough. Indeed, many songs are frankly undersung. The songs are already larger than life; the Broadway versions of them should be massive, like Godzilla-destroying-Manhattan big. The title track pulls a nifty layered vocal build-up during the break, and “Whatsername” capitalizes on the song’s soft-LOUD arrangement to make for a triumphant finale. “21 Guns” is the album’s showstopping moment, with the most theatrical arrangement and a vocal to match. The album could use more moments like them. “Wake Me Up When September Ends” has the pretty string touches, but for a musical about a post-9/11 landscape, that song of all songs should have been sung to the heavens.
The band were unquestionably treading a slippery slope in adapting their music for the stage, and they must have felt pressure to keep the spirit of the originals intact. Ironically, American Idiot could have benefited from a little more tinkering. It’s great to hear a Broadway score rock like this, but it would have been better to see them fully embrace what people love about Broadway in the first place. (Reprise 2010)
Sometimes great singers try a bit too hard to prove that they’re great. April Smith is not one of those singers. The arrangements on her latest and most impressive album Songs for a Sinking Ship fit her sultry voice like a glove and her songwriting is both playful and intellectual. April Smith is clearly capable of controlling the whole circus when it comes to vocal acrobatics but possesses the restraint to allow each song to shine as bright as her ability.
After numerous listens, I’ve yet to find a track that I didn’t thoroughly enjoy. A standout track on Songs for a Sinking Ship is “Wow and Flutter” which combines semi-dark theatrics with a refrain that could have found a home on a Ratt record. Odd, I know, but it totally works. Additionally, the closer “Stop Wondering” is easily the most delightful “fuck you” to a former lover ever recorded.
Aside from her glowing talent behind the mic and the pen, she’s clearly figured out the business side of things as well. She used kickstarter.com and her ever-growing fan base (acquired from near constant touring over the past few years) to fund this release. We always hear stories of bands collecting cash online to fund their latest projects but many of those bands were once privileged enough to receive that initial “major label” push. April did it her way from the start and we can only hope that in the years to come she will be recognized as the fearless trailblazer that she is.
There are no gimmicks on Songs for a Sinking Ship. Only great writing and performing which is a very welcome change of pace from your typical release. You’re going to want to sing along with April Smith but you had better stretch out before attempting it or you will most certainly hurt yourself. (Little Roscoe 2010)
RIYL: Quirky, comedy infused classic holiday vocal music
There really isn’t another group like Straight No Chaser. All they do is holiday-themed music, and they do it their own way – that is, a cappella. With their new one, Christmas Cheers, the follow up to 2008’s Holiday Spirits, the group took even more risks than before. The soulful, R&B-infused vocal runs, techniques and harmonies are all there, and they effectively weave comedic bits into classic material without skipping a beat. That’s all well and good, but the novelty has worn off with just 12 months between releases, and some of these tracks tend to run into one another. The opening track, “The Christmas Can-Can,” is really funny with terms like “Shop until you lose your mind.” And some of the other really pretty classics include “Christmastime is Here” and “O Holy Night,” and there is a hilarious yet nicely done version of “You’re A Mean One, Mister Grinch.” But maybe the best track of all is the studio version of “The 12 Days of Christmas,” a track the group released as a live take last year and which has become their trademark. So give Christmas Cheers a fair listen, but be warned – you may not make it past two or three listens before January. (Atlantic 2009)
RIYL: 1950s rockabilly, 1960s pop, 1970s country, rock history in general
In honor of Elvis’ 75th birthday – we won’t get into whether he is “the late Elvis” or still rockin’ in the wilds of Michigan – Legacy’s issuing a bunch of records, this one being first up and coinciding with a Graceland bash. In a word, it’s great stuff, a career-spanning retrospective that covers the gamut of the good, bad and ugly from rock’s first real icon, its undisputed King. Elvis diehards probably have most of the 100 tracks spanning the almost 25 years of his recorded career, from the 1953 “My Happiness” demo to Moody Blue tracks; probably only the most manic completists among longtime fans will nibble at this.
For the rest of us, however, it puts Presley’s work in context: There’s no denying the power of Young Elvis, who had an incredible combination of talent, charisma, and the stones to fuse music from black R&B records, gospel, redneck bluegrass, and loud guitars. When he walked into the Memphis Sun Studios and hooked up with label impresario Sam Phillips in 1954 to put down his brilliant first sides, he was just a singer who loved all the music he heard from both sides of the tracks and just didn’t particularly care what people would think if he did. Maybe I’m alone in this opinion, but I believe that all the stuff that came after – the politics, the goofy Graceland stuff, the Army, the movies, the drugs, the Comeback, stuffing his sweaty and overweight frame into sequined Vegas costumes, and finally, the overdose, were not of his doing but caused by external forces he endured, albeit willingly at times. The early songs still sound fresh and crisp: “Mystery Train,” “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” “Jailhouse Rock.” A powderkeg of testosterone and unbridled joy. Rock, undistilled. Then comes the ballads, the country, the gospel stuff…the brutal “Suspicion.” It’s all here, along with the 2002 techno remix of “A Little Less Conversation.”
Listening to this end to end, it’s bizarre to hear Elvis’ transformation from the white-hot beginning to the dying embers of a career when he finally ingested that deadly cocktail of prescription drugs. At first, he synthesized all these at-the-time disparate musical influences to create such musical magic. By the mid-1970s, however, he was clinging desperately to country, sounding like a second-rate Hank Jr. knockoff at best (who himself was a poor Xerox of his daddy). Elvis ended up the ghost of his 1950s and early-’60s heyday, barely recognizable and subject to all the ridicule that’s followed his 1977 death. The moral of the story? Elvis wasn’t larger than life; he was just another rock star, human after all. But just like the NFL has good quarterbacks and bad, as far as rock stars go, Elvis was no Kyle Orton; he was Brett Favre, the greatest statistical player – unstoppable at first but maybe should have called it quits before his career turned into a circus. If you’ve never dug Elvis seriously, check out this box. There’s a lot more going on here than Jay Leno punch lines. When he was on top of his game, he wrote rock history with a gorgeously powerful voice and a beguiling smile. This box remembers that part, best. (Sony/Legacy, 2009).