Herbie Hancock: The Imagine Project

RIYL: Santana’s Shaman and Supernatural, Anoushka  Shankar’s Breathing Underwater,  WOMAD label artists

On the surface, one might conclude that Herbie Hancock’s current release, The Imaging Project, is a Johnny-come-lately effort that builds on the model Carlos Santana rode to great success on Supernatural and Shaman.  That is to say, call in a diverse group of popular artists and have them record songs that infuse their styles with the dominant musical character of bandleader. Hancock and company certainly attempt that, but Mr. Hancock has grander designs other than just creating a hit record.  The Imagine Project is, according to Hancock, part of a global outreach strategy featuring musicians from various corners of the world to foster a kind of globalization that emphasizes mutual respect rather than a top-down cultural dominance emanating from U.S. to the rest of the world.  Does Hancock succeed in his ambitions?  At times he does, but at other times the record sounds like bland smooth jazz that never rises above level of innocuous background music for worker bees in office buildings.

The most interesting tracks (and ones that reach Hancock’s ambitions on this album) are tucked in the middle and end of the CD.  “The Song Goes On” featuring Chaka Khan and Wayne Shorter – and some blistering sitar playing by Anoushka Shankar – demonstrates what I think Hancock had in mind for this album (the same goes for “Tempo De Amor,” “La Tierra,” and “Tamatant Tilay/Exodus”). Alas, there are some real duds that take away from the potential grandness of the project.  “Tomorrow Never Knows” featuring Dave Matthews is as pointless of a cover as it is boring. “Imagine” gets bogged down in pomposity and relegates Jeff Beck to playing a solo that could have been done by any good musician with about a year’s worth of guitar lessons.  And only Pink saves “Don’t Give Up” from becoming a milquetoast cover of the Peter Gabriel/Kate Bush original.

The Imagine Project is not a horrible record by any stretch, but it continually falls short on both fusing various musical styles and finding new wine from the old wineskins of classic songs. However, when it shines (as it does at times), the music does transcend geographic boarders to create a fusion that lives up to Hancock’s stated goal for this record.  (Hancock Records 2010)

Herbie Hancock’s website
Click to buy The Imagine Project from Amazon


Dave Matthews & Tim Reynolds: Live in Las Vegas

RIYL: Dave Matthews, Dave Matthews Band, owning multiple versions of the same song

Record labels have always been eager to sell music fans repackaged goods, and since the dawn of the CD era, the marketplace has been more flooded than ever with remixes, so-called “deluxe” versions, remasters, and all manner of different versions of the same thing. Still, even during a century that has brought us three different iterations of The Essential REO Speedwagon, Dave Matthews stands out as a mighty king of the leftover; since 1997, he’s released approximately 375 live albums, not counting the interminable Live Trax series, whose volumes now outnumber the population of Guam.

Adding to this towering stack of repetition is Live in Las Vegas, Matthews’ third double-disc live collaboration with guitarist Tim Reynolds. When the duo released Live at Luther College in 1999, it actually represented a bit of a nice departure for Matthews; the acoustic setting, while not altogether unfamiliar for his songs, added something different to tracks like “What Would You Say” and “Ants Marching.” But then came 2007’s Live at Radio City, which was essentially two more discs of the same thing, right down to the inclusion of four tracks that had been covered on Luther – and because Matthews’ fans will apparently never stop buying this stuff, he and Reynolds have returned for a third go-round.

Matthews is a prolific guy, but if you’ve already guessed that he’s running out of songs that he and Reynolds haven’t already covered, you’re correct: Just about half of Live in Las Vegas consists of songs that popped up on Luther or Radio City (or both). They toss in a few cuts from the Dave Matthews Band’s last studio album, Big Whiskey and the GrooGrux King, as well as a “Kashmir” cover that starts off nifty before dissolving into masturbatory guitar noodling, but on the whole, this is two and a half hours of music you can hear on other albums – and much of it in a musical setting that isn’t appreciably different from what’s on offer here. Unless you’re a hardcore fan, you’ll be hard pressed to tell the difference.

But it’s the hardcore fans that keep lapping this stuff up, of course, which begs the question of at which point Matthews crosses over from dedicated live anthologist to crass exploiter. Really, the only truly interesting thing about Live in Las Vegas is that it exists – that Matthews knows he has plenty of fans who will be willing to buy it, or anything else he releases, no matter how many times they’ve heard it before. Given the extraordinary difficulty the industry has had selling records over the last decade, the RIAA should probably just pack it in and let Dave Matthews run the whole show. If he can sell people Live in Las Vegas, he can sell them anything. (RCA 2010)

Dave Matthews Band MySpace page


Brett Dennen: Hope for the Hopeless

Up ‘til now, Brett Dennen has been positioned as a sort of 21st-century troubadour, a scruffy kid with an acoustic guitar and a big ol’ heart pinned to his sleeve – which is why his third disc, Hope for the Hopeless, may give fans a bit of a shock, what with its generous coating of semi-glossy production (applied by John Mayer and Dave Matthews helmer John Alagia) and introduction of somewhat dance-friendly beats. Heck, there’s even a restrained Femi Kuti cameo on the first single, “Make You Crazy”! Fans who have loved Dennen for his previous albums’ strong coffee-shop vibe may cry sellout, but that’s just sour grapes talking: Hope for the Hopeless is no better or worse than what’s come before it, it’s just that Dennen’s less of an idealist than his lyrics might make you think, and he’s made a calculated bid to expand his audience. It’s a gamble that might have worked six or seven years ago, when this sort of pop-radio-friendly college rock was on the rise with the TRL set; in 2008, however – and coming from a smaller indie like Dualtone, which lacks the muscle enjoyed by Alagia’s more famous clients’ labels – it seems like an unlikely way for Dennen to broaden his fanbase. Still, the songs are solidly crafted and tastefully uplifting, and if the lyrics occasionally venture into softheaded territory (”Heaven ain’t got no prisons / No government no business”), the songs are more than capably presented by a band of session ringers that includes drummer Joey Waronker and guitarist Mark Goldenberg. It may not provide what its title promises, but if you’ve got room for a little more singer/songwriter pop in your diet, you could certainly do a lot worse than this. (Dualtone 2008)

Brett Dennen MySpace page