Here's a great article on James by Jonathan Lethem that ran in Rolling Stone last year.
Here's James's obituary in the New York Times, written by the great Jon Pareles.
I'll be interested to see how the mainstream media treats his passing; to say that he was "influential" would be an incredible understatement. Modern music as we know it doesn't exist without him.
Trying To Get To You
Monday, December 25, 2006
Here's a great article on James by Jonathan Lethem that ran in Rolling Stone last year.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/25/2006 08:56:00 PM
Farewell to the Godfather of Soul. This clip is from the T.A.M.I. show filmed in 1964. It's a long clip, "Prisoner of Love" into "Please Please Please," and it's stunning. James said later that he never danced faster then he did during "Please Please Please." Elvis used to run the film of it in Graceland, watching it over and over again.
One of a handful of the most influential musicians of the 20th century. Rest in peace, Mr. Dynamite.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/25/2006 06:48:00 PM
Friday, December 22, 2006
As the sun sets on 2006, I'm thinking that this might be my last post of the year. I'm going to Florida (Boca, to be exact) for a few days for some much needed sun, red meat and scotch.
It was a good, fascinating and uncertain year (I'm talking about myself, not music in general, although those adjectives might work as well). Leaving Island has been great - making my next move happen has been a challenge, and being able to listen to whole albums again without asking, "Can this work for Island Def Jam" has been incredibly liberating for me as a listener.
My top 10 is in no particular order. I can't say that any of these records occured for me as an out and out classic, but who knows how they will continue to reveal themselves over time. (And how I was able to listen to anything all the way through with my itchy iPod trigger finger is both a miracle and a mystery.) Here we go:
Bruce Springsteen: We Shall Overcome: The Seeger Sessions – I heard about the project and felt dread; then I heard “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and my face hurt from smiling. I hope Bruce can once again have fun with his own material like he had fun with this. (“O Mary Don’t You Weep,” “Eyes On The Prize”)
Bob Dylan: Modern Times – The first time I ever saw Dylan, I thought he looked like an Old Testament prophet. Now I think he sounds like one, albeit one that has incredible taste in 40’s and 50’s music, and I fully expect to hear him whenever Judgement Day comes. (“When The Deal Goes Down”)
Madeleine Peyroux: Half The Perfect World – Is it an insult in this day an age to say that an album just sounds great and leave it at that? (“River”)
Mastodon: Blood Mountain – Will I ever listen to this again? Doubtful, but it’s a real work of quality and it’ll get me to the next NYC show.
Beck: The Information – Sure, I dis him, and then he comes out with a record I actually like. Bastard. The sucker swings – and it doesn’t even feel that self-conscious. (“Think I’m In Love”)
Art Brut: Bang Bang Rock & Roll – If I have to live in a world of post-modern irony, this is the way I like it, served up with a great sense of humor while still managing to convey the joy of rock n’ roll.
The Pipettes: We Are The Pipettes – Makes “novelty record” sound like a true compliment. (“Dirty Mind”)
Mute Math: Mute Math – Radiohead done well and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next. Everyone is talking Cold War Kids, but these guys might really be the ones to watch. (“Typical”)
Christina Aguilera: Back To Basics - Very inconsistent, but the high points were VERY high. (“Ain’t No Other Man,” “Slow Down Baby”)
Candi Staton: – His Hands - I could listen to hear her sing the phone book. (“His Hands”)
Hard Fi: Stars Of CCTV – It felt lightweight on first listen, and it still kind of feels lightweight, but that doesn't negate it's considerable pleasures. With “Living For The Weekend,” they surprised me. (“Living For The Weekend”)
Albums That I Came To Like:
The Arctic Monkeys
Cat Power (I love her voice; if she can ever get the tunes, valhalla awaits)
Albums I Didn't Love, But I Really Tried Hard:
The Hold Steady
My Morning Jacket (Is it just me, or do they need to step it up in the songwriting department?)
Neko Case (I kept starting it over and over again, and then found my attention anywhere other than the music.)
Albums That I Still Need To Check Out:
Yeah Yeah Yeah's
Neil Young (Ever since he came back to Reprise in the late 80's, he's been given a free pass by a lot of people that should know better; this was a straight up dud, and it shouldn't have been.)
The Flaming Lips
The Raconteurs (I wasn't expecting much, as I think Jack White is pretty overrated, but this record was a snooze. If this is the best that retro power pop can come up with, then stick a fork in the damn thing and call it a day.)
(Indie) Nails On A Chalkboard:
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/22/2006 04:14:00 PM
Thursday, December 21, 2006
I'm a sucker for the early 60's girl group sound; the Ronettes, the Shangri-Las, the Crystals, etc. Great songs, great productions (especially when done by Phil Spector) sung by very sexy women.
So discovering the Pipettes has been a joy. They're a UK band whole debut CD We Are Pipettes came out this July and had a single "Pull Shapes" chart in the UK top 30. It's obvious that they started out as concept; the polka dot dresses and retro production are a dead giveaway. But the joy and spirit with which these ladies sing has quickly made this one of my favorite albums of the year. 33 minutes of some really fun and sexy pop.
They've got nice legs too.
Download: "Dirty Mind"
Buy It At Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/21/2006 12:51:00 PM
Of all the traits that are attributed to what was magical about the Beatles, it is their sense of humor that is most often overlooked. They (especially John Lennon) were hilarious.
Here is their 1963 Christmas greeting to their fan club. (They did one every year through 1969.) In their rear view mirror was conquering Britain; ahead of them, about five weeks later, was America. Enjoy it - few things feel more "Christmas spirit" than this.
Download: "The Beatles Christmas Message 1963"
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/21/2006 09:45:00 AM
Wednesday, December 20, 2006
Here’s a sneak preview from Jesse Malin’s new album, Glitter In The Gutter. It’s a ballad, “Broken Radio,” a duet with Jesse and some guy named Bruce. The album, due to be released in late February is coming out on Adeline Records, which is Billie Joe Armstrong from Green Day’s label. It’s a good fit – Malin makes the kind of somewhat retro rock (not a dis) of someone who discovered classic rock after they had gone through punk and hardcore first. One of the highlights of the album is a gorgeous piano cover of the Replacements “Bastards Of Young,” which gets right to the meloncholy of the song while highlighting how melodically beautiful the chorus is. I hadn't thought much of the record he made with Ryan Adams a few years back (The Fine Art Of Self Destruction), but this is a big improvement. It’s a very good record.
LINK TAKEN DOWN
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/20/2006 10:37:00 AM
Monday, December 18, 2006
"It’s a fitting tribute to Stax that not only will its past glories be suitably honored during 2007, but its future will be assured as well. The first new signings to Stax include soul luminary and Stax patriarch Isaac Hayes and superlative vocalist Angie Stone. Isaac Hayes remains an integral force in Stax and beyond, and Angie Stone is widely regarded as one of her generation’s few heirs to the grand tradition of R&B.I have no doubt that Stax will be able to capitalize on their name and their catalog - I'm curious to see if they can modernize their sound while remaining true to their aesthetic. Who is the audience for Stax on 2007 and beyond? Older blacks? Hipsters? Soul lovers? Anyone buying the Corinne Bailey Rae record? All of the above? It will be the songs that tell the story of how Stax part 2 does - I know there's a demand out there for this music. Let's hope they get it right.
“Stax always has been and always will be Soul Music, I was a part of that,” said Hayes. “I am coming back to Stax because there is still so much to do. It’s like coming home.”
“The thrill of putting out music on the label that brought the world Otis, Booker T, the Staples and so many other artists who made me want to sing in the first place is simply indescribable,” added Stone. “I simply can’t believe that I will be a Stax artist – and I’ll be label mates with Isaac Hayes. The staff at Stax share my belief that soul has to stay in touch with its origins. We’re going to make beautiful music together.”
“These two signings sum up our vision for Stax – they represent the roots and the future of the soul tradition,” noted Concord executive VP of A&R John Burk. “As the co-writer, producer and arranger of Stax hits like ‘Soul Man’ and ‘Hold On, I’m Coming,’ as well as the genius behind ‘Shaft,’ ‘Hot Buttered Soul’ and other hugely influential records, Isaac has established himself as a visionary of modern music. And Angie Stone, with her extraordinary voice, artistic intelligence and soulful sensibilities, is ideally suited to carry on the tradition. We’re thrilled that she’s joined us as we enter a new era in which Stax will once again be the home for the greatest artists in soul and R&B.”
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/18/2006 04:24:00 PM
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Thanks to our friend Steve Gottlieb (no, not the guy that runs TVT) we have a great review of Saturday's Lou Reed show.
OK, back at my computer... Here's my Lou Reed rambling review.
They definitely tried to make it an "art" event (Julian Schnabel produced it and gave a short introduction. Does anybody know why Julian Schnabel is famous? I know he recently made some movies but I don't know shit about him beyond that. I added the Wikipedia link - Ed.) Before the show started there was a huge screen across the front of the stage that showed crashing waves while an audio loop of guitar feedback kept playing. Cool effect.
Curtain parts and they went into Berlin. Sounded great. No bullshit between songs, no introductions, just the album. The arrangements were pretty true to the original album but a bit meatier; more guitar, more bite, more power. It's actually a really good album, I'm surprised it was viewed as such a disaster upon release. Oh well. They had a a horn section, a string section and a children's choir. It was especially fun to watch the kids in the choir bop along to these songs about doing drugs and committing suicide.
The set design was fucking abysmal. There was this Parisian style (?) wallpaper on the back wall on which they showed huge short films that showed the basic bits of the album's relationship. The films were directed by Julian Schnabel's daughter and they were pure arty bullshit. It was cool that the films were so big they projected on the band members as well, so it was kind of a nod to the old Exploding Plastic Inevitable/Warhol Velvet Underground shows.
There was an askew couch that dangled from the ceiling. It had a huge white striped painted on it. For the first few songs I thought it was meant to be a piece of the Berlin wall. It was a couch. Why? Who knows.
And worst of all, Bob Ezrin was on stage for like the entire show, facing and conducting the drummer. He was wearing a long coat that had Berlin written on the back. Neither the drummer nor anybody seemed to need his conduction. In fact, all the important complex changes were done by the keyboard player who would stand and conduct those parts. I assume Ezrin was on-stage as an ego-stroke to him or to provide one more visual element.
The encore was three songs: "Sweet Jane," "Candy Says" (a duet between Antony and Reed) and this more recent song "Rock Minuet". It was during "Sweet Jane" that you realized how great the Berlin performance was. We went from this passionate, cathartic song cycle filled with passionate solos and big smiles on everyone's faces (except Lou, who I think is incapable of moving his face). "Sweet Jane" was almost plodding. Everybody looked fucking bored. Like, "Here we go, playing essentially three chords for the millionth time."
Antony's version of "Candy Says" is fucking incredible. If you don't have Lou's Animal Serenade live album you should get it just for that. He also, coincidentally or not, does three Berlin songs on that album. The versions in Brooklyn were better than what they did on that tour.
"Rock Minuet" was something I never heard, but it fit the vibe. Drugs, sex, violence. Awesome.
So, there ya go. They had film cameras all over the place so I wouldn't be surprised if this becomes a concert film with a small art-house theatrical release.
Oh, and we also found this bar that had a great line-up of speciality beers at dirt cheap prices in DUMBO. Good stuff.
And, it's impossible to get a slice of pizza in DUMBO after midnight.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/17/2006 04:20:00 PM
Friday, December 15, 2006
"Ahmet would come in to a session and ask you if you wanted a pastrami sandwich. He’d order it from the Jewish deli, then start yakking in French on another phone. A pleasant Jewish man name of Wexler is cussing out a late drummer with some mighty greasy Lenox Avenue jive. Me, the black preacher, the apprentice mortician from Philadelphia, standing at the mike. Signing country and western. Now what would I call those years at Atlantic? Broadway fricassee."The news of Ahmet Ertegun’s death yesterday at the age of 83 is indeed sad news, and it is one of the few times when the phrase “the end of an era” rings true as opposed to feeling like hyperbole. But as I write this, listening to the Atlantic R&B 1947-1974 box set, I’m smiling. The man had an incredible life, a life worth celebrating. As much as any non-performer, he (along with his partner Jerry Wexler and their engineer non-pareil, Tom Dowd) was responsible for what r&b, soul (and as a result, rock) music became. As a record company head, producer and writer, Ertegun and Atlantic’s contribution to American music and culture was immense beyond measure. The artists speak for themselves: Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Solomon Burke, the Drifters, Donnie Hathaway, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Ben E. King, the Stax-Volt roster (including Otis Redding), Roberta Flack, the Spinners, Clarence Carter, Percy Sledge and more. In rock, there was Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones (from 1971-1984), Buffalo Springfield, CSNY, the Bee Gees, Yes and others. In Jazz (helmed by his brother Nesuhi) there was John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Charles Mingus, Milt Jackson, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Herbie Mann and Les McCann. Never before (or since) has a label had such a wide ranging, tasteful, financially successful and culturally significant roster.-Solomon Burke
Much of that success was due to Ertegun, because of who he was. The son of a diplomat and someone whose infatuation of music was begun by seeing Duke Ellington at the age of nine, he was equally at home at the swankiest society party and at the most low down juke joint in the south – and it was that combination of high and low, urbane and profane, uptown and downtown that when it was at it’s peak, was Atlantic’s hallmark. Atlantic also showed that great taste and shrewd business were not mutually exclusive propositions.
It was Ertegun who began using the term “soul” itself, to classify the music being made; being a jazz hound, he found the term adopted by black jazz musicians in New York, as a backlash against some of the snobbery of musicianship that in their mind, made jazz somehow less black. Atlantic lead the pack in the categorization of the music, with Ray Charles titles like, “A Bit Of Soul” (1955) and “Hornful of Soul” (1956). As Ertegun recounted to Gerri Hershey in her great early 80's book about soul, Nowhere To Run about the genesis of the title of the Milt Jackson/Ray Charles collaboration Soul Brothers (1957),
“We called it Soul Brothers but I wasn’t thinking so much of the notion it conjures today. ‘Soul Brother’ wasn’t part of the language then. But in Turkey (Ertegun’s native country) we have this concept. People who become very good friends declare one another brothers or sisters in the hereafter. They call themselves soul brothers or soul sisters. It’s a Turkish Muslim phrase. And I thought that it would be a groovy thing, since they dug one another so much, to call the album Soul Brothers. But it’s accidental.”A Turkish phrase to classify the most American of music - that typified Atlantic in it’s heyday; a melding together of people of various backgrounds - Turks, blacks, jews and southern whites, that created something so powerful and so resonant that it has become an essential part world's cultural fabric. A life that will be remembered and celebrated as long as Atlantic's best music is played. And as a music lover, listener, participant and executive who life has been enriched and given direction to by the music that he was involved in creating and then inspiring, all I can say is; Ahmet, thank you.
Download: Aretha Franklin: "Drown In My Own Tears"
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/15/2006 01:02:00 PM
Thursday, December 14, 2006
Insound.com has a great website up called Save The Album. It's a page of videos of indie-rockers talking about their favorite records. I'm not a huge fan of any of the acts on the page, but I'm an endless sucker for pretty much anyone talking about their favorite records. The dude from Les Savy Fav's video is pretty good; he makes a very interesting point that since albums are no longer technologically necessary, it opens up completely new possibilities for the album form itself.
Insound is only selling mp3's in album form - no individual tracks. Good on them for putting their money where their mouth is.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/14/2006 02:56:00 PM
Wednesday, December 13, 2006
Interesting piece in the NY Times today about Lou Reed doing four performances of his 1973 album Berlin at St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn beginning tomorrow night. My favorite quote from the piece is this:
“I admire it. It’s trying to be real, to apply novelists’ ideas and techniques into a rock format.” He mentioned William S. Burroughs, Hubert Selby Jr., Allen Ginsberg and Raymond Chandler as literary models.I think I might steal that line in the future when I encounter something incredibly pretentious, "That just sounds too B.A. in English."
“But it sounds so pretentious saying that.” he added. “It just sounds too B.A. in English. Which I have. So there you go.”
Berlin isn't my favorite Lou Reed solo record by a long shot; my favorite is New York, which I think is one of Reed's greatest showcases of his gift for detail, as well as his famously acerbic sensibility. (I confess to not being wholly familiar with many of his solo records.) But I do wish I had tix for this show.
Download: "Men Of Good Fortune"
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/13/2006 06:53:00 PM
Tuesday, December 12, 2006
I think one of the great, unanswerable questions of the rock n’ soul era is, “What would have happened if Otis Redding had lived?”
Three days before he died on December 10, 1967, he recorded what is generally regarded to be his greatest song, “Dock Of The Bay.” In June of that year, performing at the Monterey Pop festival as the only soul artist on a bill with rock and folk rock acts, he was one of the festival’s biggest winners (Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and perhaps the Who would have been his only competition), performing in front of a predominately white audience for the first time. He was the soul performer most touched by what was going on in the rock world; looking for new directions in his own music, he wore out copies of “Sgt. Pepper,” and he sat with Bob Dylan, telling him that he would cover “Just Like A Woman.” He was an artist consciously moving beyond the limits he had once had in place, aware that he was risking alienating his core audience. Jim Stewart, the owner of Stax, didn’t even like “Dock Of The Bay,” according to Booker T & the MG’s bassist, Duck Dunn,
“It was just too far over the border for Jim. It had no r&b in it whatsoever, according to what Stax was. And I agreed with Jim at the time. I thought it might even be detrimental."Just as James Brown’s “Cold Sweat” (released in 1967) signified with it’s skeletal beats the direction where black rhythms would go, “Dock Of The Bay” symbolized another shift – the merging of soul with folk and rock, and it was a shift that with Redding’s death, came to a rapid end. What other incredible songs were ready to flow from Redding’s pen and mouth? We’ll never know - one of the truly tragic "what if's" in rock n' soul history.
Download: "(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay" (Take One)
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/12/2006 06:24:00 PM
Thursday, December 07, 2006
Madeline Peyroux has lately become one of my favorite interpretive singers - over the course of her past two (excellent) records, she's covered Dylan, Tom Waits, Johnny Mercer and others, in addition to writing some fine songs in collaboration with others.
Here's an absolutely wonderful cover of Joni Mitchell's "River," (one of my favorite Christmas songs from one of my favorite albums, Blue) featuring K.D. Lang. It's a beautiful and sparse arrangement - you can almost feel the winter chill in the air in the space between the stand up bass and the brushes on the snare. But in the stateliness of the arrangement, there's also a real warmth.
Buy It At Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/07/2006 11:32:00 AM
Wednesday, December 06, 2006
During the ride back to Brooklyn tonight, I was lost in my thoughts for a few minutes until the some great, unfamiliar soul and blues on the radio took me out of myself. I asked the cabdriver what station we were listening to, and all of a sudden, he came to life. "Oh, this is the Columbia station. Every Tuesday night they play great soul for a few hours," he informed me. He asked me excitedly if I liked soul music - I answered that I did and then he started peppering me with questions about where I grew up, my background, etc. He was a Bronx native, still living there, obviously intelligent and obviously very eccentric. A classic New Yawker. The kind of guy who argues about the Yankees while eating a hot dog with mustard dribbling on his shirt while reading Moby Dick. I asked him if he thought that people would be interested in buying this kind of music in perhaps a slightly more modern context. "Oh yeah," he exclaimed, "There's always people out there who are DYING for this kind of stuff."
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/06/2006 01:24:00 AM
Tuesday, December 05, 2006
Monday, December 04, 2006
In early 2003, Damien Rice’s O (which came out in 2002 in the U.K.) started making the rounds of the major labels. I was working at Island Records at the time, and I recall the collection of “ooohs” and “aaahs” the album left in it’s initial wake. The album didn’t do a whole lot for me. I found it pleasant to listen to; it sounded good sonically, and it was obvious that the guy was intense, man, but I didn’t get the sense of any real soul underneath – it was all earnest and self-conscious “passion.” If there was an emo division for European singer-songwriters, this record would clearly have been at the top of the heap. (And it hit the top: O won the Shortlist Prize for 2003 and went gold in the U.S., and triple platinum in the U.K.)
Soon after, Rice had a showcase at Joe’s Pub, which was attended by a ton of labels. I was there with the Island crew, and a couple of songs into his set my laissez-faire attitude about Mr. Rice was quickly replaced by one of irritation. Preciousness seeped out of every note he played and sang; a vibe of “I’m an artiste” all-pervasive. There wasn’t a moment of humor or lightness – it was a fetishization of depression; the kind of romanticized downer that most of the world is smart enough to give up by the time they’re old enough to know better. Not so the crowd at Joe’s Pub on that winter night. Most of the audience had a rapturous look on their face as they watched the show; I quickly knew that I was waaaaaay in the minority in my opinion about Mr. Rice…and I also knew that this was the kind of stuff that a lot of people eat up.
Fast forward almost four years later, I’m listening to Damien’s new album, 9, and the word that comes to mind over and over again is sincerity. Often, people give sincerity a free pass because they confuse being sincere with being authentic. Sincerity is the pretense of authenticity. It’s the overwhelming sincerity of Damien Rice’s music that gives me the icky feeling that I have, a feeling that I’m listening to shtick as opposed to something real, especially when I hear lines like “I love your depression and I love your double chin/I love most everything you bring to this offering” (“The Animals Were Gone"). The tortured soul routine in Rice’s hands comes off as self-flagellation, a device in which the artist tells how awful he is, which is then supposed to elevate him in our eyes, newly absolved from sin because he has confessed it to us. I’m sure this works for many; for me, it occurs as fraudulent - an artist deceiving himself first, and then deceiving his audience.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/04/2006 10:11:00 AM
Friday, December 01, 2006
One of the many wonderful things about being a soul music aficionado is that there’s an endless amount of incredible music to discover. I was in I was in Amoeba Records in L.A. this past March, and found a compilation called The Sound Of Philadelphia: Philadelphia Roots, Volume 2: 1965-1973. I’m a big Philly soul fan, but like millions of others, my knowledge of the genre basically started and ended with Philadelphia International records and Gamble and Huff, and artists like the O’Jays, the Three Degrees and Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes.
The compilation didn’t kill me overall, but I found one absolute gem on it. “Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)” by Frankie Beverly and the Butlers is one of those great R&B songs that should have been a hit but never was. (It was released on Sassy Records, a regional independent way too undercapitalized to do the amount of promotion needed to turn the song into a national hit.) The opening rumble of the bass leads into a killer kick drum pattern – and then the strings come in. Philadelphia soul records were known for the lushness of their strings, but often, that lushness would come at the expense of the funkiness of the track. Not so on this one – the pocket that the drummer finds is so delicious that even if the track was an instrumental, it’d still be a lost classic. And if Frankie Beverly’s vocals are quite the most distinctive you’ve ever heard, on this track he had his moment of being up there with the greats.
I don't know if anyone has sampled this track, but if it hasn't been, it should. It would make the foundation for a KILLER track.
Download: "Love (Your Pain Goes Deep)"
Posted by Ben Lazar at 12/01/2006 11:22:00 AM
Thursday, November 30, 2006
I was looking for some inspiration in finding a something to post on, and I came across this. Taken from Soul Train sometime in the mid-70's (it's not the classic Hi Records band backing him), this is an otherworldly performance of one of the man's greatest lesser known songs. The grooves and swells, following the lead taken from Al's phrasing and off mike moans are incredible.
This what they mean by testifying. It won't make this Jewish boy convert, but I found my inspiration tonight just the same.
Wednesday, November 29, 2006
It’s December, which means the holiday season, parties, friends and family and (hopefully) some time off to rest and recharge for the coming year. But for another species of human being called “music geeks”, December means it’s time for the “best of the year” lists. I have no plans to do a best of 2006 list as of yet, and even if I was, I’m not ready to do it. But some are starting to trickle in, namely Uncut’s 50 best albums of the year list. Dylan’s Modern Times tops the list, which isn’t surprising, given the almost universal praise that the record is getting. The word “masterpiece” has been bandied about liberally. I’ve listened to the record around 10 times, and while I like it, sometimes very much, I can’t say that I’m in love with it. I enjoy all the songs, but I feel passion for none of them. But my favorite contrary word in the matter comes from my dear friend and fellow music geek John Franck via IM this morning:
JF: I like the Dylan record, it's a solid 3.5 star (out of 5) record
JF: Anyone who says it's better than Time Out Of Mind is stupid
JF: It's not even better than Side 1 of Oh Mercy
Well, there you have it. The gavel has struck.
Tuesday, November 28, 2006
Of all the female pop singers out there now, the one who I find it easiest to root for Gwen Stefani. I’ve never been a huge fan of No Doubt, but Gwen’s last record I found kind of irresistible – she appeals to that part of me that loved AM radio when I was but a small lad in the 70’s, before I knew that it wasn’t cool to like that kind of stuff. Plus, it’s obvious that she works her ass off, and despite her success, she carries herself with a real air of humility.
I got an advance of Gwen’s new album, The Sweet Escape, and I’ve found myself getting more and more into it over the last few days – it’s an extremely well crafted pop record, and if the Neptunes produced tracks make you think that their style might be turning into formula, it doesn’t make the songs any less resistible.
The song I’ve found myself going back to most often is a mid-tempo number called “Early Winter.” Produced by Nellee Hooper and co-written with Tim Rice-Oxley of Keane, it’s a mid-tempo track that begins as a U2 homage (check out the digital delay on the guitar and bass rumble – it’s right out of the U2 playbook circa 1985-1987), but despite it’s derivativeness, the song becomes something more.
Download: "Early Winter"
Buy It At Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/28/2006 10:36:00 AM
Monday, November 20, 2006
I'm not particularly religious. But I've wondered, on occasion, if there is a hell, what is it like? Eternal fire? Nah. I had come to believe that hell, like most things, is relative, meaning that each person would have their own hell tailored to suit their worst nightmare. Obviously, in my hell, I'd be forced to deal with some truly horrible music. I figured that the soundtrack for me would be an endless loop of really horrible and cheesy club music at volumes that would make the music inescapable. Or maybe I'd be at an eternal H.O.R.D.E. festival show with not a joint in sight.
But I think I found a new version of hell that might be worse.
I was with my girlfriend yesterday in North Jersey, at a great produce market right near my parents, doing some food shopping before we went back to Brooklyn. As we started shopping, I heard the sounds of an acoustic guitar that I didn't pay any mind to initially. I didn't see a performer, so I figured it was a CD or the radio. But then the chords and the words started coming together, and I realized that it was "Tangled Up In Blue." And it was a version that in no way was good enough to be documented by anyone. The chords were halting, and the voice was plainly bad. It had to be someone playing live. So I looked around, and there he was; early 20's, long brown hair parted in the middle, checkered work shirt and Levi's. He looked like he stepped right out of "Almost Famous." About 6 people were watching him. I muttered a quick "ugh" to myself and went back to shopping. My girlfriend told me to stop it and be nice.
After "Tangled Up In Blue" came "Mr. Charlie," a not particularly well known (or particularly good) Grateful Dead song from Europe '72. Now I'm thinking, "Ok, here's the sensitive suburban stoner kid, pulling out the deep Grateful Dead cuts. He's smart, knows some stuff, but has no talent. This could be bad." And then it was.
The opening chords for Tom Petty's "American Girl" are instantly recognizable to me. After seeing "Fast Times At Ridgemont High" for about 30 times and being a child of the 80's, it's just one of those songs that's inescapable. It's a great opening riff; high on the guitar neck, they're an invitation to a blissful three and a half minute world. I think I had it on a 45. My new young singer songwriter friend hit the riff of "American Girl" and played it ok. My eyebrows were raised, waiting for him to get to the lyrics. Petty sings "American Girl" pretty high in his vocal register; I imagine that karaoke singers all over the world have strained to hit the notes, especially in the "she was an American girl" chorus. Our friend couldn't even come close to hitting the notes, even in the verses. And the chorus? Oooooooof. I don't know what key the song is in (I think it's D), but he was singing it about a half step off. Even my girlfriend, who's a much nicer person than me, made a face like she had just smelled a carton of milk that had curdled about six weeks earlier. I almost staggered around, half laughing, in utter disbelief of what I was hearing. I'm thinking, "Dude! Don't you know you're not even CLOSE to hitting this?"
After literally a five minute version (he added an instrumental bridge for effect) he then tacked Neil Young's "The Needle And The Damage Done," another classic that I know well from my own teens. Again, our boy just wasn't even close to singing in key. I was in the back of the store, ordering something at the deli, listening, saying "Oh my God" often and looking around to see if anyone else had the same pained expression on their face. If they did, I couldn't see it.
Then, for the coup-de-grace, we had a duet! A version of the great Johnny Cash/June Carter Cash version of "Jackson." And now, instead of having one singer off key, we had two, as a young woman joined our hero onstage. She wasn't much better. It was almost cool though, because they were off in the same key, so strangely enough, it sounded harmonious in it's disaster.
It was then that I muttered to myself, "This is hell." And it then dawned on me that hell wouldn't just be hearing music that I hated. Hell would have to be two things simultaneously; horrible music, but horrible music that would also turn a memory of music I had loved into a nightmare. It would make me wish that I had never heard Blood On The Tracks or Live At Folsom Prison or Harvest. It would rob me of any shelter or refuge that I could take in memory.
But hopefully, it would be awful enough that I'd be able to get a laugh out of it.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/20/2006 11:39:00 AM
Saturday, November 18, 2006
I didn't pay too much attention to Hard Fi's album "Stars of CCTV" when it was released earlier this year in the U.S. (it came out last year in the U.K.). I liked the single, "Cash Machine," and probably gave the rest of the album one or two listens tops. I thought, "Pretty good, nothing too special."
On the F train yesterday I had the shuffle on, and their "Living For The Weekend" came on, and it completely shifted what my opinion had been on the band. It's a great, modern variant on the classic, "Spending all my money on a Saturday night" motif, featured by rockers from Little Richard to the Stones to Springsteen - and just about every R&B artist of all time.
This is a record I'm going to go back to to see what I missed the first time around.
Download: "Living For The Weekend"
Buy It At Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/18/2006 10:55:00 AM
Tuesday, November 14, 2006
The fact that anyone can make a record in their home is an amazing thing. Completely liberating, it's allowed for music to be made outside of the narrow artistic restrictions of the major labels. An artist can find their own style without needing to bend to anyone else's conception of what should be.
And the fact that anyone can make a record in their home is a horrible thing. Just because "anyone" can make a record doesn't necessarily mean they should, and it's created a vast glut of mediocre to awful music that clutters up both the marketplace and cyberspace. I can't begin to count the amount of truly awful bands I've encountered in the past year online; there have been times that I wanted to email them, if only to tell them to "please stop."
Elizabeth & The Catapult are not part of that glut of mediocrity. Based in Brooklyn, they've just released a self-titled, self-produced debut EP (yes, recorded in their basement) that I've kept coming back to over the past couple of months. It's not the usual Brooklyn hipster indie rock - there's some actual talent here. It's ambitious and smart; the lyrics are clever, literate, ocassionally sexy and actually funny at times. Musically, the songs are arranged meticulously; rhythmically assured with a strong jazz feel, but always in service to the song. Elizabeth Ziman's vocals are delicate with an underlying strength underpinning them; there's nothing wimpy here. It's not a perfect EP; occassionally, the band becomes too cute for it's own good and I'd love to hear a couple of songs without the tasteful restraint that's all over this EP, but this is a strong debut and makes me look forward to hear what they're going to come up with next.
Elizabeth & The Catapult will be at Sin-e this Friday, November 17 at 8pm.
Download: "My Goodbye"
Elizabeth & The Catapult On MySpace
Buy the EP
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/14/2006 02:27:00 PM
Monday, November 13, 2006
I've never been a metal fan. Despite growing up in the heyday of metal in the 80's, it just was never something I could get into. I had friends in ninth grade that were huge Iron Maiden fans - they had the Maiden mascot Eddie painted on the back of their jean jackets, but I was way too "mature" (i.e., far more serious than I should have been at that age) to get into it. Yeah, I loved Zeppelin, but by 1984, Zeppelin wasn't even considered metal anymore. I grew to like Metallica a whole lot, but I was way behind the curve on them - the first time I saw them was when the Black Album came out. Even when I made a concerted effort to "understand" metal in my early 20's, I couldn't get through half of the first Black Sabbath record. At my most arrogant, I decided that metal was "stupid music made by stupid people for stupid people." Lovely, huh? (I apologize for that comment.)
Lyrically I could never get into it; so many of the lyrics felt like these weird Dungeons and Dragaons fantasies that I couldn't relate to at all. And while the playing was often technically excellent, it always felt like some sort of weird homo-erotic wank off to me - a bunch of guys showing off for each other.
So when I started reading the near universal praise for the new Mastodon record, my curiosity was piqued. I finally got the record this weekend and wow, I actually really like it! (I feel like Mikey from the Life cereal commercial.) I can't discern the lyrics much at all, and from the titles of the tracks ("Capillarean Crest," "Colony Of Birchmen") I probably don't need to - but man, the playing is great. It's been a while since I've heard shredding guitar that wasn't either totally cliche or done ironically. Pretty astounding drumming as well. I'm not going to pretend I can write about it or that I even really understand it - I just like it. These guys play it like they mean it.
Download: "Sleeping Giant"
Buy It At Amazon
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/13/2006 03:53:00 PM
Sunday, November 12, 2006
Other than Bob Dylan, I've never heard an artist rework his material the way Bruce Springsteen does. And unlike Dylan (who's maddeningly inconsistent), the results with Springsteen are almost uniformly great. Different keys, different tempos and different phrasing bring out new things in songs that you couldn't imagine hearing anything new from ("The Promised Land," "Born In The U.S.A.," "The Rising" are just three of many examples.).
The current Bruce Springsteen and The Seeger Sessions Band tour will be the first Springsteen tour I've missed since the early 80's, unless he does some closing shows at home. (I was in Italy when he hit the East Coast in June.) Reports from Springsteen diehards whose taste I usually align with has been extremely positive, and I've enjoyed the live shows I've gotten. (I thought the album was very strong, albeit slightly uneven. "O Mary Don't You Weep" and "Eyes On The Prize" are out and out classics, but I could have done without "My Oklahoma Home.") And his cover/reworking of Blind Alfred Reed's (discovered through Ry Cooder) "How Can A Poor Man Stand Such Times And Live?" (on the 2nd edition of the album) is one of my contenders for song of the year.
Bruce started opening his shows in Europe last week with "Blinded By The Light." This morning I got a copy from last night's show at Wembley Arena in London and it is NOT what I was expecting. I thought it'd be similar at least in key to the original, but this is completely reworked and fantastic. It could use a little more work in the phrasing, but it puts an immediate smile on the face. It almost sounds like if Bruce and his band had been signed up to play a Hasidic wedding on Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn. I'd LOVE to see this live.
Download: "Blinded By The Light" 11/11/06, London
I don't plan on writing about politics much. But I do need to confess that I was an out and out political junkie this election season. I was even reduced to Tivo'ing the Sunday morning talk shows.
This piece from Salon is a great slice of America on Election night 2006, chronicling some "fair and balanced" folks that really didn't like which way the wind was blowing.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
Stylus is a great online music zine. Smart, literate and enjoyable to read, Stylus may be somewhat indie rock centric, but I find it much more accessible than Pitchfork.
They published a fun U2 Vs. R.E.M. piece this week. I haven't really listened to either of those bands in a long time, but like a great piece of writing should, it made me want to put those old records on. My vote goes with U2 - I cringe sometimes at Bono, but their high points for me have been spine tingling, which I can't quite say for R.E.M. (with the exception of "Losing My Religion").
Download: R.E.M. - "Pilgrimage" 7/9/83, Toronto, ON
Download: U2 - "Seconds" 10/23/84, Nantes, France
Friday, November 10, 2006
There’s a story I once read that when Smokey Robinson first met Berry Gordy, Smokey showed him over 100 songs that he had written. Berry liked one of them and told him the rest were “mush.” Smokey was kind of pissed, but he went home, tightened it up, and then showed up with “Got A Job,” which Berry released and was his first semi-hit (albeit not on Motown) and the beginning of a wondrous partnership. Smokey learned quickly that just because he had written something, it didn't mean that it was any good.
I can’t help but recall that story while listening to the Magic Numbers self-produced new album, Those The Brakes. It’s a lovely sounding record; warmly recorded with very pretty sounding Beach Boys inspired harmonies – but I keep finding the songs frustratingly mediocre. It’s as though they think that sounding pretty is enough in and of itself.
The harmonies between lead singer (and producer) Roman Stodart and his sister Michelle (bass) are great, though. Next time, they need someone in the producer chair who’ll let them know when they’re making magic, and when they're making “mush.”
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/10/2006 10:28:00 AM
Thursday, November 09, 2006
I love the autumn in New York City. The weather is often wonderful; cool and clear - and on the right day, you can almost smell the crispness in the air. Autumn to me feels like the beginning of something; there's a new sense of romance and possibility in the air. (And the ladies break out their knee high boots, a great source of joy for me.)
I have come to associate this time of year with the music of Coleman Hawkins, legendary jazz saxophonist extraordinairre. I first heard him one rainy autumn night in November of 2000, laying in bed with my girlfriend, listening to WBGO, the jazz station based I believe in Newark. At that point, I was just starting to develop a small interest in jazz, and the songs I heard that night blew me away. "Who IS this," I kept wondering. Finally, the DJ explained that we were listening to the Hawk, the great Coleman Hawkins, the man who made the tenor saxophone a dominant instrument in jazz. I went out the next day and bought a box set. I've gone back to his music over and over again ever since, and get something new out of it each time I listen.
I leave you with a song recorded in 1944, "How Deep Is The Ocean." It is one of the most beautiful songs I've ever heard, filled with wonder and romance. I cannot recommend strongly enough his body of work, especially in the 1940's.
mp3: "How Deep Is The Ocean"
Wednesday, November 08, 2006
Aretha from the Cliff Richard show (UK) in 1970 doing "Don't Play That Song (You Lied)" (originally written by Ahmet Ertegun for Ben E. King in 1961) from Spirit In The Dark.
It's not just the voice, the phrasing or the piano playing...look in her eyes during the closeups. It's all there, the sadness and heartbreak, but also the transcendence and sense of possibility.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/08/2006 03:08:00 PM
Great election last night. I feel like I have my country back. Watching Bush's press conference today, I couldn't help but think that of seven deadly sins, pride is the most deadly.
My favorite email/IM about the election comes from an old friend quoting Bob Marley:
"You can fool some people some time/But you can't fool all the people all the time"
NP: "Get Up, Stand Up"
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/08/2006 02:43:00 PM
Saturday, November 04, 2006
It's been a busy CMJ week. I've seen a bunch of bands - yes, I saw Cold War Kids (I liked, didn't love), and have had a lot of great music talk with old friends and new acquaintances. One thought keeps coming up for me:
There are a lot of truly great, smart and talented people in all areas of this business who really love music and are committed to it. The record business as we once knew it may well be beyond saving, but I've been really heartened by the conversations I've had. Yes, there's a certain amount of the inevitable cynicism, but there's an awareness that in the uncertain space that we're in, there tremendous opportunity. I'm happy to be a part of it.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 11/04/2006 11:58:00 AM
Tuesday, October 31, 2006
Ever since I was a little boy, I’ve loved the Beach Boys. They were sort of ever present on the radio in New York in the late 70’s, especially on AM radio. I remember on the van ride to school I was in the third and fourth grade, WNBC 660 AM used to play them probably once every morning. And being a little boy who dreaded arriving at school each morning, the chorus of “Sloop John B” (“I wanna go home/why won’t they let me go home) got me; I'd sing it to myself under my breath, thinking that there was someone else out there in the world who knew how I felt.
I didn’t have any Beach Boys albums until I was about 12 and taped my brother’s copy of “Endless Summer.” To me, then and now, it’s pretty much a perfect album and perhaps the best of all greatest hits albums. When the Beach Boys started, singles were the medium of rock n’ roll, and albums were designed to be the singles plus filler to get you to spend more money (actually, that kind of sounds like today). “Endless Summer” is one perfect single after another – “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around,” the sublime “California Girls,” “Good Vibrations,” and in my opinion, the greatest of all Beach Boys’ songs, “Don’t Worry Baby.” If Brian Wilson is a genius (and I believe that he is), it’s not because of his production skills; it’s because he created a beautiful myth about Southern California life that resonated around the globe while being a total outsider from that culture. Chubby, insular, painfully shy, unathletic, physically and emotionally abused by his father and scarred beyond belief, the world that he wrote about must have been one he must have known he would never belong to, except in his fantasies. And he couldn't surf, either. (None of the Beach Boys could surf, with the exception of drummer Dennis Wilson.)
In the 80’s, when I was in my teens, I didn’t really know from Pet Sounds. I think I first got the record when I was 19. Whenever I saw a “Greatest Rock Albums Of All Time List,” Pet Sounds was never too high on the list. Sometime in the early 90’s, that all changed. Nowadays, if you look album lists, Pet Sounds will be either near or at the top. It’s absurd. Pet Sounds is perhaps the most overrated album ever. It’s a good album, with three incredible songs that are among their best; “God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Sloop John B.” “I Know There’s An Answer” almost reaches that level, as does “You Still Believe In Me.” But that’s it. It’s not that the remainder of the songs are poor, it’s just that they’re not all that incredible. Combining that with the somewhat baroque production, you’ve got a very good but very flawed album.
What accounts for the lionization of Pet Sounds? For starters, there’s the story of Brian Wilson, the tortured artiste who battled his own demons and his own band (Mike Love fought him all the way on it) in making the record. Then, after producing Pet Sounds, he finally cracked up, a victim of too many drugs and trying to top Sgt. Pepper. It’s the kind of stuff that myths are made of, and it’s an irresistible story line. Secondly, there are Wilson’s production skills – which have been blown all out of proportion. (Wilson’s true production moment of genius was “Good Vibrations.”) Brian Wilson was a great producer, but listening to Pet Sounds you hear the heavy influence of the true master producer of the era – Phil Spector. Wilson literally worshipped Spector and learned everything from him. Reading lots of the over the top rubbish about the production on Pet Sounds, where Spector’s name is barely ever mentioned, you come to realize that there are a lot of people in the world who no clue as to Spector’s influence on Wilson. (The Wrecking Crew, Spector’s house band, played on many Beach Boys’ songs). And finally, the record was a (relative) commercial failure at upon release. So then the narrative becomes the misunderstood genius that is underappreciated after he becomes a “serious artist.” If you were going to write a indie rock biblical fable, it doesn’t get any better than that.
I can rattle off about 30 albums from the 60’s alone that are superior to Pet Sounds – every Beatles album with the exception of Yellow Submarine and Please Please Me, most 60’s Dylan releases, about four Rolling Stones albums, classics by Creedence, the Band, the entire Otis Redding catalog, Aretha’s first four Atlantic full lengths, etc. (The absence of most soul records from the top echelon of the lists is endemic of the near-sightedness of most rock critics.)
I know lots of smart people that disagree with me on this one – vehemently. So you take your cred and Pet Sounds; I'm much happier with "California Girls" and "I Get Around."
Thursday, October 26, 2006
There's a Bob Dylan musical, "The Time's They Are A Changing" coming to Broadway. That's enough surrealism for me to wrap my head around, but oh my - here's a link to see their version of "Like A Rolling Stone."
I think Hunter Thompson had an acid nightmare like this in "Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas."
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/26/2006 06:29:00 PM
Monday, October 23, 2006
There's an absolutely essential piece in Salon today. It's a review of a new book by Steven Levy called, "The Perfect Thing." It's a book about the history of the iPod and it's effect that it's had on, well, everything. Manjoo addresses many of the issues of music consumption and attention deficit disorder that the iPod has raised in his review. From the Salon piece:
"I suspect a more widespread issue, though, has to do with the way the iPod seems to work against listening to new music, which has become my chief complaint about the machine. Like many others in the so-called iPod generation, years of surfing the Web have reduced my attention span to not much more time than the length of a typical YouTube clip; consequently, my iPod, stocked with 4,124 songs, routinely turns me into a hyperactive freak show. If you have an iPod, I'm sure you know what I mean. You put on something that you've been wanting to listen to all day. Lucinda Williams' "Car Wheels on a Gravel Road" album, say. But you're three-quarters of the way through the first track, and even though you're really digging it, something about the scratchiness of Williams' voice reminds of something else entirely -- the Carter Family. And, hey, don't you have a copy of "Wildwood Flower" on here? Why, yes, you do. So you switch. But of course, putting on the Carter Family is going to remind you of Johnny Cash. And you have the feeling that you must, just this minute, play Cash's version of "In My Life" now. So you switch again. But you're a minute into Johnny and you start to wonder about the Beatles' original version of the track...
This is my every day music predicament. Ah, the modern world...
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/23/2006 11:40:00 AM
Thursday, October 19, 2006
Reviews of TV On The Radio's new record, Return From Cookie Mountain have been absolutely glowing. I had moderately enjoyed their last record, and I'm often skeptical of indie-blogger raves, but with reviews this strong, I rushed out and got the new one.
Uh, is it just me? Cause I don't get it.
I've listened to the record several times, and I think it's pretty good piece of work, but it's "good" in that way that you admire more than you listen to, and it's "interesting" in that way that one describes avant-garde work. The last straw for me was reading Salon (my favorite online magazine) this morning and reading "Audiofile" by Thomas Bartlett, and reading words like "magnificent" and "U2-like grandeur" attached to this record (and band). It is definitely neither of those things (and I'm not even a particularly big U2 fan anymore).
It reminds me of a great John Lennon quote from an interview in 1970.
Q: What do you think Rock and Roll will become?
A: Whatever we make it. If we want to go bullshiting off into intellectualism with rock n' roll, then we are going to get bullshitting rock n' roll intellectualism.
This record is bullshit rock n' roll intellectualism personified.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/19/2006 01:38:00 PM
Tuesday, October 17, 2006
I was in California last weekend for a wedding. Afterwards, I was driving a couple of close friends to the airport and inevitably, the iPod shuffle was on. A great Faces song, “I’d Rather Go Blind” (an old R&B cover) came on, and as my friends and I got into the song one of them turned to me and asked, “Was Rod Stewart ever cool?” I kind of felt like someone’s Dad for a second, and explained, yes, at one time, many, many years ago, Rod Stewart was indeed VERY cool. Back in the early 70’s, in the wake of a couple of great Faces records, and one of the greatest records of all time, Every Picture Tells A Story, Rod Stewart epitomized some of the best that rock had to offer. Influenced by soul greats like Sam Cooke, he created wonderful music filled with spirit, feeling, lust, good humor and total compassion.
I mention this because I got a copy of Rod’s new collection of covers, “Still The Same…Rock Classics Of Our Time.” Coming on the heels of his wildly and surprisingly successful collection of standards, this, I guess, was the obvious follow up. As business strategy goes, I guess it’s the obvious move – in the post “American Idol” culture we’re in, it’s been made obvious that there are millions of people that would rather hear recreations of songs they know and love than hearing anything new. That being said, when you make a record that’s more about market strategy than artistic expression, the trick is to hide that as much as possible, and on “Still The Same…” all one hears is market strategy. Stewart can barely hide his absolute disinterest in the material – the arrangements are nearly identical to the originals, and there is a complete detachment in the singing – and when Rod was at his best, detachment was nowhere to be found. This isn’t a record – it’s karaoke, and the cynicism floods every single note.
The selections themselves are horrific. Since when is Bonnie Tyler’s “It’s A Heartache” a rock classic? “Everything I Own” by Bread? “Still The Same” by Bob Seger? This from the man whose taste in material used to be impeccable?
Greil Marcus once wrote about Rod: “Rarely has a singer has as full and unique a talent as Rod Stewart; rarely has anyone betrayed his talent so completely.” I’d add that when the great big dictionary of rock is written, next to the word “sellout” will be a picture of Rod Stewart. This inspires not scorn and derision in me, rather, I feel real sympathy for Rod – for I have a strong suspicion that he would agree with everything I’ve written.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 10/17/2006 05:47:00 PM
Tuesday, October 10, 2006
The new Killers record, Sam’s Town, has gotten mostly harsh reviews from U.S. critics. Personally, I like the single, and don’t think much of the rest of the record. Lead singer Brandon Flowers had promised that “Sam’s Town” would be the greatest album of the past 20 years, which it isn’t. But Flowers made some comments on MTV.com last week that I found interesting. He said, "The sky used to be the limit, and it's not anymore. It's about 200 feet, and beyond that people think you're being comical. Rock and roll used to be about not having limits, not having your box, and that's disappeared somewhere along the way. We're trying to bring it back."
I don’t think the Killers are a band with enough depth or skill to “bring it back,” but I think his larger point is all too true. In the post-punk universe that all “credible” rock exists under, ambition is a dirty word that must be kept to oneself. Post-punk and indie-rock attitude require a sort of false modesty, a mask that hides any sort of overt desire to reach a large audience. Of course, in their secret heart, most (indie) rock artists would love for their music to reach a broad audience (and yes, they’d love the money and adulation that go with having a big audience) – but admitting it is verboten. That’s the lie that been at the heart of the rock game since the post-punk philosophy took over rock’s vanguard. And that inauthenticity that has resulted in rock has getting smaller and smaller – the music has gotten smaller and the audience for it has gotten smaller.
Now, regarding the Springsteen influence of Sam’s Town. What the Killers do wrong is that instead of internalizing Springsteen’s music and then bringing a new depth and passion to their own, they’re taking the trappings of Born To Run era Bruce (the melodrama, the mythology, the glockenspiel) on without adding enough depth. My advice to artists regarding Bruce is this: If you’re inspired by Bruce, internalize that passion and live the commitment that’s present in the best of Springsteen’s music. Taking the surface of Bruce’s music on will result in music that’s not a whole lot better than Bon Jovi. Springsteen is an artist whose influence is usually best when it’s felt, and not heard. That’s probably why the most influential Springsteen record is (and will forever be) Nebraska.
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Saturday, September 09, 2006
As we all know, Monday is the fifth anniversary of September 11. I don't want to write about it, nor do I want to address politics in my blog. Suffice it to say that I believe our president and his administration are craven, shallow, fraudulent and incompetent men and women who have done incredible harm to our country and the world...in the name of what occured on September 11, 2001.
I'm including a link to a wonderful interview with British novelist Ian McEwan about faith, God and September 11. I'm not an atheist, but I was moved (especially) by the points that he makes towards the end of the interview - that in the end, all we have is love.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 9/09/2006 02:34:00 PM
Thursday, September 07, 2006
When Justin Timberlake's Justified came out in 2002, I, of course, paid it no mind initially. Being the rock snob that I was, I couldn't see why so many people were paying attention to it. Wasn't this the guy that was in N'Sync?
So I was pleasantly surprised by the album. As pop albums go, I thought it was pretty damn good, and if it was an album of surface pleasures, the pleasures ran pretty deep and repeated themselves well after many a listen. "Senorita," "Like I Love You," and "Cry Me A River" were all great singles that had a real spirit about them that made me think that this guy was a real talent who would continue to grow. So far, I've been wrong about that.
I've had Timberlake's new record, FutureSex/LoveSound for the past couple of weeks and I've almost taken aback by how disappointing it is. "B-level Prince" is how a friend described it to me, but "C-level Prince" is more like it. It's a record that exists only in the world of priveledge that it was created in - the world of clubs and super V.I.P. areas, where access is only granted to the famous, the wealthy and those that service them - and it's about as deep and rewarding. Timbaland's production doesn't feel tired, it feels exhausted; obviously in a Giorgio Moroder phase, he's looking to European techno for inspiration, and it's just not happening. (Nor are all the hip-hop cameos - if any marketing ploy has begun to feel totally played, it's this one.) It's light on the melody...and the beats ain't happening either.
FutureSex/LoveSound is about, well, sex. But it comes off like a facsimile of the real thing. When Justin sings about wanting to be some woman's slave, the results not only feel inauthentic, they're downright laughable. Sex is hot when there's you get below the surface of a person, finding out who they really are and what they want, and they you. The sex on this record never even thinks to get to a place like that - everyone is too busy looking in the mirror and thinking about how fabulous they are to concern themselves with the person they're with. Narcissism, despite what it's adherents might think, isn't sexy.
This is an absolutely terrible record.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 9/07/2006 09:15:00 AM
Wednesday, September 06, 2006
Bob Dylan has the #1 record in the country this week. Modern Times, getting incredibly strong reviews, featured on an iPod commercial, sold 192,000 records this week. I’m still getting into the record; I love the sound of it, but the songs, so far, aren’t hitting me the way that the best songs on “Time Out Of Mind” and “Love And Theft” did. Dylan records have a way of creeping up on me, revealing themselves over time, and there's a strong possibility this one will as well. Dylan's production is wonderful; warm and intimate, with a very strong 40's/early 50's vibe.
I have to say though, it is fun to be walking in outside in a world where Bob Dylan has the number one record.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 9/06/2006 03:45:00 PM
Tuesday, August 29, 2006
I have about 12,000 songs on my iPod, which I carry around almost always. If I don’t have it on me, I inevitably think of some song that I need to hear right that second! It sounds kind of childish, but I’m grateful have something to feel childish about. Oftentimes, I’ll put my iPod on shuffle and I will rotate a lot of songs in and out, so my iPod ends up acting as a radio station. And despite the fact that I own all the songs on my iPod, I usually end up discovering something that I haven’t really paid attention to before, or, I rediscover something that I haven’t listened to or paid attention to in years.
Tonight I was on the F train on my way home, and Beck’s “New Pollution” from Odelay (1996) came on. I was almost surprised at how little I enjoyed listening to it, and I realized that while I was an Odelay (and Beck) fan back in the day, I tried to convince myself that it was great because, well, everyone said it was, and in 1996, there didn’t seem to be that many other options for interesting commercial rock (and rock based) music. I kept trying to convince myself of his greatness until 2002’s Sea Change, and then I felt comfortable enough with telling people that I thought it was dreadful.
I think Beck is probably a really brilliant guy, but in my view, he’s a testament to the limits of the post-modern ironic artist. Yes, he’s clever and inventive - mixing and matching different genres and textures. Bricolage, the academics call it – the self-conscious use of varied materials to create a seamless whole. But if he stands for anything other than pastiche (which is always fashionable), I have no idea what it is. I’m a sucker for passion with intelligence and a sense of humor, and in post-modern land, pure unadulterated passion without some mask of irony is anathema. I’ve seen Beck several times and each time was more forgettable than the last – sometimes he played at being a showman, sometimes he played at being a sensitive singer songwriter. But it all felt like play, and almost none of it ever resonated with me (with the exception of when he played “Nobody’s Fault But My Own” at Jones Beach in ’97). Given what was said of him back in the day, I was almost stunned at how much of a non-entity he seems to be today.
Funny what thoughts a song coming up on shuffle on your iPod can bring up on a train ride home. I just took Beck off of my iPod, with the exception of "Lord Only Knows."
Posted by Ben Lazar at 8/29/2006 11:47:00 PM
Monday, August 28, 2006
When I see soul music, I’m looking to be overwhelmed. I want gritty and messy as opposed to nice and smooth. Raw over stylized. Stax over Motown. I state these preferences in the context of the Corinne Bailey Rae show I saw at Webster Hall on Wednesday night. I went in knowing nothing about her; I hadn’t gotten her record or checked out anything online. Initially, I wasn’t particularly impressed; two songs in, it sounded nice enough, but bland. But I stayed, and I got into it. What initially got me was the crowd; it was the best and most diverse audience that I had seen at a show in a long time; black and white, gay, straight, kids and adults. They audience received the show with an increasing rapture; this wasn’t a response to hype – this was a response to music that had touched them. And Corinne’s presence is so winning – open and friendly, with a strong onstage command, that it was impossible for me not to like her and enjoy the show. Her band was also outstanding, with one of the best rhythm sections I’ve seen in a while.
The album? Well, it’s pretty good. It’s one of those “Sunday Morning Brunch” records for urban sophisticates. It’s really great aural wallpaper with very “nice” songs. But one song is a bit more, a song that encapsulates Corinne’s playfulness and potential for joy – check out “I’d Like To.”
Capitol deserves credit for their marketing campaign on the record. They’ve been working black outlets like BET and Essence six months prior to the record dropping, and making them feel ownership of Corinne. Most record companies probably wouldn’t have even seen the possibility of a light skinned, relatively smooth English soul singer reaching an urban audience. In the record business of today, it seems sometimes as though they’ve forgotten about any black audience except the ‘hood.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 8/28/2006 10:35:00 AM
Sunday, August 20, 2006
I go to a barber shop downstairs from my apartment. The man that runs the place and cuts (what’s left of) my hair is this really nice 25 year-old Russian-Jewish émigré who came to the U.S. in the early 90’s after the Soviet Union disbanded. Usually, he’s got WKTU on the radio, a dance/techno station that I don’t like at all, but I don’t complain and I keep giving him the business because I want to support him.
Today, he had a new gadget in the shop; a 25-inch flat screen TV that was playing a DVD of videos by EuroTechnoPop artists. If each video hadn’t featured a strikingly beautiful and exotic looking woman, I would have been seriously annoyed, as I was not into the music at all and was thinking, "How can anyone listen to this shit?"
I assumed that since he was from Russia, his taste gravitated solely the stuff that was playing in his shop. I assumed incorrectly. He said, “I listen to everything; hip-hop, dance and techno.” But he told me that his real passion was for hip-hop, and proceeded to go into a detailed analysis of who’s hot in the game now (he’s a G-Unit junkie and thinks they’re going to keep ruling) and who’s not (he thinks Bad Boy is totally over), amongst others. I asked him who his favorite artists were, and he said “Jay-Z, Biggie and Tupac” with a tone of reverence that in my life experience people said, “The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin.”
He asked me what I listened to and I told him that while I listen to “everything” as well (although my definition of “everything” was different from his), I’m a big rock fan. He kind of shook his head. “I can’t get into rock,” he said. “Do you want to know why? Because I didn’t grow up with it. When I got to New York when I was 13, the first thing I heard was hip-hop and from there I got into techno and dance. But I grew up with hip-hop. I do like a little Pink Floyd though.”
"I grew up with..." I’m not sure if I’ve heard a better explanation as to why someone’s into what they’re into. So many people think that because they love something, that there’s something objectively true or right about it. I know I used to be that way – I literally thought that my taste was superior to that of others, even to the extent that some genres of music were morally superior to others. But I know now that was just arrogance on my part. People love the music that they grew up with. Some people's passion for music calls them to look for new (or old) sounds and artists their whole lives (music geeks like me), and others, well, they just love the stuff they grew up with.
The music discussion ended at the same time my haircut did. I tipped my barber about 40% and left the shop with some current EuroDancePop hitting running ‘round my head. And it didn’t bother me; once I stopped thinking that it was all "shit," I realized that the song had a pretty good hook.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 8/20/2006 02:19:00 PM
Tuesday, August 15, 2006
Christina Aguilera is on the current cover of Rolling Stone, looking like a latex-clad granddaughter of a member of the Andrews Sisters. It's a perfect, natural look for her especially in the context of her new record, Back To Basics, a (mostly) incredibly winning two-disc set that shows, once and for all, that the lady has become an artist. And it's going to be a smash.
Divided into a hip-hop centric side produced by DJ Premier and a pop-rock side produced (recorded live, sans samples) by Linda Perry, Back To Basics is one of those rare concept records that suits the artist both musically and visually; if any current pop star was born to recreate and overhaul the 40's Femme Fatale look and feel, it's Aguilera. But the brilliance of the record as concept is in updating the vibe and feel of that pre-rock era without sacrificing any modernity. And because Aguilera is a pop artist, she can't imagine life without hooks - which accounts for the absolutely wonderful first single, "Ain't No Other Man," in which she sounds far fiercer and convincing singing about monogamy than she ever did about being dirrty, and "Slow Down Baby," in which a gorgeous horn riff matches Miss Christina in sass and sexiness.
Back To Basics is by no means a flawless record. Like many great American artists, Aguilera loves her sentimentality, which curdles into corniness in songs like "F.U.S.S." and "Here To Stay." And "Thank You (Dedication To Fans)" an audio montage of fans talking about what Aguilera's music has meant to them feels so unnecessary and almost beneath her on a record like this. Christina, when you've got songs as good as so many on this album, let them do the talking.
Critics will say that Back To Basics would have worked better as a single CD, and I have to agree with them, but overall, I think that's a minor quibble. The lady deserves props for the sheer ambition of the record and in managing to create a real personal vision for what she wants her music to be. Freedom in commitment may seem like a contradiction for most, but for Aguilera, that's what's happened; committing to a sonic vision and committing to a man have inspired the most mature and satisfying music of her career so far.
Posted by Ben Lazar at 8/15/2006 09:34:00 AM