Trying To Get To You

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Random Thoughts About Beck On The Subway Home

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."

Monday, August 28, 2006

Come a Little Bit Closer...

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.

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Barbershop Wisdom

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 √©migr√© 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.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Andrews Sisters Meet Gang Starr

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.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Sing Sweet Songs To Rock My Soul

August 9th was the 11th anniversary of Jerry Garcia's death and listening to him today, I can't help but think that no band has ever been as critically punished for their fans as have the Grateful Dead. Because they became the epitome of "hippie rock," much of their incredible body of work has been ignored in the post-punk universe that we live in today. It's a shame, because they left behind one of the strongest and most moving body of works in the rock era, one that resonates luminously today.

I first saw the Dead in Greensboro, NC while on spring break in 1989. I was with some friends and another friend of ours, who was doing the whole Dead spring tour, had a problem with the van he was traveling in. He asked me if he and his tour mates could borrow my car so they could see the shows, and I said no. Actually the conversation went something like this:

Friend: "Ben, can't we please borrow your car? Nothing will happen to it."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Do you want to come to the Dead shows with us?"
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll pay for your tickets both nights."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll buy your tickets and put you up in a hotel."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows, and we'll buy your tickets, put you up in a hotel and pay for your food."
Me: "No."
Friend: "Drive us to the shows and we'll buy your tickets, put you up in a hotel, pay for your food and pay for your drugs."
Me: "Ok."

Much of those two days is a blur to me, but I do remember sitting in the arena before the first show, amidst a sea of tie-dye, feeling like I was on another planet, the mushrooms kicking in, and thinking to myself, "Please God, don't let me become like these people!" I even started singing "God Save The Queen" softly to myself so as to be inoculated against all the hippieness around. I didn't think that highly of the shows, although I certainly didn't dislike it - and I had a great time in general over the two days. But I left Greensboro without thinking much about what I had just seen and heard; it just seemed like a good party. I drove back to Charleston with three Deadheads passed out in my Toyota Tercel, playing Springsteen live at the Roxy in '78 to get my head back to normal.

Fast forward about three and a half months, July 10, 1989, to be exact. It's a stormy night at Giants Stadium, rain pouring down, and I'm on the floor about thirty feet from the front of the stage. I'm totally sober, by the way. The band is playing "Tennessee Jed," and they're nailing it, playing tight and focused. Jerry is smiling at all the heads who are blissed out in the rain and it's a moment between the band and the crowd, unspoken but totally understood by all. I look at the guy next to me, get his attention, and shout, "They're kicking ass!" He doesn't say a word, but grins and returns to the band and his reverie.

It was an ecstatic moment of music, and it made me a fan of the Grateful Dead for life. I went to about thirty more shows over the next five years, and while I certainly saw my share of dud shows, emblematic of a band and band leader in decline, some of my favorite concert moments came from them. And as the years have passed I've come to truly appreciate the depth and breadth of what Garcia and the Dead did, mixing and synthesizing so many styles and genres into something truly original and American. As Bob Dylan said about Garcia after his death, "There are a lot of spaces between the Carter Family, Buddy Holly and Ornette Coleman, a lot of universes, but he filled them all without being a member of any school." And any catalog that includes Workingman's Dead, "Terrapin Station," "Box of Rain," "Ripple," "Ramble On Rose," "Stella Blue," "Loser," "Black Peter," "Althea," "Candyman," "Help On The Way ->Slipknot!->Franklin's Tower," "Brown Eyed Women" and "Foolish Heart" is one that should be regarded in the upper echelon is history of rock.

Photo by Robbi Cohn. Copyright Robbi Cohn.
It's not Garcia's guitar playing that moves me nearly as much as his voice. It was not a particularly strong instrument; it was somewhat thin and limited in range. But damn, could he sing a ballad. As Garcia biographer Blair Jackson wrote, "When Garcia was truly in the moment on his ballads, he was able to communicate the most complex feelings and emotions with a directness and simplicity that could touch almost any soul." A great Garcia performance on songs like "Stella Blue," "Morning Dew," or "So Many Roads" could make the listener stand inside the shoes of the singer, and for a moment, even share the same soul. Those moments are what kept me coming back, and they're the moments that still have me listening. And if you've never understood what the appeal of the Grateful Dead was about, if you can separate their music from their myth and just be present to listen, there are treasures that will rock your soul.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Lovers & Dreamers & Alice Smith

New York based R&B singer-songwriter Alice Smith is getting a lot of attention from writers and industry folks who've been taken with her new release, "For Lovers, Dreamers & Me." Somewhat reminiscent of Sarah Vaughn, she is in possession of one of those voices that grabs your attention immediately upon hearing it. Whether she maintains it or not is another matter.

I saw Alice perform in a conference room when I was working at Island Def Jam in the spring, and if I wasn't blown away, I was very impressed and I certainly thought that this is a woman of real talent. She has the vibe of a woman who's been burned by the world a time or two, and if she keeps her emotions close to the vest in everyday life, she lets it all out when she sings.

I'd love to say that I'm in love with the record, but I can't. There are some unmistakable high points, like "New Religion," but the songs as a whole are less than overwhelming, and songs like the opening cut, "Dream," which could be incredible, are weighted down by repetitive arrangement choices that blunt the overall impact of the song.

Still, keep your eyes and ears out for Miss Smith; if she works with the right collaborators and increases her willingness to take artistic risks, her present will be as bright as her future seems.

Stream the record and listen for yourself.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Farewell Sleater-Kinney

Sleater-Kinney is breaking up. Well, they’re actually taking an “indefinite hiatus,” but the indie rock media/blogoshpere is calling it a break up, and by their own admission, their current summer tour will be their last. I’m sorry to hear it. S/K have been a venerable indie-rock institution; well meaning and passionate where so much indie rock is nihilistic and ironic.

I first saw Sleater-Kinney at a venue called the Velvet Elvis in Seattle in the spring of 1997. They had just released what would generally be called their best record, the magnificent “Dig Me Out.” I hadn’t seen the band, but I’d been hearing the then deafening buzz since “Call The Doctor” had been released in 1996. It was a daytime show, in the only venue that I have ever been in that I would describe as cute. Seemingly designed for indie theater, it seated no more than 80 people and had a very community center feel to it. If there had been a puppet show scheduled after the show, it wouldn’t have surprised me.

I was blown away by their set. It was kinetic, fiery and alive, and they played like it really mattered. I hadn’t seen any band like them before. Corin Tucker’s vocals didn’t just ask for your attention; they commanded it. Carrie Brownstein’s guitar playing and background vocals made her seem to me like the toughest and most sensitive kid on the block, and in Janet Weiss they possessed one of the few indie drummers I’ve ever seen who actually played with a sense of swing. I’m proud to say I marched right down after the show and bought a copy of “Dig Me Out” from Corin. (I thought she was pretty sexy too.)

I really fell in love with “Dig Me Out.” It was everything I wanted from rock; original, passionate, sexy, committed, and I thought it was a signpost to a great and big future. I really thought the band had a chance to be one of those wonderful things that was becoming rarer and rarer in the late 90's post-Nirvana; a truly popular rock band that was worthy of their popularity. Unfortunately, it was the high water mark of both my love of Sleater-Kinney, and their flirtation with large audience possibilities.

Subsequent albums were disappointments to me. They were disappointments because the records were merely good in my opinion, not great (albeit with some excellent songs, like “Light Rail Coyote”) and I wanted greatness. S/K, I thought, were playing for high stakes, but the albums felt like retreats to me, and going insular in that way meant they weren’t going to break beyond an indie following, which saddened me. I love when great bands become popular, and I wanted this band to reach beyond the audience that came naturally to them.

I saw the band in June of last year at Roseland and while I enjoyed the show, it felt to me that this was a band on a downward trajectory; while the energy and playing was great, the new songs didn't resonate with me. Like all too many indie bands, their lack of craftsmanship, which initially gave them the freedom to develop their own unique style, in the end meant a lack of truly great songs.

Still, I can’t think of an American band that’s been better in the last decade. Farewell for now ladies, we’ll miss you, and I hope our paths cross again. You did wonderfully.